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The Fire This Time

Bob Seger finally settles a fifteen-year score with rock & roll success

Bob Seger

Bob Seger in 1978.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Take almost any photograph of a smiling Bob Seger, place your hand over the toothy grin, and you’re apt to discover how very sad the top half of his visage appears — most particularly the eyes. Dark brown and deeply set, they are invariably caught in a melancholy gaze. And even when Bob isn’t flashing that winning expression, it seems that the moods of the two halves of his face are not quite in sync. For fifteen years, Seger has been trying to capture the country’s attention with his rowdy, no-frills brand of Southern Michigan rock & roll, beating his head against the highway (he once did 265 one-nighters — by car — in a single year) in order to escape his seemingly permanent status as a regional curiosity.

Now, Seger’s new Against the Wind is one of the top-selling albums in the nation after only four weeks, and Bob and his Silver Bullet Band have embarked on their most promising world tour ever. But this doesn’t alter the look in Seger’s eyes.

“It’s great that things worked out,” says Seger pensively, “but it doesn’t mean as much as the little victories you really savor, like the time in 1976, several days after I’d played to only 500 people in a Chicago club, when I walked into Pontiac Stadium [in Pontiac, Michigan] the night before a concert, saw how big it was [capacity 75,000] and knew it was sold out. I said to myself, ‘They’ll never be able to take this away from me.’

“I do this a lot, because I was conditioned throughout my first ten years in this business never to expect anything. And my mom hammered into me, ‘If you’re a pessimist when the good things happen, you’ll be that much happier and won’t be disappointed when they don’t.’ I’ve wanted all along to be successful nationally, but on my terms.”

But let’s not presume to understand Seger’s uncompromising outlook too quickly, for his current preeminence in the rock world would seem to be paradoxical. In a music marketplace where taut, youthful dance calculations seem to carry the greatest currency, he scores hit singles with whiskey-voiced rock ballads about the wages of aging. It’s an era of cool American gigolos, reconstituted mods and natty skinheads, but the thirty-five-year-old Seger sports hippie hair and the wardrobe of a jock buccaneer.

Seger first came to the attention of his Michigan loyalists in 1965 with the release of “East Side Story,” a “Gloria”-like saga of the back streets. Issued on the tiny Detroit-based Hideout label, the single was picked up for national distribution by Cameo-Parkway Records. Several other Cameo singles followed, notably the explosive “Heavy Music,” whose appearance on the Billboard charts in the summer of 1967 unfortunately coincided with the demise of Cameo. The record promptly expired, and Seger jumped to Capitol in 1968, where he made four forgettable albums, and then moved to Warner-Reprise for a three-year, three-LP stint before returning to Capitol.

Along the way, Seger cut a host of other singles that were well-conceived three-minute slices of compressed fury — like “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” The problem was that Seger’s early product was almost always too poorly recorded to replicate the stunning power of his stage shows. One need only compare the hollow, distant reworking of “Heavy Music” on Warners’ 1972 Smokin’ OP’S LP with the scorching version that leaps off Live Bullet. Small wonder that Bullet, which contains live renditions of many of the old singles, was Seger’s first gold LP. Maybe people had been waiting all those years just to hear the damn songs.

If Beautiful Loser (1975) was the belated beachhead, Night Moves, in 1976, was the resounding breakthrough, a brilliant, totally original work in which Seger confronted many of his worst fears. A poor greaser from the tough West Side of Ann Arbor, Michigan, he had come too far and invested too much in his musical ambitions to change direction, but he was uncertain as to what his accumulated experience was worth. Among the outside stimuli that turned his head was the film American Graffiti.

Whoa!” Seger recalls. “All the memories it brought back!” Memories of cruising around Ann Arbor in friends’ jalopies, sipping Hamm’s beer and staring down girls who were doing the same thing; his first drunk, sharing eight bottles of sloe gin; his first fight (“He insulted my girlfriend at a drive-in. I got beat, but I knocked out his two front teeth with the only punch I landed”); the summer evening “grassers,” held in farmers’ fields, where he and his friends danced to Top Forty music pouring from their synchronized dashboard radios. Not to mention the nights he began working on his own lustful night moves (“I was a senior in high school, a late bloomer. The first time I ever made love to a girl, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, which was the main line — ‘Working on mysteries without any clues’ — I threw into ‘Night Moves’ “).

Night Moves was hailed by critics as one of the best albums of 1976–1977, and over time it has been acquiring the stature of a classic. For Seger, however, it was one in a series of increasingly tortuous confrontations, the next being Stranger in Town.

“A lot of the songs on Stranger in Town,” he says, “were about being a stranger to the community of success. It’s so unusual here in Michigan to see anybody who’s really made it, in the sense of the American Dream. And I guess I just don’t handle it well.

“And then Against the Wind is about trying to move ahead, keeping your sanity and integrity at the same time.”

Boy, look at that shot,” says Seger, pointing to the somber center photo in a row of framed pictures of himself with his longtime lady, Jan Dinsdale. The pictures are perched on the mantel of the fireplace in the basement of their secluded home, located in a wooded region about a hundred miles north of Detroit. “That was in 1972,” he continues, “our first year together. She was twenty and I was twenty-eight. We were truly broke in that one; all we had was that old dog we’re holding onto.”

When Seger writes about relationships, as he often does, they are invariably filtered through an adolescent sensibility that is either blindly playful or served up as a wounded, backward glance. His second favorite topic is identity and the secret, pitched battles that rage within, between hungry dreams and harsh realities. As Seger asserts in “No Man’s Land”: “The haunting and the haunted/Play a game no one can win/The spirits come at midnight/And by dawn they’re gone again.”

“I was stuck trying to write ‘No Man’s Land’ as an album,” says Seger. “I initially wrote two songs, one right after the other. In ‘No Man’s Land,’ everything was on the edge, on the brink of going this way or that way. I thought it had a really great lyric. And then I wrote ‘Can’t Hit the Corners No More.’ It could be about a ballplayer, say thirty-five years old, who is definitely losing it. Or he could be in rock & roll, or he could be a writer, and a lot of people think he did his greatest work when he was young and now he’s just cruising. It happens so much to entertainers.

“Life isn’t like a sitcom,” he suddenly rules. “I try to put in my work the reality that you can take all the dope you want, you can drink all the booze you want, it’s still not gonna go away. You gotta face the good with the bad.

“I was a poor kid. It was a disappointment to grow up and realize there really weren’t families like on Ozzie and Harriet. That in middle-class families the guy went off to the bar and got drunk and smashed up the car just like in poor families.”

Of German-Irish-Scottish extraction, Robert Clark Seger is the second son (brother George works for a security firm in North Carolina) of Stewart and Charlotte Seger. Stewart was an accomplished singer and musician who also considered a career in medicine, but both goals gave way as he began to drink excessively. The father dropped out of medical school and took a job as a medic for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, and then one day he deserted his family, striking out for California. The Segers immediately fell from middle-class status into a world of one-room flats. His mother, with whom he remains close, began working as a housekeeper and pooled her meager salary with son George’s wages from various odd jobs. Bob, who was ten years old at the time, was devastated by the experience.

Five years later, his deep pangs of rejection could have been summed up by the lyrics to his very first song, a demo he convinced a local DJ to spin once, called “The Lonely One.”

She’s gone from me for someone else
I guess that’s what she’s done
People they sigh as I walk by
They call me the lonely one…
They say, ‘There goes the lonely one….’

This initial appearance on the radio had a profound effect on Seger. The radio was a much-needed escape, a lifeline to a world so vivid and flamboyant it could almost make him forget his own.

“I didn’t have my own room,” he remembers, “so when everybody would be asleep, I’d play the radio real soft and put my ear right up against it. There was an AM station we could get late at night — WLAC in Nashville. They would play Wilson Pickett. and the Falcons’ ‘I Found a Love,’ and all this heavy stuff, really primitive R&B. I didn’t dig Motown as much as I liked Pickett and James Brown and his Famous Flames. Boy, they were really hot.”

Those black artists became Seger’s heroes, and years later he was thrilled to be on the same bill with the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. But young Seger could not tolerate his parents’ mildly racist attitudes toward the figures who had lifted him out of his dreary circumstances.

“I made my own decisions very young,” he says firmly, “and I decided that racism was totally idiotic. And I said I didn’t want to hear it from anybody under my damned roof.”

By the time his brother George departed to enter the coast guard, Bob was drawing a salary as a singer, keyboard player and guitarist in a succession of local bands, beginning with a power trio called the Decibels, and then joined a bar band, the Town Criers. During this period Seger became friendly with Doug Brown, the leader of a group called the Omens and a sometime songwriter for Michigan’s own Del Shannon. Bob jumped to the Omens and in the process encountered Eddie “Punch” Andrews, a small-time concert promoter who had a tiny record label called, by turns, Punch, Hideout and then Palladium Records. Numbered among the label’s humble stable of talent were Brown, Suzi Quatro and a group called the Mushrooms that included future Eagle Glenn Frey.

“Our office was a one-room storefront on Mack Avenue in Detroit,” Andrews recalls with a red-faced guffaw. “It was the pits. One day Bob walked in real shy and said, ‘Hey, I just wrote this song and wonder if you guys would be interested in listening to it.'” The song was “East Side Story,” and Andrews was floored by the maturity of the material. The single was cut, and it plunged Seger into an endless succession of road trips. By the time Cameo-Parkway went under, Seger’s band, the Last Heard, had become well accustomed to incessant “touring” — that is, holding forth in any roadhouse that would have them, often driving as far as Tampa, Florida, for a one-night stand.

But Seger’s mental outlook soon grew as tortured as his professional lifestyle.

“I couldn’t cope with this tremendous hope that I kept building up, and then have it dashed. I dropped out in 1967, went to see a shrink twice a week for about ten, eleven months. I was contemplating suicide. I never did attempt it, but there were a lot of moments — I guess it was mental illness. When I came out of it, it took months to get back up to peak.”

No less difficult was the simultaneous search for a new label deal. Andrews says he walked around for almost two years with various versions of “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” under his arm before he found a receptive party in Capitol’s Detroit promo man. The single, a modest nationwide success, was issued by the company in 1968, but not before Capitol, at Seger’s and Andrews’ insistence, issued an antiwar anthem titled “2 + 2 = ?” that Bob had written after reading in the Ann Arbor News that Neil Stahle, a boyhood chum from his Decibels days, had been killed in Vietnam.

“Capitol was real conservative back then,” says Andrews. “They got real bent out of shape about my even suggesting that people should be questioning the war. I was literally thrown out of the office, and the record did a quick dive.”

Seger was out in Los Angeles on a small promo tour for “2 + 2 = ?” when he last saw his father. Mr. Seger was subsisting on intermittent work as a male nurse and grappling with his drinking problem. His son recalls giving him fifty dollars. Shortly afterward, Bob learned that his dad had perished in a blaze that swept through his apartment building.

“He was kinda sauced,” Bob says. “He didn’t get out, and that was it.”

Soon after, Seger’s first and only marriage disintegrated.

“It lasted one day shorter than a year,” he says. “When I got married, ‘Gamblin’ Man’ was a hit record, so I was going through two big things at once. Looking back on it, it just wasn’t meant to be. I was twenty-three; we were both still growing up.

“When I finally got out of it I was able to look back down the hole that I had been in. I said to myself, ‘Nothing is worth going there again, nothing in this life.’

“Which leads me to another subject. A key point in my career was Glenn Frey’s coming to my house in 1974, listening to the Loser tapes and saying, ‘Yeah, now you’re starting to catch on, you’re starting to get good.’

“That was around the time of the Eagles’ On the Border album, and he was doing well. And just knowing Frey, knowing someone in the industry who would talk to me, meant so much. I told him a hundred times when we were drunk in a bar, ‘Man, you really pulled me out.’ But I also remember I got drunk one night when we were sitting around in a hotel room, and I blurted out [angrily], ‘I’m gonna catch you fuckers.’ [Don] Henley just sort of looked at me, and Frey looked at me, too, but Frey didn’t care. He knew what I was feeling.

“It’s tough to explain but, you know, I was really thrilled that he would keep the lines of communication open. But I was always incredibly envious to the point where I almost hated him.”

The next day is taken up by a marathon photo session, followed by a lively get-together at Silver Bullet lead guitarist Drew Abbott’s house in Birmingham. That evening Bob and I are back in his basement, burning the midnight oil. Psyched up but a little apprehensive about his upcoming tour (the band is due to open in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in five days), he’s had trouble sleeping the last few nights. It would be hard to find someone who feels more passionately about rock & roll, but I can’t help thinking that he totally distrusts the whole business and constantly lives with a secret anxiety that he may someday be deserted again — by his audience.

“A long time ago,” I tell him, “you said to me that you had a lot of anger inside. ‘Rock & roll is an aggressive kind of music,’ you said. ‘It’s an emotional release. I’m the type of person who doesn’t get mad very often and when I do, I explode.’ Where do you think that anger comes from?”

“Hmmm,” he says softly. “Jan says to me all the time, ‘You allow more people to walk on you than anybody I’ve ever known.’ And I always say it’s human nature that people are gonna love you sometimes and they’re gonna use you sometimes. Knowing the difference between when people are using you and when people truly care about you, that’s what ‘Against the Wind‘ is all about. The people in that song have weathered the storm, and it’s made them much better that they’ve been able to do it and maintain whatever relationship. To get through is a real victory.”

Is he afraid of getting old?

“Well,” he says sheepishly, “that’s what I confronted with ‘Can’t Hit the Corners.’ Because I think that is the nightmare. It’s the nightmare of the ballplayer, like Catfish Hunter. It’s the nightmare of Mick Jagger.

“I guess there will come a time when I’ll say I can’t give six to eight months of my life every year to touring, but that’s the only honest way to perform — on the local stages, live and kicking. Like Springsteen said, you’ve got to ‘prove it all night.’ “

Since much of Seger’s music is so close to the fabric of his own life, it becomes a concern whether or not his own story can remain viable in rock & roll.

“It’s something we can’t predict because this particular culture is so disposable. I think rock will last; it’s proved its legs. But how the performers will be remembered, that’s another thing.”

We get to talking about some of the rock greats, principally Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and how there seldom was a sense of a career being built. It was either a childlike rush into the spotlight or a history of sustained exploitation. Back then, few people felt that rock & roll had enough longevity or value to approach it with long-range goals.

“Back then, the albums were cut in two days,” says Seger. “They were all dogs, and they’d just get the one hit single on there. It’s almost as if Colonel Parker [Elvis’ manager] said, ‘Now you can’t believe in this stuff; it’s gonna fade away, so you better do this Vegas stuff, this sane stuff.’ ”

Seger goes on to glumly relate the story of how he’d waited his whole life to meet Chuck Berry. Then, one day in the mid-Seventies, he hopped on a plane and, lo and behold, sitting next to him was the master himself.

“I told him how much his music had meant to me, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m fixing to do another album, a whole album of Nat King Cole.’ All I could say to him was, ‘Yeah.’ “

“Wait a minute,” I tell Seger. “Have you heard Berry’s new album, Rockit? It’s a pretty respectable piece of rock!”

All right!!” Seger shoots back in elation. “Good news!”

He insists I write down the album’s title and then pads off to bed, happy and contented. I drag myself to the guest room and hit the rack, but it occurs to me that I’m leaving tomorrow and still haven’t heard any of those “uncompleted” songs we’ve been talking about.

I awake the next morning to the sounds of Seger and his dog, Boris, playing outside in the snow. After breakfast Bob suddenly spouts, as if he just thought of it, “Like to hear those songs?”

We go into the living room and he slips a series of cassettes into his tape console, first playing “Wounded Angel,” a knife-edged number whose dueling guitars (Abbott’s and Seger’s) show a slight Eagles influence; “Nine Tonight,” a ferocious rocker that will appear on the soundtrack to the forthcoming John Travolta film, Urban Cowboy; and then, at last, “Can’t Hit the Corners No More.”

“I worked on this fucker all year, couldn’t bring it in,” he says with a rueful shake of his head. The song is a slow, stark ballad that opens with light guitar and synthesizer passages and then segues into a percussionless mesh of piano and voice. The lyrics might be Seger’s most direct, several verses being especially striking in their plaintive introspection.

They used to call you reckless, they used to call you fast.
They used to call you dangerous, but that’s all in the past
Now they call you clever, the quintessential pro
And sometimes now they whisper when you turn your back to go…

A grown man in a children’s game
A game you once played free
You’ve gotten old before your time
And you’re worried now they’ll see…

This ain’t competition, man
This is war
And you can’t hit the corners no more

I study Seger as he sits with his eyes closed, and I’m thinking that he is perhaps too close to the song to recognize that it’s already fully realized, a virtually finished product he can’t bear to let go of.

I’m still pondering all of this an hour later as we drive down to A-Square Studios in Ann Arbor for one of the last band rehearsals. The mood inside the hall is buoyant.

The Silver Bullet Band was formed in 1973, the nucleus of Drew Abbott, bassist Chris Campbell, organist Rick Manasa and drummer Charlie Martin gradually expanding to include saxophonist Alto Reed and Robyn Robbins, who replaced Manasa on keyboards. Veteran drummer Dave Teegarden is in the present lineup (he played on the original “Heavy Music” and “Let It Rock”), taking over Martin’s slot three years ago after Martin was paralyzed in a freak auto accident. Robbins left before work began last March on Against the Wind, and ex-Grand Funk keyboardist Craig Frost signed on just in time for rehearsals (as have singers Shaun Murphy, Kathy Lamb and Colleen Beaton).

Seger puts the group through a scorching, nonstop opening segment that includes “Horizontal Bop,” “Good for Me,” “Feel like a Number,” “Long Twin Silver Line,” “Travelin’ Man” and “Beautiful Loser.”

It would be difficult to describe the enormous appeal of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band to anyone who has not seen their live shows. To say that each member is remarkably adept at his instrument is a pale accolade that does not communicate the swinging, percolating authority with which they rock.

As I watch Seger and his band lock into fighting trim, I am keeping my fingers crossed that Bob will never lose his marvelous ability to cut loose and forget himself in the exhilaration of the moment.

The band rips into “Against the Wind,” and Seger is plainly transported. In fact, the music is so unabashed I have no choice but to uncross my fingers and join the roadies in their giddy, clap-along foot stomping.

“Let’s get on out there! I’m ready to try it again!” Seger screams ecstatically as they tear into the second chorus. I look at his beaming features and there’s no two ways about it: his face is a joyous, glowing whole. Bob Seger is gonna prove it all night tonight, I know, and on many more nights for a long, long time to come.

In This Article: Bob Seger, Coverwall

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