73-year-old Bob Seger is in the middle of his farewell tour, signifying the finish of a spectacular performing career that has led him to the status he is today of an undisputed rock and roll legend.
In 2019, Seger remains one of rock’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 & Roll Hall Of Fame icon, Bob Seger.
Rock Cellar: When did you realize music was the only thing you wanted to do with your life?
Bob Seger: It hit me when I was really young. I remember in Ann Arbor high school my best friends were so envious of me. They said, “You know exactly what you want to do,” and they had no clue what they wanted to do. When I was 15 years old I played my first gig at the junior prom. I was a sophomore in 10th grade. But I actually played the 11th grade prom and that was the first time I was ever on stage. It was just me, a guitar player and a drummer, and that was it. We had didn’t even have a bass player. (laughs) I was the singer.
We did songs like “Peggy Sue,” “Summertime,” Elvis and Fats Domino songs.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about your musical roots.
Bob Seger: I grew up in Ann Arbor. I’d listen to this R&B station, WLAC, and I’d hear Wilson Pickett and James Brown. I’d go to James Brown concerts. That’s purely an energy and soul influence and blues and R&B. I tried to sing like those guys. In the case of a song like “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” (Don) Henley said, “It’s not really all that great a song but your voice makes it sound like a great song.”
I actually sat at a drum kit and wrote that drum beat. I sat there and figured out how to do it. I wanted to have a slammin’ high-hat, I want the beat on the two and the four. What do I do with the kick drum? (imitates kick drum) It took me five hours to syncopate it (laughs) I’m driving myself crazy. Then I taught my drummer saying, “This is what I want you to play” and it took him another five hours to learn how to do it. The basis of “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” is the drum beat.
Rock Cellar: 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 1,000-seat venues 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 stage, 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.
Rock Cellar: You built your reputation opening for such acts as BTO and KISS.
Bob Seger: In 1973 and early ’74 before we did the Live Bullet shows, 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 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.
Rock Cellar: The record that broke you nationally was Live Bullet, which reflected what you did best.
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’.
Rock Cellar: Knowing that you had a national audience at that point, as a songwriter did that instill more confidence into you?
Bob 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.
Rock Cellar: Did your writing change at that point?
Bob Seger: I think so. Glenn Frey, who’d made it with The Eagles before Beautiful Loser, heard the initial tracks for the album. Incidentally, Glenn Frey sang background on “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” that’s how old a friendship we had. He was a big booster of mine. He even told me when The Eagles first started out, even before they were backing up Linda Ronstadt, they were playing a few songs of mine like “Lucifer” and “Big River.”
Glenn came back after he made it big with “Take It Easy” and the first Eagles album and he listened to the songs on Beautiful Loser and said, “Now you’re starting to write. Now you’re starting to get it.” He said, “Now you take your time. Take the time it takes to write good songs.” He was kind of my mentor, even though he was three or four years younger than me.
With Glenn, the son became the father in a way. I said, “You’re right, I’ve gotta sit down and take my time and write better songs.” Seeing how hard Glenn and Don (Henley) worked on their stuff inspired me. Don would just kill himself over lyrics and Glenn would kill himself over music. Watching the two of them first-hand you could see how committed they were to their music. Look at The Eagles’ greatest hits record. It’s the biggest selling album in history! It’s passed Michael Jackson. The Eagles’ Greatest Hits is the biggest selling album of all-time.
So it didn’t take a genius to realize these guys are really working hard on their stuff.
Rock Cellar: You co-wrote the Eagles number one hit, “Heartache Tonight.”
Bob Seger: Yeah, but that was much later.
Rock Cellar: Was there as much meticulous attention to detail going into The Eagles’ songs when you worked with them?
Bob Seger: Oh yeah. You listen to Don’s lyrics. He didn’t lighten up. You listen to the stuff they did in 1980 and it’s as good as the songs they did in 1975. “Heartache Tonight” started with me and Glenn at his house. I was playing bass and he was playing guitar. He had this little thing, “Somebody’s gonna hurt somebody.” He wanted to write a shuffle. So we’re playing that groove and Glenn’s singing the verses and suddenly out of the blue, (sings) “There’s gonna be a heartache tonight, heartache tonight, I know.”
I started singing that and Glenn goes, “YEAH!” I took what he was singing about and jumped right into the chorus. Then Glenn called (Joe) Walsh. Now it’s like one o’clock in the morning. He calls Walsh and he gets up and comes down and starts playing guitar on it and Walsh comes up with the bridge. Then J.D. Souther came in right after Walsh that same night. He’d help Glenn with lyrics. The next day (Don) Henley chimes in and goes, “Oh yeah” and he starts writing a lot of the lyrics. So that’s how that song happened.
Several months later they were stuck. They didn’t know how to make a chorus sound different. We were up in Aspen and we were all celebrating New Year’s Eve together. They played me the basic track and I started singing something completely weird and different melodically in the song, (recites lyrics) “We can beat around the bushes, we can get down to the bone. We can leave it in the parking lot but either way there’s gonna be a heartache tonight, a heartache tonight I know.” And Henley sad, “Wow!” (laughs) because that just came off the top of my head.
Rock Cellar: With the Night Moves and Stranger In Town albums, did you sense that you were on a creative roll?
Bob 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.
Rock Cellar: How are you able to remain connected with your audience?
Bob Seger: It’s just me. It’s the way I am. It’s my sensibility. It’s what I like. I love rock and roll. II have these influences that are just me. As I get older I get more and more plain spoken in my lyrics and more to the point. Everybody loves a good metaphor but sometimes they can get in your way and make things to cloudy.
Rock Cellar: You often write about characters in your songs. What inspired that mode of writing?
Bob 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.
Rock Cellar: The riff for “Satisfaction” came to Keith Richards in a dream. Have there been any songs that arrived like a gift?
Bob 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, but 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.
Rock Cellar: Many songwriters explain that writing a rocker is much more difficult than penning a ballad.
Bob 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.
Rock Cellar: Billy Joel has spoken about how some songs grow up to be doctors and lawyers and some turn out to be bums. Can you give me any examples of songs that fit within that context?
Bob Seger: I’ll tell you a song that Don Henley really likes of mine and nobody ever played it on the radio. When I played it for him it knocked him out and it’s a song called “The Ring.” I think it’s on my album, Like A Rock. It’s a six-minute ballad and it deals with a specific subject matter about a failing marriage out in a rural area and the restlessness that is setting in.
The marriage has gone to pot and the ring doesn’t mean anything anymore and they’re trying to hold it together. The characters are very sharply drawn and nobody ever played it on the radio but I love it. To me it still stands up.
Rock Cellar: “Living Inside My Heart” is a sleeper.
Bob Seger: Yeah. That and another one is “Somewhere Tonight.” I wanted so bad to put “Living Inside My Heart” on my Greatest Hits, Volume 2 record and I fought and fought and fought and my manager said, “No, that’s a movie song.” I said, “No, I want it on there.”
It’s beautiful. I was so bummed when they wouldn’t let me put it on there. I was actually working on my new album and let that one slide and I wished I had worked harder on that Greatest Hits, Volume 2 package because there were other songs that I really wanted on there. As far as bums I’ll go back to my early stuff. “Vagrant Winter” was a bum. (laughs) “Chain Smoking” was a bum. (uproarious laughter) Oh my God, I hope nobody ever hears them. (laughs) There’s a bunch of songs on Back in ’72 that are bums. People keep saying, “I want to hear that album” and I go, “No, that’s okay.” (laughs)
Lastly, can you share the back story behind some of your most enduring songs starting with “Turn the Page”?
Bob 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 Inns 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.
Rock Cellar: How about “Katmandu”?
Bob Seger: That’s kind of like “Turn the Page,” it’s an exasperated song. It’s like, “I’m never gonna make it, I’m just gonna go to Katmandu.” (laughs) I’d always loved the group Little Feat and they were on Warner Brothers and that’s why I wanted to be on that label. I was on the label for two years. Since then I’ve bought the catalog back from them. Talk about getting’ lost in the woods. They had so many acts on the label that you just got lost in the shuffle. I felt like a number.
Glenn (Frey) and Don (Henley) told me that the Beautiful Loser album was the first little step in the right direction for me. Beautiful Loser was a transitional album and in the song “Katmandu” I still had some of that defeatist mentality, and you can hear it in there.
Rock Cellar: “Main Street” is a wistful nostalgic song.
Bob Seger: Just like “Night Moves,” that song rings true. What do they tell you about writing? They say you have to write about what you know. I grew up near that street corner. My older brother was a lot of trouble and I was not. My parents always called me “the good one” and they say, “You’re the one we can trust.” So at age 10, 11, 12, I was able to walk through Ann Arbor until midnight if I felt like it.
There was a club and this blues band from Chicago named Washboard Willie was playing there. In the window of this club there were people dancing and occasionally there would be a beautiful girl dancing in the window and at my age you were starting to wake up to girls. I would sit out there and watch through the window and listen to this great R&B. I’d say, “Don’ shoo me, away. I know I can’t get in.”
I’m looking and I’m listening and this is what I wanna do with my life. My mom used to send me to the store when I was seven and I would sing the hit parade. I’d sing the sax parts, I’d sing it all and I couldn’t even play an instrument yet. It was just in me. My dad was a musician and my mom loved to dance. She was one of those mothers who knew every song and every writer of every song. So by the time I’m ten I’m singing Elvis Presley songs and I’m singing all this stuff and I don’t even know how to play an instrument yet.
I just loved to fantasize about music and I fantasized about being a musician. “Main Street” is about those pre-high school years and that’s exactly what I saw. This club was on Ann Street and it was in the black area off of Main Street. But the club was very lively and to a 12, 13 year old that was pretty cool. I loved the groove because it’s Chicago blues and the women are dancing and you’re starting to think the women are looking pretty good (laughs). So all that stuff ended up becoming the elements for the song “Main Street.”
“Feel Like A Number”
Bob Seger: I was real proud of that one. I was an auto worker for a brief time. I worked for six months making GM transmissions in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I lasted six months there loading conveyors. Then I worked at another plant on an assembly line putting rubber around windshields, which is not good for a guitar player (laughs) so I didn’t do that for very long. I think I only lasted a month there. But I was there long enough to get it into my head that you can become just a number.
You’re just a statistic. You’re not really a person, you’re just a cog in a very gigantic wheel and it felt very uncomfortable to feel that way about myself. I tried to convey that in the song. You’re in a restaurant and someone’s waiting on you and you don’t even look at him and treat him like a non-person. Because of my road experience, I’ve always bent over backwards to be nice to people that wait on me in a restaurant. I know how horrible it is when someone treats you like a non-person.
Rock Cellar: And finally, “Old Time Rock & Roll.”
Bob Seger: “Old Time Rock & Roll” came to me at the very end of Stranger In Town. The band resented it because we kind of had an unwritten rule that the Muscle Shoals rhythm section played the ballads and the Silver Bullet Band got to play the rock. Suddenly we had a rock track and I said, “Stranger In Town could use another rock and roll song.” So all I kept from the original (written by George Jackson and Thom Jones) was (recites lyric) “old time rock and roll, that kind of music soothes the soul, I reminisce about days of old with that old time rock and roll.”
I rewrote the verses and I never took credit! That was the dumbest thing I ever did and Thom Jones and the other writer, George Jackson know it too. But I just wanted to finish the record. I rewrote every verse you hear except for the choruses. I didn’t ask for credit. My manager, Punch (Andrews) said, “You should ask for a third of the credit” and I said, “Nah, nobody’s gonna like it.”
I’m not credited on it so I couldn’t control the copyright either. Meanwhile it became a Wendy’s commercial because I couldn’t control it. Remember that? Oh my god, it was awful!
So the Stranger In Town album is done and they’re mastering it. We go off to Europe for three weeks and about halfway through we’re in Brussels and I said, “Let’s play ‘Old Time Rock & Roll’” And the band’s still grumbling because it’s a rock song and they’re not on it. “No, we don’t wanna play that!”
We played it in Brussels and people go nuts! We played in Paris and people go nuts! Then we played it in Düsseldorf and people went nuts! At that point, my guitar player, Drew Abbott, who was the hard core rocker in the band, said “You know something, good idea. I’m glad you did that song.” (uproarious laughter)
They finally begrudgingly said, “We should play that song, good call boss!” (laughs)