Bob Seger: Beautiful Loser

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] friend recently sent me a video containing footage taken at parties during our first two years of college. The action takes place exclusively in the rental home he was sharing with three other friends and which served as the primary setting of many beloved and debauched memories from early college. The home is one of those endearingly filthy hovels that only seems suitable for human occupancy by 20-year-olds who are excited at the prospect of living in a re-purposed attic.

Just like Mike Seaver from Growing Pains.

The short video interspersed clips of the four housemates, mostly after parties had ended, in various states of drunkenness. It was a sloppy, sentimental little piece of film. I loved it instantly. But a basic and vain human impulse made me disappointed not to see myself on the footage. I began to console myself, making assurances that the video had been edited for the benefit of the guys who were actually roommates. Of course they remembered me, I just wasn’t part of the special roommate club, that’s all. Then, as the film reaches its final climactic moment, the screen goes black.

Lights up. I appear.

A pudgy freshman in a plain white t-shirt, face flush-red from youth and alcohol, cradling an acoustic guitar. I sit in the center of a basement bedroom, surrounded almost perfectly by a dozen people. Their song request, unanimous: Night Moves.

There aren’t a lot of layers to peel back. Bob misses being a teenager and driving around trying to find places to have sex. Those were the days.

The song they wish so desperately to hear is the trademark anthem of Michigan’s own Bob Seger, known to the die-hards as “The Voice of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Night Moves is about hope and love and America and teenagers having sex in a car.

“Okay, okay,” I say to my demanding crowd. “Just let me get into my Seger voice.”

I take a long, purposeful drag of a cigarette to give my voice the scratchy, smoky, cool of Seger’s. My right arm brings my picking hand down hard over the steel strings of the guitar, and I begin chunking out the song’s simple chord pattern:

{: G-G-G-G-F-C-C-C-C-F-G :}

“I was a little too tall, could’ve used a few pounds,” I croon. Both prospects laughably false, but it doesn’t matter. Because when I sing Bob Seger, I fucking mean it.

As I watched the video, I remembered that this would happen with regularity. My friends would have a party, I would come over, we would get drunk, and someone (sometimes many people) would demand that I play Night Moves. I suppose this implies that initially I supplied the song of my own accord, and it was received with such acclaim that it became a regular part of any party- night song repertoire.

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As the tape reveals, the song is usually requested with an air of humor, and I endeavor to play it in much the same spirit. I make my little joke about “Seger voice” before my cigarette drag, I embellish my arm and hand movements, I over-emote as I begin to sing the lyrics. Bob’s music inspires such fanfare. But as my performance of the song wears on, this pretense wears off. I stop feigning the voice of a hard singer and start singing hard. As we drop into the minor key for the bridge, my audience, once all chuckle and holler, turn stone silent.

C D Em D C

Ain’t if funny how the night moves

D Em D C

When you just don’t seem to…have as much to lose

D Em D C

Strange how the night moves

D G

With autumn closin’ in

I let that last line linger in the air for a moment. Then, BANG, hammer that G chord home like a truck, pressing hard back into the verse. My audience comes alive again, joining in to scream Night Moves in a never-ending chorus. It’s not a novelty. We fucking mean it. Night Moves is big and broad but it can also hypnotize you with its one-dimensional honesty. There aren’t a lot of layers to peel back. Bob misses being a teenager and driving around trying to find places to have sex. Those were the days.

But it’s funny to me that I have encountered so many people over the years for whom Bob Seger is a controversial issue. Sure, there are those who sort of shruggingly dismiss him. But I have met a number of people who become so absolutely flummoxed by the mere idea that people could enjoy him that it drives them into a rage. “What, are you stupid?” is something one of these people might say. But I’ve always defended Bob. I think he’s misunderstood.

Bob Seger is ugly even by Michigan standards. This isn’t an insult. Not completely. It’s probably the most important thing about him. Nothing about Bob Seger would make any sense if he were traditionally good-looking.

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But Bob isn’t just ugly. He is ugly in that fascinating way where he goes so far beyond being unattractive that he begins to be handsome again, as if he crosses the Prime Meridian of ugliness. It’s a quality that I admire in a man whose main musical effort has been the romantic ballad. Oh pity the plethora of women through the years who have become smitten with Bob’s voice only to discover that he looks like someone recently laid off from working at a toll booth.

Certainly Seger isn’t the first ugly pop musician in the world to write a love song – Lyle Lovett, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, etc. Indeed, these guys deserve credit for turning love-song-writing into the ugly man’s game. Of course our intentions are pure. Look at us. We’re hideous.

But those guys are all ugly in a wiry, artistic, English sort of way. Even if only one of them is actually English. Theirs is the sort of ugliness that is non-threatening, docile, and pitiable. None of them would necessarily look ridiculous holding a giant feather pen.

In the early 90’s, no one ever understood how Lovett could have possibly managed to seduce an American princess like Julia Roberts. But this always made sense to me. Lovett is ugly in a way that says I’m so skinny and sallow and sad and nobody ever wanted to go to Prom with me so I just stood outside the gym and watched all the other kids go with their pretty dates and all of that rejection and pain and sadness has given me insight and sympathy and compassion and a profound understanding of the human condition and I turn all of that into beautiful songs and now I want to write those songs for YOU AND ONLY YOU FOREVER AND EVER AMEN.

Bob Seger is ugly in a way that says my dad used to beat me, so I stabbed him.

The issue of handsomeness is so important to who Bob Seger is and what he represents mostly because it begins the conversation about Bob and the person he is most often compared to/against/with: Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen is impossibly handsome. If record companies paid scientists to artificially create a man who aesthetically embodied all of the hardscrabble qualities of the characters in Springsteen’s music (but in the most pleasing ways possible) the results could never have been as successful as Springsteen’s natural form – broad-shouldered and lantern-jawed, but with those wet eyes always looking to the horizon in a gaze of forlorn sensitivity. Rock music has provided us with the power-chord, the power-slide, and the power-stance. The Boss has given us the power-squint.

The Springsteen/Seger comparison goes further, though. Most often it occurs in the context of Seger being referred to as “the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen.”

This isn’t a slight against Springsteen, per se. It’s just important to establish the differences between these two men, as popular culture wants to assert that they are intrinsically tied together. And from where I’m standing, the deck is loaded in Springsteen’s favor. Even his name seems engineered. “Bruce” is simple and manly, and somehow also slightly exotic, almost dangerous. Sure, it’s a common, one-syllable name. But it’s not Carl. It’s not Dan. It’s not Gene or Phil or Ken. It’s Bruce. And Bruce is a cool guy’s name. Bruce is the kid from metal shop who secretly keeps a copy of Howl in the inside pocket of his tattered jean-jacket. He’s the guy who plays Leonard Cohen on the jukebox at Rusty’s Tavern and no one says a god damn word.

Bob Seger’s name is fucking Bob. And Bob is not a cool name. And he’s ugly as an old dog. Which means, of course, that Bob actually looks like the people he sings about. Springsteen looks like the cover-model of a Harlequin romance novel, if Harlequin romance novels took place in Hoboken. Which can at times prove to be the greater burden to bear. Because now the music and the message are also wrapped up in the beauty. And with each year, it becomes a little more strained and little more ridiculous for Springsteen to wear the biker boots and the bandanas and the denim vests. And it’s harder and harder to squeeze into those old Levi’s, but you find a way to do it. And now there’s hair plugs and spray tans and soul patches and leather bracelets. How do you wrap your mind around recording a Pete Seeger tribute album when you’re glowing orange and wearing a leather bracelet?

Ugliness keeps people honest. And if you’re Bob Seger, this means realizing the limits of the size and scope of your talent. At least we won’t have to worry about Bob writing some half-baked protest song. We won’t have to endure him coming out on stage with blonde highlights and an Ed Hardy T-Shirt. In fact, Seger’s looks have softened and even slightly improved with age. He’s managed to keep his hair although it has gone shock-white, and he’s traded in the unruly mutton-chops he so proudly displays on the cover of the Night Moves LP for a full blown beard. As one would expect from someone in their early 60’s, he gone soft in the middle. The combination of all of these elements give him the appearance of something of a Santa Clause sponsored by Winston Lights.

The Springsteen/Seger comparison goes further, though. Most often it occurs in the context of Seger being referred to as “the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen.” (Tangentially, I understand the spirit of this metaphor, but I’ve still always found it to be an odd choice. Isn’t Bruce Springsteen the “poor man’s” Bruce Springsteen? Who is the “rich man’s” Bruce Springsteen? Probably Michael McDonald.)

The point is that somehow Bob Seger gets cast aside as a Springsteen knock-off – a watered-down, crappy version of the Real Deal. This comparison posits the argument that Springsteen is the more authentic, more fully-realized artist. But the way I’ve always seen it, Bob Seger is, in many ways, as fully-realized as Springsteen. It’s just that, in the case of Bob Seger, the thing that gets realized is the ethos of Midwesterner.

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Bob Seger is not just a Midwestern singer, he is the Midwestern singer – the musical embodiment of everything that is shiny and dumb and beautiful and powerful about middle-America, even when he isn’t directly singing about middle-America. Springsteen isn’t better than Seger, he just represents a completely different set of ideals, and to dismiss Seger’s legitimacy is to dismiss the legitimacy of my own identity as a Midwesterner.

This brings us to the thing that is probably most important aspect of loving Bob Seger; accepting the fact that he can be terrible. This is a concession that needs to be acknowledged if one is to genuinely invest themselves into appreciating all that is right and holy about Seger-dom. And only true believers will ever bask in all of Bob’s glory. One reason for this requirement is that Seger is such a prime candidate for millennial generation irony worship.

I’m surprised that Bob hasn’t been hijacked by this cohort to a much greater extent. By now I would have expected the bars of Brooklyn and Wicker Park to be jammed every Thursday night for karaoke versions of Against the Wind and Hollywood Nights spewed half-heartedly by eye-rolling twenty-two-year-olds in stocking caps and cruelly taut denim. Honestly, it kind of hurts my feelings.

What, Bob Seger’s not good enough for your mockery?

But that’s not the way to appreciate Bob, because that is to assume that he is terrible all of the time.

We weren’t being clever or ironic. We were just a bunch of drunk kids—friends—enjoying ourselves, enjoying the moment.
Just workin’ on those night moves.

Which is, or course, not true. He can be a beefy force of muscle-throated nature. It’s important to remember that, before he became the ubiquitous hallmark of dad-rock radio stations and truck commercials, Bob Seger was the best white R&B singer in Detroit at a time when Detroit was exporting more white R&B singers than Cadillacs. And that voice kicked serious ass. Even when he mellowed and began churning out the mid-tempo ballads that would become the trademark of the most successful part of his career, he would still sing the ever-living shit out of a song.

There has to be something to the fact that a song like “Like a Rock” still has the power to raise hairs on the back of my neck, even though due to its commercial use I’ve heard it thousands upon thousands of times. And the thing is, I know that it’s not even good. Everything I feel to be true about what makes a song good tells me that “Like a Rock” is a lemon. It’s over-sentimental, over-produced, and just thoroughly over-wrought. But Seger sings it with such conviction, it ends up sounding better than it really is. Which is the real magic trick for me.

Because Seger doesn’t ever seem to know whether or not the song he is singing is actually any good. But it doesn’t matter. He attacks the good and bad ones with equal spirit, tenacity, and balls. And because his voice is so powerful, he can virtually will a bad song into being a good one. Which is really the most humble thing a musician can do. He’s not saving powers of thought or energy or voice for just the winners. That’s why it feels so good to love a Seger song, irony-free, for better or worse, with everything that you have. You know that he did. He has never taken himself so seriously that he didn’t wager to attack real turds like the unlistenable “Horizontal Bop.” The magic trick doesn’t work every time, but he’s never afraid to try.

And that’s what people from the Midwest do. We fucking try. Which means we may look like fools or rubes in the attempt. I certainly did as I watched myself on that tape in that basement so many years ago. At least at first. But I kept singing that song, pushing it past the point of the joke. I sang it hard and mean. And by the end, the magic trick had worked. We weren’t being clever or ironic. We were just a bunch of drunk kids—friends—enjoying ourselves, enjoying the moment.

Just workin’ on those night moves.

BobSeger

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Mark Augustine

Mark Augustine

Mark Augustine is a faculty member at Columbia College Chicago and a staff writer at BG: Blues And Music News.

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