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The Seger Seven

Rediscovering the secretly cool legacy of Bob Seger, Detroit’s misunderstood rock laureate

Few cities have as rich a cultural and sporting history as Detroit. From the ’80s Pistons to Bob Seger, Eminem to Miguel Cabrera, the Motor City is a rich tapestry of compelling figures, unbelievable moments, and uniquely American ingenuity.

On April 17, ESPN will premiere 30 for 30: Bad Boys, a documentary about those unforgettable Pistons teams. To celebrate, Grantland will devote an entire week, from April 11 through April 18, to the various stories of this wholly original place.

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1. “Shakedown,” 1987

If nothing else is taken from this exercise, let it be known that the Bob Seger songs you know the best are probably the ones that rank among his very worst. Or rather, they don’t present him in his truest, most flattering guise. If I can, in some small way, inch this assertion a little closer to the realm of conventional wisdom, I will feel that I have done my part for one of our least-appreciated rock-and-roll institutions.

Granted, this argument has been made about virtually every artist who has ever been overplayed on 106.7 The Wolverine or whatever the terrible classic-rock station in your town is that’s responsible for still foisting Loverboy songs on an innocent public. As a rhetorical cliché, “The good stuff is the lesser-known stuff!” is as familiar as Paul Rodgers’s ominous, oversexed grunt at the start of Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” in the dimmest corners of your local radio solar system.

But for Seger, let’s just say this argument is especially correct. I believe it is more correct for Seger than any other classic-rock warhorse. Nearly all the albums that make up the “canonical” portion of Seger’s discography — roughly 1975’s Beautiful Loser to 1980’s Against the Wind, give or take an album or two on either side of the divide — are currently unavailable on iTunes and streaming services, and are increasingly difficult to track down in physical form for an increasingly small audience that gives a damn about owning music in physical form. Then there are Seger’s first seven albums, which contain some of his finest (though least-heard) songs. Those records aren’t in print at all, and can only be procured via expensive imports or illegal download. This is an incredibly bizarre situation considering that Seger has sold more than 52 million albums. His back catalogue has real value, and yet the average burning trash heap gets treated with more care and consideration.1

So, while Seger’s good stuff is truly obscure, his less-good stuff has been permanently crystallized in the mind’s eye of pop culture. The less said about the boomer trolling of “Old Time Rock and Roll” the better, but it would likely be remembered as a lesser curio off 1978’s Stranger in Town if not for Tom Cruise outing himself as a rockist with an exhibitionist streak in Risky Business five years later. Then there’s 1986’s “Like a Rock,” technically not a bad song for post-peak Seger, though its long-standing presence in a flag-waving car commercial helped to set Seger in a cement mixture of bad, Reagan-y “patriotic” phoniness and corporate-rock iconography in perpetuity.

Now, if you can get past the troublesome associations, you can also hear what’s great about Seger in these songs — his voice, for one, is incredible, a majestic muscle-car roar charging forcefully out of lungs fermented in only the finest Marlboros. And Seger has undeniable gravitas — he’s not some mealymouthed kid attempting to service your entertainment needs with the authority of a gas-station attendant; he’s a grown man who gets shit done on the regular and never gets recognized for it because that’s what a grown man is supposed to do. Seger is masculine like ’80s action heroes are masculine. He sang the way Chuck Norris used to systematically snap the necks of Russian operatives, exhibiting a casual proficiency and unthinking confidence that now seems both comical (because it’s so utterly divorced from a contemporary context) and more than a little mythic (ditto).

Nevertheless, an unsympathetic caricature was created: Seger came to be seen as an avatar of reactionary nostalgia for a bland Middle American never-never land that exists exclusively in the minds of lame olds.

All of which brings us to “Shakedown,” a bad Bob Seger song most people don’t even have the decency to remember to hate, even though it’s Seger’s only no. 1 pop hit. I remember “Shakedown” because I absolutely loved it when I was 10, which means I still sort of like it now, though I can’t really defend it. “Shakedown” was Seger’s contribution to the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack — the German songwriter and record producer Harold Faltermeyer, best known for writing “Axel F” for the first Beverly Hills Cop movie, composed the music. If you were looking for a European to musically convey the sensation of a Michigan native feeling out of place in mid-’80s Los Angeles, Faltermeyer was your man.

This is why (I guess) Faltermeyer was eventually paired up with Seger, who is most accurately described as “not comfortable” in the glitzy music video. As a song and visual presentation, “Shakedown” is representative of a moment in pop history when mainstream rock transitioned from the normal-guy naturalism of Mellencamp and Seger to the “normal-guy” spectacle of Bon Jovi. Seger’s lyrics are tough-palooka nonsense (“Breakdown, takedown / You’re busted!”), and “Shakedown” overall is like something Seth Rogen might’ve commissioned for Pineapple Express if Huey Lewis hadn’t already answered the call.

“Shakedown” went on to be nominated for Best Song at the 1988 Academy Awards, where it lost to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Seger did not perform at the ceremony; Little Richard sang “Shakedown” in his place.

2. “Lucifer,” 1970

This is Seger inventing the concept for Nirvana’s “In Bloom” video two decades in advance, though only in an accidental sense. It’s taken from a variety show of indeterminate origin, filmed (I assume) in the neighborhood of 1970. (The song kicks in at 1:35.)

Being a Seger completist (for now) requires either deep pockets or living outside the law. No matter how you get it, I suggest tracking down Mongrel, the third and final record credited to the Bob Seger System, the most prominent of Seger’s pre–Silver Bullet backing bands. (“Lucifer” is the album’s sixth track.) Mongrel came out the same year as seminal records by two other Detroit rock groups, Fun House by the Stooges and Back in the U.S.A. by the MC5. Musically, the three albums mine similar territory, though Mongrel is the one only Seger diehards remember. Fun House and Back in the U.S.A. were fashioned into battering rams to bust out of Michigan, while Mongrel ended up as a bulwark against outsiders on the coasts who were slow to recognize the genius of Seger’s backwoods dirtbag poeticism.

Bob Seger In New York

As recounted by Dave Marsh in a 1972 Creem story, Seger was already a star in Detroit’s music scene going back to the mid-’60s, recording his first local hit (1966’s “East Side Story”) when he was barely out of high school. Back then, Seger played the circuit of teen music clubs that extended into Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. His early records reflected the tastes of the working-class kids who skulked in those dingy dives with their pilfered cigarettes and clandestine bottles of booze. Huge drum breaks, fat organ fills, screaming backing vocals, gritty gospel energy — these were the components of early Seger standards like “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “2+2=?”

Seger’s first singles were released by Cameo-Parkway, a Philadelphia-based indie best-known for its association with American Bandstand and hit records by late-’50s hit makers like Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell. When Cameo-Parkway signed Seger, it was in the midst of a deep, protracted decline, and subsisting on novelty records and Midwestern garage rock of the Nuggets variety. (“96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians was one of Cameo-Parkway’s last big hits.) If Seger’s bare-knuckles rock was already out of step with late-’60s psychedelia, his record label torpedoed any possibility that he’d be accepted by the hip tastemakers of the day.

By the early ’70s, Seger had 10 top-10 hits in Detroit, and yet not a single Bob Seger track penetrated the airwaves in New York, L.A., or San Francisco. In 1966, Seger’s unofficial theme song, “Heavy Music,” sold 66,000 copies in Detroit alone, but couldn’t get a foothold anyplace else. “Bob Seger is a paradox,” Marsh wrote. “He’s been heavily influential in Michigan, yet means nothing elsewhere.”

3. “Rosalie,” 1973

“It seems like the only people who do my stuff are these really off-the-wall cats who are lookin’ for really off-the-wall stuff,” Seger told Marsh, who wanted to know why other artists at the time weren’t covering his songs.

Shortly after Seger said this, he released “Turn the Page,” subsequently covered on record or in concert by Metallica, Waylon Jennings, Kid Rock, Jamey Johnson, and 1.7 billion bar bands. Seger himself covered “Turn the Page” on his breakthrough live record, 1976’s Live Bullet, supplanting the original version from 1973’s Back in ’72 once the song’s distinctive cheddar-noir sax riff became a radio staple.

“Rosalie” is also on Back in ’72, and while it’s not nearly as iconic as “Turn the Page,” it was honored with the best-ever cover version of a Bob Seger song when Thin Lizzy reclaimed it as the leadoff track for its 1975 album, Fighting. Displaying the characteristic kindness that distinguishes all black Irish cowboys, Phil Lynott gave “Rosalie” a little extra arena-rock oomph and in the process underscored what should’ve been obvious all along: Seger was writing Bruce Springsteen songs years before Springsteen became a primary reference point for critics who would describe Fighting as a hard-rock Born to Run. In reality, Thin Lizzy proved that homegrown Detroit rock was international.

Bob Seger Performing

4. “Nutbush City Limits” (Live Bullet version), 19762

Around the 2:50 mark, Seger throws shade in front of a wildly enthusiastic audience at Cobo Arena:

AsItoldeverybodylastnight I was readin’ in Rolling Stone where [pause] they said De-troit audiences are the greatest rock-and-roll audiences in the world.” [Audience cheers for 13 seconds.] “I thought to myself, ‘Shit, I’veknownthatfor10years!

5. Later With Bob Costas, 1992

“Is ‘Night Moves,’ all things considered, your best song?” posits Costas, his usual sports-broadcaster cadence uneasily downshifted into a more casual, conversational tone reserved for serious rock talk.

“I don’t know, um,” replies Seger, age 46, his unnaturally dark hair and beard forming a quizzical question mark. “I don’t like to say this is better than that.”

Songs are like children and all that, but if “Night Moves” isn’t Seger’s best song, it was certainly his attempt to write the best rock song that had ever been written. “Night Moves” is normally classified as a nostalgic celebration of youth, and this is how it’s most commonly appreciated by the people who love it.3 But “nostalgia” is generally understood to be an uncreative reiteration of the past, and “Night Moves” isn’t a reiteration. “Night Moves” is unmistakably invented, and could’ve only been invented at the moment Seger invented it.

Seger was 31 when “Night Moves” was released — still a young man, and like a lot of young people he was obsessed with transforming the mundane details of his adolescence into something grander and more romantic than reality, so that his present tense might also achieve a little elevation. “Night Moves” is ultimately about searching your own past for a truth that might not really be there, but finding a measure of redemption in the journey regardless.

“Night Moves” played over the P.A. right before a deliriously joyous Japandroids show I saw in Chicago two years ago. The journey continues.

6. “No Man’s Land,” 1980

Most rock stars will put out a hugely successful record, become disillusioned during the support tour, and then pour those feelings into their next album, their “road” LP. But because it took so long for Bob Seger to become famous, he was already singing about being tired of being a rock singer right when people started paying attention to him. Seger’s stardom and disillusionment were simultaneous. This wariness starts to take over Seger’s music by the time of Against the Wind, one of his biggest-selling albums. The title says it all — after slugging it out in obscurity for much of his career, the suggestion was that God himself was working overtime to push Bob Seger back into nothingness.

Perhaps that explains why the pace of Seger’s music itself had slowed. As he admitted to Rolling Stone in 1983, the primitive proto-punk style of Seger’s early records had been replaced on Wind with a surfeit of romantic ballads and ponderous midlife-crisis sermons. Seger himself derisively called these songs “mediums.”

“No Man’s Land” seems at first like a Vietnam song, a sort of Deer Hunter sequel to the caustic M.A.S.H.-like satire of Seger’s earlier antiwar anthem “2+2=?” The song’s most memorable line — “Illusions without freedom / never quite add up to bliss”— appears to support this hypothesis, as does the title. But while “No Man’s Land” could be a Vietnam song, it’s also yet another rewrite of “Turn the Page,” where Seger lurks unsteadily “between the ever-restless crowds / and the silence of your room.”

By the mid-’90s, as his commercial fortunes cooled, Seger finally had had enough. He retreated to an estate outside Detroit to raise his children and didn’t record or tour for 11 years. When he reemerged with 2006’s platinum-selling Face the Promise and started playing shows again, his purpose was to keep his kids in line. “My son’s just getting ready to go to college and my daughter is a junior in high school,” Seger told Rolling Stone in 2011. “So I thought I’d set a good example and work real hard, and show them that if you’ve got a future you’ve got to work real hard for it.”

7. “Still the Same,” 1978

In a Season 2 episode of Eastbound & Down, Kenny and Vida break up and Vida serenades him with a Spanish version of “Still the Same” from Stranger in Town — one of the all-time heartbreak-iest Bob Seger ballads.

Eastbound & Down is the perfect vehicle for appreciating Bob Seger in 2014. A love song as straightforward and earnest as “Still the Same,” sung with Seger’s wounded grizzly-bear tenderness, overloads modern emotional circuitry. An arm’s-length approach is required. “Still the Same” evokes exaggerated emotions deployed in service of an exaggerated character’s outsize pathos, and yet putting them together feels intrinsically real and human.

I have no idea if Bob Seger is a “relevant” discussion topic, because I don’t know that he was ever relevant. He was a rock star for a decade in a part of the country that media elites still aren’t particularly interested in. He became a part of the machine until he and the machine mutually decided to part ways. Now he’s back where he started, in Michigan, with a bountiful discography that’s harder than ever to track down. But he can still snap necks, so long as you know where to find him. 

Illustration by Gluekit.

Filed Under: Music, Detroit Week, Bob Seger, Rolling Stone, dave marsh, stranger in town, risky business

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden

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