Welcome to the Vault A Seger File Special Feature The Seger File is an unofficial web site about the music of Bob Seger. This section of the Seger File last updated November 29, 2004 For the most current updates, click here. Written and Edited by Scott Sparling email@example.com
"I write a lot of songs people don't hear. . . . I fall in love with every single one of them," he said. "I finish them all, and I don't think there's a whole lot of difference between the bad ones and the good ones. But every now and then you hit something you really like a lot. Every now and then, you'll nail one that's really special. And that's what you live for.'" Bob Seger, quoted by Brian McCollum, October 31, 2003 Detroit Free Press, "Interview with Bob Seger: I'm just trying to keep things simple."
Part One: Getting In
Recently, a friend and I had the chance to meet someone with a terrific collection of Seger tracks. The friend I call E2, for Ears Two -- he provided a second set of ears on our visit. I call the collector Barry, though that's not his real name. Here's what we heard.
Face the Promise
I listened to "Face the Promise" last because I suspected it might be special: In interviews last year, Seger said the new CD might be titled Face the Promise. Album titles can change, but at least at one point Seger thought of "Face the Promise" as the title track. What would it be like?
The answer is: Masterful. Driving. Modern.
The song establishes itself instantly. "I've been down in the delta," Seger sings, and a snaky, powerful lead guitar immediately answers the line, replicating the rhythm of the words. Seger and the guitar trade lines like this throughout the song.
For every new or unreleased track I heard, I tried to think of an existing Seger song that was similar. "Face the Promise" is the only one that seems to have no obvious antecedent. The back-up singers sound just as they do on "Rite of Passage," except they are used more sparingly and to better effect, and Seger's voice is prominent in the mix. What brought me to my feet, though, is how new this sounds. This is not Seger doing another version of something we've already heard. This is Seger taking us someplace new, and with authority.
You hear it in the music and you hear it in the vocals. If you could measure commitment on a scale of one to ten -- where one is Phoning It In and ten is Straight from the Gut -- this track would be up in the high teens. In film, you hear people talk about an actor completely inhabiting a character. Seger completely inhabits this song. The guitar-driven music cooks and Seger bites into every line, but it's not a shouter -- Seger mixes restraint and urgency beautifully. The vocal quality is similar to Seger's voice in 16 Shells from a 30-6. The bottom line is that he feels it, and he makes you feel it.
Maybe that's because the song seems built around an urgent seeking. He sings about needing a world of changes:
- I've been down in the delta
- Workin' these fields
- Breakin' my back
- I need a better deal.
- So long Mississippi
- So long Alabam'
- I need to face the promise
- Of the promised land.
- I got fevered dreams
- Mighty plans
- I need a blacktop road
- I need a wheel in my hands.
- So long Arizona
- So long desert sands
- I need to face the promise
- Of the promise land.
- I'm tired of this river
- These nothing nights.
- I'm small-towned out
- I need city lights.
- I need a world of changes
- I need a brand new space
- I need an El Dorado
- There's gotta be some place.
- There's a line inside
- I think I've crossed
- You better watch out now
- I'm gonna be my own boss.
- So long North Dakota
- You must understand
- I need to face the promise
- Of the promised land.
In the bridge, when Seger sings that he needs an El Dorado, the reference is not to the car, but to the legendary city sought by Spanish explorers. Each of the five verses ends with Seger proclaiming good-bye to some real world place (from North Dakota to Olean, a city in southwest New York) and proclaiming the need to "face the promise of the promised land."
I think it's a great song. Over the past few months, various people who I know as practically lifelong Seger fans have written me asking, essentially, what's the point? Why continue hoping for a new Seger CD that never seems to come? In short, why should we keep caring?
This song is the answer. It's that good.
Next: "Days When the Rain Would Come," "Hit the Road" and "Little Jane."
July 29, 2002
Days When the Rain Would Come
E2 heard this one first and loved it. Whenever we heard an older unreleased track, we compared notes as to whether it ought to remain unreleased, or see the light of day. "Definitely ought to be released" is what E2 said about "Days," which was recorded for the Like A Rock album.
Musically, "Days" is in the "American Storm," "Roll Me Away" and "Wildfire" genre -- which is to say that it's a big, piano-driven track. It's slower than all three of those songs, though, and sadder or more melancholy. If you turned "American Storm" into a poignant, slightly uptempo ballad, you'd be close to "Days."
Lyrically, it's a song about memories -- about a romance that might have worked, but didn't. "I remember firelight / and a softness in her words / I remember laughter / I remember feeling sure." But in the end, they were reckless with love's gifts. "Maybe we got older / it's hard to say / maybe we just lost our way." The verse ends with Seger singing "I remember me and you on / Days / Days when the rain would come."
Musically and vocally, the song has nothing to do with Dylan -- but one of the middle verses reminded me of Dylan lyrically. By that I mean the lyrics were both evocative and simple, almost magical in the way they say a lot by saying very little: "Maybe it was summer / maybe it was fall / I think the trees were changing / but I can't seem to recall." Hearing those lines reminded me of how underrated Seger is as a lyricist.
Vocally, the best part of many Seger songs is at the end, when he often lets loose. "Days" is a great example. When the song is basically over, he tips his head back and lets it rip. "When the rain WOULD come. DAYS when the rain would come." It's a big, moving, powerful ending.
I can see why the song didn't make the album, though. It's one more "looking back at a romance that's over" song. And musically it's probably too close to "American Storm" to be on the Like A Rock album. But E2 is right: it's definitely boxed set material.
I had hoped to cover three songs a night -- but I can't do justice to "Hit the Road," an infectious kick-ass rocker from 1979, in the time that's left, let alone "Little Jane," a new song which may be Seger's best ballad in years. So I'll save those for a future installment.
I also don't want to sound like the Seger Cheerleading Section. Not every unreleased track we heard was brilliant. Even some of the new stuff I thought might not eventually make the album. But it's been almost a week now, and I'm still humming "Little Jane." Don't wish too loud, Seger sings in "Little Jane." That's next.
July 30, 2002
We heard a lot of interesting stuff in two days. But the song I kept coming back to was "Little Jane."
Recorded last year for the new CD, "Little Jane" is what is sometimes called a "Seger-medium" in the tradition of "By the River" and so many others. In fact, the vocal quality is similar to Seger's voice on "By the River," -- but "Little Jane" is much, much catchier, for my money. It has an innocent way of getting inside your head and staying there.
The track I heard (take two, mix one) had a spare and stripped down feel -- rhythmic guitar chords, no back-up singers. In the tempo and rhythm, you might pick up some very faint echoes of "Night Moves." I was more reminded of Wilco, though. The guitar sound had a lot of "air" in it -- I pictured a guitar being recorded into a mic, rather than plugged into an amp. The opening bars of "Far, Far Away" on Wilco's Being There album have that same sort of sound. And there was certainly some of the Wilco angst in the lyrics.
Of course, it could be that I heard a demo mix, and that the final track will be spruced up with other instruments and back-up singers. But I kind of hope not -- I loved the simple, unpretentious honesty of the sound. An organ came in under the bridge and added just enough polish. And there were some great big bass riffs at the end that added energy.
There's no big obvious hook in Little Jane. The first time I listened, it made almost no impression on me. After four listenings, though, I couldn't get it out of my head. It's one of those medium tempo songs that the crowd would sway along to in concert.
I think E2 liked it too, but he asked a telling question: Do you know what it's about? My answer was, Not entirely. I don't understand the "story" of the song, and many of the lines are puzzling. Seger sings of the walls closing in ("like they always do"), of a lion sizing you up, of driving through fire, of the stars turning cold in the endless night. "Don't wish too loud," he concludes, "you'll be overheard." (If there's a hook, I suppose that's it.) I don't quite get a lot of that.
- "Tell me who you gonna turn to
- In the middle of the afternoon
- When they're back again.
- First you hear the wind blow
- Then you feel the rain.
- Pretty soon you're all wet.
- And you're feeling no pain.
- Trust is hard to come by
- No one stays around
- When the walls close in
- Like they always do
- It will still be me
- It will still be you
- Little Jane.
- Oh, Little Jane.
- Words are spoken
- Lines are crossed
- The promise of the morning is lost.
- And when the truth comes out
- Will anybody care?
- Will this passion for self-destruction
- Get you anywhere?"
On the other hand, there are specific lines and verses I understand well. The lines that really stood out for me, were near the end:
- "Somewhere in the cosmos
- Something's got to give
- We all get burned
- By the lies we live.
- When the stars turn cold
- And it's endless night.
- Trust me, babe,
- We'll both be right.
- Little Jane.
- Oh, Little Jane."
Ultimately, I don't know who Little Jane is, why the afternoon threatens her so, what the promise of the morning is, and that bothers me a little, but not a lot. The song took root in my head, like all great songs do. I'd like to hear it again right now.
Hit the Road
This is Seger at his rockin' best. Rapid fire lyrics, high-energy guitar rock, with some honky-tonk piano added to ignite the mix. And it's absolutely joyous, like Seger's best rockers often are. Presumably this was a contender for Against the Wind, and I guess it got beat out by Long Twin Silver Line. I can't imagine why. God knows I'm biased, but I'd venture that if "Hit the Road" had been released, you'd still be hearing it today on every decent juke box and classic rock radio station. "Sometimes" on Like A Rock captures a bit of the same energy, as do "Nine Tonight" and "Feel Like A Number." But "Hit the Road" has more energy in the vocals, if that's possible.
It's a song about leaving -- how leaving can be a good thing, even a great thing when the status quo just isn't working and "you start to hear the highway call." The tempo throughout is relentless. "That's when you got to listen / that's when you get to itchin' / for paradise down the road / You're tired of all the jivin' / and all of the conniving / You're sorry but it's time to go."
As I mentioned earlier, the end of songs is usually where Seger really lets it rip and "Hit the Road" is no exception. "It ain't no sin to be alone!" Seger wails. "Pack it up and hit the road!!!" The vocal energy could bring an entire arena of Seger fans to their feet.
I ended up feeling like this song belonged to an earlier era of Seger music. It might seem out of place on The Fire Inside or It's A Mystery. But it definitely has a place in every Seger fan's music collection. Let's hope it gets released.
Okay, one I didn't like. Let's put it this way: if you played "You'll Accompany Me" at your wedding, you would definitely play "Anniversary" at your, well...at your anniversary. You'd play it late in the evening when everyone was feeling sentimental and teary-eyed, and you'd feel even more sentimental and teary-eyed when the song was done. In short, you'd love it. But I don't. In fact, I'm glad Seger didn't release this one, because it could have been a big hit, which would have further sullied his reputation as a rocker.
The problem here is that there are multiple Seger's, and I'm under the spell of the raw, rocking Seger, not the mellower Seger. Seger has the problem of being able to do too many things very well.
E2's take was similar: he thought someone ought to release "Anniversary," but not Seger. The song builds well, he pointed out, with some impressive strings (or keyboards that sound like strings) in the second half; by the end, it's practically anthem-like.
It turns out we didn't really understand the song. I was interested in hearing "Anniversary," because I read once that it was written for The Distance, an album I very much like. At one point, I came across a description of the song that said it was about a divorced couple: two years after the breakup, at the same moment in different parts of the country, they remember it's their anniversary.
But I'd forgotten that story when I was at Barry's and it didn't come through. There's kind of a "Somewhere Tonight" sadness at that beginning of the track, and I picked up on the sense of separation -- "On a dark night in autumn / as the winds howl outside / she listens, suddenly intent / and laid her book aside" -- but I didn't get that the couple was divorced. "Someone's having one tonight," Seger sings. "Some forget and some remember." E2's take was more concise: he called the lyrics "goofy."
But hey, a song like this is defined by the feeling, not the lyrics. And the feeling was too soft, too polished, too smooth for my taste. I was listening to It's A Mystery today, and it occurred to me that you could almost separate Seger fans into two camps depending on whether they like Track 4 ("Manhattan") or Track 5 ("I Wonder"). I love Track 4. I sometimes skip Track 5. I have a close friend who does the opposite. Like I said, Seger does too many things too well.
Next: The Future's Now.
July 31, 2002
Part Four -- Music with a Message
Seger clearly sees himself both as artist and entertainer -- and as an artist he has often commented on current events and popular culture. "Back in 72" skewered Tricky Dick as well as trendy philosophers who found it hip to be negative. On Seven, he critiqued the upper middle class set concerned only with wealth while watching famine on TV. "American Storm" did battle, somewhat obliquely, with drug use. "The Fire Inside" gave us a not-very-flattering portrait of romance in the fast lane of LA. "Revision Street" and "It's A Mystery" took aim at superficial and profiteering elements of the media.
The cardboard box of tapes we listened to contained two more songs in this genre. Both were hard-hitting -- maybe even scathing -- in their critique of society's ills.
The Future's Now
This track was recorded in 1992. Seger wrote the words; Craig Frost wrote the music. I know this because I looked it up, but it's pretty obvious from the first listening that this is not Seger music. E2 called it "an industrial dance mix," and I think that's a good description. He also thought it sounded a bit like Styx' "Mr. Roboto." I was reminded of two Henley tunes: "The Future's Now" has the same big up-and-down beat as "Dirty Laundry," (I suspected a drum machine at work) and it features a synthesizer-horn sound similar to "All She Wants to Do Is Dance."
- There's also not a lot of melody. The lyrics list off things Seger is angry or worried about. The title is used as a drawn out refrain separating items on the list. For example:
- Two holes in the ozone shield
- The facts are in, the danger's real.
- People sitting in the sun.
- Deserts grow, forests fall
- Everyone regrets it all
- Then they move on.
- Massive moral apathy
- Lethargy and entropy
- Ethics, morals on the wane
- Children ask you to explain.
- Acid rain, climate change
- The fuuu-tures' noowww
- Corporate gain, false acclaim
- The fuuu-ture's noowww"
You'd have to say the "corporate gain" line was absolutely prescient. It was written in the early '90's; a decade later it couldn't be more on-target. Seger also takes aim at individual behavior: "Ethics, morals, on the wane / children ask you to explain." Again, these lines were written before Monica Lewinski.
Much of Seger's critique seems to be directed at the pop-music business -- "Trendy chic idolatry / with a fifteen minute history." The lyrics continue:
- "Maybe it's the cutesy looks
- The androgyny or the sugared hooks,
- It's boring to me
- The fancy stage, the video
- The marketing, the fashion show,
- I just don't agree."
At one point, the lyrics speak of "Tuneless dreck, all effect." E2, who hates industrial dance music, thought that was the pot calling the kettle black. Personally, I thought the song went on a little too long. I was fine with "Killer stress, emptiness" and even "greedy quest for success," but by the time we got to "disintegrating family life," I thought the song was becoming a little scolding. That said, I loved the energy and commitment in Seger's voice.
So, release or don't release? Don't release, E2 said. Release, I said, but with a different instrumental track.
"Media Whipped" was recorded thirteen years earlier, in 1979. I'm amazed by that, because the lyrics sound so modern and up-to-date. In fact, Don Henley's "Working It" from a couple of years ago is essentially the same as "Media Whipped" -- by that I mean the message and attitude is the same; the melody and music are completely different.
The song opens with two strong power chords, which are repeated throughout. Separately, both E2 and I wrote "Good Times, Bad Times" (Led Zeppelin) in our notes. (My shorthand for those first two power chords is Blam Blam.) There's also a strong relationship to "Nutbush" -- which, in my book, is a very, very good thing. Musically, this song has power.
The lyrics describe a world in which people are "brainwashed every waking hour," where we "watch these phony families every night on prime TV." After that, the song spends some time describing the ill effects of this disinformation:
- [Blam Blam]
- "They tell you you can't face the world
- if you're the least bit overweight.
- [Blam Blam]
- Then they sell you sugar foods
- from morning until late.
- [Blam Blam]
- They say you won't be lonely
- if you buy their brand new car..."
Only toward the end does Seger pay off the title: "No enticement's ever skipped, I can't believe how we get gypped," he wails. "We get media whipped! We get bought, sold and shipped."
Think of the powerful "Nutbush" vocals -- that's what Seger gives us in "Media Whipped." Should this track be released? Yes, in a heartbeat.
Like A Rock
The alternate track we heard sounded very much like the released track. Maybe the vocals were a little more aggressive, but only a little. There was really no reason to listen to it -- I only put it on because I love the song. Always have and always will. McDonald's can buy it and play it ten times a day to describe their new McScone, and I'll still love this song. "Like A Rock" is indestructible. So I'm sure it will survive the revelation that there's a verse Seger removed. The extra verse was in the quiet interlude about 2/3 of the way through the song.
- "Don't need a sports car,
- Don't need to hide the gray
- Don't need to pick fights just so I can drive away.
- I can face getting older now,
- It's okay.
- And sometimes late at night...."
The cut was a good one, I think; it's a better song without the extra verse. But it provides an interesting glimpse as to how Seger writes -- honing things down until just the essential elements remain.
Next: Another song recorded for the new album -- "Kentucky Moonlight."
August 1, 2002
Recorded for the long-promised new album, "Kentucky Moonlight" is neither a rocker nor a ballad. E2 said it had a country feel. I was tempted to call it a bayou song, because the guitars were tuned to a Creedence Clearwater Revival kind of sound.
Both of the last two albums have included songs that are outside what you might think of as the normal Seger-style song. On It's A Mystery, the outlier was "Manhattan." On The Fire Inside, it was "Blind Love" and maybe "Sightseeing." I could see "Kentucky Moonlight" in that same niche -- a little bit more country than you expect from Seger.
The bouncy, good-timey beat reminded E2 of Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Looking (What You Got Cookin')." I could hear that -- I also heard a little of "Down on the Corner," not in the melody or the music, but in the lead guitar figure that set up the rhythm.
What was that rhythm, you're probably wondering. Stand back, here it is: Bump Bump Bah-Doodle Bump. I hope I'm not violating any copyrights by revealing this. As you might expect, this is the kind of song where handclaps sound just fine. (In fact, E2 thought they might actually be foot stomps.)
A song like this is about the rhythm and the sound and the good-timey feeling. The lyrics don't carry any deep meaning. Indeed, the track we heard had only three short verses, making me wonder if we were hearing the finished song or an early demo. The first syllable of every line was stressed for four beats, like so:
- Kennnn - tucky moonlight
- Feeeed my old friend
- Pleeeease give him something
- Helllllp him again.
- I've been a wanderer
- I have done wrong
- Shine through the darkness
- Lead me back home.
- Hard on the river
- Hard on the town
- Fill my tomorrows
- Bring me around.
Placeholder lyrics? I couldn't tell. The other short verses contain similar requests -- "shine through the darkness, lead me back home." I'm not sure exactly what that means. But as E2 pointed out, it did fulfill the requirement that every Seger song contain the word "shine" or "shore." Or failing that, "wind."
I wasn't wild about "Kentucky Moonlight" initially. But a few days later, over a BLT at Anita's, the Bump Bump Bah-Doodle Bump beat kept bouncing through my head. "Kentucky Moonlight" is meant to get your toes tapping, and it does.
Did I mention that Anita makes a great BLT? Really fabulous. If you're ever in the city I was in, I recommend it. (Anita's, by the way, is a little restaurant down the road. No, I don't mean that Anita.)
Hustled in Nashville
This was one of the oldest tracks we heard. Written in 1974, "Hustled in Nashville" could be viewed as a cousin to "Sunspot Baby." Seger's attitude and vocal quality is much the same. So is the theme. There's a woman involved, naturally.
- "I was hustled in Nashville,
- Last time in town.
- It was enough, my friend,
- To make me sit right down.
- Hustled in Nashville.
- All over town.
- She drove up in a Yellow Cab
- That was where she worked all night.
- During the daylight she was a message parlor queen
- Only 18
- And it was like a dream.
- When I slipped her twenty
- I only got ten back.
- Hustled in Nashville
- Man, imagine that."
This was an era when the band liked to do lots of stops and starts -- sometimes to good effect and sometimes not. Imagine "Seen A Lot of Floors," but with slide guitar (such as you might hear on an early Bonnie Raitt album). I bet this song worked great live, if it was ever played live. E2 thought it was disjointed at the outset, and I might agree. But the bridge takes off, and there's a soaring guitar in the middle. By the end, it's cooking and the vocals are full-force Seger.
The hustle takes place "outside the King of the Road" --
- "She took me out to Riverside
- and it was quite a ride
- She told me about her two kids at home
- And man I could've cried.
- I said listen, honey, I'll be coming back
- I'll be coming back to Nashville,
- That's a natural fact."
Considering how many great Seger songs there are from that era, I can see why "Hustled In Nashville" is an out-take. But the vocals are definitely worth hearing. This would have made a great, scrappy B-side for any mid-1970s single.
"Comin' Home" is not a song I play very much. For me, it's always been overshadowed by the great rockers on The Distance. And I've never really connected to it emotionally.
Maybe I've just dense and have never understood the song. I've always imagined that it's about a guy -- a young man who tries his luck in the city, chasing dreams of success, maybe -- and who returns empty-handed to his small town.
However, as with "Like A Rock," I heard an extra verse on Barry's tape of "Comin' Home." And while the extra "Rock" verse seemed superfluous, the extra "Comin' Home" verse seemed almost central to the song. The missing lyrics suggest that the song is not about a guy and his failed ambition, but about a woman, and lost love.
The verse picks up near the middle, after the line that ends "lots of dreams that all went wrong" --
- "Lots of promises and lots of lies
- Lots of traffic, lots of noise
- Lots of lonely sleepless nights
- Lots of men and lots of boys."
A couple of lines later on the album, Seger sings: "You won't tell them how you lost it all. You'll just say you're coming home." On Barry's tape, he sings: "You won't tell them how they broke your heart. You grew tired of being alone."
With the extra lyrics, I get a clearer picture of who the song is about, which makes me like it more. If I'm right that "Comin' Home" is about a woman, then it's another in Seger's mini-genre of songs written from or about a woman's point of view (such as "Jody Girl," and "The Ring.")
Despite the "broken heart" lyric, the alternate version is not as sad, musically, as the heavier album version. On the alternate take, there's a light, repeating guitar riff between verses (I described it in my notes as "twinkle twinkle twink twink") and a shooting star bass effect -- both add a light feeling, which I liked. The version of "Comin' Home" on The Distance was recorded by Muscle Shoals. I wonder if the version on Barry's tape was the Silver Bullet Band.
Barry's collection held lots of treasures. But the one treasure it didn't hold -- or at least I didn't see it -- was "Stranger in Town," the single. Or "Suicide Streets," for that matter. But there were plenty of other tapes to listen to -- including alternate versions of almost everything on Against the Wind (the album) recorded in a parallel universe that's far more rocking. That's next, after a few days break.
August 2, 2002
Part Six -- Beautiful Vampires
- It's late, and there's a business trip coming up, so the report on Against the Wind will have to wait a bit. In its place, a perfect song for a late night: Carfax Abbey.
- "Carfax Abbey," like "Can't Hit the Corners," has always been one of the unreleased tracks I've most wanted to hear. And in fact, I have heard it a couple of times, because Seger used to play it in his live shows (pre-Live Bullet.) But I've never heard the recorded version. I wasn't even sure there was a recorded version. But there is, and it didn't disappoint.
- "Abbey" is a medium-tempo song, but you'd hardly call it a Seger-medium. The melody is more lilting and ethereal. The track starts with a rather delicate piano intro -- high, tinkling notes -- and then some acoustic guitar. That's about it. No background singers. No percussion except for a distant timpani roll now and then. A mellotron contributes a haunting little melody line near the end.
And haunting is no doubt the effect Seger was going for. The song is about a family of vampires, but they're not presented in the usual scary way. Just the contrary -- we see the vampires in a kind of daily-life, domestic sense.
- "Up in Carfax Abbey
- High above the sun
- Up in Carfax Abbey
- Momma tends the young.
- Mystic fog comes swirling round Transylvania
- Up in Carfax Abbey in the cool Carpathian."
In other verses we hear about the father sleeping until evening and about the children of the night. "Up in Carfax Abbey," Seger sings, "life goes on and on."
What does it mean? I'm not sure, but it's a strangely poignant song nonetheless. Seger is in great voice on the track I heard. I suppose the lyrics made this one a bit too strange to fit on any album. But it was certainly one of the best tracks I heard. E2 and I agreed on this one: definite box set material.
August 4, 2002
Part Seven -- A Stronger Wind
It's hard to argue with the success of Against The Wind. It went multiplatinum. More impressively, it went to Number 1 on the Billboard charts.
"I was at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles, preparing to play the Forum," Seger once wrote, "when I heard that 'Against The Wind' was No. 1 in Billboard. We had been battling with Billy Joel's current record, and my manager kept calling each week to say, 'We're still Avis! No. 2 and trying harder!' But on that night before the show, the phone rang and he said, 'You're Hertz!!' And the band exploded in celebration."
I think it's great that Against The Wind went to No. 1. Still, I prefer the rougher, rawer feel of some of the other albums. But the alternate tracks I heard last week gave me a new appreciation of Against The Wind. I should have known this all along, probably, but I suddenly realized that the songs of ATW are great -- it's just the arrangements that are a little too polished.
You'll Accomp'ny Me
This was a huge hit for Seger, but it's one of my least favorite songs. Or was, until I heard the alternate track. The unreleased version I heard has a much more prominent beat. The mellow keyboards are gone, and the guitar has a cool, caged-in-and-trying-to-get-out kind of energy. Snazzy high-hat throughout. I thought this was the kind of instrumental track Keb' Mo' might use if he recorded the song. As a result, the song is jumpier, more alive (to my ears, anyway). Best of all, Seger's vocal shifts from mellow to full Van Morrison-mode. I admit it -- I have sometimes heard myself describe the recorded version as "smarmy." The alternate track should have a great big Zero Smarm sticker on it. A great alternative track, definite boxed set material.
I've never disliked "Shinin' Brightly." I've simply overlooked it. No more. As with "You'll Accomp'ny Me," the alternate track of "Shinin' Brightly" has no back-up singers and a scrappier instrumental track. Hear that little bit of organ that comes during the opening bars of the album track? It's much more prominent in the alternate take; in fact there's almost a Blonde on Blonde feel at the beginning of the unreleased track.
At various places in the album version, Seger's vocal has that tight, edgy feel that might remind you of Van Morrison. The alternate track has that edgy feel throughout. As a result, when Seger brings the music and the volume down in the middle, it has a tight, taut feel. Listen to the end of the released version where Seger repeats "Let me hear ya say," a couple times -- that's the vocal quality I mean. That part of the released version also has some of the "shooting star" bass effect that I heard in the alternate track of "Comin' Home."
Long Twin Silver Line
Number one: I love train songs. Number two: I hold them to a very high standard. In our younger days, my friend Jesse and I rode thousands of miles on freight trains all over the west; my first night in Oregon was spent in a boxcar. So trains songs have to be real, which means they have to have real freight energy. Joe Ely's "Lonesome Boxcars" is the probably the best. On the album, the Muscle Shoals track for "Long Twin Silver Line" is simply too polished for my tastes.
The vocals on the alternate track aren't much different, and that's okay because the vocals on the album are already great. But the music on the rough track crackles with energy and it made the vocals come alive for me. Near the end, when Seger calls out "Three times, let's go!" the band responds with three big wallops. This, I thought, must be the Silver Bullet band. In short, while the album cut is an Amtrak, the alternate track is a freight -- and it rides the ragged edge of losing control, the way a fast freight train should. I loved it.
Bop, Lake, NML
Similarly, "Horizontal Bop" was stripped down with no opening guitar solo and no sax that I remember. Seger's guitar solo in "No Man's Land" wasn't there. (We were hoping for the long version of "No Man's Land," but no such luck.)
In "Fire Lake," the piano was more prominent; ("Terrific piano," E2 wrote.) The back-up singers were absent and the repeated "who wants to do it" was missing from the ending. All in all, E2 called it arguably better than the released version.
"Wounded Angel" was written for Against The Wind, I believe, but has never been released. Writer Timothy White has described it as "a knife-edged number whose dueling guitars (Abbott's and Seger's) show a slight Eagles influence." Timothy White, May 1, 1980, Rolling Stone. "The Fire This Time"
The track begins with two big dramatic chords (they reminded E2 slightly of "Wild Thing") followed by four beats on a closed high-hat. There's a short scream from Seger followed by some screaming guitar. I had forgotten about White's comment, but I thought I detected a kind of "Victim of Love" vibe in the guitar.
The wounded angel herself is something of a victim. "She'll be out there on the street [something something] walking alone," my notes say. "All the men will take a look but they won't bother / She'll be looking so fine, so far out of reach / they'll figure somebody's got her."
"Wounded Angel" belongs to the category of songs I call crunchy-on-the-outside-with-a-soft-chewy-center. Which is to say, the knife-edge rocker has a soft, slightly sugary bridge repeated twice in the song. Now the wounded angel is no longer on the streets; she's home and something is closing in around her (the night? the walls? I can't read my notes here.) "Once he's gone, you'll lie awake alone, just like a wounded angel."
The lyrics continue:
- "Where you gonna be tomorrow?
- Who's it gonna be?
- Who's gonna be your new stranger?
- You're just looking for someone to fill up your time
- And keep your soul out of danger."
The ever sharp-eared E2 took note of the call-and-response guitar interplay at the end, which presumably is what White was writing about. My notes say "'Heavy Music' style wailing at the end: 'Heaven's full of wounded angels!'" In the end, neither of us voted for this one to be released -- but the vocals and the guitar in the last minute and a half are stunning.
Next: You guys feel funky tonight? Another new track: "Red Eye to Memphis."
Red Eye to Memphis
This new track begins with a great, slippery bass line. Listen to the bass at the front end of "Tryin' to Live My Life Without You," speed it up and add more funk -- that's basically how this uptempo Memphis song begins. This track is all about groove, and Seger hits it well. "Baby's on the red eye to Memphis," he sings, "Bringing me something tonight / Bringing it home to daddy / Tonight we won't fuss or fight."
This is a short track, less than three minutes, but it's definitely tastier than anything on It's A Mystery. I could imagine Bonnie Raitt or Curtis Salgado or any number of people attempting a song like this and doing a good job. But Seger's voice is really what makes this track cook. It's the kind of groove tailor-made to show off his great phrasing. Sometimes Seger will grab a word in the middle of a line and turn it into something close to a howl (cf., "When you WERE a young girl," from "River Deep, Mountain High") and he does the same here:
- "This ain't no hat, no new pair of shoes
- She's packing something we SHORE can use."
In addition to being musically different from anything on Mystery, the subject matter is also different: "Memphis" percolates with a kind of Fire-Down-Below sensuality, or even lust, that was missing from Mystery. "We're gonna howl at the moon / create some history soon."
The track I heard had one back-up singer and someone on tambourine. The last verse is preceded by a great Seger howl. "I'll be down at the terminal in Memphis," the song concludes, "Watching every single gate..." (The lyrics were obviously written before 9/11 -- they don't allow you past the checkpoint these days.) All in all, it's a great, upbeat, sexy song, with all-out Seger vocals. A must for the next CD.
Hard Night for Sarah
Upbeat and sexy this song is not. "It's been a hard night for Sarah," the song begins, "Her divorce came through today." The marriage lasted ten long years: "He was all she ever hoped for / And she gave him all she had." The disappointment that life can hold for women who mis-attach themselves to men is one of Seger's ongoing themes. He's dealt with that theme more effectively in other songs, however, in my view.
Musically, the song owes a lot to "Mainstreet." Both the "Mainstreet" keyboards and guitar are in evidence here. Given the similarities, it's easy to see why this track got left off Against The Wind.
The last line tries to turn hopeful -- "It's been a hard night for Sarah / But today's another day." Speaking for both E2 and myself, we didn't quite buy it. Seger has said he writes song titles first, and I love the title of this song. But in the Release or Don't Release vote, "Sarah" got two "Don'ts."
Of this one, E2 wrote: "definitely a highlight; should have been released." And I can't even remember it. Crap. That was the problem with the box of tapes and discs. There was almost too much to process.
My notes help a little, though. I noticed an opening guitar bit with faint traces of "Ticket to Ride," but the overall feel was Eagles, not Beatles. "Tequila Sunrise" was what I jotted down. E2 described it as a "Dick Dale-ish surf guitar in background; it works nicely."
My notebook also tells me that Seger counts the track in ("one, two, three") before beginning a medium tempo song about loss. The feeling isn't sad in a teary sense, though -- more like sad in a "these-things-happen-and-it's-too-bad" kind of sense. Melancholy but realistic. (Maybe I would remember the song better if I hadn't been so busy taking notes.)
- "He watched her beauty fade like sunset on that golden sandy shore
- Could this be the woman he loved only hours before?
- Something in her eyes was now so different,
- Something in the words he heard her speak.
- She just seemed to slip away,
- Slipping slowly out of reach."
E2 notes a guitar solo similar to Seger's solo in the album version of "No Man's Land" and speculates that Bob himself may have played it.
If I remember right, Sunset was written for The Distance. And if E2 says it should have been released, that's good enough for me.
Seger once told writer Timothy White that "Elevator Button" was "My first attempt at reggae...It had four guitars going 'wanko-wanko-wow' in perfect harmony, with these wildass answer licks, and forty-five people at the end yelling 'PUSH! THE ELEVATOR BUTTON!!' Doing it over and over until it gets to be manic, like something on Magical Mystery Tour." Timothy White, April 1983, Musician. "The Roads Not Taken."
Not on the track E2 and I heard. There was plenty of wanko-wanko guitar, ala Joe Walsh on "Life's Been Good," but no reggae, no wildass answer licks and no forty-five people going manic at the end. E2 noted a certain Burton Cumming's quality to Seger's vocal delivery.
The phrasing had almost a chanting quality to it. I couldn't tell whether Seger was singing "Pushing the elevator button," or "Push in the elevator button." In either case the first two syllables were drawn out, getting a full slow beat each, with the rest of the phrase providing a faster counterpoint.
- Push! In! ---- the elevator button
- Push! In! ---- the elevator button
- Push! In! ---- the elevator button
- And it don't come no fast-terrr.
It certainly wasn't danceable. You might, if you were in a cranky mood, call it almost dirge-like. But I liked it. I particularly liked the verse:
- "If you want to take a ride
- Push the call button once
- Don't do ya no good
- To push it another time."
There was a scrappy "I'm-not-going-to-be-what-you-expect-me-to-be" attitude about this song. On several Seger albums, you find a cut with attitude, a song that's not trying to please. "Manhattan," is an example I've cited before. (I suppose you could include "Cat" as well.) I wish Seger released more of this kind of stuff -- it's a side of him we don't see enough of, in my opinion. As a result, he gets pegged as "mainstream" or that worn-out descriptor "heartland rock." When in fact his work has consistently had a rebellious ragged edge to it, from Persecution Smith forward. But too much of the ragged stuff has been left unreleased. This version of "Elevator" or the version Seger described to White would make a great boxed-set track.
For more on Seger's description of the song, and why it was left off The Distance, see the Recorded But Unreleased section of the Seger File.
Like "Elevator Button," this track is also about drugs and over-consumption of everything. It's also got a raw, unpolished feel. But I didn't like it as well as "Elevator," because it seemed a little less friendly. I'd describe the attitude of "White Monkey" as "Revisionism Street" with more anger.
- "Having lunch in London, baby,
- Dinner in Par-ee
- Buy a couple of Halston's, baby,
- Everything's on me
- The shipment's in from Mexico
- Ought to be here pretty quick.
- White monkey, black horses --
- Isn't that still hip?"
Musically, there were lots of sharp angles and plenty of fuzzbox on the guitar -- '"Seen A Lot of Floors" with a more production' is what I wrote in my notebook. The song reflects the arrogance of conspicuous consumption in the Reagan era: "I've been up to Alaska / But I couldn't find a good hotel / Get me to the Beverly Wilshire / Some place that knows me well."
In that sense, the song has the same narrative strategy as a song like Dire Strait's "Money For Nothing" -- that is, it's a first-person narrative from a character with bad values. The character Seger creates goes to an area of supreme natural beauty and only cares about the lack of five-star hotels. The "Money For Nothing" characters are just as shallow in a more blue-collar sort of way. But for all their stupidity, they're also likeable. The White Monkey character isn't likeable at all, which is why the song comes across as angrier and less engaging.
I probably should know what drugs "white monkey and black horses" refer to, but I don't. (But then, I was the last person on earth to get the drug reference in the name The Doobie Brothers -- as far as I knew, the guys in the band were brothers and their last name was Doobie, which seemed unfortunate. But enough about me.)
Still to come: "Babe," "Corners" and "The Answer's In the Question."
August 9, 2002
Part Nine -- Hitting the Corners at Last
Can't Hit the Corners
"Corners" gained Holy Grail status by virtue of being left off Against The Wind, The Distance, Like A Rock, the soundtrack for The Color of Money and the flipside of "American Storm." Meanwhile, Seger and writer Timothy White kept talking about it, tantalizingly. (Click here to read excerpts of White's description of the song.)
In 1986, a fragment of the song was included in Timothy White's radio interview with Seger. In recent years, that fragment has circulated among Seger collectors. The arrangement E2 and I heard was similar to the one circulating, except the whole song was there. As the track progresses, Seger sings of talent "slowly disappearing / slowly fading out."
- "You feel 'em growing restless now
- And you long for their applause
- You long to hear them cheer again
- No matter what it costs.
- So you gather all your strength
- And you gather all your pride
- Head out to face them one more time
- And you hide it all inside.
- And standing just off to the side
- Just outside the light
- The younger ones are watching
- And waiting for their night."
- Feeling like a stranger on the shore
- This ain't competition, man, this is war.
- And you can't hit the corners no more."
- Some songs achieve mythic status for their rarity alone. While listening to this version, I tried to imagine how I would rate "Corners" if it had been included on Against The Wind. My first reaction was that it didn't quite have the emotional power of unreleased or yet-to-be-released cuts like "Little Jane," "Answer's In The Question" or "Dark Eyes."
- Having given it another days thought, I think I was way wrong. "Corners" is a beautifully written ballad, sung from the heart, with all the qualities of a Seger classic. It's easy to imagine Seger singing "Corners" near the end of a live show, in a solitary spotlight, and bringing the crowd to one of those magical, hypnotic moments when you can practically hear everyone's heart beat.
- Earlier, I suggested "Corners" might gain poignancy if Seger holds onto it a little longer still. Maybe so. But the song has too much heart, too much honest emotional power to stay out of sight. The Holy Grail should definitely be released.
Disclosure statement: I'm biased against "Babe." It's the kind of big, power ballad I'm not going to like no matter who does it. Consequently, I may have looked for things not to like about it.
E2 and I were like-minded about this, however. He speculated it might have been written with prom night in mind. I thought the whole presentation was a little cloying. Knowing what I know about my tastes and the rest of the world, I'm guessing there's a big audience for this kind of song. I'm just not in that audience. '"Always In My Heart" without the spark of genius' was how I described "Babe" in my notes.
The lyrics struck E2 as predictable: "There's never been another, only you." The requisite "shine" reference came in the final verse:
- "You came and took the time
- And you were so kind
- And babe you made it shine
- How you made it shine..."
Since this is a power ballad, there's a huge instrumental buildup at the end. E2 picked up on a twinned guitar sound throughout the ending jam, ala Little River Band's "Help Is On The Way." Later he played me that track and indeed the sound was very much the same.
My conclusion is that "Babe" is another song, like "We've Got Tonight," that people would love to play at weddings. In the Release / Don't Release tally, I selfishly voted to deny them that pleasure. (But then, I played "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite" at my wedding, so consider the source.)
Another mid-tempo song from the same era. ("Corners," "Babe" and "Stargazer" were all written for Against The Wind.) The lyrics concern someone -- probably a woman -- who is overly obsessed with a celebrity. "Stargazer, dream chaser, where you gonna be tonight? Who will be the one you see tonight?"
The vocal is great. Maybe I had the Guess Who on my mind, but there's a moment near the front that reminded me of the way Burton Cumming's vocal rises straight through the roof on the phrase "the best years of my life have come and gone," in "Laughing." (The lyric where Seger soars is "waiting to see the performance of your life.")
Musically, the piano chords that precede the words "It's the famous final scene," are used in much the same way in "Stargazer" and the guitar is also reminiscent of that earlier ballad. The "shine" quota is nicely filled by the phrase,"Shine for us tonight," repeated throughout.
I had promised a summary of "Answer's In The Question" this time, but I'm not ready to release it yet. The subheads are wrong and the typeface needs changing. Several sentences need to be repunctuated.
In other words, I'm saving it for last because it's one of the very best tracks I heard. Three-quarter time. Emotional and real. A soul-searching song for three a.m. when everything is quiet except the questions in your head. I'll cover that one next, along with a few others, in the tenth and final segment of this series.
August 13, 2002
Part Ten -- Snow Today, Star Tonight, Nine Tonight and More
I lied again. No "Answer's In The Question" tonight. There's a little cleaning up to do first.
The vault held a real mixture of Seger tracks, some memorable, some not so memorable. "Snow Today" fell into the latter category. An uptempo song with a big up-and-down beat and not much melody, "Snow Today" is another Seger commentary on the drug scene. "Snow today. Looks like snow today," Seger calls out. "Where's it gonna end?" There was a little honky tonk piano ala "Feel Like A Number," only less tasty. Overall the track felt stiff to me. E2 and I both gave it our lowest marks. "A boring shouter," he wrote. I was a little more charitable: "Nice beginning but never quite takes off."
"Star Tonight" fared better. This is Seger's version of the song he gave Don Johnson in the mid-1980's when the Miami Vice star recorded a solo album. The startling news here is: Seger's version is better than Johnson's. Well, duh. In case you haven't heard it, "Star Tonight" is a song about a woman who uses her acting skills both to please and manipulate. At least that's what I think it's about. Seger's vocal, obviously, is more heartfelt than Johnson's. When he sings "Isn't it amazing how she makes you love the chase," you feel the mix of attraction and distrust that the narrator seems to have for the woman -- getting caught up in her act even while he knows it's an act. So the song is a little more melancholy in Seger's hands. Musically, there's more guitar. But it's still a somewhat down song. Does it have a dirge-like tempo? No comment. I think "Star Tonight" would have fit in perfectly on Brand New Morning. The more music you put around it, the heavier it seems, so I'd love to hear a stripped down version, just Seger and piano. I wouldn't mind too much if the version E2 and I heard stayed in the vault.
"Nine Tonight," on the other hand, was a rocker. (Duh again.) It was tighter and scrappier than the live version of "Nine Tonight," obviously. To tell you the truth, I haven't listened to the Urban Cowboy studio version in a long time, so it was hard for me to compare this unreleased track to that. This one definitely had a demo sound to it, though -- muffled drums, no back-up singers, and a great jam at the end. Musically, the band had the tight feel I associate with the Beautiful Loser album -- the title track of that album and "Black Night," for example. Because the music was simpler, the vocals had even more power. Instead of the celebratory feel of the live version, you could almost hear an ache in Seger's voice, the kind of wonderful ache when you get really close to something you've wanted for a long time. It's the difference between "oh, yeah!" and "oh, lord." (And if that makes any sense to me tomorrow, I'll be amazed.) Let's just say this version kicked ass. It was a highlight -- but so are the two released versions of this song.
As expected, "Wildfire" was also fantastic. It's possibly the best unreleased Seger song I've heard, certainly one of the very best. If it had found a place on Like A Rock or any subsequent album, it would be a Seger classic, a crowd-roaring staple of any live show. The unreleased version of "Wildfire" is fairly well known to Seger collectors, so I haven't made a big deal of it here. The version I heard in the vault was slightly different than the track that gets passed around -- I could tell because he threw in an extra "oh lord" here and there -- but it was substantively the same. A great, great song with great energy. If I hadn't already heard it before I went into the vault, it would have knocked me off my feet. "Wildfire" should definitely be released.
Finally, "The Ring." This was also different than the unreleased version many Seger collectors have heard, but the differences were slight. Like the unreleased track that circulates, this one also included the extra verse in which the woman gets swept off her feet by her charismatic lover: "He came on so strong / he hit her full force like a storm raging out of control / he touched something deep in her soul / she gave in and let herself go." To read Seger's comments about the long version of "The Ring," click here.
Only one song left now. That's next for sure.
August 14, 2002
Part Eleven -- Answers, Questions
"Answer's in the Question" is a fine song to bring this series to a close, since it's the kind of song -- like "Somewhere Tonight" -- that could be used to close an album. It's a song about endings -- about the feelings and questions that circle over us, late at night, when things are ending. It's not purely a sad song -- but there's kind of a muted sorrow to it, mixed with an understanding that this is how life is. Will you hide, the lyrics ask, or face your fears:
- The answer's in the question
- Will you be home late again?
- Will you find the courage
- When the truth comes closing in?
- When all the trees are bending
- and the storm is really here
- Will you just stay hidden?
- Will you face your fear?
- When trust is almost broken
- Faith is in decline,
- The answer's in the question
- Will you leave this all behind?
- The heart's a lonely hunter
- It never quite feels safe
- The devil's in the details
- The thrill is in the chase.
- You rise and fall like water
- You try to stay the same.
- The only thing that's certain
- Is that everything will change.
- How will I be remembered?
- WIll my critics be unkind?
- The answer's in the question,
- Will you leave this all behind?
- The lyrics don't tell us what it is that's ending, or why. In that sense, the song is mostly interior monologue. It's sung quietly and resolutely over a simple guitar arrangement, with brushes on drums. The tempo and the three-quarter-time beat is similar to "West of the Moon," but "Answer" is simpler and more serious.
My sense is that the song is about that moment when you start asking yourself questions that you haven't wanted to ask. And the simple fact that you're finally asking them tells you that the relationship is ending.
The song closes with a couplet that could be taken two ways. "How will I be remembered," Seger sings, "Will my critics be unkind?" For the first several listenings, I took that literally, as if Seger were asking how music critics would view his career. Then it struck me that when you leave a relationship, you leave a whole set of people -- friends, relatives -- and I remembered Seger's comment about the Tom Wait's line, "I don't care if they miss me / I never remember their names," in "Blind Love." (Seger said: "I think he's talking about, maybe her relatives...he's broken up with her and maybe he didn't like her relatives so much....") So I decided the "critics" are the ex-lover's friends and relatives, offering their opinions on why things went wrong.
There's an honest simplicity to "Answer's in the Question." The track I heard was short, about three minutes, with no back-up singers, no big swell of music -- just Seger, his voice slightly haunted and very powerful. It's the kind of song, I think, that would have to be on the next album.
Though, as Seger sings, "the only thing that's certain / is that everything will change."
August 15, 2002
Part Twelve -- Getting Out
There were lots of things I didn't learn in the vault. Like when these new songs would be released. Which songs would be on the new CD. Whether Seger would tour again. Those are questions that no one but Seger can answer.
A question I asked myself was when I might get to hear these songs again. The answer to that was in the question also: Maybe never. Some of them might be included on a boxed set someday, but who knows. And as I noted earlier, some of the songs are from a different era that Seger might or might not want to revisit.
My hope is that by writing about these songs, I might stir some renewed interest in them. After all, I heard only a small fraction of Seger's unreleased tracks -- and yet even in the small sampling I heard, there are many songs that simply shouldn't be forgotten.
One night, it occurred to me how we might hear some of these songs, and I dreamt up an open letter to Seger. Here it is:
- Dear Bob,
I was lucky enough recently to hear some of your unreleased tracks. There's no reason in the world why you should want my opinion about them. Even I think it's preposterous for me to be offering my advice. But I'm offering it anyway.
I think you should play these songs in concert. But not an ordinary concert. A special event, devoted to charity, where only the unknown songs get played. Call it A Concert for the Underdogs. Hold it in a farmer's field or a low-rent armory somewhere -- a scrappy rock and roll place. Invite 3,000 hardcore fans, charge $100 each. If half the gate goes to charity, that's $150,000. There are lots of underdogs in Michigan -- families without health insurance, kids without food, people without homes. You choose.
These songs are underdogs too, in a way. Give them their day, this one time. Just two suggested rules for the concert: No hits, no rehearsals. Let the music be rough and spontaneous, with false starts and surprises. That's part of what we're there for. Don't even think of it as a concert. Think of it as a fundraiser with 3,000 close friends.
It could be a win-win event. Longtime fans get a rare, inside listen to songs we've longed to hear. And the under-served, under-privileged folks of Michigan get a boost at a time when it's really needed.
No one's ever done anything like this before, to my knowledge. That's another reason to do it.
Where do you find the 3,000 true blue fans? Simple. Send an invitation to everyone who's signed the Rock the Hall for Bob Seger petition at RocktheHall.com. Then open it up to readers of the Seger File, SegerNet and SegerBob.com.
If you sing them, we'll be there. Either way, thanks,
August 16, 2002
A note on copyrights: The reports in this series quote lyrics under the provisions of the Fair Use statutes. To my knowledge, all the songs are copyrighted by Gear Publishing.
To The 2002 News & Updates
The answer's in the question: No, I won't tell you how to get to the Vault. But send your other comments to: