For Bob Seger, Bernie Sanders, and me
I got intrigued by the idea of Seger via a Marsh piece in Creem, ca. '71, that chronicled his early run of local hit singles which meant little to nothing elsewhere (although "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" charted nationally, contrary to the claims of the local oldies station DJ that he couldn't play it because it "wasn't a hit," when I called requesting it every single night for an entahr summer, 1972). My first Seger acquisition was the Capitol Starline 45 of "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" b/w "2+2=?" -- basically the two best songs off his debut Capitol LP, originally to be titled Tales of Lucy Blue but changed when "RGM" took off. The first song's a bit of testosterone-fueled braggadocio worthy of James Brown or the early Who, propelled by the most moronic beat imaginable and sung by Seger with tonsil-tearing aplomb that's less imposing than JB's or Wilson Pickett's, but a lot more organic than, say, Steve Marriott's (whom I love, but yeah).
Of the three great white rockaroll voices to come out of the hothouse of '60s Detroit -- Mitch Ryder and Scott Morgan being the other two; we could argue about Rob Tyner, but not here -- Seger was the one who wrote great material that it was easy for folks to relate to. Thus, "2+2=?," a '68 hit in Detroit and nowhere else, was a protest against the war in Vietnam couched in the language of the kind of young working class kid most vulnerable to the draft. The song represents an evolution in thinking from the Beach Bums' "The Ballad of the Yellow Beret," a taunt aimed at draft dodgers that was one of Seger's "starter records," recorded under the auspices of Doug (aka Fontaine) Brown -- himself a protege of Detroit's first great rockarolla, Del Shannon -- in whose band Seger played organ before going out on his own. Seger's own thought process is reflected by the protagonist in "Leaning On My Dream," a song on his 1970 Mongrel LP, who starts out wary of an antiwar protester who accosts him in the street but winds up on the picket line himself after receiving his draft notice. Probably an evolution more than a few of his listeners went through as well. (Mitch Ryder's great antiwar song wouldn't be released until 1980. Scott Morgan's Powertrane covered "2+2=?" in 2009.)
Besides the scabrous "Ballad," Seger's early singles were all over the map, and included "East Side Story," which starts out like a Them "I Can Only Give You Everything" rip before unfolding into a teen crime melodrama to rival the Everly Brothers' earlier "Man With Money" as well as Scott Morgan's later "16 With a Bullet;" "Persecution Smith," an evocation of Bringing It All Back Home Dylan that reminds these feedback-scorched ears just how close prime electric Bob's cadence was to Muhammad Ali's; "Heavy Music," which wasn't a proto-Zep like you might have thought reading Marsh's scrawl, but rather, a full-blown Motown number, the second take of which ("Part 2") contained the immortal line, "NSU, SRC / Stevie Winwood got nothin' on me!," and the unbeatable Christmas novelty "Sock It To Me Santa." All of the above are included in a bootleg double LP, Michigan Brand Nuggets, that I originally got wind of via Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids discography back in '93, when it was still the only place you could find all the pre-Elektra MC5 singles, and recently found in reissue form thanks to a Michigan-based bud. (The rara avis of early Seger remains "Vagrant Winter," a galloping slice of garage punk psychedelia in the manner of Love's "7 and 7 Is.")
The ringer on Michigan Brand Nuggets is "Looking Back," another political song but in Seger's mature style, released on Capitol in '71 (although never included on any official album). The lyrics -- sort of a Michigan Everykid's version of "If 6 Was 9" -- include lines that remain topical today, unfortunately ("When they could vote, and end the war / They're much too busy fittin' locks upon the back door"). Those sentiments are a continuation of the themes on Mongrel, every bit the equal of MC5's High Time and Steppenwolf's Monster as a socially conscious hard rock LP (how many more of those are there?) and my pick for Seger's best album. But where the 'wolf's music was informed by folk and blues forms, and the Five's introduced Chuck Berry chug -- in '71, still the trope that signified the regressive tendency in rockaroll -- to their formerly adventurous music (listen to "Sister Anne" and "The Human Being Lawnmower" back to back and you'll hear what I mean), Seger's tunes on Mongrel are hard-edged, riff-driven, and as archetypally early '70s as, say, Cactus. Just listen to the percolating boogie that propels "Highway Child," with more still-relevant lyrics ("Think it's time we got together and declared / But when you see 'em comin', man, you get so scared"), or the modified John Lee Hooker that underpins "Teachin' Blues" and its more hedonistic message.
Elsewhere on Mongrel, "Evil Edna" is a character-based song that predicts early Springsteen, "Lucifer" is a worthy followup to "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," and "Big River" is a prototype for Seger's '76 breakout song "Night Moves." Just 86 the homespun philosophy, and replace it with a little sexual nostalgia. The live version of "River Deep, Mountain High" that closes the album, while not as great as Deep Purple's Vanilla Fudge-ization of Tina Turner's Spectorsound apotheosis, isn't as embarrassing as Eric Burdon's fawning, masturbatory tribute to thatun, either.
After Mongrel and "Looking Back" failed to hit nationally, Seger broke up his System, cut a contract-fulfilling acoustic album, Brand New Morning, and hooked up with the organ-drums duo Teegarden and Van Winkle and ex-Bobby Bland guitarist Mike Bruce (not the Alice Cooper guy) to cut an album of mostly covers, Smokin' O.P.'s, that included the single version of "Heavy Music," making the song available to the LP buying public outside Michigan for the first time. (This was the unit that famously performed at the John Sinclair benefit where John Lennon and Yoko Ono also appeared.) The follow-up, Back In '72, featured backing by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and cast Seger in the mold of Van Morrison (whose "I've Been Working" he covered here) or Joe Cocker in his Mad Dogs and Englishmen phase. Besides good covers of Gregg Allman's "Midnight Rider" and Free's "The Stealer," Back In '72 is also noteworthy for the presence of good new Seger songs: the title track; "Rosalie," a paean to Canadian radio station CKLW's music director Rosalie Trombley (later covered by Thin Lizzy, speaking of Van Morrison-alikes); and the journeyman rocker's odyssey "Turn the Page," which became a staple of Seger's live shows during his money-making period. Curiously, Seger hates the album and has kept it from being released on CD. I've long maintained that with this album and his early singles out of catalog, he and his manager Punch Andrews are leaving money on the table. Their loss is used record dealers' and bootleggers' gain.
With 1974's Seven, Seger found a backing unit (the Silver Bullet Band) and a formula (ballads mixed with Berryesque rockers) that worked, leading inexorably to the mainstream success of Night Moves, Stranger In Town, and Against the Wind. I got off the bus there, but have always seen his success as a result of his innate ability to reflect in song the struggles and dreams of the often inarticulate working folk who've been taking it in the shorts through the Age of Inequality here in America the last 30 years or so. I'll be thinking of Seger as I watch the results of the presidential primary in his state this Tuesday. Will his fellow Michiganders be looking back, or will it be a brand new morning?