Bob Seger reflects on growing up in Ann Arbor, looks forward to concert at EMU
Darren Breen | The Grand Rapids Press
Bob Seger, who went from his Ann Arbor roots in the 1960s to international fame as a rock star in the '70s and beyond, returns to his home area Wednesday for a concert at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center.
It's been decades since Seger last performed in Washtenaw County, so anticipation is running high for the EMU show. The singer, songwriter, musician and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee recently spoke on the phone to AnnArbor.com — covering everything from his teen hangouts to the appeal of life in Michigan to the digital release of his back catalog.
Q. If you don’t mind, I’d like to start off by asking about your time in Ann Arbor. I’ve seen different birth places listed for you
A. I was born in Detroit, at Henry Ford Hospital I’m kind of proud of this fact, that my son was born in Detroit too We’re both Detroit kids.
Q. And you moved to Ann Arbor around age 5?
A. Yeah, around age 4 or 5, and we lived on Packard a couple blocks down from the Blue Front. We used to go there all the time, my brother and I At one time there was a grocery store there where my mom and I would go, and my dad Ralph’s, I think it was called, but it’s not the Ralph’s chain.
We moved to California for six months, and then we came back. My dad wanted to try to get a job in California. He didn’t find the job he wanted, so we moved back, and we moved to Wellington Court, which is off Cambridge, lived there for a while. Then my dad left, when I was 10, and we moved to ... Sheehan Street, and that’s where I went to high school. And then I lived on White, and then I lived on Packard again for a very short time, then I lived on the East Side two different places.
I remember the low point when my dad was gone: We lived on Third Street in a front room, and I take people there sometimes. I took Ken Elder, my old buddy from Ann Arbor, there and said, “This is where I lived, dude.” We didn’t even have a bathroom. We had one room and bunk beds, and we shared the downstairs bathroom with another lady.
Q. Do you remember where and when you got your first guitar?
A. Yeah, my friend Bill Clark, from high school, gave me a guitar that his parents had given him, and he didn’t like playing guitar. He said, “Will you just take this thing?” (laughs) And he gave it to me.
I learned on ukulele, on Wellington Court, when I was 10 years old. I learned from my dad, and I started playing on a ukulele. When I saw the George Harrison (documentary recently produced by Martin Scorsese), man, that’s how I learned too. But I learned on a bass ukulele, slightly bigger than a normal ukulele, and it had a little bit bigger sound. And I remember playing Elvis songs, Buddy Holly songs, stuff like that.
Q. What kind of a kid were you in high school?
A. I was all As in eighth grade, and then in high school, my dad was gone now, and I got into music, so my grades dropped. I did graduate!
I was playing on weekends in fraternity parties. I was working at the Brown Jug delivering pizza during the week, and I was also working at Wild’s Men’s Store. I’d get out early from school and work a co-op job, because we all had to work, my mother, my brother and I. That’s when we were living on Pauline, which is right by the U of M stadium .Q. Was there much of an Ann Arbor music scene at that time?
A. Well, I wrote “Mainstreet” about Washboard Willie playing down on Ann Street. There was a club there — I can’t remember the name of the club, but it was just off of Main Street, and Washboard Willie used to play there all the time, and a lot of students would go down there. And of course I was young and I couldn’t go in, and I’d stand outside and listen. He played great R&B and blues.
Q. Are there any other specific Ann Arbor ties to any of your songs that people might not be aware of?
A. “Night Moves” is a huge one. “Night Moves” is about the “grassers” that we’d hold out near Zeeb Road. My friend Richie Gregory from high school—he just passed away, unfortunately—He had a car with a record player in it—one of those upside-down record players. And we would play our records and turn on the lights and have what’s called a “grasser.” That’s what we called the parties back then, grassers. A bunch of teenagers—we’d go out there with cars and shine our lights and dance and listen to the records.
Q. In addition to the places you’ve already mentioned, did you have any other favorite hangouts?
A. Well, Everett’s Drive-In, when it was there. A & W. Those were our two hangouts. Everett’s Drive-In was on Stadium, and A & W was on Stadium, and the cars would go do the figure eight, constantly go back and forth. (laughs) ...
Q. You live in Oakland County now, right?
A. Yeah, I’ve been living in Oakland County since I was 21.
Q. What is it about southeast Michigan that’s kept you here all these years when you could have gone anywhere?
A. Well, I should say, at least once every two years I go to Ann Arbor. And I love going on a football day, and I go on my motorcycle or something, and see all the U of M regalia everywhere, and go by the Blue Front, and go by the Union, and go by all the places I hung out.
Q. What’s kept you in Michigan?
A. Friends, family. My brother lives in Traverse City; he’s the last of my immediate family, he and I.
You know, I’ve always loved the Great Lakes. I love to boat. I’ve always loved what we call “Up North.” I’ve had a place up there for 35 years, north of Harbor Springs, and I’ve lived there longer than any house, ever, that I’ve owned.
Q. Do you remember the last time you played a concert in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti?
A. Well, it would have been Crisler (Arena) I think Bruce got up with me, Bruce Springsteen, and sang with me. I’ve got a cassette tape of it. We did pretty good! (laughs) And then I have another one of me getting up with him at Crisler as well (in 1980) We did “Thunder Road.”
Q. Any special surprises in store for the show at EMU?
A. ... Yeah, we’ve got a couple surprises, but I don’t want to give them away!
Q. Did you specifically try to get a show in Washtenaw County on this batch of dates, or was that just a happy accident?
A. I did, I did. We needed to get two days ahead of time, whatever venue we were in, and EMU was the only place we could get that from. We had to have two days ahead of time because we have a brand new PA and a brand new sound mixer. We upgraded our PA to a thing called a line array, which is a better system than we had last time. If you saw the McCartney show in Detroit, it’s the same system. . And the Kid Rock show outdoors in Detroit, he had line array. It’s just a great system, and I asked for it and we got it, but with that comes a new sound mixer to run it.
Q. Without giving anything away, what kind of mix of songs are you looking at on this round of dates?
A. We got some new stuff. We tried real hard to put “Like a Rock” in there, but it wouldn’t work. We have a new guitar player, Kenny Greenberg, from Nashville, and he’s really great, and we worked up “Like a Rock” and he played it great, but the last two choruses were just a little too high for me. My road drummer, Don Brewer—this is his fifth tour—said “maybe you ought not to do this one.” Certain songs just really tear up my voice, just wreck me for the whole set. I could hit the notes, but it was going to be such a strain I said, “OK, we won’t do that one.”
We definitely have some new stuff in there.
Q. You’ve got the new hits collection coming out soon; when can we look forward to the new studio album?
A. Probably next fall. When I’m done with the whole tour, on (Dec.) 30th—our last gig is Vegas, on the 30th—then I’m going to take January, February and March and dedicate it completely to writing.
I’ve got half the thing done now. I’ve got six (songs) that I really like, and I just need another six. I think over that time period I should be able to come up with them, and then I’ll cut them in April and we’ll try to put it out in the fall.
Q. People are obviously really glad to have your stuff coming to iTunes. Is that ultimately going to be your entire catalog?
A. Ultimately, yes. Ultimately. ... They release it piecemeal, because to release it all at one time, which some artists have done, you get a real big rush right at the beginning and then it just falls away. I think my management likes the idea of releasing it a little at a time.
Q. Why did it take until now for that to happen?
A. It was negotiations. We had a certain price that we had priced in for years at Capitol, and iTunes balked at it, and finally we got our way.
Q. Every now and then, people around town will still say, “You know what would be great? A Bob Seger concert at Michigan Stadium”—
A. Oh, yeah, and when Bill Martin was AD (U-M athletic director) — We’re both sailors, so we’re good friends — Bill wanted me to do it, every year he’d call me, and I really wanted to do it. But it was summer, and Brewer always plays with Grand Funk in the summer, so I’ve gotta get a different drummer, and it’s just a movie. Because he’s got his own band. And I love playing with Don; I don’t think I could play with anybody else. He’s just such a rock, on the drums. That’s why we never did it. That would have been a killer show. That would have been fun.
Q. Any chance it might yet happen someday in the future?
A. I don’t know, because Brewer’s always playing with Grand Funk. (laughs) Even this tour, we’ve already done 48 hours of rehearsals—eight six-hour days. To get that out ahead just for one show — You see what I mean? It’s hard to get people to make the time for that.