By Tom Weschler and Gary Graff
Wayne State University Press, 2009
When “Old Time Rock & Roll” came on the radio in the back of the bike shop, one repairman jokingly asked the others, “Okay, who’s the Bob Seger fan?” I’d seen a similar scene in a bar. The song title precisely fits the musician’s work. He set out not to reinvent his genre but to glory in its power to affect listeners and in its legacy leading up to the 1970s, the period of his most muscular work. The bard of deracination, who had his first major hit with “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” ended up with an undeserved but unshakable reputation as the quintessential Midwesterner. Other performers also evoke certain periods or become associated with particular regions without being looked down upon by various musical purists, but digging Seger especially confers no cache among the in-crowd.
Growing up in Detroit, I heard Bob Seger all the time. I didn’t own any of his albums, then; I didn’t need to: he was a fixture on local radio. It wasn’t until I moved away from Michigan that I learned how closely he was identified with the state. Say “Seger” or “Silver Bullet Band” anywhere else and chances are those who know the names will immediately think of the middle part of the United States.
Tom Weschler, Seger’s tour manager and photographer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, resists this tendency to limit his former employer’s scope and the extent of his impact. He pronounces Seger “one of American music’s greatest artists.” In Travelin’ Man, a collection of his pictures and short snatches of recollections assembled with journalist Gary Graff, Weschler also calls Seger “an American music icon.”
Other admirers simultaneously say Seger should be better appreciated and insist on regarding him principally as a local hero. In his foreword to Weschler and Graff’s book, John Mellencamp labels Seger’s work Midwest Rock. In his afterword, Kid Rock calls it heartland music. In his introduction, Graff use both regional descriptors. Despite his insistence on Seger’s national importance, Weschler’s numerous snapshots of Seger backstage with local radio personalities (not always clearly identified as such) and onstage at area venues tend to confirm the easy identification of Seger with the place where he was born. (Mellencamp praises him for “staying honest to who he is and where he comes from.”)
Seger, a Grammy Award-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee whose albums sold millions of copies, hardly languishes as an unknown outside the Rust Belt. While having a song intimately associated with Tom Cruise dancing around in his underwear probably wouldn’t be most musicians’ preferred fate, Risky Business’s use of “Old Time Rock & Roll” graphically illustrates the distance Seger traveled from the shopping mall openings and universities he played (and Weshler documented) early on. The 1983 film put the 1977 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a second time. The first-hand episodes mentioned above also suggest Seger’s impact far from the Great Lakes: the classic rock radio-playing bicycle store was on the west coast, the pub on the east coast.
Ironically, many of Seger’s best songs involve escaping the geography listeners insist he embodies. For their collaboration, Weshler and Graff borrow an appropriate Seger title. Another song, “Roll Me Away,” may mention Mackinaw City, but imagines fleeing from too-familiar confines. Seger recorded it in California, the setting for “Hollywood Nights,” which does involve a Midwesterner too far from home, but one unsure if he can ever return to it. Seger says people he met in Hollywood inspired “Still the Same.” California comes up again in “The Fire Down Below,” which also mentions cities in Illinois, Nevada and New York – but not Michigan. “Turn the Page” (which Metallica covers on Garage, Inc.) is another road song, and “Katmandu” dreams of getting far from the U.S.A. (where no one loves him anyway). “Makin’ Thunderbirds,” about building cars, may suggest a strong connection to the place where that used to happen, but singing about automobiles hardly sets Seger apart from innumerable peers who sing about wanting to speed somewhere else.
Perhaps the impulse to go elsewhere could be considered a fundamentally Midwestern theme. I know I felt it. (My solution to “Roll Me Away”’s dilemma of whether to go east or west: both, sequentially.) Slashing his tires and leaving him stranded in the center states strips the singer’s song of its essence, depletes his story’s drama and deprives the urge he articulates of its force. Besides if it were a regional phenomenon, what does one do with Bruce “Born to Run” Springsteen (next to whom Seger stands looking star-struck in one of Weschler’s photos)?
Other Seger tracks have nothing at all to do with specific sites. “Night Moves,” about “tryin’ to lose the awkward teenage blues,” could be set anyplace. He recorded “Old Time Rock & Roll,” about a musical state of mind, at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, Bobby Womack, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett also made music. Seger also made several other hit songs there, including “Mainstreet,” which he claims is about Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he grew up, but really deals with lonesomeness and longing and also could take place anywhere.
In addition to telling stories of journeys, Seger creates characters. “Beautiful Loser,” an ode to resignation, describes an honorable mediocrity. The persona of “Still the Same” tires of gamblers and hustlers. In “We’ve Got Tonight” a man tries to talk a stranger into a one-night stand. And what serious guitar slinger wouldn’t have songs about women both desirable (“Her Strut”) and duplicitous (“Sunspot Baby”)?
|Given Seger’s commitment to narrative and character, as well as those Hollywood nights, it’s no surprise that his music figured in many movies (before and after Risky Business), some of which may have damaged his reputation. His songs appear on the soundtracks for films like FM (1978), Urban Cowboy (1980), Teachers (1984), Mask (1985) and About Last Night (1986). “Against the Wind,” a tribute to perseverance, found itself in Forrest Gump (1994); “Roll Me Away” landed in Armageddon (1998). During the 1980s, he started making lousy music specifically for lousy movies. “Shakedown” – written for Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) with sadly representative lyrics like “Breakdown, takedown, you’re busted” – features a synclavier, an electronic apparatus that emits sounds as euphonious as its name. The use of “Like a Rock,” a celebration of endurance, in pick-up truck commercials won him no acolytes in the cult of artistic purity.|
The limp sell-out tag doesn’t easily adhere to Seger. Mellencamp lauds him for “playing by his own rules and staying honest to who he is,” but who he is is someone who wanted to reach a large audience (no crime) and did whatever it took to do so. “We want to really have a No. 1 album,” he said of Against the Wind (1980); “that’s what we went for.” Possibly, this alienated people sensitive to certain notions of authenticity; perhaps it appeared to compromise his artistic integrity. More likely, instead of standing steadfast with the Motown-meets-Muscle Shoals-with-memories-of-the-Mississippi-Delta sound he’d forged, he sought to change with the times but ended up with something that didn’t really suit him. He may have sung about being old-fashioned while still young, but nothing signals being out of touch like straining to seem up-to-date. This may have prompted his return to his familiar style on Face the Promise (2006), which resembles the earlier work but suggests an imitation of it rather than a triumphant return to a still-nourishing creative source.
If Travelin’ Man doesn’t convincingly elevate Seger from the provincial level or rehabilitate his image, that’s because it has more modest aims. It doesn’t try to rescue him from his mid-career misfires, which it basically ignores. It doesn’t argue that Face the Promise is the artistic equal to Seven (1974), Beautiful Loser (1975), Live Bullet (1976), Night Moves (1976) or Stranger in Town (1978), relegating it instead to the discography (and Kid Rock’s reference to the thrill of working with Seger on one of its tracks). “Travelin’ Man was not conceived as a full-scale, tell-all Seger biography,” Graff explains. Instead, it’s Weschler’s story as told mainly through his camera lens. Yet the photographer stopped working for Seger before the name-making records came out, though he did subsequently shoot the occasional show or work on an album cover. Unremarkable in appearance, Seger is not the most likely candidate for a coffee table book, and Weschler can only mention events that might have yielded something more entertaining than standard concert and dressing-room shots. He refers to Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band opening for Kiss in 1975. “Nobody expected them to do that well on tour with a band that was so comic book oriented in their look but played their music like the real deal.” Anyone hoping for documentation of the sweaty, long-haired, almost-stereotypical-biker-looking dude backstage while the high-heeled kabuki rockers apply their make-up will be disappointed. Weschler calls his years with the singer-songwriter “fabled among Seger fans,” but Graff calls the period following some early success in the 1960s but before the Seger hit-making assembly line started running full speed in the mid-1970s a “fallow period that has become the stuff of legend.” If Weschler envisioned capturing the rise of a rock star, he picked an unfortunate time to pursue “other endeavors.” He left before the headliners stepped into the lights.
In one of his last essays, John Updike concedes that “the early works remain the ones I am best known by, and the ones to which my later works are unfavorably compared.” He considers himself fortunate, however, in more than one way. “A writer’s fan base, unlike that of a rock star, is post-adolescent and relatively tolerant of time’s scars,” he observes. Still, his situation and Seger’s might not be all that different. For one, Seger, unlike the musician Updike has in mind, never became “that skinny old man (Mick Jagger) [who] kept taking his shirt off and jumping around.” (With his short gray hair, his well-padded paunch and stodgy square glasses, the fifty-nine-year-old Seger at the 2004 Hall of Fame ceremony looks like he could be one of the Rolling Stones’ stage technicians or, perhaps, one of Updike’s golfing buddies.) More significantly, there’s the fine, finished work. “An aging writer has the not insignificant satisfaction of a shelf of books behind him that, as they wait for their ideal readers to discover them, will outlast him for a while.” The same could be said for Seger, who wrote and recorded at least a dozen and a half sturdy musical stories that will, I believe, long continue to find and please listeners.
Perhaps even among those who don’t want to admit it. I suspect that some who laugh at Seger secretly enjoy his stuff. After I confessed to liking him, others in that Brooklyn bar grudgingly allowed that he made some solid rock and roll. Seger recorded his most well known songs before the kids fixing bicycles were born, but they could all identify his work. And not one of them changed the station.
John G. Rodwan, Jr., an Open Letters Monthly contributing editor, has also had work published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Blood & Thunder, The Second Pass, California Literary Review, Spot Literary Magazine, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, Logos, American Writer, Free Inquiry and the Humanist, among others. He has lived in Detroit, Michigan; Geneva, Switzerland; Brooklyn, New York; and Portland, Oregon.