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The Joyous, Lonely Soul of Bob Seger

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ANN ARBOR, a hot summer night, Nicola's Books. Six people have come to my book reading, but they all seem to be waiting for something else.

"How many people came here to talk about Bob Seger?" I ask. Six hands go up. Straight away we adjourn to the bar next door, where we spend the next two hours talking about Bob. What he means to us. What he inspires in us. How we fell under his spell.

That's Michigan. Seger's success goes far beyond the Great Lakes State—52 million records sold, 11 platinum albums, the number one catalog album of the past decade (better luck next decade, the Beatles and Michael Jackson). And yet, outside the Midwest, Seger's still sometimes underappreciated. To music snobs, he's a meat and potatoes rocker.

Yeah, like Podnah's Pit is a meat and potatoes restaurant.

I'll sing Seger's praise on any front—vocal range, live performance, musicianship, work ethic, pure joyousness and heart—but there's one area I'm particularly passionate about: his genius as a lyricist.

You read that right. At his best, Seger is equal to any songwriter of his generation.

If you've only heard him on the radio, maybe you're shaking your head. But forming your opinion about Seger based on his radio hits is like shaping your worldview based on TV news. (Of which, Seger once sang, "I think I'll watch the TV set and let America steal my mind.") The radio tracks were chosen by Capitol Records for maximum sales potential. That's the mass-media side of Bob.

But Seger's chops go much deeper than that. He's a writer who's consistently had something to say, working on a wide canvas, which he continues to expand.

Start, for example, with the blistering "2+2=?" from 1968, one of the first anti-Vietnam War rock songs, inspired by a high school classmate who was killed "in the mud of some foreign jungle land." The barely restrained anger makes CCR's "Fortunate Son" sound like a nursery rhyme.

"So you say he died for freedom,
But if he died to save your lies,
Go ahead and call me yellow,
Two plus two is on my mind."

Forty years later, another Seger antiwar song, "No More," called BS on the Bush administration's claim that they created their own reality: "Someday you'll be ordered to explain/No one gets to walk between the rain." If those lines had appeared on Dylan's Modern Times album, über critic Greil Marcus would have led the applause.

In fact, Seger's songs have always taken aim at the status quo. Two examples spanning 30 years: "If there's war or famine/Promise I'll examine/the details if they're on TV" ("UMC," 1976). And, "The world keeps getting hotter/ice falls in the sea/We buy a bigger engine/and say it isn't me" ("Between," 2006).

In addition to social commentary, he's also a great storyteller. Long before Springsteen's Crazy Janey and the Mission Man headed out to Greasy Lake, Seger's Already Eddie was pitchin' for pennies, rockin' for bennies, and waiting for Chicago Green to bail him out of jail ("Down Home," 1969).

Lyrically, he aims for the heart, and when he goes deep, it's always genuine. He's best known, perhaps, for the story of young lovers "working on mysteries without any clues" ("Night Moves"). Less well known is how a somewhat jealous Prince studied Seger's songwriting moves to come up with a hit of his own: "Purple Rain."

And yes, as a rocker, Seger can make you smile so hard your face hurts. No argument there. But despite "Old Time Rock and Roll," (written by others, though Seger redid the verses), one of his biggest themes is loneliness—especially the yearning for connection, never quite realized or maintained.

As evidence: The first song he ever wrote was called "The Lonely One." One of his first radio hits starts with "I was born lonely..." His classic, "Turn the Page," begins "on a long and lonesome highway" and gets more emo with every line. His characters often get what they want, yet get no peace of mind. They wish they didn't know now what they didn't know then. Sure, you might meet a woman "as bright as the sun on that California coast." But then comes the morning you wake up alone.

You can even be lonely for what you once were. No song captures that better than "Like a Rock." (Sidebar: Obama bails out Detroit and gets reelected. Clint Eastwood reads a Chrysler script co-written by Portland poet Matthew Dickman and we bask in the reflected glory. A Seger song supports GM and his hometown auto industry, and the music snobs get all... well, I don't want to call anyone a hypocrite, but c'mon.)

To appreciate "Like a Rock," you have to be old enough for the lyric "Twenty years now, where'd they go?" to be freighted with both affection and heartbreak. If you don't feel that yet, wait a decade or two: You'll get there.

After nearly six minutes of watching the ghosts of youth flicker past, Seger lands on the climactic line: "I see myself again." The lyric moves us from past to present, turning nostalgia into a song of self-discovery.

All that just scratches the surface. Seger's eclectic interests cover fatherhood, addiction, baseball, trains ("Kesey next to me now darlin', straighter than a railroad track"), the music business, vampires, commercialism, cars, young love ("We were hungry but could not be fed"), and true love.

Even subatomic particles. A voracious reader who loves science books, Seger sometimes delves into physics, as in "Tomorrow" from 2003. "Let me see a show of hands/Tell me the truth now/what happens if/neutrinos have mass?" Tip: Enjoy life before the sun burns us all up.

Of course, a good lyric without a beat ain't nothing, but Seger never falters there. In his rarely heard "Railroad Days," he tells of growing up, about summer nights singing along with the Drifters on the hi-fi. "Even sang the parts the instruments were playing," he writes.

Saturday night at the Rose Garden, when Seger and the band kick in, we'll be doing all of that and more.

Scott Sparling is the author of Wire to Wire, a novel, and founder/creator of segerfile.com.

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