Bob Seger Faces a promise of a reborn career
Nov. 8, 2006Editors Note: When Bob Seger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March of 2004, Express contributing editor Rick Coates wrote a piece about the ceremony and interviewed Mick Jagger, Prince, Bob Dylan and others about Seger. At the end of that article we promised you an interview with Seger, yet like a Seger album, these sorts of things take time. So after two years Seger sat down with Coates for 90 minutes to reflect on a 40-year career, the music industry today, a possible Super Seger Album with 60 songs on it and the importance of the time he spends in Northern Michigan. Coates also looks at Seger albums in 4Play and offers a toast to the Michigan rocker in Bottoms Up/Tastemakers.
Early buyouts have become pretty common in Michigan in recent years, and it appeared in 1995 that rocker Bob Seger, at the age of 50, was doing the same; taking an early buyout from the music industry. The Chevrolet Like A Rock commercials provided a nice pension check. In 1994 Seger released a greatest hits album that would stay on the charts forever, selling more than eight million copies. So his buyout was in the seven figures. It seemed to Seger fans that he was done.
But nothing about Bob Segers career has been conventional. He was a regional hit during the 60s and as his 30th birthday came and went, it seemed reaching a national audience was slipping away. At the age of 33 he finally hit the big time, and from the mid-70s until the early 80s Seger, along with fellow Michigan rocker Ted Nugent, dominated the tour circuit and the airwaves.
In the 1980s when rockers started using hairspray and wearing Spandex, Seger cut his hair and wore sport coats for photo shoots. Despite not adopting the style of the day in looks or in sound, Seger remained successful. In 1983 Tom Cruise danced around in his underwear, lip-syncing Segers Old Time Rock and Roll in the movie Risky Business, connecting Seger with a new generation of fans. Seger also released several albums in the early 80s that did well on the charts.
By the end of the 80s he began to slow down. After 1986 he would only tour one more time and would only release two more studio albums. It appeared that the guy who defied the rock and roll age rule was seeing his age finally catching up to him.
OUT OF SIGHT
So Seger dropped out of sight. There were rumors of throat cancer; speculation began that he might never record or tour again. He would be spotted at an occasional Pistons game or on the golf course, and he made the headlines by winning the Port Huron to Mackinac sailboat race in 2001 and 2002.
It appeared that Seger had abdicated his throne as King of the Detroit Rock and Roll Royal Family, and he was handing things over to his favorite son, Kid Rock.
Then one night in November of 2003 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame called to tell him that he had been elected to join the greats. Everything changed. Seger was making headlines again for his music. Speculation resumed about a tour and new album.
This time speculation became a reality, and in September Seger released a new album after an 11-year absence. The critics have praised Face the Promise. Then on David Letterman, Seger announced he was going to tour again and that the first concert would be in Grand Rapids. When tickets went on sale, they sold out in four minutes, so a second show was added, and that also sold out in minutes, as did the show in Saginaw.
It appears that Seger is back -- though he says he never went away he was just busy raising his kids and had been writing songs all along. The question now: Is Seger back for good?
No article is capable of completely capturing the career and life of Bob Seger. Forty years is a lot to try to pack in. So I have opted to not delve into history, and rather present Seger in his own words. However, there is a great site online that is the authority on everything you would ever want to know about Bob Seger. Scott Sparling of Oregon -- originally from Michigan and who still summers here in the north on an occasion -- has compiled this definitive site. Sparling is an excellent writer and offers excellent commentary on Segers career, music, tours, albums and insights into the legendary Seger Song Vault. Sparling even poked fun at me in a 2001 entry over some semantics in one of my articles. So if you want more Seger visit www.segerfile.com.
NE: Okay, your fans want to know if they are going to have to wait another 11 years for the next album?
Bob Seger (laughs): I hope not. The way I work, and lets say if I start next summer (2007) on another album, it will take me at least two years to do it. I am so hard on myself as a songwriter. I never really know the answer because songwriting is so mysterious. You never know when the songs are going to come. So I write a lot of them and that keeps me from getting blocked up. I never get what they call writers block because I write all the time. When the song writing gods are with me, thats when the next album will come together, and I cant predict when that is going to happen.
NE: There is this rumor that a Seger Song Vault exists and it is loaded
Seger: Its not a rumor. I have 700 songs in the vault with 300 recorded. One of these days I am going to have to take the time and play all these tapes and hope they dont fall apart. I have had this vision of creating an album called Everything and release 60 songs at once. I have this great song, Stranger In Town, that wasnt on the album of the same name. There are outtakes from Live Bullet that people havent heard. I have old Albert King songs I have recorded. These are all things that I want people to hear some day. It just seems that I am always working on the next project and I love to song write, so this project goes to the back burner and all this stuff stays in the vault. But maybe someday I will get to it.
NE: You are often mentioned in the same sentence with Springsteen, Dylan and Mellencamp -- is there anyone else out there that you feel a musical kinship with?
Seger: This will probably surprise a lot of people but I think I am a lot like Pete Townshend of The Who. He wont put an album out unless it feels good to him. Look, I took only 11 years; he waited 26 years (referring to the new Who studio album released last week). I pattern myself after Pete in a lot of ways. We both have Taurus birthdays and we are both headstrong.
He is very proud of The Who and he wants everything that he puts out to be up to The Who standard. That is how I feel;
you cant put a timetable on making something right.
NE: The day after the Hall of Ceremonies Bob Dylan was in Detroit. He came out for an encore -- he didnt say anything -- he just played Get Out of Denver. Friends of mine at the show said everyone was amazed and people walked out buzzing, saying to each other, Wow, Dylan knows Seger tunes. In an interview with Dylan, he said you are among the best songwriters and he is an admirer of your style. How do you respond to that?
Seger: Wow, coming from the best, that is pretty cool (Seger chuckles, somewhat embarrassed). Dylan use to come to our shows on occasion. Once we were playing Toronto and he came out to the show after just touring Australia. The first thing Dylan said to me was, We played Fire Down Below in Australia and they loved it. It blew me away to think that with all of his great songs, he was playing one of mine.
NE: So do you keep tabs on whats out there musically? Anyone you find interesting?
Seger: I am like everyone else -- I like discovering someone no one has ever heard of. For me that person is Mark Broussard, a young guy from Lousiana. I was on Alice Coopers radio program recently and Coop said Okay your plane is going down and you can listen to one last song
- what would it be? I said Home by Mark Broussard; its a screaming country Cajun blues thing. He sings it so well. He is my choice as best male vocalist of the year. Its discovering stuff by guys like Broussard that keep me going. I use to be able to sing like that; I cant anymore but I am doing my best -- but boy can that Broussard sing. I really like his sound and style (check out Mark Broussard at www.islandrecords.com).
NE: Speaking of style and sound, Rolling Stone wrote about Face The Promise: Seger fearlessly remains Seger. You have remained true to your sound, unlike many who try to adapt to whatever style is popular at the moment.
Seger: I love that quote. Because that is all I have ever tried to be is simply to be me. I couldnt try and be something else; it wouldnt sound right, the fans would see right through it. There is a certain music sensibility that I have. I like a blues-based rock guitar. I read something eight years ago that Tom Petty said: We are Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and we sound the way we do because all we try to do is sound like us and to do it a little better each time. I view it that way. I am not going to do rap or other things because it just wouldnt sound true. I think Dylan has the same philosophy; he doesnt try and reinvent himself he just tries to do it a little better each time.
NE: The economics of the industry work against you though when you take that approach. Had you released Face The Promise 25 years ago, it would be platinum by now. There seems to be a dismissive approach in the industry: Oh its Seger -- he is one of the godfathers -- we will play him for a couple of weeks and move on. Doesnt that frustrate you?
Seger: Yes, youre exactly right. Especially because radio is so fractured. Play lists are so tight that its a hard thing for people like Dylan, Petty and the Eagles and even Springsteen to get play on anything new we release. We are considered classic so when we release something new, formatted stations wont play us, or were relegated to adult contemporary. I look each week at our spins and they are going down, not up. We released Wait For Me in August but a guy at Capitol told me it might not be a hit until Christmas. He told me that is how slow adult contemporary is. It is so different today and you have to mentally prepare yourself for that. So you wait patiently and hope that something busts out. I look at Rocks album Cocky for inspiration, and for eight months it did okay and then Picture came out and the album sold four million copies. So that is my private little hope that someone will grab onto one little cut and will play it a lot, and the album will catch on.
NE: Do you secretly have a cut you are hoping for, and how do you rank Face The Promise with your previous works?
Seger: Songs such as Simplicity and Between that are not getting airplay, and I love them. The songs Face the Promise and Are You are other personal favorites. I think youre right -- if this album would have been released in 1980, I would have 1,500 stations around the country playing these songs. Back in 1980 we were the most played band on radio, and Her Strut was the most played song of the year on what use to be called Album Oriented Radio (AOR). I have the plaque in my basement over my fireplace, winning the award for the most played song. Face The Promise is a collective of my influences. I grew up listening to WLAC in Nashville, hearing all this great R&B like James Brown, The Tams, Garnett Mims, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Sam & Dave. Plus, the Motor City Gospel hour I would watch when I was growing up. All of this has had little places in my musical sensibilities. If you listen to the song No Matter Who
You Are, it is almost gospel, but it is country and rock and roll, so it really is all three. If you listen to Simplicity, it is straight R&B.
NE: Seger sightings in Northern Michigan are legendary. You must be up here a lot? How much has Northern Michigan shaped your writing?
Seger: People see my brother George and they think it is me. He lives in Traverse City. But I love Northern Michigan and with the money I made from the Night Moves album, I bought a place in Good Hart (near Harbor Springs). It is still there and we go there as often as possible. It is so tiny that we are renovating it so the kids may have their own bedrooms. But the place is great and it is on Lake Michigan and we love it up there. We go to Traverse City a lot to visit my brother and we have lots of friends in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
Northern Michigan has played a role and influenced my songwriting. I am very much an outdoor guy. I use outdoor metaphors in a lot of my songs. Northern Michigan is my outdoor place. I go up there and sit and stare at Lake Michigan for hours and read books. I love riding my motorcycle around Northern Michigan and sailing. I am 12 handicap and this album dominated everything, so I only played a couple of times this year, and as a matter of fact my sailboat went in the water in April but I didnt take it out sailing until September.
NE: Okay, so maybe another album in two to three years; what about touring in the future?
Seger: I am 61 so I dont know. After the three Michigan shows I am going to sit down with my manager and have a pow-wow and he is going to ask me: Do you feel physically up to it? Do you think you should do this past New Years? If I do then we will announce the second half, which will be another 16 to 18 dates all around the country in the major markets. If I say no, we will finish in Detroit and that may be it. I honestly dont know how I will feel until I do three shows. This work is physically taxing. They say 60 is the new 40, but for me I like to say 61 is the new 59. Right around Christmas - New Years we will do four shows in Detroit and if I continue after New Years, we will close with a couple of shows at Joe Louis. I feel great -- yes I still smoke -- but I went through several medical tests including six big ones, and the doctors have given me the go-ahead, so we will see.
NE: How about a sneak peak into the set list for the tour?
Seger: We have been messing around with Ramblin, Gamblin Man; I havent played that song in 26 years and it sounds amazing. It is so much fun to do. There are must do songs like Old Time, Turn The Page, Night Moves, Main Street, Rock and Roll Never Forgets, and Katmandu. I dont want to disappoint anybody, so we are going to do all that stuff, and we plan to throw some things out there that they dont expect. At this point what I have to do is be ready if Kid Rock shows up in Grand Rapids or if Patty Loveless walks in I have to be ready for her. We have been rehearsing seven hours a day, six days a week for the past six weeks, so we know everything on the record. We wont do all 12 because I think that would be too much for people to take, but we will do six or seven off Face The Promise.