seger1976One never really needs a reason to write about Bob Seger, but if you are the sort of person who requires one, take the recent Gaslight Anthem record, Handwritten, which made a lot of critics’ year-end lists, including our own. People have described that band as splitting the difference between Social Distortion and Springsteen, but all I hear is Seger, glorious Seger (backed by The Replacements). I hear it in their widescreen anthems of discontent and in their unabashed American-ness, in their obvious belief in the power of rock n roll. I hear it most of all in singer Brian Fallon’s voice, which veers dangerously close to a Seger impression at times.

Of course, as good as that record is, no one is mentioning the Seger-isms on display. In most circles, it would not be a compliment. I know this because I grew up as part of a generation for whom Bob was more of a semiotic than musical presence. We knew him chiefly for two things, neither of which were particularly flattering or representative:

  1. “Old Time Rock n Roll”. A decent but heavily sanitized slice of Seger nostalgia that conjures up—immediately—images of Tom Cruise sliding around in his underwear. In other words, 80s suburbia at its most cheesy and vacuous.
  2. “Like a Rock”. Chevrolet hit a home run when they chose it as their decade-spanning jingle (one of the longest-running campaigns in history), but Bob lost more than a song – he pretty much lost a generation of non-truck-driving ears.

There were plenty of other Seger songs on the radio (“Night Moves”, “Against the Wind” and a bunch of other latter-day ballads), but the damage was done. If your identity was even remotely tied to such things as coolness, Seger was a non-starter. Plus, somewhere along the line he got labeled as a Springsteen clone–which was strange, since Bob had been around long before Bruce had begun making any waves. Suffice it to say, the music of Bob Seger makes for a fascinating study of law in relation to taste and self-image.

I was once was lost before I was found, too. I remember being shocked–shocked!—to find not one but two Seger songs on a list of desert island singles compiled by one of my favorite music critics. I had only recently come to terms with the social cost of coming out as a teenage Beach Boys fan(atic) and had been semi-relieved to discover the cadre of even snobbier Beach Boys gnostics ready to (sort of) embrace a person on the other side of that decision. But if liking The Beach Boys was like knowing a secret handshake, then admitting affection for Bob Seger was like wearing jean shorts. It was tantamount to asking to be written off as a serious person altogether (I shudder to write these words…). Plus, studio versions of the songs in question (“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and the brilliant “Get Out of Denver”) were impossible to find! I soon found out that none of Bob’s first seven records had ever made it to CD. Curious…

Fortunately, these were the days of Napster and Limewire, when file-sharing was even more of a Wild West than it is today, and before long the recordings, um, presented themselves. What I heard was thrilling, muscular, high energy and incredibly cool rock n roll/soul coming out of my speakers. I kept digging and discovered a wealth of material: “Lucifer”, “Song to Rufus”, “2 Plus 2”, “Long Song Comin’”, “Rosalie”, a killer cover of “Midnight Rider”, all of it more Animals and Stones than Springsteen, very much of a piece with Creedence, with maybe a touch more Zeppelin (they were contemporaries after all). Bob’s voice was a Detroit-sized instrument, and he really went for it, unafraid of the grunting and the growling. In fact, the tendency to overdo it was there from the beginning, but when it worked = magic. And the band smoked! I also loved the way he loaded his early records with covers—there was zero self-importance, zero hippie pretension, but neither was it strictly party music. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The crown jewels of my Seger-search were 1973’s Back in 72 and 1974’s Seven, both fully deserving of lost-classic status, with Back in 72 in particular being something of a perfect record. There’s simply not a weak song on it. The title track may be my all-time favorite Seger recording: funky, clever, driving, both funny and desperate. And the original studio version of “Turn the Page” has so much more grit and weariness than the live one that’s played on the radio. The records were so good that it was not unlike a churchgoer hearing the message of grace for the first time. That is, the elation of stumbling onto this terrific music begged the slightly indignant question of why I had never heard it before. Where had I been? Or more precisely, where had it been?

Here’s where things get both frustrating and fascinating: all signs point to Bob actively not wanting these records in circulation and opposing any plans to get them out. Were they to become available again, they would spell the beginning of his popular rehabilitation (relatively speaking). Though I doubt he cares much about hipster approval, still, what reason could he have for essentially erasing this stuff, especially when so many of his fans agree that it’s wonderful? He has only hinted at his thinking in interviews, citing technological limitations and flubbed performances. But I can’t believe that’s the whole story. There’s just too much money on the table.

Who knows, maybe Bob associates his early period with commercial failure and doesn’t want to be reminded of it. Maybe he associates it with a version of himself or a time in his personal life that embarrasses or alienates him. Maybe there’s someone who would benefit financially that he’d rather not give that opportunity. Maybe he’s aware that his style shifted somewhat (not completely) around 1975, is more comfortable with Seger Mach II and doesn’t want to confuse people. Maybe all Bob hears are the mistakes when he listens to it. Or maybe there’s something genuinely self-sabotaging going on. Probably a little of each. But clearly he cares enough not to sit back in his Tigers jersey and Wilfred Brimley glasses and collect royalty checks.

There were rumors flying around last year that the floodgates were on the verge of opening he allowed “Early Bob Seger, Vol I” to be released. But enthusiasm waned when the compilation turned out to be just ten tracks, only half of which qualified as “early”, and a few of which had been overdubbed to distraction. It only thickened the plot.

Oddly enough, the key to reconciliation with his past might lie in one of the out-of-print songs in question, “Song for Him” from 1971’s acoustic Brand New Morning. As far as I know it’s Seger’s only tune explicitly about Jesus, and while a tad overwrought, the sentiment (and spirit) is a comforting one: that someone might show Bob–past, present and future–more grace than he could ever show himself. You know, like a Rock.

I’ve been lonely but not lonelier than Him
I’ve been lonely but not lonelier than Him
When I’m lonely still I know
He’ll forgive me yes it’s so
I’ve been lonely but not lonelier than Him

Bob Seager System plays Mount Holly for Johnny Irons &<br />WTAC-AM Radio FlintI’ve been sorry not sorrier than Him
I’ve been sorry not sorrier than Him
When I’m sorry I remember
That he loves me
And I’m better
I’ve been sorry not sorrier than Him

It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong
It doesn’t matter if I’m right
He’s with me at the break of dawn
He’s every star that shines at night

I’ve been happy but not happier than Him
I’ve been happy but not happier than Him
When I’m happy skies are blue
I forget him still it’s true
I’ve been happy but not happier than Him
But not sorrier than Him
But not lonelier than Him

This post is dedicated to Vince Sacco.