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Something old, something new by Bob Seger

11/04/03

Gary Graff

Special to The Plain Dealer

Clarkston, Mich.- Showing a visitor around his "writing house" property in the northern Detroit suburbs, a densely wooded area sandwiched by 20 acres of wetlands on either side, Bob Seger has the grin and the glint in his eye of a man in his personal playground.

"I can have the band out here and we can be as loud as we want - all night long," he says, showing off a studio that sits above the garage and houses a recording console and an arsenal of guitars and keyboards.

Even at 58, it seems Seger has not forgotten rock 'n' roll - and, 6 million copies of 1994's "Greatest Hits" album testify, rock 'n' roll has not forgotten him.

Now Seger - a notorious perfectionist who's been taking years between albums since the late '70s - has returned to rock 'n' roll. His new "Greatest Hits 2," released today, is a reminder of glory days gone by but, more importantly, features two fresh songs, the bluesy "Satisfied" and the hard-hitting "Tomorrow," that are harbingers of a new studio album he promises to release in 2004.

They mark the first new music from the veteran rocker and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee since "Chances Are," his duet with country singer Martina McBride from the 1998 soundtrack to the film "Hope Floats." And Seger says that they're indicative of his creative intent at this point in time.

"I think I'm writing a little simpler, a little more direct and a little more out front," Seger explains while sitting at a small wooden table in the kitchen of the writing house.

With his glasses and casual attire - untucked blue work shirt, jeans, white moccasins - he looks very much like a songwriter in studious working mode. An acoustic guitar leans up against the nearby living room couch, not far from a set of golf clubs and plenty of practice equipment that are responsible for a dent in the kitchen molding that Seger points towards.

But it's clear that the most important shots he's taking now are the kind that wind up on tape. "I'm really gravitating more to the in-your-face, very present kind of stuff," he says. "There's a presence about the two new things [on 'Greatest Hits 2'] that exists on everything on the new album. Even the ballads kick very hard; they've got punch.

"I think I'm just coming into my own kind of groove where I just wait 'til I write something I really like, like the first verse of 'Satisfied,' and I just say 'Yeah, that's good enough' and keep going from there."

The presence of new music is good news to Seger fans, of course.

Except for "Chances Are," the man who's sold nearly 50 million albums and logged 19 Top 40 hits has been MIA since touring to promote his last studio set, 1995's "It's a Mystery." He knows the audience still wants more of him, though.

"About one in five people ask about the next album - and four of five ask the perennial question, 'When are you gonna tour?'" he says with a laugh.

More than creative hubris is responsible for his latest gap, though Seger also notes that improved recording technology spurred him to scrap an album he was working on, tentatively titled "Blue Ridge," and create a new body of work. Sailing, including back-to-back regatta wins in 2001 and 2002, has also chewed up some time.

But mostly, Seger says, it's family that has commanded the attention he might otherwise give to the music.

"You know, it's so soothing, the whole kid thing," he says. "I love being around them. It's almost too easy . . . and there's just a lot of things you don't want to miss."

Consequently, he notes, "the work, you've got to find time for it," and the school year offers him a chance to come out to the writing house to work for five or six hours a day, four or five days a week.

Seger contends that will indeed lead to a new album, with a working title of "Face the Promise," next year - "I'd say, in stone, by next fall." He says nine tracks are already set, and he hopes to write another four or five in the interim and record them in Nashville, as he has with the others.

As for the touring question, Seger has no definite answer. "I'm 58; I don't know if I can handle it any more - that's as honest as I can be," he says. "I don't know if I'm up to it physically any more. It's a big commitment, at least six months and usually more."

He does, however, note that "the kids want me to do it, so . . . we'll see how I feel."

Until all that comes to bear, however, Seger is happy to trip through his past again on "Greatest Hits 2," which features fan favorites not included on the first collection ("Rock and Roll Never Forgets," "Katmandu," "Shame on the Moon," "Fire Lake," "Beautiful Loser"), three of his movie songs - including "Shakedown," from "Beverly Hills Cop II," his only No. 1 single - and latter-album personal choices such as "Manhattan" and "New Coat of Paint."

Conspicuously missing, still, is 1968's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," Seger's first foray into the Top 20. "No matter how we tried to fit it in, it's just so mono in the mix that it stood out like a sore thumb," Seger explains. "It just didn't sound right."

On the other hand, he's pleased, and a bit amused, to find some parallels between his older songs and the new material - specifically, Seger points to "Satisfied" and "Rock and Roll Never Forgets," both of which deal with aging.

"Yeah, in 'Satisfied,' I'm a 'broken down dog,' and I was doing the same thing at 31 - 'sweet 16 turned 31' . . . You think, 'How old was I when I was writing 'Rock and Roll Never Forgets?' " he says. "So it must be a preoccupation.

"But back then the career arc for most people in entertainment was three good years, five tops, and you were gone. I mean, who ever thought we'd see [Paul] McCartney at 60, on stage? Jagger? Nobody. And here I am - still. It's just . . . interesting. But really great."

Graff is a free-lance writer in Beverly Hills, Mich.

To reach Gary Graff:

music@plaind.com

© 2003 The Plain Dealer.