Ramblin', gamblin' Seger's a family man

Long-overdue material is coming, he promises

October 31, 2003

BY BRIAN MCCOLLUM

FREE PRESS POP MUSIC WRITER

There's a big arched window that overlooks the Michigan woods outside Bob Seger's home studio. On a cool October morning, with the leaves providing a splash of rustic yellow and orange, the scene feels right. It feels like a Bob Seger kind of place.

This room, in a wood cabin on 20 acres of forest outside Clarkston, is Seger's working spot. On a couch by the window, he often sits alone with an acoustic guitar, eyes settling beyond the trees, and he thinks. He sketches lyrics onto a well-worn pad. He scribbles and rewrites. He hums in the chiseled voice that's become one of rock 'n' roll's familiar sounds.

In 2000, a Michigan congressman lobbied to anoint Seger the state's poet laureate. It wasn't a joke. For four decades, the Detroit native has positioned himself -- and been positioned by devotees -- as a red-blooded, blue-collar artist. Seger was the everyman rocker before Bruce Springsteen ever had a record deal; he was the rough-hewn soul singer who transformed himself into one of the leading voices of reflection during the 1970s.

Next Tuesday brings the release of Seger's first new solo material in nearly a decade. They're just two new songs -- tacked on to the end of his second volume of greatest hits -- but for a fan base that's eager for something new, they arrive with big promise.

Those cuts, "Satisfied" and "Tomorrow," are likely to deliver. They're vintage Seger -- fiery, crunching rockers with soulful organ in back and classic uunngh! vocals on top. They also signal a revived energy for Seger's next album, tentatively titled "Face the Promise," four years in the making and due next summer.

Capturing a raw feel is now a self-imposed mandate for an artist long regarded as a meticulous studio craftsman. Seger concedes that 1995's "It's a Mystery" -- a critical and commercial misfire -- was a sloppy effort overdependent on drum machines.

"I'm cured of that now," he says, punctuated with the hearty laugh that usually accompanies Seger conversations. "It's always live drums, live playing now. I really think that's the magic. I like people to just bring it to the table and feel the moment."

Even around Detroit, where Seger is often spotted enjoying his Pistons season tickets or hitting a golf ball, folks have wondered what's going on. He hasn't toured since 1996, a monster outing that included eight sold-out hometown shows. This nine-year gap between albums is by far the longest of his career.

He's heard the rumors: that he has throat cancer, or he's infirm, or he simply can't sing anymore. Not true, he insists.

"Whenever I meet people, I just tell them, 'I'm writing away!' " he says. "And when I think it's good, I'll put it out."

The truth is, Seger has become a diehard family man. A refrigerator at the cabin bears snapshots of 10-year-old son Cole and 8-year-old daughter Samantha. The kids are pushing him to tour; they were too young in '96 to remember what Dad looks like in a spotlight.

But Seger says it's unlikely he'll hit the road again. He doesn't mind performing. What turns him off is the touring itself, the droning hours offstage.

"I'm 58. It's a matter of commitment," he says. "I'd want to be sure I can deliver what people expect to hear. I'd definitely be enthused. I just don't know if I can physically do it. Or if I should."

Different priorities

"Family is where he's at," says disc jockey and Seger friend Arthur Penhallow. "He's a very involved father. He doesn't drink or party anymore. It's the best thing that's ever happened for him. He's been blessed."

Penhallow has been spinning "Satisfied" during his afternoon shift at WRIF-FM (101.1), pleasantly surprised to see the phones light up with positive feedback.

"But he still spends a lot of time in the studio," says Penhallow. "He hasn't let go of being Bob Seger the artist."

In the age of Kid Rock and Eminem, Seger remains Detroit's favorite musical son. The bond is old and deep, secured back when the hair was still brown and the regular venues were gyms and teen clubs.

"Every time I meet somebody new, they always have a story: 'You're not going to believe where I saw you play -- at the armory in Monroe, or in Bad Axe,' "he says, seated at the first piece of furniture he ever bought, a beat-up wooden table he got after his 1967 local hit, "Heavy Music."

"There's been a lot of good will built up over the years."

Seger sets aside five hours a day for himself -- for writing, tinkering, toying with his music. He's got a mammoth backlog of material, which may end up on a compilation down the road, an odds-and-sods album he's titled "Everything."

"There are easily 30 or 35 songs in the running for the new album," says longtime studio engineer David Cole. "It's definitely vintage Bob. There's some stuff here I'd love to hear him rocking to in concert, and there's some stuff that's very intimate and personal to him. He's matured as a man, and has written songs about being a family man and seeing his kids grow up. He's still doing his job as an artist, digging deeper and revealing more."

Whatever it looks like from the outside, Seger says, he's still enjoying what got him juiced when he was a kid listening to old blues songs crackling on late-night radio.

"I write a lot of songs people don't hear. . . . I fall in love with every single one of them," he says. "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."

 

 

Contact BRIAN McCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or mccollum@freepress.com.