Bob Seger: Not a Stranger Anymore
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.”