Bob Seger lives in the woods near a highway that once flooded with traffic from Michigan straight through to Florida. The Interstate changed that, leaving the area cheap, bleak and dreary, franchised and subdivided, without glamour or beauty.
I grew up in that neighborhood, a couple of miles down the road from Seger. For my friends and me, the highway was a giant cruising lane. In 1966, when we all turned sixteen, we got jobs across the street from our subdivision at a complex of small businesses: an off-brand motel and a nameless gas station, a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and a putt-putt golf course. We worked there, but mostly we hung out, sipping warm beer and cherry vodka, waiting to see who else showed up.
One night, at an hour when the traffic was still thick enough to make it worthwhile, my friend Doug decided to take a dare. Across the highway, up a steep embankment were railway tracks; through freights rushed past a couple of times every evening. The proposition was for Doug to race across the traffic, up the hill and leap across the tracks in front of the train — it was a game of double indemnity chicken.
Doug took off just as the lights at the intersection were beginning to flash and clang, bobbing and weaving through the cars but maintaining enough speed to make it up the hill in time. He arrived at just the right second and took off, a human javelin, arms straight in front like a racing swimmer’s dive. For a moment, we could see him suspended in the engine lights. Then we lost sight of him as the train rocketed by.
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It was that kind of summer, in that kind of town. To kids in and around Detroit, in those years and ever since, Bob Seger reigned. He was a rocker whose records made sense; elsewhere he might have remained unknown, but to us he was a particular source of the magic in which one couldn’t help but believe. For ten years, he told stories a lot like ours, played the music that helped define what we meant by high energy. The Stooges and the MC5 got the attention and the ink and the big-time record deals, but when the dust cleared for even an instant, there would be Bob Seger, standing tall as ever, still pounding out that “Heavy Music.” We understood. To us, he was always a star.
These days, an interest in Bob Seger seems much less exclusive. “Night Moves,” the 1977 single that was Rolling Stone‘s choice as best of the year, has made him a star, potentially a hero, a performer who’s talked about in the same breath with the very best of his contemporaries. Yet somehow, he’s still the same guy who struggled for fifteen years to get any kind of break out of Detroit at all.
His house says a lot about him. Although it’s a couple of miles off the main roads, the place isn’t really secluded. There is no fence, nor even many trees, and his nearest neighbor is within 100 yards. It’s just a modest aluminum-sided ranch house that could belong to any white-collar General Motors employee. Outside, the only visible possessions are a pair of Jeeps, one black and one white. Hardly conspicuous consumption.
Inside, the place is similarly without ostentation. The basement has a piano, a pinball machine and a ping-pong table. In the living room simple shelves hold expensive but uncomplicated stereo equipment.
It fits the man. Seger’s medium-brown hair falls in cascades down his back, a foot or more of it swooping down, like rock stars’ hair used to do; he also has a fearsome-looking beard. People who’ve met Seger recently sometimes feel he’s conceited because he rarely says much responds diffidently to even the most effusive praise. But Seger has always been this way: a little shy, modest about his achievements, a private man who makes his living in public. Given some time, he opens up and speaks more frankly than most about what might be the strangest career in the history of rock & roll.
It’s early April when I arrive. There are few signs of significant change from the pre-success Seger, and those that can be easily perceived are humorous. One is a vicious German shepherd, kept for the protection of Seger’s girlfriend, Jan. Another is a sense of sly triumph, for Seger has just finished his eleventh album, Stranger in Town, the successor to Night Moves. It is his most difficult and expensive record, eight months in the making. about six months longer than he took for any of the others, but it is finally done…well, almost. Tomorrow, he flies to California to remix a couple of songs. Then, he swears, it’s done for sure.
Well, arduous and time-consuming record-making seems to be the vogue these days. “Oh, it’s just platinum paranoia,” Seger chuckles. “Platinum paranoia — there it is. I feel sorry for Boston and Bruce [Springsteen] and all those guys who are holdin’ out. I know what they’re going through, because I just went through it. It’s not that they’re afraid… they just want it to be good so bad. It’s a matter of whether it’s gonna be worthy of even being heard. You’ve done platinum and now everybody expects you to be a platinum artist, not in marketing, but ability.”
It’s an ironic situation for Seger. For a dozen years, he made records, always good ones, sometimes great ones, in an almost completely unpressured atmosphere. And yet he can say, without a trace of irony, that in making Night Moves he’d learned a lot. “We were in the studio probably more than the last five albums combined. And we just learned so much — about the way people play, about how to work with other people. And those things weren’t available to us, because we didn’t have the money to fly back and forth [to Los Angeles] until ‘Night Moves’ hit.”
Stranger in Town was more than worth the effort. It doesn’t have the sense of breakthrough that possessed Night Moves, but it is a virtual catalog of Seger’s excellence as a writer and singer. Produced by Seger with help from manager Punch Andrews and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and featuring MSRS, his own Silver Bullet Band plus guest appearances by Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Felder and Little Feat’s Bill Payne, the album is a perfect balance of high energy rock and moving, personal ballads. Seger’s melodic sense has never been better than on “We’ve Got Tonite,” a grand seduction song in the tradition of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” and in “Feel like a Number” he’s come up with the kind of working-class anthem that one expects from tough rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Hollywood Nights” is a narrative that some may take for an allegory about a Midwestern boy traduced in L.A., while “The Famous Final Scene” is a fitting clincher to the work, a breakup item that must be fictitious — Seger has lived with the same woman for several years — but is delivered straight from the heart. Those who’ve heard it already consider it one of the highlights of 1978.
Seger made his records for a number of labels: local disceries like Palladium and Hideout, owned by Andrews, a former Midwestern teen-club entrepreneur; defunct ones, like Cameo-Parkway; big ones like Capitol and Warner Bros. He made them with a variety of bands: pickup groups from around Detroit; a pair of Tulsa roughnecks, Dave Teagarden and Skip “Van Winkle” Knape; another band of Oklahomans, including the nucleus of Eric Clapton’s current group; the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and his current Silver Bullet Band, the cream of his hometown’s musical talent. Once, he even attempted an album of acoustic guitar folk songs, which indicates the range of musical approaches he’s tried: he wrote ballads and rockers, midtempo love songs and uptempo boogies, protest numbers and rock anthems. As good as almost all of it was, none of it sold much. Twice, he came close to quitting. In 1969, he actually enrolled in college. In 1974, he wrote a song called “Beautiful Loser,” which seems to sum up the awfulness of being rock’s perennial great journeyman, the eternal bridesmaid of the bitch goddess rock & roll:
He’s your oldest and your best friend
If you need him, he’ll be there again
He’s always willing to be second bed
A perfect lodger, a perfect guest
Beautiful Loser, read it on the wall
And realize, you just don’t need it all
He was sustained by the oddest of circumstances. Although Seger was all but unknown south of Columbus, north of Flint, east of Detroit and west of Grand Rapids. In Michigan he was not only a semi-legendary figure, he sold records at a pace that was actually profitable. Without any airplay in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, his records sold 50,000 to 100,000 copies, almost all of them in Michigan and northern Ohio. He had half a dozen Top Tens locally in the Sixties alone.
“I’ll never forget this gig we did at Oakland Mall,” Seger remembers. “We’d been making records for about three years and we’d had about seven Top Ten singles and we went out and did about half an hour at this shopping mall in front of 20,000 people, the biggest crowd we’d ever played before. The Rationals were there, Ted Nugent was there, but we closed the show.
“We did all our hit songs, that’s all we did. And afterward, Scott Morgan [local boy-wonder soul singer and leader of the Rationals] came up to me and said, ‘I can’t believe it.’ And Glenn Frey said the same thing. He said. ‘You just played hit after hit after hit. I can’t believe it.’ This is 1968, right?”
Frey happened to be there because he also grew up around Detroit, playing in bands that worked Andrews’ teen clubs. Seger was Frey’s first musical mentor, an association neither has forgotten. Today. Frey (now an Eagle) calls Seger “the best rock & roll singer that’s doing it.” He remembers a key moment in their relationship. “Seger and I were driving around in the car, this is right when we first started smoking grass. And something came on the radio that I didn’t like so I just reached over and turned it off. Bob looked at me and said, ‘You know, maybe you should have left that on. I mean, he is on the radio, and we’re not.’ I never forgot that.”
“Yeah,” Seger laughs. “I gave him a whole bunch of rules at one time, man. Because I really knew what I was doing, right? I was getting Top Ten singles in Detroit. And he wasn’t.”
Well, it was a beginning. Or as Frey puts it, “He’s probably a diamond that’s spent more time in the rough than most.”
Bob Seger began it rougher than most. He grew up in Ann Arbor. It was tough enough to be a townie in a college town, but it was far worse if your father went off when you were ten, leaving your mother, you and your brother to tiny apartments, cooking on hot plates.
Still, Seger owes a great deal to his mother’s conservative Midwestern upbringing, most explicitly the cutting edge of moral force that helped make a song like “2 + 2 = ?” the best hard-rock antiwar record, and helped Seger to maintain during his decade-plus struggle to break out. “Whew!” he says of her teaching. “It was the golden rule, really right on down the line. Never steal, never lie. And always pay those bills. Never miss a bill and always watch your money. Always be good to people, and you’ll get it back, and always look for the good in people, and ignore the bad if you can. You know, that’s just the way she brought me up.”
So, Seger says, rock was not a form of rebellion for him but a way of gaining recognition, as sports might have been. “I found my recognition in music. But more than that, I just really enjoyed it. I started doing it when I was a junior in high school, and I obviously must enjoy it to do it for ten years and get nowhere.”
Bob Seger was a high school junior in 1962, which is the year of “Night Moves.” That was, he says, the year he “came of age” in the sexual sense. But listen more closely and “Night Moves” is less a piece of nostalgia than a complete story, one that comes full circle to the present. At the end of the main part of the song, Seger says that he “felt the lightning and waited on the thunder.” There is a long pause, almost a false ending. Then the coda begins: “I woke late last night to the sound of thunder/How fat off I sat and wondered.…”
You could say that “Night Moves” is about the sexual discovery embodied in the verses, or about the sense of loss and nostalgia captured in its coda. Or you could say that the Bob Seger story really took place in the long silence between them, from the moment he began to play to the moment, fifteen years later, when he was finally widely heard.
By 1964, Seger was working steadily on the local cocktail-lounge and teen-club circuits. There, he met Doug Brown, who instructed Seger much as Bob would later guide Glenn Frey. (Brown later founded Southwind, a pre-Eagles California rock group that made a couple of late-Sixties albums.) Through Brown, Seger met Punch Andrews.
If Seger has changed little in the past decade, Punch (only Seger calls him Eddie) has changed less. His hair has thinned out, but he’s still the same dapper, feisty five-foot-seven character whose notions of outrage and decorum were formed just before the Beatles hit. Andrews is only a couple of years older than Seger (who turned thirty-three on May 6th) but he has, in a sense, never left the early Sixties. His hair was always close-cropped, his clothes always cut conservatively; he is the perfect fraternity brother, an archetypal music-business Babbitt. Punch Andrews will never be big time in the way that Irving Azoff is. But he also won’t ever want to be. He loves water-skiing.
Because Andrews is a small-time manager, he has often been saddled with the blame for some of Seger’s more eccentric business traits. For instance, until Live Bullet, the album that preceded Night Moves, Seger never received any of the money record companies allocate for “tour support,” which is mostly used for ads which tie together concert appearances with new releases. Such funds are charged against artist royalties. The saving was perhaps fruitless — the symbiosis is obvious — but its result was that when Seger finally broke through, he was virtually free of debt, despite all those years of relative failure. In any event, the decision was not Andrews’ alone.
“We never let anybody finance us — because we were always afraid of being in debt to somebody,” Seger explains.
Seger and Andrews began working together in the recording studio in 1965, on his first single, “East Side Story.” The record cost $ 1200, cheap even in those days; it sold more than 50,000 copies, almost all of them in Detroit. Cameo-Parkway soon picked it up for national distribution, but couldn’t spread it. It could do no more for his second local hit, “Persecution Smith.” Both were remarkable songs, the former a “Gloria” spinoff with a lyric that antedated Bruce Springsteen’s fantasies of juvenile street violence by a decade, the latter a nice Dylan cop, with a guitar line that took Michael Bloomfield’s Highway 61 Revisited riffs to their absurd extreme.
Andrews also produced and Cameo-Parkway distributed Seger’s fourth single, “Heavy Music.” The song began with two lines that were to become Seger’s signature until “Night Moves” replaced them ten years later:
Doncha ever listen to the radio
When that big had beat comes on?
It was an immediate anthem, coining a phrase that would characterize the radically energetic music that poured out of Detroit and the Midwest in the next few years. And Cameo might have broken it on a national scale in the summer of 1967. It was slated to be a Billboard National Breakout pick.
“All of a sudden, we couldn’t get anybody at Cameo to answer the phone,” Seger remembers. “So we got on a plane and went to New York, went up to the building where the company was and knocked and knocked on the door of their office. Finally, a janitor came out of the elevator and said, ‘Nobody’s there. They’re gone.'” Seger signed quickly with Capitol, but his first solid chance was again blown by bad luck.
The first Capitol single,” 2 + 2 = ?,” was more of the same. Released in early 1968, the record was simply ahead of its time; it remains the only really powerful hard rock antiwar song ever recorded: the title is its political as well as musical essence. Later, during the 1969 antiwar moratorium, disc jockeys pulled it off the back shelves for airplay, but Capitol couldn’t reissue it quickly enough to cash in. “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” which was released in February 1968 and rose to Number Seventeen in Billboard (Seger’s only pre-“Night Moves” breakout) might have set him on the road to stardom — but this time he had trouble with his band.
It doesn’t show up too badly on Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, Seger’s first LP, but by the time the second, Noah, was released the situation had become intolerable.
The day Noah was finished, Seger announced that he was quitting to go to college. Obviously, it was not a heartfelt decision but it reflected Seger’s difficulties in becoming a band leader.
Seger’s bands were all “democratic,” he says. To this day, they share concert money equally. “I was making as much money as the drummer and the background singer, we were all in it together. I’ve always felt that way, on principle. The only thing I’ve made more money on is writing songs. I just think everybody goes through the same amount of road torture.”
But until 1975, Seger’s bands also decided what and how to play democratically, which was frequently nothing less than catastrophic. “I just wanted to play and make records,” Seger says. “And I would put up with incredible stunts that my band would pull on me. ‘Okay, we’re gonna play this show. We got seven hits we can play. Yeah, but let’s do two Beatles and one Yardbirds and one Animals and two of yours. Okay.'”
Why?!? “I was afraid the band would break up. Because I was so desperate for it — just to keep playing. I was anything but at the zenith of confidence.”
And so it went. The songs hit in Detroit, but even there, the live appearances were so erratic that Seger was sometimes overwhelmed. For a time, he got stuck playing lead guitar. Then he broke up his band and tried a pair of separate, silly projects: a solo album, Brand New Morning, in which he tried to join the vogue for James Taylor-style solo projects, and STK, a band with a pair of Oklahomans transplanted to Detroit, Teagarden and Van Winkle (Skip Knape). Both struck out, though through STK he met keyboard player Dick Sims, drummer Jamie Oldaker and singer Marcy Levy, the key to his next band.
Switching from Capitol to Warner Bros. in 1972 didn’t help tremendously. His second LP for the label, Back in ’72, contained an obvious hit single. “Rosalie” was a tribute to Rosalie Trombley, program director of CKLW, the Detroit area’s most powerful and influential AM station. Her support, more than any other business factor, had aided Seger in maintaining his edge on the competition at home and, because CKLW was notorious for breaking hits first, Trombley’s support also carried implications of spreading Seger’s songs beyond the local area. But this time, Rosalie didn’t come through — she backed off the record, fearing charges of conflict of interest.
This was perhaps the best band Seger ever had. until the current Silver Bullet combination, but he says it didn’t really work. “Live, it worked but it was utterly divergent. Everybody wanted to do something different. They really wanted to do a laid-back Tulsa thing, exactly what they’re doing with Clapton, which cooks and simmers. What I wanted to do was Edge.”
But with Back in ’72 his writing also took a turn — it contains perhaps the best on-the-road song ever written, “Turn the Page,” a moody ballad with a neat sax break, totally out of sync with Seger’s rocker image. “All the roadies I’ve evet met say, ‘Yeah, you’re telling my story.’ ” Seger says proudly. But again, the record went nowhere — except in Motown. The same was true of Seven, although that album contained the nucleus of his present Silver Bullet Band.
The Silver Bullet Band boasts no stars. Drew Abbott, who replaced Seger as lead guitarist, allowing him to concentrate on singing, was perhaps the group’s best-known member; he’d led a second echelon Detroit band called Third Power for several years. Of the rest, only keyboardist Robyn Robbins had had front-line experience, as a member of the Frost after Dick Wagner left to become a session star for Alice Cooper and the like. Bassist Chris Campbell and horn player Alto Reed had even less striking credentials, but they’ve proved to be key members: Campbell arranged the “Travelin’ Man”/”Beautiful Loser” segue, the highlight of Live Bullet, and Reed’s alto and soprano sax playing adds tonal breadth to the overall sound — his solo on the live version of Seger’s “Turn the Page” is remarkable. (Since the beginning, drummer Dave Teagarden, who had recorded a pair of albums for Atco with Van Winkle and later one with Seger, has replaced Charlie Martin).
Although the Silver Bullet Band is the best group Seger’s worked with — by far the most sympathetic to his needs — he gave the players less latitude than ever before. He describes Seven, his first album with the group, as the “first album where I took charge and said it’s gonna be my way from now on.” Today, Seger says, “I tell everybody in my band, and this is gonna sound really shitty, I tell ’em, ‘Don’t bring me your songs, man, ’cause I got too many of my own. I can dig you tryin’ to do your own songs, I’ll even help you do it, but don’t expect ’em to be on our albums, because that’s what I busted my ass for fifteen years to get. To write all the songs on the album.’ That may sound shitty, but that’s the way it is. I mean, Springsteen’s not gonna record his roadie’s songs just to make his roadie happy.”
Seven was followed by Beautiful Loser, an album Seger almost didn’t make. “What really gave it to me was Frey,” Seger remembers. “Frey came to my house, when the Eagles had had like three hit records and they’d just released On the Border. He came and heard my Beautiful Loser stuff. If he hadn’t come, seriously, I probably would have put out another record like Seven, basically all rock & roll, with maybe one ballad. But Frey liked it all. He said, ‘Go with it, man. Do something diverse. And ever since then, I been doing it.’ “
Beautiful Loser was only a tentative step into diversity. In addition to the title track’s moving autobiography, it contains another striking ballad, “Jody Girl,” a sharply drawn, impassioned portrait of the wasted life of a working-class housewife of his own generation; Seger says that it was an important precursor of “Night Moves.” But, despite the obligatory Detroit-and-nowhere-else hit single, “Katmandu,” Beautiful Loser doesn’t really work. It established an important pattern for Seger’s work — the ballads were done with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the rockers with the Silver Bullet gang — but the arrangements aren’t completely realized. But “Beautiful Loser” — done as a medley with “Jody Girl” and “Travelin’ Man,” an on-the-road song also from Beautiful Loser — came to life on the followup, the two-disc Live Bullet. And Live Bullet finally began to break through: it went platinum, even though 300,000 of its first 500,000 copies sold were bought in Detroit.
It was fitting that Live Bullet was the beginning of the end of Seger’s obscurity, for he has always been a hard-working rock star in the Sixties tradition, spending 200 nights a year on the road. Yet for years, the weakest part of Seger’s art was his stagecraft, which he attributes to an infatuation with guitar playing. “The worst thing that happened to me.” he says, “was that I got blown away by guitar, and for about four years, I lost myself in lead guitar. I sort of stopped being a songwriter, stopped being creative and just tried to be a lead guitar player more than anything else.” The change in his shows is striking: I saw a recent date in Hartford, Connecticut, where Seger had the crowd on its feet from beginning to end, the Silver Bullets roaring behind him at a nonstop pace that must be shocking to those who know him only through “Night Moves.”
Seger and I have been sitting in his living room all afternoon, trying to find an answer to the question that mystified both of us: What took you so long? As the light went down outside, darkening through the trees, Bob turned on a lamp over his shoulder. Backlit, he looked ancient and very German, a wise man from another world. “It’s like, after ten years of beating your head against the wall, it all fell into place. And to this day, I’m frightened by it. Because I had obviously gotten into a groove where I was sayin’, ‘Well, I’m makin’ good records, damnit, and I’m gonna keep on makin’ ’em even if they don’t sell. And suddenly they were selling. And I didn’t know why.”
Glenn Frey offered an explanation when we spoke a few days later. “It’s like woodshop in high school: he’s gotten better at sanding and polishing. Part of it would always be ,he’d go on the road for eleven months, take a week off and then do an LP in two weeks. Now, he’s doing things the right way.” But maybe the reality is closer to another thing Frey said. “The important thing is only to think in terms of where he is now.”
Which is with Stranger in Town, a title with multilevel meaning. On the one hand, it has some history to it, being the title of an old Del Shannon hit (Seger and Doug Brown used to try to sell songs to Shannon’s Ann Arbor-based manager). It also refers to the fact that the album was finished in Los Angeles, after work in Detroit, Muscle Shoals and Miami.
“It was kind of exciting, living in a city again.” Seger says wistfully. “But we were real glad to get home.” It is sixty-five in New York today; it must be eighty in Hollywood. I wonder why he stays in Detroit. Certainly, he is not much akin to the kind of rock & roll — Stooges, MC5, Ted Nugent — that is supposed to come from Detroit. As he himself says. “I was like the old man of the bunch; I was like the godfather — because I was the first one to hit. And I was probably the most conservative. I was the one who said, ‘Show me. I did it, so you show me.’ “
In fact, Seger has much more in common with a group of artists who are not defined by region so much as sensibility, though many of them have a strong sense of place in their writing. Seger lists Frankie Miller, Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Money and Warren Zevon. “I think there’s a whole little clique of male vocalists. We’re just sort of all connected.” In what way, I wondered. “I think every last one of us has a connection with Van Morrison. I got from him…a sense of commitment. I heard like six straight albums that were not always exactly similar but they were committed in that one direction, white R&B. Blammo, nothing else. Maybe a little bit of country, maybe a little bit of jazz, but basically headed in that one direction. He was committed. And that to me was really important, his consistency was fantastic.” And, he admits, one other thing is shared by all of those performers: a background of poverty.
“There’s definitely a dark tension, I think, behind a lot of my stuff,” Seger told me in April. “There was a definite…hopelessness of abject poverty that has always crept into everything I’ve ever done. There’s a little bit of desperation — just a little bit. Because I’ve been there, I’ve been broke. I used to think, it’s funny, but I used to think that the most frightening thing was to ever blow it and have to go back to it. But now that I’m pretty well set for life, I’m not so frightened anymore.”
Seger says his favorite singer of the moment is Miller — whose “Ain’t Got No Money” is featured, complete with Don Felder guitar solo, on Stranger — but the guy who really opened him up was Springsteen. He calls Born to Run “a pivotal album of this whole decade, along with E-Street Shuffle. Because here was a guy who was not writing those verse, verse, chorus, verse out things. He was doing multiple bridges, he was changing tempos, and all this other stuff. And it worked. And not because it was Number One on the charts every week, but it worked and it was interesting, and it was different.”
Seger says things like that, makes offhand conversational evaluations like the best kind of rock critic. A few moments later, he tossed off a casual reference to john Fogerty — “He was the Hank Williams of the Sixties”— that gave me an insight into one of my favorite artists that nothing else has done. And like Zevon, he has a penchant for film lore. Early in the interview, when the conversation turned briefly to films, he reached up to a shelf above his stereo and pulled down a gun. “Here’s Josey Wales’ pistol,” he said, handing me a black powder .44.
Yet, by staying in Detroit, he’s chosen to remain isolated from any community of like-minded souls. He can’t explain it. “It’s just a great rock town.” he says, launching into an evaluation of the city’s wide-open radio tradition. He stays, I suppose, because it’s home and to a person like Seger (who described himself in “2+2 = ?” as “the simple-minded kind”) home can mean a lot. Still, it’s hard not to wonder in what town he feels the strangest — particularly because he is so much the hometown hero that he can’t go to the movies or a restaurant for fear of being mobbed. In Michigan, he might as well be a Beatle.
Perhaps in this isolation, Seger makes more interesting music than he would elsewhere, although by far the most arresting lyric on Stranger is “Hollywood Nights,” a narrative song about a Midwestern boy who goes to L.A. and gets torn apart by a big city woman.
And of course that’s the third meaning of Stranger in Town: Bob Seger as a novice in the community of success. Perhaps it is the most accurate interpretation of the title, which was chosen before he considered going to Los Angeles to record. Or maybe, like “Beautiful Loser,” it’s accidental autobiography.
For if Stranger in Town is what Bob Seger has become,. “Beautiful Loser” is what he almost remained.” ‘Beautiful Loser’ was sort of an autobiographical thing,” he admits. “To a degree. Well, I say that now, but back then I didn’t believe it. But I believe it now, that that was what it was all about. I’m beginning to think that that’s the way I really was. And the fact that Live Bullet hit — which was totally unexpected — and then Night Moves hit, and whamma jamma I’m up there, was really a surprise.”
Bob wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Perhaps I’ve dwelled too long on the failures of his career, but that’s because that long blank space between lightning and thunder contains a great deal of the best rock & roll I’ve ever heard. Short of playing it for you, I don’t know how to describe it — comparing Seger with Springsteen, Parker and the like, as even he is willing to do, just trivializes everybody.
What I do know is that, in all the lean years before Born to Run made it chic again, Bob Seger was the one guy who constantly reminded me that you didn’t have to quit rocking because you had something to say, and you didn’t have to be a preverbal mea-head to want to rock. Seger made such perfect miniatures that they could be swept under the rug by trends. But to anyone who heard “Looking Back,” the 1971 song that caught in two lines what it was like to have long hair in the Midwest (“You hit the street/You feel ’em starin’ “) or listened to “Jody Girl,” the haunting evocation of the tragedy of wasted housewife lives, or any of a couple of dozen other songs, Bob Seger isn’t some minor figure who got lucky once or twice. He has all the requisites of greatness: the voice, the songwriting, the performance onstage, the vision and the ambition.
A year ago, Seger played New York for the second time in his fifteen-year career (which may offer another clue about why it took so long). As usual, the fates were treating him with disrespect: “Night Moves” was accelerating up the charts and ten days before, his drummer, Charlie Martin, had been run down and paralyzed in an auto accident. It was the kind of thing that made you wonder if he’d be stranded forever.
The show wasn’t great, but I found myself rooting in a way that’s almost embarrassing to remember. The peaks meant more than anything in a long time. The valleys did not seem very important. Afterward, Bob and I sat talking in the empty house, watching the load out, laughing as we realized that “Night Moves” was gonna finally be the one. I like to think it was special because we both knew the price he’d paid.
More than any rock star I’ve known, Bob Seger has earned his peace of mind. And I know, having heard Stranger in Town, that he hasn’t forgotten what it cost. The best rock & roll song on that album ends with these words:
I feel like a number
I’m not a number
I’m not a number
Damnit I’m a man I said I’m a man
And that ain’t Bo Diddley.