Bob Seger, whose “American Storm” is one of the fastest-rising singles in the country, laughed when asked if he views the increasing gray in his beard as a badge of honor--a symbol of his survivor status in rock.
Seger, the dean of the ‘70s-spawned class of American rock songwriters that includes Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, returned, “No, I hate it, but what can you do?
“I was at this restaurant the other night and I saw (veteran character actor) Harry Dean Stanton and the guy was amazing. He didn’t have any gray in his hair. I kept thinking, ‘Why couldn’t I have hair like that?’ ”
There was a time when Seger and his rock buddies wouldn’t have been as carefree talking about age. Seger, 40, even wrote a song in 1976 about the subject of age and rock, partly to convince himself that he still fit into that youth-oriented world. The song, “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” includes the line, “Sweet little 16’s turned 31.”
About the song, he said: “The funny thing is I thought I was really old then. Part of the reason was I hit so late . . . . I was 31 or 32 when ‘Night Moves’ came out. I remember a member of my band used to say he was going into country music someday because they don’t care how old you are. . .and once you are beyond Teen magazine in rock, you are history.
“But things have changed. The rock audience has grown up, too, and the important thing--just as I said in ‘Rock and Roll Never Forgets'--is whether you can still relate to the passion and innocence that is rock ‘n’ roll.
“That’s one of the things I tried to deal with in this album. I didn’t set out to make it a concept album exactly, but there is a theme and it is renewal .”
Given the name of the new single (“American Storm”), it’s easy to assume that Seger’s just-released album, “Like a Rock,” is yet another socially conscious State of the Union address. But the single isn’t part of the New Patriotism message suggested in Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” Jackson Browne’s “For America” and other works by Seger contemporaries. And the LP is more about personal than social renewal (see review on this page.
After all these years, Seger still is dealing with basic themes of the trade: sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But there’s a maturity in the songs that makes a more fitting tag: relationships, anti-drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Discussing the hit single, he said: “I knew some people would think the song was about America. It’s just unavoidable these days. There have been so many songs with America in the title or the lyrics--and I like a lot of them. I heard Bruce’s song long before it came out and I kept telling everybody that it was going to be a special record. And I doubt if there’ll be an album I like better all year than Jackson’s new one.
“But that’s not what my album is about and we didn’t want someone to be confused. That’s why we changed the title, which was originally going to be ‘American Storm.’ We switched to ‘Like a Rock’ to avoid that comparison.”
So what storm is he referring to in lines like:
It’s like a full force gale
An American storm
You’re buried beneath a mountain of cold
And you never get warm.
“I’m talking about drugs,” Seger said, sitting in the den of his rented Bel-Air house. “The whole thing was getting to be so depressing around the time I wrote the song, which was nearly three years ago now.
“The reason I called it ‘ American Storm’ is that it isn’t just a United States problem. Before I started researching the subject, I assumed that people in places like Colombia were supporting (the drug traffic) because it is bringing so much money down there, but most of the people in those countries are against it, too, because it is corrupting their whole way of life and their governments.”
Seger never went through a heavy-drug period, though people “important to me” have. “Drugs are destroying so many people people and I thought I ought to stand up and be counted. If they want to call me square, they can.”
There are too many exceptions to the rule to suggest that you can predict a songwriter’s personality by just the tone of his music. You aren’t always what you write. Some of the most sensitive lyricists turn out to be self-centered jerks.
But Seger, whose hits have ranged from the sensual “Night Moves” to the scorching “Hollywood Nights,” is a lot like his music: unpretentious, down-to-earth, good-natured.
Yet there is also a thoughtful side to Seger--as reflected in deeply personal and frequently inspiring ballads such as “Against the Wind” and “The Famous Final Scene.”
The new album’s theme of renewal surfaces in frequently unexpected ways. While “American Storm” is about turning away from drugs, the title tune is about battling against the hustling and scheming of the record business. “Miami” is about the 125,000 Cubans who came to this country in the 1980 Marielitos boat lift.
Seger lived in the Miami area for three months in 1983 and was intrigued by the contrast between the way the country likes to think of itself as a warm, open society and the discrimination that he saw against the Cubans.
Seger’s home is in Detroit, but he has been based here for months, working on the final touches of the album and his first video.
Seger shoved a videocassette of “American Storm” into a VCR and waited for the video to come on the screen. Part of the video contains tongue-in-cheek scenes from what looks like a movie about a drug bust, but actually is footage shot for the video. The cast includes James Woods, Scott Glenn and Lesley Ann Warren.
The other half of the video is Seger and his band in concert--actually shot on a sound stage in Hollywood.
“That really felt good,” he said of being back on stage after nearly three years of working on his new album.
“I never planned to take this long to make the record, but I wanted to produce it myself and it took me months just to learn how everything worked in the studio. It was an experiment and the whole thing got out of hand. There was nobody to say ‘no’ to me and I ended up recording 25 songs in four different cities.
But the problem wasn’t just in the studio. He also had trouble writing. He estimates he wrote all or part of 100 songs before settling on the nine on the LP. The reason, he said, is that he had trouble focusing on his work because of the breakup of two relationships: one romance that had lasted 11 years and a subsequent one that lasted two years.
Several of the songs on the album, including the anxious “Tightrope” and the melancholy “Somewhere Tonight,” are about the first breakup. Ironically, another song, “It’s You,” celebrates the arrival of the now out-of-date second relationship. It includes these lines:
No one has to tell me I’m a lucky man
No one has to tell me that it’s real.
Does it feel strange to include such an optimistic song on an album when he knows the relationship didn’t last?
“No,” he said. “When I write songs, I try to say something that is true, whatever the subject is. And that emotion is what is true, if only for the moment. . . . Writing is my favorite time.
“That’s when I get to sit down with a clean sheet of paper. On some days, nothing works. At other times, there’s the magic of capturing just what you feel. That’s part of the beauty of rock ‘n’ roll. . . . It forces you to keep renewing yourself.”