The cover of Bob Seger’s 18th studio album, “I Knew You When,” scheduled for release on Nov. 17, features a photo of the Detroit rocker long before he was rescued from regional obscurity in 1976 by the hit single “Night Moves.” Baby-faced and clean-shaven, with an imitation Beatle mop top nearly covering his eyes, he looks a little too tall, like he could’ve used a few pounds.
The picture provides a fitting contrast to the long-haired, bearded rock ’n’ roll shouter whose vocal chops have overshadowed his underrated songwriting skills throughout his journeyman career. Seger, now a 72-year-old graybeard on the last legs of perhaps his last tour, is one of rock’s great chroniclers of aging, the passage of time and the remembrance of things past.
Well before he hit middle age, Seger had his mind in the past. “Night Moves,” written when he was 30, recalls a teenager’s first fumbling sexual adventures in backrooms, alleys and the backseat of a ’60 Chevy. In the song’s brilliant final verse, a late-summer thunderstorm wakes the narrator from his nostalgic reverie. Lying in the dark, with autumn closing in, flashing images of youth blend with visions of his own advancing years.
“Mainstreet,” a companion piece to “Night Moves,” shifts the setting of teenage lust to a dive bar in Seger’s hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., where the singer remembers “standing on a corner at midnight,” trying to summon the courage to approach a nightclub dancer, “her body softly swaying to that smoky beat.” In the last verse, Seger turns the tables, with the grown man drifting back in time and returning, literally, to the scene of his youthful fantasy.
In “Against the Wind,” from 1980, Seger examines the elusive nature of time and the lure of irresponsibility. “It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago,” begins the story of an idyllic love affair gone sour. By the end of the second verse, he ironically admits, “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” The freedom of the road beckons, but it isn’t until he hits a dead end, “surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends,” that he takes stock and resigns himself to the responsibilities of adulthood.
By the time of 1986’s “Like a Rock,” the Seger alter ego seems to have accepted his fate. He’s 18 when the song starts, dead broke, yet walking purposefully, with a blue-collar body lean and solid. But following an epic slide solo by future Fleetwood Mac guitarist Rick Vito — which lasts exactly a minute — 20 years have passed, and he’s staring into a fireplace, contemplating his youth. The song concludes:
Like a rock, the sun upon my skin Like a rock, hard against the wind Like a rock, I see myself again Like a rock
The echo of “Against the Wind” is clearly intentional, but the meaning of the phrase has changed. He sees the youthful makings of the man in his middle-aged body, but there’s a little victory in simply enduring the weathering of time.
It’s unfortunate that “Like a Rock” is mainly associated with the ubiquitous Chevy truck commercials from the 1990s, when a snippet of the tune accompanied a variety of ads featuring flannel-clad men loading heavy objects into pickups in forced displays of virility. Despite its commercialization, it’s one of Seger’s most fully realized songs, and the culmination of a decade of rock ’n’ roll reflection.