Bob Seger built his first big following in his native Midwest — even though on "Katmandu" he sang of getting as far away from there as he possibly could. His frustrated Midwestern characters head for the mountains, or flee backward into their memories. Yet for all the leaving, Bob Seger never quite left his native Michigan.
Cars made by Detroit automakers race through his songs. One of the most famous, "Night Moves," was set in the backseat of a "'60 Chevy." Years later, Chevrolet turned another Seger song, "Like a Rock," a commercial theme.
His latest album, Face the Promise, has Seger touring again at age 61, the first time in a decade. Last month, Seger made headlines when he played near Detroit, headquarters of the industry where he briefly worked as a young man.
But he didn't want a career in the auto industry.
"Even in junior high, I always knew I had a talent for music and I knew I could make money that way," he tells Steve Inskeep.
Bob Seger played music for a decade with only glimmers of success. At one point he quit and went to college, but dropped out to take another pummeling in the music business.
His turnaround started in the mid-1970s, with an album called Beautiful Loser. It was just successful enough to keep him in the game. It was followed by a popular live album, then a string of smash-hit recordings — songs that millions came to know, like "Night Moves," "Against the Wind" and "Old-Time Rock & Roll."
The title song of "Beautiful Loser" describes a type of person you could probably find anywhere, in New York or Nevada or Nigeria. Yet when I discovered this song, as a teenager in the 1980s, I felt that something about the character was especially Midwestern. Maybe I felt that way because I was Midwestern, and the guy in the song was a little like me:
He wants to dream like a young man With the wisdom of an old man He wants his home and security He wants to live like a sailor at sea Beautiful loser, where you gonna fall When you realize, you just can't have it all?
I related to that guy, wanting to be adventurous but also conservative, wanting to play by the rules but also to win. "He's your oldest and your best friend / If you need him, he'll be there again" — I'd want somebody to think that of me. But somehow this guy wrecks his own ambitions. At the end, the song turns bitter:
Beautiful loser, never take it all 'Cause it's easier and faster when you fall You just don't need it all
When Seger spoke with us, I mentioned that old song. He didn't need much prompting to talk about it, even though it's been more than 30 years since he wrote it:
BOB SEGER: That was really inspired by Leonard Cohen, whom I've always been a huge fan of. And he actually had a book of poems called Beautiful Losers... When I had read that he had written that — I've never read the poems — but I've heard every Leonard Cohen song ever written because I'm a big fan. And it struck me — boy, what a great title for a song, you know?
There's a song ["The Stranger Song"] in a great [Robert] Altman film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller... I think it was something about a dealer and "like every dealer he is reaching for the card that is so high and wild, he'll never have to deal another."... He's reaching for the sky just to surrender. And those two things, the title Beautiful Losers from Cohen's book and "reaching for the sky just to surrender," I can relate to that. People who set their goals so high that they're impossible, so they have comfort in failing. Does that make any sense? And that's what "Beautiful Loser" is all about. You... I don't know how to describe it but
STEVE INSKEEP: You're doing pretty well.
SEGER: I think I just did and that was the idea of the song. Whether or not I communicated it or not I'm not sure but... I just thought it was a clever title which I lifted blatantly from Leonard Cohen (laughs), and a different subject matter to write about. How some people are like that.
INSKEEP: Was that guy you?
SEGER: Um, I don't think so. I've always been fairly ambitious (laughs), but I've known a lot of people who are like that, who set themselves up to fail by reaching too far. I think we all do.
INSKEEP: They want to be polite, they want to be nice and they want to be aggressive, they want to be at home, they want to be away.
SEGER: They want it all. And, boy, if there's anything you learn — Picasso said you learn everything by the time you're 60, but you can't do anything about it (laughs). And that's where I am now. And if there's anything I have learned is that you can't have it all. You sure can't.