I know that this review wasn’t part of the plan but recent events demanded a response from yours truly.
Bob Seger recently wrapped up his “final tour” at the still-younger-than-the-president-ripe-old age of seventy-seven. The die-hard rocker’s closing shows happened to coincide with Jann Wenner’s book promotion tour, which featured an interview with (of course) Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. Dowd opens the piece with one of her typically witty remarks that really aren’t that witty: “Rock may be dead, but Jann Wenner is still rolling”. When she finally stops jabbering and we get to hear from Mr. Wenner on the subject, he makes the following assertion about the music that made him a gazillionaire: “I’m sorry to see it go. It’s not coming back. It’ll end up like jazz.”
Though she could have replied in altrockchick fashion with a healthy “oh for fuck’s sake,” Bonnie Stiernberg of Inside Hook wrote a more thorough and nuanced response in her piece titled “A Brief Roundup of the Cringiest Things Jann Wenner Has Said While Promoting His New Book.”
Earlier this week, Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner released his memoir — the aptly titled Like a Rolling Stone — and since then, he’s been on a media blitz, giving interviews to a slew of publications promoting the book and appearing with his pal Bruce Springsteen at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday night to chat about it in front of audience members who paid $100 apiece to watch the hour-long conversation.
Along the way, the now-retired Wenner, who sold Rolling Stone to Penske Media in 2017, handed over the reins to his son Gus and no longer is involved in any of the publication’s operations, has said some truly mind-boggling things. A lot of it is out-of-touch in all the ways you might expect from a wealthy 76-year-old white man who insists he doesn’t read magazines anymore. Some of it is a goofy display of ego. But some of it is flat-out sexist and, frankly, enraging . . .
This should probably not come as too much of a surprise to anyone who read Rolling Stone during Wenner’s reign, but like many of his Boomer peers, he’s completely uninterested in new music of any genre. They don’t make ’em like they used to, rock is dead, blah blah blah . . .
The “rock is dead” argument has been around forever — any Almost Famous fan will remember when young Rolling Stone writer William Miller is told by Lester Bangs in 1973 that he arrived just in time for rock’s “death rattle” — and it remains incredibly stupid. (For the last time, rock isn’t dead, it’s just not dominating the Top 40 like it used to, and you’re just too old and out-of-touch to make the effort to seek it out.)
In Mr. Wenner’s defense, I could point out that Rolling Stone put Eminem on the cover beside the headline “The Genius of Eminem,” and as one of the Founders of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, he was directly responsible for letting rappers and hip-hoppers into those not-really-hallowed halls, but I don’t feel like defending a guy I’ve always considered an arrogant, sexist prick (and it’s 100% likely that his journalistic embrace of rap was simply a grab for advertising dollars).
But I agree entirely with Ms. Stiernberg when she says rock isn’t dead. Its disappearance from the Top 40 has more to do with a music industry structured around four big labels that sell 85% of the music available today. The executives of those four firms certainly think that rock is dead from a profit/loss standpoint, so they don’t have a lot of A&R people out in the sticks trying to find the next Little Richard or Rolling Stones. The rockers are still out there, playing at small venues and recording on shoestring budgets for indie labels—but you have to find them and enjoy them while you can, for the odds of a commercial breakthrough are stacked against them. During my contemporary review years, I found at least a dozen rock bands who would have easily made it into the Top 40 in the 20th century; most of them have since vanished from the scene.
Call it serendipity, but I think that given Mr. Wenner’s proclamation, it’s the perfect time to celebrate the work of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most passionate defenders.
Wikipedia has classified Bob Seger as follows: Main Genre: Roots Rock. Sub-Genre: Heartland Rock. “The term heartland rock was first used in the early 1970s to describe Midwestern arena rock groups like Kansas, REO Speedwagon, and Styx, but came to be associated with a more socially concerned form of roots rock more directly influenced by folk, country, and rock and roll It has been seen as an American Midwest and Rust Belt counterpart to West Coast country rock and the Southern rock of the American South. Led by figures who had initially been identified with punk and new wave, it was most strongly influenced by acts such as Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Van Morrison, 1960s garage rock, and the Rolling Stones.”
Translation: Pure unadulterated gibberish.
As a back-to-the-roots skeptic, I’m very choosy about anything that smacks of roots rock. My dad loves Creedence Clearwater Revival; I like a grand total of one song in their catalog (“Lodi”). While I admire some of the blues-oriented artists from the 60s and 70s, I don’t think any of them measure up to the guys and gals from the Delta or Chicago of the 50s. I guess you could argue that the Grateful Dead qualify as roots rockers based on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, but that was just one phase of many for the Dead, and their approach to “roots” was far more inventive than what your garden-variety roots band has to offer. The only “heartland rock” artist I’ve endorsed (until now) is Tom Petty, whose music reminds me of certain aspects of American culture that I still miss to this day.
I sensed a definite sincerity in Tom Petty’s music, and that goes double for Bob Seger. The sheer joy he brings to his music is something that can’t be faked. After a decade of starts, stops, plenty of band changes and a frustrating inability to make his music known beyond Michigan’s borders, he finally hit the big time with Night Moves and became a fixture on AOR rock stations for years to come. That breakthrough is beautifully captured in Jed Gottlieb’s article about the album on Ultimate Classic Rock:
In early 1977, The British Encyclopedia of Rock described him as “one of the great lost figures of rock ‘n’ roll’” (c’mon, lost at 31?) and that he “has always seemed destined to miss out on the big time.”
“Well, it turns out that Seger has the last laugh,” Larry Rohter wrote in the Washington Post on Aug. 7, 1977. “As a result of Night Moves, he has suddenly become one of the hottest attractions in pop music. Virtually every song on Night Moves has a hunger, toughness and drive that is almost palpable, and in the lyrics Seger has written for the powerful surging melodies can be found a continuing fascination with the underdog, the loser and the oppressed.”
Shortly after the record’s release, at a show in Buffalo, Seger told his hometown paper, “It’s kinda nice. I actually got mobbed last night by some people after the show. First time that’s happened outside of Detroit.” Of course, when Night Moves made Seger an “overnight sensation,” older fans let new ones know they had been missing out on for a long time.
“The word is that rock singer Bob Seger has arrived. Arrived? For chrissakes, the man has been playing professionally for half his life already since his first gigs as a sixteen year old in 1960,” Steve Weitzman wrote in Circus on May 26, 1977. “If anything, he’s been a local legend in his hometown of Detroit and most of the Midwest for almost a decade, amazingly having three of the four biggest selling albums in the history of the Detroit market. Bob Seger hasn’t arrived. The rest of the country is just waking up.”
Over time, Seger also became a pretty damned good songwriter and was finally recognized as such with his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
This 2011 collection features all of his big hits (though I wish the compilers had found a way to squeeze in “Ship of Fools”). As is usually the case (sigh), the track order is not chronological, so we’ll have to consider the story of his development as a musician and songwriter in piecemeal fashion.
“Old Time Rock & Roll” (Stranger in Town, 1978): Long recognized as one of Bob Seger’s signature songs, this last-minute addition to Stranger in Town is the subject of a long-standing dispute over who wrote the lyrics.
The song is officially credited to George Jackson and Thomas E. Jones III of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. From 1975 to 1986, Bob Seger’s albums featured two backup bands; the guys from Muscle Shoals backed up about half the songs on the studio albums while the Silver Bullet Band took the other half and the live performances. Jackson and Jones submitted a demo to Seger late in the recording process for Stranger in Town, and Bob decided to include it on the album over the objections of the Silver Bullet Band, who felt it wasn’t “Silver Bullety.” It appears that Seger felt the lyrics weren’t Segery enough, so he rewrote them to his liking:
All I kept from the original was: “Old time rock and roll, that kind of music just soothes the soul, I reminisce about the days of old with that old time rock and roll”. I rewrote the verses and I never took credit. That was the dumbest thing I ever did. And Tom Jones (Thomas E. Jones) and George Jackson know it, too. But I just wanted to finish the record [Stranger in Town]. I rewrote every verse you hear except for the choruses. I didn’t ask for credit. My manager said: “You should ask for a third of the credit.” And I said: “Nah. Nobody’s gonna like it.” I’m not credited on it so I couldn’t control the copyright either. Meanwhile, it got into a Hardee’s commercial because I couldn’t control it. Oh my God, it was awful! (Classic Rock)
Seger’s claim was disputed by George Jackson’s second employer, George Stephenson of Malaco Records. “‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ is truly [George] Jackson’s song, and he has the tapes to prove it, despite Seger’s claims that he altered it. Bob had pretty much finished his recording at Muscle Shoals and he asked them if they had any other songs he could listen to for the future.” ln response, Seger reasserted his claim in 2019, six years after George Jackson’s passing.
I think this is your classic tempest in a teapot, as George Jackson was well-compensated for his half-contribution while Bob Seger received indirect compensation when the song became a hit. The one piece of evidence that lends credence to Seger’s version of events can be found in a Songfacts interview with Muscle Shoals bass player David Hood, who played on the Jackson demo: “So we sent it to Bob. He liked it, wanted to make a couple of changes to make it suit him a little bit more.”
In perusing the lyrics, there are many lines that could have been written by anyone with a passing knowledge of rock history, most obviously the nod to Chuck Berry (“Won’t go to hear ’em play a tango”), who surprisingly didn’t sue either Jackson or Seger. But there’s one verse in particular that only Bob Seger could have written:
Don’t try to take me to a discoYou’ll never even get me out on the floor In ten minutes I’ll be late for the door I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll
At that time, disco was the mortal enemy of every rocker on the planet, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a diehard rocker like Bob Seger would blast a genre that was more glitz than substance.
The compilers made a HUGE mistake by including the original studio version instead of the live rendition on Nine Tonight. When trying to record the song for the album, neither backup band could get it right, so the version you hear on Stranger in Town is Bob Seger singing over the background of the original demo. “They just took George’s voice off, put Bob’s voice on there, and that’s the hit record,” David Hood recalled. The result is a rather thin recording with a weak bottom carried off solely by the gravelly voice of Bob Seger. The Nine Tonight version fucking EXPLODES, largely because by this time, the Silver Bullet Band had fully embraced the song—the guitars are rough and powerful, Alto Reed (great name for a sax player) blows that horn like there’s no tomorrow and both Seger and the background vocalists give it all they’ve got.
“Hollywood Nights” (Stranger in Town, 1978): All musicians wind up in L. A. sooner or later, and when Bob Seger decided to record parts of Stranger in Town in La-La Land, he had earned enough dough from Live Bullet and Night Moves to rent a house in the Hollywood Hills, which gave him a nice view of the city lights when the smog wasn’t too bad. This strange setting (for a Michigander) gave the album its name and also inspired a song: “The chorus just came into my head; I was driving around in the Hollywood Hills, and I started singing ‘Hollywood nights/Hollywood Hills/Above all the lights/Hollywood nights.’ I went back to my rented house, and there was a Time with Cheryl Tiegs on the cover . . . I said ‘Let’s write a song about a guy from the Midwest who runs into someone like this and gets caught up in the whole bizarro thing.'”
That “whole bizarro thing” turns out to be a stereotypically transient romance in the city of transients. We never learn what motivates her participation in the relationship, but with “a face that would let her get her way,” it’s highly unlikely she’d ever go long-term with a hick from the sticks. As for our Man from the Midwest, he is dazzled by “All those big city nights/In those high rolling hills/Above all the lights,” “her diamonds and frills” and that gorgeous face that causes him to lose all control. He’s clearly out of his element and out of his league, and the romance ends after a few bangs that lead to a whimper:
Night after night, day after day, it went on and onThen came that morning, he woke up alone He spent all night staring down at the lights of L.A. Wondering if he could ever go home
To which I reply, “Omigod, get the hell out of there! NOW!”
It’s a good story, well-told and well-sung thanks to Seger’s ever-appealing grit. What I love most about the song is its propulsion—the song seems to almost spin out of control, just like a driver careening down the Hollywood Hills. A large part of that intense forward movement comes from David Teegarden’s decision to record two drum parts with different patterns, ensuring that the speed never lets up. Billy Payne of Little Feat does a superb job with the piano and organ fills and the four Waters Sisters deliver the background vocals that give this rocker a sweet soul feeling.
“Night Moves” (Night Moves, 1976): I can understand why some people perceive Bob Seger as a backward-looking nostalgist, and lines from “Old Time Rock and Roll” like “Call me a relic, call me what you will/Say I’m old-fashioned, say I’m over the hill” seems to indicate he has no problem with such an identification. What those people seem to miss is that the human beings we are today are inevitably shaped by the experience in our younger years and that authors, poets and songwriters often write about youthful experiences in an attempt to understand who they were then and how that younger self survived or failed to survive the maturing process. Joyce wrote about it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Proust explored recollections of youth and early adulthood in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Billy Joel made the trip back in “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and Bob Seger revisited his salad days in “Night Moves” (and other songs).
The arrangement was carefully thought-out, combining well-constructed builds and interest-enhancing retreats. The story is introduced with the warm sound of Bob’s strummed acoustic guitar; Chris Campbell enters during the first verse with a clever little bass pattern; Charlie Allen Martin’s drums join in at the start of the second verse; Doug Riley’s piano adds a nice bit of color to the chorus. Given that the world was in the midst of a sexual revolution, it’s only natural that Seger’s contribution focused on sexual relations—but now that he’s matured a bit, he’s not bragging to the guys about what a great lay he had last night, but sharing his experience in its unadulterated, truthful form:
I was a little too tall, could’ve used a few pounds
Tight pants points, hardly renowned
She was a black-haired beauty with big dark eyes
And points of her own, sittin’ way up high
Way up firm and high
Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my ’60 Chevy
Workin’ on our night moves
Tryin’ to make some front page drive-in news
Workin’on our night moves
In the summertime
Umm, in the sweet summertime>
Students of mid-century American culture will immediately grasp the use of the word “points” to describe the girl’s tits; bullet bras were in vogue through much of the 60s (and if you’re into retro, you can still pick one up on Amazon). The line that resonates most for me is “Workin’ on mysteries without any clues.” School-level sex education was completely silent on technique, most parents felt too embarrassed to have an honest discussion with their kids about the funny feelings they were starting to feel down yonder and the tips you might have received from more experienced friends never quite worked out when the moment of truth arrived. The couple in this story not only didn’t know what they were doing but had no idea why they were doing it—the essence of “the awkward teenage blues”:
We weren’t in love, oh no, far from it
We weren’t searchin’ for some pie in the sky summit
We were just young and restless and bored
Livin’ by the sword
And we’d steal away every chance we could
To the backroom, to the alley or the trusty woods
I used her, she used me but neither one cared
We were gettin’ our share
Seger makes the song even more true-to-life by pointing out that many of these recollections come to us at night or in the reflective mood cast by autumn. “I was thinking about the whole aura of nighttime, the four o’clock in the morning moment when you assess yourself, check your weaknesses,” he explained to Timothy White of Crawdaddy. After Bob savors the sweetness of summertime at the end of the second chorus, we hear what appears to be a pretty standard bridge, but instead of returning to a verse or the chorus, we hear a second bridge, an idea that Seger picked up on while listening to Springsteen’s “Jungleland.” In this second bridge, the band drops out of the soundscape, leaving us with only Bob’s warm, husky voice and a few soft strums on acoustic guitar:
I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered?
Started hummin’ a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves?
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night move
With autumn closin’ in
That second bridge is one of those stop-whatever-you’re-doing-and-take-it-all-in-moments that often define a great piece of music. The extended fade allows us to reflect on our own night moves during the transition from adolescence to adulthood—the discoveries, the regrets, the moments seared in our memories. Though most of the story was based on a specific experience with a specific woman, Seger chose to write lyrics at the universal level, transforming his experience into our experience.
Postscript: I’m proud to live in a country that finally gets it. This week, President Macron announced that condoms would be given away free to 18-to-25-year-olds, and while doing so, revealed himself to be a man who must have made a few unsuccessful night moves in his teens. “On the topic of sexual education overall, ‘we are not very good on this subject,’ the president said. ‘The reality is very, very different from the theory.'”
“Mainstreet” (Night Moves, 1976): In various conversations with men over the years, I’ve learned that one of the most durable male memories is forged at the moment when they first became aware of female beauty. It can happen anywhere at any age, though for most of the guys who shared their stories with me the event took place in the pre-teen years. What’s remarkable is that their memories of that moment are filled with exquisite detail about the woman, the circumstances and the locale. My dad’s first encounter with the ideal woman happened at the age of nine in Santa Clara, California at Sy’s drive-in. As he was munching on his fully-trimmed cheeseburger he looked out of the back left window of the family Oldsmobile and spied a gorgeous brunette about high school age with long, straight black hair, dressed in a pink blouse and leather pants, perched on the hood of a Chevy 210 in need of a paint job, smiling, smoking a cigarette and talking to a couple of white guys with flat tops in white t-shirts and jeans who were obviously trying to impress her and getting nowhere fast. The magic moment ended when the girl noticed my dad staring at her and flashed him a smile, causing him to drop his half-cheeseburger with all the trimmings on the car seat and earn a sharp reprimand from his both parents.
The woman he described bears an eerie resemblance to my mother.
Bob Seger’s ideal woman was a “long lovely dancer” who window-danced for a pool hall/R&B club frequented by “the hustlers and the losers” on Main Street in his childhood home of Ann Arbor. Her image seared into his young teen soul: “Through the long lonely nights, she filled my sleep/Her body softly swaying to that smoky beat.” He visited the scene regularly, but admits he spent most of his time “Trying to get my courage up.” Given her status as a window dancer and Bob’s estimate that he was 12 or 13 at the time, the age difference would have been insurmountable, but he keeps coming back, imbuing her with characteristics that capture his image of the ideal woman:
Well, I’d stand outside at closing time
Just to watch her walk on past
Unlike all the other ladies, she looked so young and sweet
As she made her way alone down that empty street
Though a rendezvous wasn’t in the cards, his memories of those nights are free of regret because the experience reminds him of his purer idealistic roots and the joy that comes from the appreciation of beauty:
Sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat
I drift back in time and I find my feet
The music is set to a nice easy beat with a respectable array of major and minor chords forming a nostalgic patina. Pete Carr’s opening lead guitar riff and his mid-song solo are obvious standout moments, and I was absolutely crushed to hear the guitar supplanted by a sax in the live version on Nine Tonight. Bob should know better than to mess with ideal beauty.
“Roll Me Away” (The Distance, 1982): The Wikipedia page on this hit-the-road-on-a-bike song quotes extensively from the “analysis” provided by Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone:
Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh described it as an “anthemic” song and considers it Seger’s best single. Marsh interprets the song as being about “leaving a shattered home for a life that has to be better, though it never quite is.” Marsh elaborates that the narrator of the song has lost his love and so goes off on a cold and lonely journey while he “lets his frustrations and confusion congeal into one sad cry that dissolves his fate into what has happened to the whole crazy mess of a world in which he lives. He sings that he plans to straighten things out for as long as he is searching but at the end he admits that only next time will they be able to get it right.” Marsh feels that Roy Bittan’s “elegaic” piano chords drive home the point that the time for wild rockers to settle down.
Small problem: there is zero supporting evidence in the song to justify even the tiniest bit of that interpretation. There is no mention or description of a “shattered home,” no mention of a “lost love,” no reference to a search for a better life, no “one sad cry,” and it’s quite a stretch to refer to the piano chords as “elegiac” and that they contain a subliminal message that encourages rockers to grow up. I can’t even imagine a universe where Bob Seger would urge “wild rockers to settle down.” A more credible interpretation appeared in the Detroit Free Press by a guy . . . his name escapes me . . . oh yes . . . a guy named Bob Seger:
I wanted to do that for a long time. It was fascinating being out. The first night it was 42 degrees in northern Minnesota; the second it was 106 in South Dakota and all I had on was my shorts, and my feet were up on the handlebars to keep them from boiling on the engine. It was just silence and feeling nature.
I don’t think I know a single American who has never had the urge to get the fuck out and hit the road for a while. The need to hit the road or float down the river is embedded in American DNA—the destination is the journey; the journey is the destination—and the choices we make on that journey determine the outcome.
The song opens quietly and reflectively with the first verse devoted to Bob’s instinctive decision to travel the open road (“Took a look down a westbound road/Right away, I made my choice”); once he powers up the bike, the tempo quickens and the air is filled with the sound of straight-up rock ‘n’ roll enhanced (or not) by an orchestral synth in the background. The first leg of Seger’s journey took him from Detroit to Mackinaw City at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. Instead of proceeding to the Canadian border, he headed west, where “12 hours out of Mackinaw City” he “stopped in a bar to have a brew”. Depending on his route, that would have placed him in or around Fargo, North Dakota. There (wherever “there” is) he “Met a girl and we had a few drinks/And I told her what I’d decided to do.” Apparently she had the urge too, for she completely ignores the embedded parental advice regarding strangers and hops on the back of his hog:
She looked out the window a long long moment
Then she looked into my eyes
She didn’t have to say a thing
I knew what she was thinkin’
Roll, roll me away
Won’t you roll me away tonight
I too am lost, I feel double-crossed
And I’m sick of what’s wrong and what’s right
We never even said a word
We just walked out and got on that bike
And we rolled
And we rolled clean out of sight
Note that she “didn’t have to say a thing” and they “never said a word,” but somehow they sensed a common bond—both are “lost . . . feel double-crossed . . . and sick of what’s wrong and what’s right.” Words are unnecessary because feeling lost, double-crossed and sick and tired of following arbitrary rules is a universal experience in modern life. The journey itself is a healing experience for Seger (“We rolled across the high plains/Deep into the mountains/Felt so good to me/Finally feelin’ free”), but the journey proves a little too daunting for his companion, who decides to head back home. There is no indication he felt even a twinge of sadness about her departure; she made her choice, he made his—to complete the journey alone.
He winds up at the Continental Divide, where he is faced with yet another choice (“I could go east, I could go west”), but even more important is his realization that “It was all up to me to decide.” His newfound sense of empowerment is validated by the appearance of a multi-faceted symbol of growth, freedom and unfettered life in the natural world:
Just then I saw a young hawk flyin’
And my soul began to rise
And pretty soon
My heart was singin’
The song ends with a commitment, “And I said next time/Next time/We’ll get it right,” lines that Seger delivers with exceptional power and passion. Though we don’t know what “it” is, it feels like a reminder to himself that he has the power of choice and that when he returns home, he’s going to do his best to not let all the noise and bullshit get him down. “Roll Me Away” is simply one of the great American road songs, a guide for how to survive life in our crazy world.
“Turn the Page” (Live Bullet, 1976): “Turn the Page” is Bob Seger’s contribution to the “life as a musician” theme explored by too many rockers to mention. What lends Seger’s take greater credibility is that he wrote about a true-life experience during “the eighth or ninth year of that 10-year period where I was going nowhere fast.” He described the scene that inspired the song to Ken Sharp of Classic Rock:
We’d been harassed at a truck stop in Wisconsin at two in the morning by some salesmen who kept calling us “girls” because we all had long hair. So we left because we didn’t want to get into a fight and become some police report. The next night I’m sitting there singing: ‘On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha. You can listen to the engine moanin’ out it’s one-note song . . . Well you walk into a restaurant all strung out from the road. And you feel the eyes upon you as you’re shakin’ off the cold. You pretend it doesn’t bother you but you just want to explode . . . ’
I was thinking about how these people hate you because of the way you look, and how unreasonable it is. That became part of it. But the bigger thing, I think, was the real weariness of the road, and I tried to capture that. I think I captured it for truck drivers. I think I captured it for travelling businessmen. And I think I just captured it for people who have to travel a lot and just plain miss home or family or both.
Seger had originally recorded the song in 1971 but it garnered little notice until the live version was released five years later. The original suffers from way-too-bouncy piano accompaniment that serves to trivialize the tale and the absence of Bob’s whisky-tinged vocal chops. The arrangement for the Live Bullet performance is ultra-minimalist—the piano is replaced by a comparatively unobtrusive mellotron playing long held chords, Alto Reed’s sax solo is limited to the soulful riff that opens the song and a brief reprise in the middle, and the background music served up on guitar, bass and drum is suitably dampened so that Bob’s road-weary voice dominates the proceedings. Except for the random asshole or two who just couldn’t resist the urge to throw in a hearty “Woo” at inappropriate moments, the audience remains in rapt attention throughout the song, and yes, you could probably hear a pin drop in Cobo Arena.
Talk about a guy owning a song! Bob sounds like he’s just stepped into that roadside diner, reliving the experience in real-time. You can feel the simmering combination of disgust, fear and tension in his voice, ready to explode but restrained by the logic of the moment. Any musician who has spent years on the road trying to build cred and a healthy audience will immediately identify the lyrics of the last verse and Bob’s world-weary presentation (the “she” is “the woman or the girl you knew the night before,” from the opening verse):
Out there in the spotlight
You’re a million miles away
Every ounce of energy
You try to give away
As the sweat pours out your body
Like the music that you play
Later in the evening
As you lie awake in bed
With the echoes from the amplifiers
Ringin’ in your head
You smoke the day’s last cigarette
Rememberin’ what she said
Bob told Ken Sharp, “That’s one of the songs we must play or people get very agitated. If we don’t play that the fans are definitely disappointed.” I can fully understand why—it’s a deeply moving experience.
p. s. Metallica released a fabulous cover of the song on their Garage Inc album, complete with a powerful video that applies the story to a single mother who earns her keep as a sex worker. Check it out!
“Her Strut” (Against the Wind, 1980): I would very much like to claim that Bob Seger wrote this song about me. Alas, some birther would dig up my birth certificate and expose me as a fraud to the entire Internet! Well, there’s no harm in pretending . . . this is me, people!
She’s totally committed, to major independenceBut she’s a lady through and through She gives them quite a battle, all that they can handle She’ll bruise some, she’ll hurt some too
Amazing! He even nailed the kinky part!
Alack and alas, he was thinking of Jane Fonda when he wrote the song. “I wanted to write a song about how women have become so confident and stepped out so much, and I thought Jane was a great role model.”
Predictably, Bob was accused of writing a sexist song that objectified women. Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell slammed the song in their book The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time, claiming that Bob “sounds like an aging high school football jerk who never grew out of thinking of ‘girls’ as either virgins or whores.”
Sounds like those boys bought into all that Second Wave feminist crap. There’s is nothing demeaning about a woman choosing to project sexual power and there’s nothing demeaning in admiring that power. As a woman who has been labeled a Feminazi more times than I care to remember, I think I have sufficient credibility to dismiss the song’s detractors as uptight losers who want to deny everyone the right to express their sexuality because they’re terrified of their own sexuality.
All I know is this song kicks ass. Bob’s vocal is as hot and steamy as his sinuous lead guitar licks and the driving beat is absolutely perfect for pre-foreplay strutting to get female juices flowing or male members rising.
“Still the Same” (Stranger in Town, 1978): Let me say up front that I love the melody, love Bob’s vocal, love the background singers and the pleasant mid-tempo beat. The problem I have is that the lyrics don’t fit the music—the music is perfect for a love song, quite imperfect for someone with a gambling addiction. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that there are tens of thousands of people who believe that “Still the Same” is a love song, thanks to the “baby, baby, still the same” refrain beautifully performed by the trio of Venetta Fields, Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews—a refrain that conveys something like “Oh, honey, you’re still the same horny bastard you were in high school when you knocked me up.” People who hear a love song probably associate all that stuff about gambling as symbolic of the risk you take when you fall in love. I’ll add that this is a great song for acoustic guitar with its easy C to Cmaj7 dominant motif, and if people are drunk enough when you play it, they won’t give a shit about the ill-fitting lyrics.
“You’ll Accomp’ny Me” (Against the Wind, 1980): Well, this IS a love song and it’s not a very good one. I suppose the music is pleasant enough, but the lyrics are filled with love song clichés instead of heartfelt feelings marked by a personal touch. This is as close as Seger gets to Bad Paul McCartney.
“We’ve Got Tonight” (Stranger in Town, 1978): Uh, check that. “We’ve Got Tonight” (or “We’ve Got Tonite”) is Long and Winding Road McCartney which in my book is even worse than Bad Paul McCartney. I like the fact that the song was inspired by the scene from The Sting where Robert Redford tries to hit up on the waitress who’s really a hit woman preparing to plug Redford. In response to his invitation, she says, “I don’t even know you.” He instantly responds, “You know me. It’s two in the morning and I don’t know nobody.” Back in ’73, ending that sentence with “Let’s fuck” (which is what they wind up doing) could have earned the film an X rating. Unfortunately, knowing that influence makes the song worse to my ears—the music imbues a one-night-stand with completely underserved sentimentality.
“Like a Rock” (Like a Rock, 1986): I hereby declare that when I become Queen and Most-Honored Goddess in the Universe, my first act will be to ban the use of rock, folk and blues songs in commercial advertising (they can have rap and hip-hop). It’s damned hard to listen to this song without a Chevy monster truck roaring in my ears. Still, you can’t question Seger’s motives in allowing the song to be used in that particular television commercial—the automotive industry was in bad shape and he wanted to do something to help the workers who bore the brunt of Chevy’s falling fortunes. Seger had worked in Ford and Chevy plants in his younger years, so the empathy was real and his use of his fame admirable.
As for the song, I think a stronger compare-and-contrast between the buff version of Seger at eighteen and Seger at thirty-eight would have sealed the deal. He asks “Where did those twenty years go?” but neglects to clarify the difference between the then and now—and I’m not talking about the bodily differences but how adulthood drained some of his youthful spirit. His vocal is strong and heartfelt, and the arrangement is solid, but without the contrast, the song comes across as just an older guy’s regrets about losing his six-pack.
“Fire Lake” (Against the Wind, 1980): It took me a while to get into the lopey cowboy funk of “Fire Lake” and the always too-sweet harmonies provided by three members of the Eagles, but Bob’s playful vocal and the seemingly mysterious lyrics finally won me over. The lyrics aren’t as mysterious as they seem at first glance, as confirmed by Bob’s insistence that the song is really about taking a risk and stepping out of mainstream expectations. It’s “About risking love,” he said, “chucking it all and just heading off with a bunch of wild people.” (Songfacts) Hence the gypsy bikers who are rejected by solid citizens and hardcore bikers; hence Uncle Joe whose hands shook when he tried to cut the wedding cake because he didn’t want to get married in the first place and eventually makes his escape to Fire Lake; hence the pre-skin-cancer-panic beauties who represent indulgence in glorious sin; and best of all, the appearance of Wild Bill Hickock and his “dead man’s hand” representing the ultimate in risk-taking, risking death itself. There is a Fire Lake in Michigan and based on the one review of its offerings, sounds like a pretty dangerous place to hang: “Steep road to the access and limited parking. Ice is very bad at the landing (buddy went into his belt buckle) and you need to follow a trail to the main lake before the ice is safe to get on. Very pretty, caught small bl. gill, perch and 2 sm. bass.” I suggest you travel to the metaphoric Fire Lake for a far better shot at getting your rocks off.
“Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You” (Nine Tonight, 1981): It’s hardly a surprise that a Detroit-born, Michigan-raised musician would develop an affinity for soul music, and Bob’s spirited rendition of this minor hit by Otis Clay proves he could sing soul as well as rock ‘n’ roll. I do have a hard time with the “five packs of cigarettes” and “four or five bottles of wine” the narrator claims to consume on a daily basis, because I think it’s physically impossible to smoke that many cigarettes in a day. Wait a minute . . . some little scrap of information just entered the periphery of my brain . . . oh yeah, let me confirm . . . shit. I guess it is possible: Waylon Jennings had a six-pack-a-day habit. Maybe that’s why I love the sound of his voice.
“Rock and Roll Never Forgets” (Night Moves, 1976): Sorry, I can’t resist. I found this really nice quickie review on the Internet and wanted to shove it up somebody’s ass:
The leadoff track to 1976’s Night Moves is one in a series of Seger classics about the ongoing power of rock & roll – in this case, for “sweet sixteens turned 31,” Seger’s age when the song came out. Less nostalgic than “Old Time Rock N Roll,” it’s an argument for finding rock wherever it lives (the concert hall, the local bar) and letting it be whatever you need it to be: a salve after a hard day of work, a renewable source of euphoria. The sound – no-bullshit, horn-slathered Silver Bullet crunch with a nod to Chuck Berry (who’s name-checked in the last verse) – makes the case for rock’s longevity as well as the lyrics do.
Thank you, Rolling Stone!
I don’t know how anyone can listen to “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” and hold onto the belief that rock is dead. The charts may reflect sales but they absolutely do not reflect reality. Earlier this year I watched a documentary featuring a concert by the Rolling Stones and I was blown away by the audience shots—the crowd wasn’t filled with Boomers re-living the good old days, but young people in their twenties and thirties digging the Stones.
Think about it. People pack concert halls all over the world to listen to music that was made centuries ago: it’s called “classical music.” Would a classical music fan drop Ludwig Van from their playlists because the music is too old? Fuck, no! I hear nobody listens to jazz anymore. Really? Then who the hell are all those people attending jazz festivals everywhere—crisis actors? Blues is dead, too? Check out the number of blues festivals and get back to me on that. Who the fuck cares WHEN “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” or “Teenage Kicks” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Long Tall Sally” or “Jailhouse Rock” or “Roll Over Beethoven” came out? IT DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER, PEOPLE! These songs are timeless and they will endure—and they’re more likely to endure because we now have access to most of the music ever recorded.
This subject really gets my dander up because I’VE BEEN LISTENING TO AND WRITING ABOUT OLD MUSIC FOR TEN YEARS AND HAVING A GREAT TIME DOING SO.
The joy that Bob Seger brings to his performance of “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” is genuine and full of gratitude. “At that point in my life, I was 31 years old. And the first 10 or 11 years in my career I was making six, eight grand a year and just doin’ it because I loved the music. So I’m writing for Night Moves and I just felt grateful; here I am and I’m starting to make it. You know, rock ’n’ roll never forgets. You build up goodwill over 10 years and you set the stage. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets’ is a grateful song. I’m grateful to all the people I played for in those small clubs, on the top of cafeteria tables, in gymnasiums and in hockey rinks. Suddenly all those people came out and bought my records and said: ‘I remember him. I saw him at the high school or hockey rink’.” (Ken Sharp interview).
The song opens with a get-the-crowd-out-of-their-seats interplay with bass and drums punctuating the beat and the iconic lead guitar riff sending the message that it’s time to rock the fuck out! Bob comes in giving it everything he’s got, savoring the music while delivering a clear message that rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay . . . forever:
So you’re a little bit older and a lot less bolder
Than you used to be
So you used to shake ’em down
But now you stop and think about your dignity
So now sweet sixteens turned thirty-one
You get to feelin’ weary when the work days done
Well all you got to do is get up and into your kicks
If you’re in a fix
Come back baby
Rock and roll never forgets
You better get yourself a partner
Go down to the concert or the local bar
Check the local newspapers
Chances are you won’t have to go too far
Yeah the rafters will be ringing cause the beat’s so strong
The crowd will be swaying and singing along
And all you got to do is get in into the mix
If you need a fix
Come back baby
Rock and roll never forgets
“Against the Wind” (Against the Wind, 1980): Seger described the themes of both the album and the title track as “about trying to move ahead, keeping your sanity and integrity at the same time.” Having finally reached the summit and achieved the fame he sought for so many years, he was beginning to understand that he’d traded one set of challenges for another.
The mid-tempo ballad opens with Bob’s reflections on his long-term relationship with Janey Dinsdale, focusing on their relations in the pre-fame period. He describes an intimate relationship marked by mutual trust and sincere passion:
Janey was lovely she was the queen of my nights
There in the darkness with the radio playing low, and
And the secrets that we shared
The mountains that we moved
Caught like a wildfire out of control
‘Til there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove
And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh-so-tight
The verse ends with the ominous line, “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Bob will explain what he means in the second verse, but first he takes a moment to remind himself of “the mountains that we moved” as he steels himself to face new challenges:
Against the wind
We were runnin’ against the wind
We were young and strong, we were runnin’ against the wind
The second verse brings to mind the struggles described by the lead character in Ray Davies’ “The Moneygoround,” a musician who enters the limelight with a hit single and finds his trust in the men who run the music business was seriously misplaced (“I thought they were my friends/I can’t believe it’s me/I can’t believe that I’m so green”). Bob’s description of the problem is eerily similar (“Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends”) and the cause of much of his frustration mirrors the sense of feeling lost and out-of-sync captured by Davies in “This Time Tomorrow.”
Guess I lost my way
There were oh-so-many roads
I was living to run and running to live
Never worried about paying or even how much I owed
Moving eight miles a minute for months at a time
Breaking all of the rules that would bend
I began to find myself searching
Searching for shelter again and again
Against the wind . . .
Though Seger has recognized the game for what it is, such recognition does not free him from the responsibilities attached to fame and fortune:
Well those drifter’s days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out
Sounds like rock stardom is not all that different from the daily grind. Unlike the hero in the Kinks’ tale, who dreams of escaping the music industry rat race (“We’ve got to get out of this world somehow”), Bob decides to tough it out, relying on what he learned as a cross-country runner in high school to meet the challenges ahead:
Against the wind
I’m still runnin’ against the wind
I’m older now but still runnin’ against the wind
Well I’m older now and still runnin’
Against the wind
Damn. Another great song.
“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man (Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, 1969): This was Bob’s first nationwide Top 20 hit, released on Capitol Records. In a remarkable display of replacing the bad with something worse, Capitol changed the name of the band from Bob Seger & The Last Heard to The Bob Seger System. “Bob Seger” and “System” sound like oil and water to my ears . . . or maybe peanut butter and mustard. Bob Seger isn’t and will never be a system kind of guy.
“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” is a pretty basic rock tune featuring a sound that falls somewhere between Mitch Ryder and ? and the Mysterians. Young Bob sings with noticeable energy but without much of the grit that came to define his vocal offerings. I found the band unimpressive, but as the version on Live Bullet with the Silver Bullet Band isn’t all that different, the problem has more to do with the song’s limitations than the players.
“The Fire Down Below” (Night Moves, 1976): This sassy blues number with a sexy strut has stirred up a bit of controversy between Christians and atheists, so we’d better get that out the way first.
In the simplest possible terms, the song is about hookers and horny males. The faith-related debate centers around the meaning of “fire down below.” The atheists interpret the phrase as sexual energy. The Christians argue that it’s a message about the hellfire that awaits one who indulges in non-reproductive, “casual” sex. Some Christians have even argued that the fire down below is god’s punishment for illicit behavior, with “fire” representing the burning pain of an STD.
The validity of the Christian perspective depends entirely on Bob Seger’s religious orientation. Here’s what he had to say in a 2014 interview with the Detroit Free Press: “I believe that religion is just fine if it helps people find peace, to be good to their fellow man. It’s a good tool for living a good life. I really do believe that. And I said, well, I never personally really had a spiritual awakening; it’s been gradual. But I see my kids and so, yeah: I believe in God.”
Hmm. Sounds like he’s more of a passive believer than a bible-thumper, so score one for the atheists. His use of the phrase “the fire down below” seems more blues-influenced than bible-influenced; many horny bluesmen added biblical references to their songs in order to convey concepts and imagery that their church-going audience could understand.
The debate detracts from the more important messages in the song, all of which concern the hypocrisy of society’s orientation to sex in general and prostitution in particular. Note how the female streetwalkers are placed in a vulnerable position under bright lights in order to attract customers while the men are granted the right of privacy, hiding in the shadows:
Here comes old Rosie she’s looking mighty fine
Here comes hot Nancy she’s steppin’ right on time
There go the street lights bringin’ on the night
Here come the men faces hidden from the light
All through the shadows, ah, they come and they go
With only one thing in common
They got the fire down below
The imbalance inherent in the oldest profession endures because men are generally given a free pass (unless they’re dumb enough to proposition a cop in costume) while the more visible providers are prime targets for cops looking to make a few easy arrests. Social caste differences are rendered irrelevant; if you’re a guy, you have the god-given right to satisfy your needs without a second thought about the dangers these women face while trying to earn a few bucks. The guys come, then go, leaving the woman to clean up the mess:
Here comes the rich man in his big long limousine
Here comes the poor man all you got to have is green
Here comes the banker and the lawyer and the cop
One thing for certain it ain’t never gonna stop
When it all gets too heavy
That’s when they come and they go
In another faint tribute to Chuck Berry, Bob reminds us that the trade is active all over the United States. To get the Berry connection, replace “they’re really rocking in . . . ” with “they’re really fucking in . . . ”
Yeah, it happens out in Vegas, happens in Moline
On the blue blood streets of Boston
Up in Berkeley and out in Queens
But the most important point of all follows the geography lesson:
And it went on yesterday and it’s going on tonightSomewhere there’s somebody ain’t treatin’ somebody right
No shit, Sherlock. “Physical violence is more commonly experienced by outdoor prostitutes with 47% of prostitutes working outdoors reporting being kicked, punched, or slapped in one study. In a study of prostitutes working in San Francisco, 82% of participants reported having experienced some type of physical violence since entering prostitution, with 55% of these assaults being committed by a client.” (Wikipedia). And if you’re about to argue that prostitutes put themselves in danger by choosing to ply their trade, it turns out that their attitudes about the work are very similar to nearly everyone who agrees to accept a job offer. “Sex workers, like most workers, have diverse feelings about their work. Some sex workers dislike their work but find that it is their best or only option to make a living. Some are agnostic about their work but find that it offers flexibility or good pay. And some enjoy the work and find it all around rewarding or fun.” (Open Society Foundations) The big difference is that most people who work in other trades (excluding the police, military, etc.) don’t have to worry about the imminent threat of physical violence on a daily basis.
As Bob notes, the fire down below ain’t ever going to go away, and our failure to face that universal truth will continue to result in “somebody ain’t treatin’ somebody right.”
“Travelin’ Man” (Live Bullet, 1976): No, this isn’t a Ricky Nelson cover, just a pretty basic rock song about domesticating women and the inalienable right of a guy to split whenever such a woman gets a bit too irksome. The song first appeared on 1975’s Beautiful Loser, before Bob had the epiphany regarding gender equality noted in “Her Strut.” I wouldn’t label the song “misogynistic” but it certainly celebrates male privilege. The best part comes when the lyrics are in the rearview mirror, and Drew Abbott lets loose with a fiery guitar solo and the band rocks until the rafters at Cobo start to shake. When the boys have shot that particular wad, a chord crash marks a sudden transition to . . .
“Beautiful Loser” (Live Bullet, 1976): It’s pretty obvious that Bob’s songwriting skills weren’t fully developed until Night Moves, as most of the tracks preceding that breakthrough album are either incomplete or contradictory. “Beautiful Loser” is a good example of thematic disconnection; the first verse describes the main character as follows:
He wants to dream like a young man
With the wisdom of an old man
He wants his home and security
He wants to live like a sailor at sea
Obviously, the key phrase of the chorus “you just can’t have it all” is appropriate.
In the second and third verses, Bob attempts to add other facets to the main character that make no sense whatsoever. Now he believes the problem with this guy is that he’s a wimp, a guy who tries to make everyone happy. While that goal is just as impossible as the contradictory goals of the first verse, Bob’s wording fails to clearly define the character as someone whose self-worth depends on the approval of others as opposed to someone who simply believes in turning the other cheek:
He’s your oldest and your best friend
If you need him, he’ll be there again
He’s always willing to be second best
A perfect lodger, a perfect guest . . .
He’ll never make any enemies<
He won’t complain if he’s caught in a freeze
He’ll always ask, he’ll always say please
I would welcome such a beautiful loser in my home any day of the week.
“Shakedown” (Beverly Hills Cop II, 1987): Bob was hired to record this song for the BHC sequel because his old pal Glenn Frey (who sang “The Heat is On” in the original) didn’t like the lyrics and suddenly came down with laryngitis.
So, Bob graciously stepped in (kinda like the Beautiful Loser), recorded the song and was rewarded with his first #1 hit on the Billboard 100.
I will reward him with a nice wet raspberry. The song flat-out sucks, lyrically and musically. The only reason I’m not rewarding him with something stronger than a raspberry is that he played no part in the song’s composition.
“Shame on the Moon” (The Distance, 1982): Bob didn’t write this one either, but it’s a much better fit for his style and personality. Written by Rodney Crowell early in his distinguished songwriting career, the song turned out to be a win-win for both singer and songwriter, with Bob’s version making it to #2 on the charts and Crowell earning recognition as a professional songwriter who would soon find himself in great demand. Bob aptly described the music as “a western song,” and with its loping rhythm, acoustic guitar and sweet harmonies, it sounds like the perfect song to close a night of bonding around a campfire if you’re into that sort of thing. The theme of “you don’t know a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” is given new life in Crowell’s empathetic lyrics, and Bob Seger is a master at communicating empathy through music.
In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Seger said: “There’s definitely a dark tension, I think, behind a lot of my stuff. 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.”
“Katmandu” (Beautiful Loser, 1975): Bob has a lot of fun modulating his voice while still giving us ample amounts of his trademark growl in this Chuck Berry-influenced rocker. The only problem I have with the song is that the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section doesn’t rock as hard as the song demands until the horn section makes its appearance midway through the song. Once again, I think the compilers blew it by using the studio original—the Silver Bullet Band kicks some serious ass on the Live Bullet version.
“Little Drummer Boy” (A Very Special Christmas, 1987): This was the Silver Bullet Band’s contribution to one of the Christmas music compilations benefitting the Special Olympics. It was a very nice gesture on Bob’s part, but his voice is the polar opposite of the choir boys whose voices are far more appropriate for this particular song.
“Wait for Me” (Face the Promise, 2006): By this time, Bob was slowing down a bit, taking six years to finish his first album without the Silver Bullet Band in thirty-one years. The song is rather touching but falls short of his best work.
“Hey Hey Hey Hey (Going Back to Birmingham)”: The album closes with previously unreleased covers of two of Bob’s favorite artists. When Bob was asked about his influences, Little Richard was the first name on his list. Bob does as much justice to this Little Richard hit as McCartney did with “Long Tall Sally” and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section shakes off their Katmandu lethargy with a spirited display of horn-rich rock ‘n’ roll.
“Downtown Train”: Bob had intended to record this Tom Waits song back in 1989, mentioned his intentions to Rod Stewart and whaddyaknow? Rod Stewart released his version lickety-split and hit the Top 10!
What a dick.
Tom Waits is on my no-fly list because I can’t bear the sound of his voice, but this song about teenagers sneaking out of bedroom windows, heading to the carnivals and riding the Brooklyn trains to downtown is a perfect fit for Seger’s reflective orientation. He re-recorded the song especially for this compilation and imbues the tale with his typically sincere passion. The arrangement is a bit over-the-top, but not to the point of detracting from the singer or the story.
After four consecutive reviews of music that most would characterize as complex and deep, it was great to listen to some straightforward, honest-to-goodness rock ‘n’ roll for a change. I made a tactical error in my review plan when I loaded the schedule with albums requiring studies of musical scores, political theory and elaborate metaphors. After I finished my review of High Violet, I had an overwhelming urge to fill my ears with Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and other early rockers. Bob Seger hadn’t entered my mind until I read the Jann Wenner interview, and after taking in that load of bullshit, I ran over to my home pod and said “Hey, Siri! Play Bob Seger! I was immediately rewarded with the opening riff to “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” and let out a scream worthy of a Beatlemaniac.
I will be eternally grateful for this opportunity to reconnect with Bob Seger and experience the ecstasy that only true rock ‘n’ roll can provide.