Graded on a Curve:
Bob Seger and the
Silver Bullet Band,
Night Moves

Celebrating Bob Seger who turned 76 yesterday.Ed.

Through no fault of his own—or maybe it is his fault, I don’t know—Bob Seger has never gotten any respect. He’s the Rodney Dangerfield of rock, and this despite the fact that he’s written his fair share of memorable, and even great, songs. He’s always been the consummate journeyman—someone you might go to see, but without being totally psyched about it—but in the bicentennial year of 1976 he rose above his station to produce two very, very good LPs, Night Moves and Live Bullet.

The former included a couple of instant standards, while the latter made a convincing argument that seeing him live might just be a better bet than you think. I’ve liked him since I first listened to my older brother’s copy of Live Bullet way back in 1976, and I continue to have a soft spot in my heart for him, this despite the fact that he’s the force of evil who bequeathed us such awful songs as “Like a Rock,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” and the dreadful “Old Time Rock and Roll,” which to his credit he didn’t write but still recorded, which probably merits the electric chair. Why he even helped the Eagles write “Heartache Tonight,” a song that deserves to be burned at the stake.

But I forgive him, because he’s also given us such great tunes as “Get Out of Denver,” “Turn the Page,” “Beautiful Loser,” “Looking Back,” “Katmandu,” “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” “Night Moves,” and “2 + 2 = ?” And his version of “Nutbush City Limits” is almost as good as Tina Turner’s. As much a product of Detroit as the trucks he’s helped to sell via the suckass “Like a Rock,” Seger played in or founded a number of bands—the most notable being The Bob Seger System—without achieving much more than regional success before forming the Silver Bullet Band in 1974. Live Bullet finally propelled him to national stardom, and Night Moves solidified his status as a player in the big leagues.

Unlike fellow Detroiters the MC5 and The Stooges, Seger was never a firebrand; instead he was the epitome of Heartland Rock, which pays due respect to rock’s origins and doesn’t have a musically radical bone in its body. He was John Mellencamp before there was a John Mellencamp, a purveyor of meat and potato songs that told stories and that never veered too far from a relatively conservative template that fit neatly into the classic rock tradition. Which is undoubtedly why he’s been inducted into that den of iniquity, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Night Moves opens with “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” a decent tune that owes its allegiance to Chuck Berry and which I’ve never forgiven for reminding me too much of “Old Time Rock and Roll.” Its anthemic qualities have always left me cold, and what does he mean by saying rock and roll never forgets, anyway? Forgets what? Its truck keys? I do like its extended conclusion, which features some nice sax over guitar, but overall it only serves to underscore Seger’s inherently backwards-looking attitude towards rock. It’s one thing to respect rock’s traditions, but you don’t have to be a suck-up about it, and I would lay odds that Seger hasn’t liked any new music since the heyday of the Sex Pistols.

Fortunately “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” is followed by the title track, which I’ve always loved for its autumnal aura; I find Seger’s soulful evocation of lost time immensely moving, and the wonderful melody underscores the song’s theme. Looking back on the “sweet summertime” when his first tentative forays into sex were like “working on mysteries without any clues,” Seger recollects a youthful affair that was all about fucking and nothing to do with love, and the song’s nostalgic theme reminds me of Van Morrison and the songs on Astral Weeks. The female backing vocalists are great, as is the chorus, but the best part by far is when Seger is awakened by the sound of thunder and sings, “It’s funny how the night moves/With autumn closing in.” Few rockers have confronted growing old with more class, and “Night Moves” is an elegiac classic.

“The Fire Down Below” is one cool number, featuring a funky guitar riff and Seger singing at his gruffest. It’s wonderfully propulsive, and features a great guitar solo, and I love the false ending followed by Seger’s “1, 2, 3” and more guitar. “Sunburst” is a beautiful tune with some very enigmatic lyrics, to say nothing of some moving guitar and piano work. It moves along at a stately tempo until Seger shouts, “Bring on the night!” and cranks things up a couple of notches. The guitars play some big power chords, and then the song speeds up, the drummer kicks up a ruckus, and the Silver Bullet Band plays on all cylinders, ratcheting up the sound yet another notch before returning to that lovely piano, which is joined by a flute of all things. A real winner, this one.

“Sunspot Baby” is another salute to Chuck Berry, and features stripped down guitar along with a funny set of lyrics about a duplicitous woman who loves Seger only to leave him in the lurch, taking everything she can put her hands on in the process. “She left me here stranded like a dog out in the yard,” Seger mopes, and “charged up a fortune on my credit card.” There’s a great guitar solo, after which Seger mourns his newfound bad credit rating, which you’ve to hand it to him isn’t your average rock trope. And it’s all set to some crunchy guitar and a funky piano, which take out the song as Seger swears to track her down. “Mainstreet” strikes the same reminiscent chord as “Night Moves,” and I love its echoing guitar and Seger’s memories of a past forever gone, so much dust in the gutter.

Seger is the Proust of Detroit, and his ability to recapture lost time gives both “Night Moves” and “Mainstreet” an emotional power they wouldn’t possess otherwise. This one involves a stripper he loved from afar, one he wanted to talk to but couldn’t get his courage up, and features a nice solo as Seger sings about drifting back in time to find his feet “down on Mainstreet.” It’s a bittersweet masterpiece in miniature, as is “Night Moves”—the kinds of songs that grow more resonant the older you get, which is perhaps the reason why I, a rock critic long in the tooth, love them both so much.

“Come to Poppa” features a funky groove and a great guitar, to say nothing of a tight rhythm section. It demonstrates the same soul roots that enabled Seger to pull off “Nutbush City Limits,” and it doesn’t hurt the song any that the guitarist is going at the wah wah pedal like his life depends on it. And so what if the tune makes Seger sound like an old lecher? I’m an old lecher too, and we have our rights. “Ship of Fools” is a mellow sea-faring tale sung from the perspective of a sole survivor of a shipwreck, and doesn’t really boast much but a nice melody, but it’s not just filler and that’s enough for me. As for “Mary Lou,” it’s “Sunspot Baby” all over again, only not quite as good. A nod of the guitar to both Berry and Buddy Holly, “Mary Lou” does boast a mean instrumental interlude, but the backing vocals aren’t so hot, and if “Mary Lou” and “Sunspot Baby” tell us anything it’s that Seger really needs to take a hard look at why he always winds up with women who skedaddle with his money.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this LP is I own a copy of it, but have no idea where it came from and no way of playing it, since I’ve yet to put out the green for a record player. That said I’m glad to have it around, because while I may not love Seger I am grateful to him for the handful of great songs he’s written over the years. He will never be hip, will never even get close, but I’d sooner listen to “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “Get Out of Denver” than anything I’ve ever heard by Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, you name it. Which I guess makes me as much of a rock reactionary as he is, or would if MY idea of Heartland Rock wasn’t Killdozer, Halo of Flies, and Cows. In any event, you diss him at your own peril, and this from a guy who can’t listen to “Like a Rock” without wanting to hit Bob with one—a really big one, with plenty of sharp edges.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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