TOPICS > Arts

Essayist Looks at a Singer and His City

April 4, 2007 at 5:40 PM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: When Bob Seger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the old-school Detroit rocker was saluted by the new school, Kid Rock.

KID ROCK, Musician: Until tonight, the most underrated singer-songwriter and live performer of our time has been Bob Seger.

(APPLAUSE)

He is the beautiful loser who has sold 50 million records. Bob Seger has paid more dues than all the artists in the current Billboard Top 40 combined.

CLARENCE PAGE: Kid Rock wasn’t kidding. Around the world, Seger’s songs may be better known than he is. But with a following as big as the one he’s kept over the years, you don’t call his hits golden oldies. They’re classics.

Seger’s been performing since the 1960s, inspired by a rainbow coalition of his generation’s musical genius, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and the Motown writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The rest is his own sound: A Seger’s brew, it borrows from rock, folk, country, gospel, and other flavors that found their way into the Motor City’s melting pot. In his vivid moods and powerful imagery, love strikes a balance with loss and the ironic wisdom that comes with lessons hard-learned.

With those themes of love and loss, Seger seems a lot like his city, Detroit, a great music town, struggling against the world’s forgetfulness.

This is the city, after all, that gave us Bill Haley and the Comets, the band that helped give rock and roll its name, with a swing shift, factory town theme, “Rock Around the Rock.” Detroit gave us the almost-forgotten Hank Ballard, who launched “The Twist” before Chubby Checker heard of it, and Wilson Pickett, who went down to Memphis to record his breakthrough hit, “In the Midnight Hour.”

And, of course, Detroit provided the crucible for a preacher’s daughter named Aretha Franklin to mix gospel with rhythm and blues and be crowned as the indispensable queen of soul.

But the words “Detroit music” are most closely identified with some other Rock Hall of Fame names, the Motown stars like Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, or the Four Tops, singing “Shake Me, Wake Me When It’s Over.”

Now it’s the golden age of Motown that’s over. After Motown moved to Hollywood, Detroit hit the skids. So did the rest of industrial America. It lingers in our memory like a golden oldie in the new global age.

Motor City songs gain a different meaning when played as background to a commercial for Chevy trucks. It’s an ironic choice: Contrary to the ad’s bold heavy metal visuals, the lyric is a wistful retrospective, old age looking back on virile youth. Like a lot of Seger songs, it’s about memories, and he has a lot.

Looking back, an old timer has to wonder what’s ahead. What happens to factory town music when the factories are gone? After a long hiatus, Bob Seger recently went back on the road, touring again at age 61.

Seger has new songs to sing, but rock and roll never forgets. He knows what his generation, our generation, really wants. He even wrote a song about it.

I’m Clarence Page.