8/29/10

Seger's Midnight Reflections


I wrote this a while back, originally intending it as an article for my self-published column which morphed into this blog. But I think this essay has seen its final edit. Seger just wrenches my heart out.  Plus I love his use of the word "unencumbered" in "Like a Rock." Enjoy. 


Seger’s Midnight Reflections

When you ask a group of mixed company their opinions about Bob Seger, you elicit a variety of reactions. Some toss him in the rubbish bin of Americana machismo, writing him off as a commercialized hit machine, a sell-out whose main quest is accumulating wealth.  For proof, just look to Chevrolet’s advertising campaign using “Like a Rock,” as the soundtrack and Metallica’s uninventive cover of “Turn the Page.” 

Others might appreciate the depth and variety of his music, which ranges from hard-driving rock and roll standards like “Old Time Rock'n'Roll” and “C’est La Vie,” to his lyrical 70’s ballads like “Mainstreet” and “We’ve Got Tonight,” to evocative praises of youth in America like “Against the Wind” and “Night Moves.”

However, most people tend to overlook one of Seger’s greatest assets: his lyricism. Now I know what you’re saying: “What? Seger has lyricism? You’re shittin’ me, right?” But I shit you not. Seger is a master lyricist, especially when handling longings of the human spirit, remembrances wrought by moonlight, and moments when visions of the past come crashing into his protagonist's mind.

Take “Night Moves” for example. After establishing those three compelling chords and launching into some romantic recollecting, Seger says in a hushed musical moment, “Woke last night to the sound of thunder / How far off, I sat and wondered / Started humming a song from 1962 / Ain’t it funny how the night moves.” The distant thunder pierces the composition like a siren, becoming an inescapable reminder of the good times Seger's narrator now relives only through memory. The thunder represents the brevity of youth clapping loud and strong, sounding out over the land, then fading slowly and inexorably back into the darkness. The night becomes a time in which one remembers, feels weaker and less able. The light fades and only memories remain. 

In “Like a Rock,” a slow song dripping with melancholy, Seger's speaker details his life as a young man “sweatin’ in the sun.” He depicts his former youth as strong and purposeful, idolizing his past self with a wistful yearning to inhabit that spirited body once again. But the narrator, growing weaker and more uncertain with each passing year, can only relive those past glories in memories wrought by the darkness: “And sometimes late at night / When I bathe in the firelight / The moon comes callin’ a ghostly white / And I recall / I recall.” In this song, the recollection inspired by firelight and the ghostly moon serves as the profound dilemma, recalling a tortuous but somehow soothing image of an idealized past. With “I recall,” the vocals rise, the drums roll, the chorus kicks in, and the listener remembers something of their own selves, something the rigors and perils of time stole from them along the way. Recollecting becomes profundity, the stuff of subjective reality, in Seger’s lyrical universe. 

Seger’s best moments of lyricism lie in the ephemerality of youth, the lusting after those days of strength and beauty, and the yearning to be young again. He renders our souls in the darkest hours of the night, the wind, rain and thunder sounding outside the window, as we long for a distant past in which we lived and loved and felt alive. We realize, in these moments of midnight reflection, that we can never live so vigorously, so deliberately again. To Seger, our younger selves inhabit a space of possibility and enchantment; those memories portray a world with more color, fullness, vigor, and vibrancy than present or future.  And only when we’ve burned through our youths can we appreciate those fleeting moments of strength and beauty, of will and courage, of risk-taking and pure loving. Those days of possibility, of pliability, pass us by, leaving behind a pervading sense of nostalgia.

Check out the lyrics to “The Fire Inside,” a song about a woman on the prowl looking for love and sex in the flashy world of neon and disco. After she succeeds in her quest for love between the sheets, a subtle and indefinable feeling of aching and remorse overtakes her spirit. The narrator says,

Then you walk to the window and stare at the moon
Riding high and lonesome through a starlit sky.
And it comes to you how it all slips away
Youth and beauty are gone one day
No matter what you dream or feel or say
It ends in dust and disarray.

Once again, the moon, the stars, and the darkness of the night instill a sense of emptiness within the song’s main character. In this universe, the setting of the sun signals a loss of youth and innocence, and the moonrise signals a weakening of the spirit. In the nighttime inhabitants of Seger’s lyrical motifs feel their deepest pangs of hunger and regret, of remorse for the death of the person they used to be, of nostalgia for all that person stood for. The stormy, tumultuous nighttime parallels the tumult of the human spirit.

For Seger, midnight remembrances always recall a spirit of American innocence, a time before night fell on our youth. You can find these themes throughout his catalog. We cannot appreciate those years of pure potential until we’ve burned them up, until we've taken those days of vigor and tenacity while the sun shines bright upon us for granted. Our youths provide infinite achievability and beautiful bodies fit for that task.  But before long, the sun will set and the moon will rise. We’ll find ourselves awake one night unable to sleep, gazing out the bedroom window and staring at the moonlight, hearing thunder clap in the distance, wondering where the days have gone, and thinking of the things that might have been.

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