Bob Seger was having a pretty amazing year up until the morning of September 30th when he woke up and noticed that his left leg was dragging a little bit. His music was finally on streaming services after his management and Capitol Records agreed to terms following a protracted war and he was on tour in support of his new LP I Knew You When, which features tributes to departed rock stars Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen and his lifelong friend Glenn Frey. But before the tour, he suffered a ruptured disc and he was told if the symptoms spread to his legs it would be impossible to continue the tour. “My doctor said to me, ‘Oh no, that’s it, you’re done with this tour. You’re having surgery now,” says the 72-year-old by phone from his rural Michigan estate. He hopes to reschedule the tour for this spring. “I’m feeling better all the time,” he says. “They aren’t letting me lift anything over five pounds. I can’t do anything: no piano, no guitar, no nothing. But as soon as the pain stops, I’ll be playing again.”
You’re 72, still touring and releasing new music. Did you ever see that coming?
God, no. I thought I’d be done by 30. My original plan was to do it for five years between the age of 25 and 30 and then buy a motorcycle and drive across Europe, and then get a real job. It didn’t work out that way. The more you do it, I guess, the more you love it.
The new album has two songs about Glenn Frey: “I Knew You When” and “Glenn Song.”
He was my oldest friend in music. I met him in 1966, and we recorded “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” that year. We were just a couple of knuckleheads starting out – he was from Royal Oak [Michigan], and I was from Detroit. He was such a positive influence in my life. We’d always call each other for advice. I pushed him to do that Eagles reunion [in 1994]. He was the only one that didn’t want to do it for years. I said to him, “I think you’d have fun.”
What made you want to cover Lou Reed’s “Busload of Faith” on the new album?
Well, he passed away first. The first one I did was a Leonard Cohen song [“Democracy.”] I told [Glenn’s wife] Cindy, “Since I’m doing this, I’m going to salute a couple of my heroes, Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen.” First time I heard the movie was in a movie with James Woods and Robert Downey Jr. called True Believer. I immediately went out and bought the album. I’ve loved Lou’s stuff for years. I think [his 1992 album] Magic and Loss is my favorite. But at any rate, I just love the imagery of “Busload of Faith.” I see it as a bunch of working people, maybe they can’t afford a car and it’s cheaper to take a bus. They’re going to work and singing, “These days, you need a busload of faith to get by.”
Maybe because of the economic division in our country and stagnant wages and so on and so forth, it felt right to do it now. I contacted Lou’s estate and I told them I made a few changes. I dropped one verse about rape and abortion and stuff since I wanted to get it on the radio, if possible. I think that’s why a lot of people didn’t hear it. There was also a lot of negative religiosity. I really only changed five lines in the whole song.
You sing a lot about your high school days on the album, much like you did on classics, like “Against the Wind” and “Night Moves.”
It was probably my favorite time. Up until high school, I was super shy. And then I developed a bunch of friends across town and came out of my shell. After that, it was 12 years of doing 250 to 300 shows a year in various bars, universities and gymnasiums.
Trump won your home state of Michigan, which had been blue since 1992.
Well, I understand it because I live here. The second you got out of town, every rural area had a Trump sign. I never saw a Clinton sign.
How do you explain that?
It was the rural people who elected him. They’re very dissatisfied with Washington and they thought he could do something different and so they did. I’ll tell ya, I was at the Kennedy Center Honors honoring Glenn [in December of 2016]. We got in the line to meet Obama and I said, “Mr. President I just want to say one thing. I thank you for your wisdom and your dignity.” Henley called me the next week and said, “Well, how’d you like it?” And I said, “Man what a great week. I got to be with my best friends in music, you guys and I got to meet my favorite president of my lifetime.”
Your music finally made it to streaming services last year. There were many years when it was very hard to access your music.
Yes, but at the same time, I can’t complain about my success. My manager hasn’t been wrong too many times. And it could be a reason why we were the biggest-selling catalog album between 2000 and 2010 [Greatest Hits]. Nobody outsold us, and it could be because we stayed off that grid.
Are you going to ever write your memoir?
I think about it. I set up a computer. I got a writing desk. I got everything ready. I don’t know what I’ll write, I may write about me. I don’t know.
You wouldn’t get a ghost writer?
Oh no. I would do it myself.
How about a documentary about your life?
The problem with that is that we don’t have any film. The Eagles were smart and they made lots of film. We have some, but the lights weren’t very good and it looks cruddy.
You usually tour with Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad on drums. Why wasn’t he on this tour?
Don was busy. It came up real fast and would’ve had to delay it a lot. I said, “Don, I’m sorry, man. I really want to do this. I wanna get out and start playing these songs.” And so he understood. As a matter of fact, we used Grand Funk on a couple of songs. He’s still a great friend of mine and I think he’s a wonderful drummer. But I just wanted to get out there.
I know your favorite TV show used to be The Good Wife. What is it now that that’s done?
Madame Secretary. I think it’s got great writing, great characters. It’s very modern. I’m into world affairs. I read a lot. I read the New York Times every day from top to bottom. I watch a lot of political shows to try and keep up with that’s happening.
I read that Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” inspired you to write “Night Moves,” because it had two bridges.
Absolutely. I had the first two verses forever. It took me six months to write it. I just kept coming back to it and was like, “Nah, that’s not it.” Then I heard “Jungleland.” I remember calling [Don] Henley and saying, “Have you heard ‘Jungleland’?” He said he didn’t know if he was into Bruce. I read him the line: “They’ll meet ‘neath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light.” It’s still one of my favorite records.
It’s been a brutal couple of years in terms of losing rock stars.
You sure think about your own mortality. It’s important to do what you want to do and follow your own personal vision. It just reinforced that. I worked harder this tour than I ever have. I did songs I’d never done because they were too high. This tour, I didn’t care. I wore myself out. People were singing along to every word of “You’ll Accomp’ny Me.” I guess that’s the power of Greatest Hits selling 10 million.
Many of your earliest albums have been out of print for decades. What’s it going to take to get them out?
Jack White is always asking me about that. He wants to remix them all, and said he’d do it for free. But I’m always on to the next thing – the next album, the next tour. Maybe when I retire I’ll get serious about it.
Don’t you feel bad for fans who have been waiting for them?
No! [Huge belly laugh]