Bob Seger could be a great songwriter. Sometimes.
If Bruce Springsteen was the spokesman of every person working a 9-5 shift at the local factory, Seger was the spokesman of every person who ever wore a leather vest and wanted to head out west on a motorcycle so he could escape his job/woman/commitments. Whereas John Mellencamp sang of the beauty and challenges of small town life, Bob Seger wrote about “beautiful losers,” living a lives of financial struggle and long ago broken relationships.
Seger has many songs in the great pantheon of 1970’s and 1980’s FM radio, and to me they are all remarkably similar and mediocre. “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” from 1969, the tale of a tough kid from a tough neighborhood leading a tough life. “Night Moves” from 1976, a gentle rocking ballad about having sex with his high school girlfriend. And in 1978, “Hollywood Nights,” a relentlessly annoying tune about people having sex…you know…in Hollywood.
His 1980 song “Against the Wind” however, from his album of the same name, was something different for me. Something set apart from the rest of his catalog. Whereas so many other of his songs focus just on the ethos of a party lifestyle, of enjoying life with no meaningful consequences, “Against the Wind” instead looks at what comes next. The sadness. The regret.
“It seems like yesterday
But it was long ago
Janey was lovely she was the queen of my nights
There in the darkness with the radio playing low”
Wistful and nostalgic, the song is mid-tempo, not quite a ballad, and nowhere near a rocker. The rhythm guitar is easy going, and Seger is singing in the warm glow of fond remembrance.
“And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh-so-tight
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then”
Seger was never sure about the line “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Was it grammatically correct? Would people really understand what he was saying? Did he understand? His friends Glenn Frey and Don Henley from The Eagles loved that line, and encouraged him to keep it in. It’s a good thing he did. It’s the best line of the song.
Seger understands the fragility of time, and the preciousness of memory. He understands consequences. He understands that he knows things now that he once didn’t know.
“Against the wind
We were runnin’ against the wind
We were young and strong, we were runnin’ against the wind”
“Against The Wind” was a monster hit in 1980, and I have crystal clear memories of fixing my breakfast before heading out to school while the transistor radio in the kitchen was playing 97.9 FM The Loop in Chicago. “Against the Wind” would come on (day after day), and I would at once feel a little happier, a little more relaxed. By the time I got to high school a couple years later, my girlfriend would relentlessly mock this song that had become so important to me, making believe it was being performed by a group of mindless drones, singing the words “against the wind”over and over again in complete monotone, echoing the boredom she felt every time she heard the song. You know who you are. You know what you did!
For me, this good song remained a good song. And while I can still hear her mocking drone in my ears whenever I hear the chorus of “Against the Wind” being sung, it is not yet ruined. I still enjoy this gentle saga of lost love every time it gently wafts through the air.
“The years rolled slowly past
And I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
I found myself further and further from my home”
He is now older, and he is alone. He is miles further from home, and in this case, and he is years further from Janey. But maybe in this case, Janey is his home.
“There were oh-so-many roads
I was living to run and running to live
Never worried about paying or even how much I owed
Moving eight miles a minute for months at a time
Breaking all of the rules that would bend
I began to find myself searching
Searching for shelter again and again“
Seger sings for all of us. The older we get, the farther we find ourselves from those things that were once so central to our lives, and so important. The farther we leave those things behind, the more we must search. We search for a sense of truth, a sense of shelter under the protection of the people we love, and a reminder that the person we once were informs the person we are today.
Pianist Paul Harris weaves a wonderfully lyrical melody throughout the song while drummer David Teegarden drives everything along methodically and gently. There is a beautiful instrumental break halfwfay through the song when Harris’ piano becomes the lead instrument, accented by Drew Abbott’s sparse solo on electric guitar.
Bob Seger is not an artist I return to often. He created a sad, lonely universe for his listeners, and that universe is filled with stories that were not particularly compelling, or music that was not always interesting. But, if you only had one song to get a sense of what Bob Seger was really about, what he could do and the stories that he could tell, give “Against the Wind” a try. Maybe it will make you happy.
“Against the Wind”
Written by Bob Seger
Performed by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
Released April, 1980