By Ken Sharp
A 73-year-old Bob Seger is in the middle of his Farewell tour, signifying the finish of a spectacular performing career. In 2019, Bob Seger remains one of rock music’s most enduring artists boasting a rich catalog of signature classics in permanent rotation on Classic Rock radio nationwide. He’s a master showman, singer and songwriter whose blue-collar Detroit roots resonate with the hopes, dreams and struggles of the everyman. Join us for a conversation with Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame icon, Bob Seger.
You weren’t an overnight sensation, it took a good ten years or more before you made it. What kept you going all of those years in the face of all the obstacles you faced?
Bob Seger:I had some small successes along the way like “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and then we had local singles that did well. We were able to play 800 to thousand seaters and fill ‘em. So we were able to make a little bit of money. I remember looking at my income tax form from 1972 and I think I made $8200 and we probably played 200 shows. (laughs) And then I probably spent $7000 of it on equipment. (laughs) I just felt that people liked us. No matter where we played we never got a tepid reaction. I was always a high energy act and we rocked and people that liked rock and roll liked us. It’s as simple as that. I felt like a success because the crowds liked us. We didn’t have the record company interest that we wanted. I guess at that point I wasn’t much of a songwriter because I played all the time. I didn’t have any time to write songs. I can’t tell you how disillusioned I got and how tired I got of not making it but I never gave up. After everybody had gone and the venues were empty, I remember some nights looking back at stages when I was so disillusioned and said, “You’re not gonna chase me off, that’s stage and I’ll be back next time.” My bass player, Chris Campbell and I drove many many miles together. He’s one who’s been with me the longest in the Silver Bullet Band.
You built your reputation opening for such acts as BTO and KISS.
Seger: In ’73 and early ’74 before we did the Live Bulletshows, so many of the opening acts we played with were so nice to us, people like BTO and KISS. They got us on the big stages and we got our feet wet in front of huge audiences, and got used to the sound. Before that we were playing much smaller places. (laughs) I’ll never forget playing with KISS in Philadelphia. We used to start with two, three songs in a row and try to get the crowd on our side by really hitting them hard with some good stuff. After the third song, instead of (imitates loud cheering) “Yay!!,” it was more of, "KISS, KISS, KISS!!” (laughs). There was some cheering but it was also, “Let’s get to the other guys.” (laughs). They had some really avid fans. The big thing we had to worry about was losing our hearing. We’d go watch KISS do the first couple of songs and we had to find out where the explosions and pyrotechnics were (laughs) so we weren’t damaged (laughs). I was very fearful of losing my hearing. Playing with KISS was very helpful to us. We were able to get in front of huge audiences. When people ask me “What was it like opening for KISS?,” I always tell them that they were the nicest guys. They were fair. Even if they were running behind, they made sure we got a sound check, which was unusual. They were really really good to us. I thought the KISS show was really strong. I’m always still cheering for them, I’m happy they’re still doing well. I’ve always told anybody who will listen, from Kid Rock to the Eagles, you take care of your audience by showing up and you continually show up. And KISS does that really well. They keep going out and people wanna see you and if you show up they are so grateful. If you care about your fans and you show up, you’re gonna be beloved. I think that’s the way it is with KISS. They’ve had that army since ’75 and they have treated them well. It’s a great lesson. A lot of people get big and don’t want to tour. That’s the wrong way to do it. Serve your audience. They can tell when you care about them. KISS were like me, they weren’t a super gifted musician like John Lennon. They worked hard to come up with their hooks and they deserve all the success they got. KISS knows what their audience want, and they deliver it. If it was easy everybody would do it. Anybody who slams them has never done it. I totally respect them. They’re the best at what they do, history has proven that.
The record that broke you nationally was Live Bullet, which reflected what you did best.
Seger: We were definitely a better live act than we were making records. Basically Live Bullet, which was done in September of ’75 and came out sometime in ’76, was just the Beautiful Loser album live. “Katmandu,” Beautiful Loser,” Travelin’ Man,” “I’ve Been Workin’” are all off of the Beautiful Loser album We also did “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” “Let It Rock” and “Turn The Page”, which was from an album called Back In ’72, which came out before Beautiful Loser. It was everything we’d done up into that time. In ’73 we did 265 shows. You play 265 shows in 365 days and you’re gonna be pretty tight as a band. When we finally hit at Cobo Hall, we were snappin’ tight. We were ready to be heard as a live band. I had no idea if Live Bullet would be successful. I’d heard my stuff so much I had no objectivity. Of course, the Frampton Comes Alive thing had come very close to that and had done huge numbers as had KISS Alive! So I was hoping it would be successful. Live Bullet went platinum in six months. Then Night Moves came out about six months after that and they both went platinum on the same day. And suddenly we were off and runnin’.
Knowing that you had a national audience at that point, as a songwriter did that instill more confidence into you?
Seger: What it gave me was the ability to look at my record company and my manager and say, “Okay, we’ve reached this level. Now leave me alone for six months because I have to write good songs.” Not songs that I wrote on a bus or in a station wagon (laughs). I need to take my time and develop my craft.
With the Night Moves and Stranger In Town albums, did you sense that you were on a creative roll?
Seger: Yeah, definitely plus I was always in contact with my best friends in music, The Eagles and was hearing Henley’s writing and I’m saying, “God, this is great!” Then Leonard Cohen came along with “Suzanne” and all that great stuff so I picked up on him. I’ve listened to Joni Mitchell since ’67 when Tom Rush was doing her songs like “The Circle Game.” Then there was Paul Simon and so many other great songwriters. Those are my influences and my heroes and they all inspired me. I just wanted to write really good songs.
You often write about characters in your songs. What inspired that mode of writing?
Seger: I think narratively I really admired people like Kris Kristofferson. You listen to something like “Me & Bobby McGee” and you know those characters. You know what they’re like. Or a song of his like “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” You know that those people are living the road life or living the blues. I really admired that. Of course (Bob) Dylan was a huge influence on everybody.
The riff for “Satisfaction” came to Keith Richards in a dream. Have there been any songs that arrived like a gift?
Seger: The closet one is probably “Hollywood Nights” because I usually have a guitar or a keyboard nearby. It’s very seldom that I’m driving in a car and something rolls into my head and that song did. I was out in Los Angeles and I was just beginning to record Stranger In Town. I had a house out in the Hollywood Hills just above La Cienega on Miller above Sunset Strip. I could see the city from my house. I’d be driving up there in the Hollywood Hills just driving along and then suddenly (recites lyrics), “Hollywood nights, Hollywood Hills, above all the lights, Hollywood nights.” It just came right into my head. So I turned right around and drove home (laughs) and I’m singing this in my head thinkin’, “Don’t forget it, don’t forget it! Don’t turn on the radio!” (laughs) I get home and I sing it into my little cassette recorder. Okay, that’s a good start. It’s high energy and it’s gonna be fun and the girls are gonna sing it like crazy (Laura Creamer and Shaun Murphy). I’ve been singing with these gals for the last 38 years, ever since “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and they’re gonna nail it. That was one that came out of nowhere.
Many songwriters explain that writing a rocker is much more difficult than penning a ballad.
Seger: It is. A song like “Rock ‘N Roll Never Forgets” is just slammin’. When we play that song live people go nuts. At that point in my life I was 31 years old and as you know the first 10 or 11 years in my career I was makin’ six, eight grand a year (laughs) and just doin’ it because I loved the music. So I’m writing for Night Moves and I just felt grateful. Here I am and I’m starting to make it. You know, rock and roll never forgets. You build up goodwill over ten years and you set the stage. “Rock ‘N Roll Never Forgets” is a grateful song. I’m grateful to all the people I played for in those small clubs, on the top of cafeteria tables standing and playing in a cafeteria (laughs), in gymnasiums and in hockey rinks. Suddenly all those people came out and bought my records and said, “I remember him. I saw him at the high school or hockey rink.” Jimmy Iovine used to tell me, “The hardest thing to find is a rock and roll hit.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Think about it. If an artist is looking for a hit they put out a ballad.” I’ve had hits with rockers and ballads. I think writing a rocker might be harder because it’s so familiar for us. When you’re a rock act and you go out and play at night, maybe you take those rockers for granted. You might think, Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday” and Bob Dylan wrote “Blowing in the Wind,” I wanna write a song like that and then I’ll have a hit record. That’s not necessarily true. A good example is my friend, Kid Rock. I said, “What’s the hardest song for you to write?” And he said, “A good rap song because I’m so close to it.” It’s very hard to write something that sounds fresh.
“Turn The Page” was famously covered by Metallica. Tell us the back story behind that song.
Seger: I never thought that song would last as long as it has. That’s one of the songs we must play or people get very agitated. If we don’t play that the fans are definitely disappointed. That song captured something. It’s me in the ninth year of those ten struggling years. I wrote “Turn the Page” in 1971. It was the eight or ninth year of that ten year period where I was going nowhere fast when I wrote “Turn the Page.” I was in one of those Holiday Inn’s where you open the door and you’re outside, remember those? (laughs) They used to have these rooms with these little rotten air conditioners and that’s where we’d stay and there’s be one or two beds and we’d be bunking together. I’m in the bathroom with an acoustic guitar picking “Turn the Page.” The night before we’d been harassed at a truck stop in Wisconsin at two in the morning by some salesmen who kept calling us “girls” because we all had long hair. So we left because we didn’t want to get into a fight and become some police report. The next night I’m sitting there singing, (recite lyric) “On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha. You can listen to the engine moanin’ out it’s one note song…Well you walk into a restaurant all strung out from the road. And you feel the eyes upon you as you’re shakin’ off the cold. You pretend it doesn’t bother you but you just ant to explode….” I was thinking about how these people hate you because of the way you look and how unreasonable it is. That became part of it but the bigger thing I think was the real weariness of the road and I tried to capture that. I think I captured it for truck drivers. I think I captured it for traveling businessmen. And I think I just captured it for people who have to travel a lot and just plain miss home or family or both. I never thought that we’d have to play it over and over and over. I thought “Turn the Page” was too down of a subject matter and that no one is gonna want to hear it. But it’s real and it’s a portion of people’s lives.
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, February 23, 2019,
The Forum, Inglewood, California
Celebrating over five decades in music, Detroit rocker and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame icon Bob Seger and his Silver Bullet Band delivered a powerful and passionate old school styled performance that generated kinetic excitement among the packed crowd inside the Forum in Inglewood, California. This was a special night as loyal acolytes and new supporters gathered one last time to experience the majesty of Bob Seger in concert on his Farewell tour.
A well respected elder statesman of rock, Seger’s no frills presentation drew from a timeless body of work yielding 23 songs that cherry picked heavily from his ‘70s and ‘80s commercial stronghold on the music charts and FM radio airwaves nationwide.
From the rollicking show opener “Shakedown,” which set the tone, Seger and The Silver Bullet Band treated the SRO audience to a raucous, heartfelt and fun-filled romp that traversed through a rich catalog of smash hits and FM rock perennials, “The Fire Down Below,” “Turn The Page,” “Beautiful Loser,” “Come To Poppa,” “Still The Same,” “Mainstreet,” “Old Time Rock & Roll,” “Hollywood Nights,” and “Against The Wind” among others. Several songs were showcased that haven’t been played for decades, notably “Shame On The Moon,” marking the first time it’s been performed on tour in 28 years, and “You’ll Accompany Me.”
Embarking on his final tour, watching tonight’s show there’s clearly no dust on this veteran heartland rocker. Tonight’s show boasted a set list crammed with countless hits and revered FM radio cuts that would be the dream catalog for any aspiring rocker.
Clapping and prancing around the stage, arms aloft exhorting both the crowd and his fellow band members, Seger looked like he was having the time of his life. As Seger and The Silver Bullet Band kicked into “Old Time Rock & Roll,” the entire arena erupted and were on its feet, hot wired into the song’s nostalgic celebration of the good old days of rock and roll. “Her Strut,” introduced by Seger as the “most played song of 1980,” rode on a sturdy, bluesy groove while an elegant rendition of “Like A Rock” was given new meaning with the artist remarking it was a song he wrote on ’83 thinking about his high school days in ‘63 when he was a cross country runner and how he felt after working out.
In terms of a stage production, a Seger show is not a visual extravaganza built of dazzling technology. A streamlined production shone the spotlight on what mattered most, the music itself, which was tonight’s main attraction--meat and potatoes rock and roll embodying the dreams, struggles and ambitions of the blue-collar brigade. In songs like “Night Moves,” “Beautiful Loser,” “Mainstreet” and countless others, Seger’s music demonstrated a hard won authenticity with evocative lyrics reflecting the everyman. Prefacing an impassioned rendering of “We’ve Got Tonight,” which featured Seger’s performance of the song on piano, he remarked, “this song was my mother’s favorite song. She passed away in ‘89 and we’ve been doing it ever since.” That tangible tug of emotion was on display the entire night and resonating particularly on songs like “Mainstreet,” “Still The Same” and “Shame On The Moon.” Tapping deeper into that emotion, a battery of cell phones were held aloft lighting the interior of The Forum during a delicate reading of “Turn The Page,” the audience connecting with the somber deep reservoir of blue heartbreak of the song, the sold out crowd is with him every step of the way.
Near the end of the set, Seger dedicated “Forever Young” to his treasured friend, fellow Detroit rocker Glenn Frey, championing the song as being written by who he considers the “Mount Everest of songwriters, Bob Dylan.” The stately interpretation featured a moving big screen display of images of late music icons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, BB King, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty, Gregg Allman, Prince and Frey.
The final song of the main set found Seger winding the wayback machine back 50 years and kickin’ out the jams “Motor City” style with the raw gritty amphetamine soul of “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man;” Prior to playing the tune, Seger revealed to the crowd that Glenn Frey sang background vocals on the original record.
Returning to the stage for two dynamic encores, a five-song goodbye, “In Your Time,” “Against The Wind,” “Hollywood Nights, “Night Moves” and a barnstorming “Rock & Roll Never Forgets,”(where he craftily changed the lyrics to “so now sweet sixteen’s turned seventy-three!“) Seger left it all on the stage. There was no sadness among the crowd as the final notes of “Rock & Roll Never Forgets” rang out through the SRO arena, only joy in witnessing a life-affirming celebration of a spectacular musical legacy.