December 13, 2006 at 1:00 am

April 28, 1976

Detroit's pop star still aspiring at 31

"He wants to dream like a young man, with the wisdom of an old man"

-- Bob Seger from "Beautiful Loser"

Chronologically, Bob Seger is somewhere between the old man and the young man he was writing about in "Beautiful Loser." He's 31 and you might say he's a little "mature" for being a rock 'n' roller until you consider that most of the elite members in the form -- Stones, The Who, Zeppelin, McCartney, etc. -- are basically the same age.

The difference, though, is that the elites are established pop stars and have been for about a decade. Seger, at 31, despite his ferocious artistry and longevity, (he's been at it for 12 years) would still have to categorized as "aspiring."

Still dreaming like a young man

But Seger, who has had more record contracts with more companies than many entertainers have records, is still dreaming like a young man -- he wants to headline in the 12,000-and-up halls, but he's also rapidly acquiring the wisdom of an old man. And if it doesn't happen for him, he can live with it.

"Right now I'm numb," he says as his newly released "Live Bullet" album starts making waves on the national charts. Already the record is a secure best-seller in his hometown (No. 1 week on CKLW's charts), but Detroit has always appreciated and supported Seger's raspy vocals, machine-gun delivery, poignant lyrics and the roaring claps of rhythmic thunder that underline it all. It's the ultimate sound to shake a tailfeather to but in all of his 12 years, outside of Detroit and the several "Seger markets," the artistry of Bob Seger has been one of the best-kept secrets in show business.

So what Seger means by "numb" is that he isn't allowing himself to get emotionally lathered about the sales potential of "Live Bullet."

"Before I was numbed, I was a basket case," he adds, and you need not look any further for an explanation of that. You just have to consider his discography, which has enough ups and downs to send even the most stable performer flying into the cuckoo's nest.

Seger, initially, was with a now-defunct label called Cameo-Parkway. He went to Capitol, recorded a few albums and was dropped by the label. He moved to Warner Bros., did three mediocre-selling albums and is now back with Capitol.

His albums have been praised by critics (Rolling Stone called his "Back in '72" release one of the year's 10 best) and had always inched its way up the charts ("Katmandu" last summer got as far as No. 41 and then suddenly lost momentum).

"Live Bullet" is currently at No. 178, No. 134 and No. 97 in the three trade magazines and all agree it's on its way up.

"Bullet" is penetrating markets (like all-important New York City) where the Seger product has never gone before.

And Seger? He's working on the next album and getting ready to tour to promote the current one. "If 'Live Bullet' stops selling tomorrow, I'll say 'What the hell, let's go make another one.' "

'I love it too much'

If the bottom line finally falls out and Seger is dropped by Capitol and isn't picked up by another label, he'll resign himself to the fact that he isn't going to sell.

So he'll quit and sell life insurance, right? Wrong.

"I'll always be in the music business. I love it too much to do anything else. If the day comes when nobody wants to hear me play, I'll become a disc jockey or something."

A performer like Seger doesn't prostitute his art to sell records. He still wears his hair around his shoulders even though that style is slipping out of vogue. He's not going the trendy disco route because it's not his kind of music. Nor does he aim his music at a particular audience. But, of course, music is usually accepted by a certain segment of the pop audience at large and rejected by the rest.

What segment would he like to see?

"Well, it would be nice if it was my own age group," he says, laughing, knowing that most 31-year-olds nowadays don't go any further than Elton John in the heavy music department. "But I think my appeal is to college-age kids and maybe a little younger."

Music is maturing

The problem here is that, at 31, Seger's is musically growing and maybe eventually will mature past the teen-to-college audience stage. That's reflected in his current songs having more sophistication than the beaty "Heavy Music" and "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" of his 20's.

Seger songs now aren't simply as dominated by beat as they used to be. In fact, they're no longer simple at all. Melody lines are becoming stronger and more important to him as he matures. Listen, for example, to his oldie "Heavy Music," which is monopolized by rhythms and compare it to his current "Travelin' Man" and "Jody Girl," which are solid pieces of melodic writing.

Another thing about growing older, Seger adds, "you realize that writing about personal relationships are more important than revolutions or bucking-the-system songs." (Examples: The revolutionary "Lookin's Back" he wrote in '70 compared with the wistful "Jody Girl" or "Live Bullet.")

(Tomorrow Seger talks about the financial rewards of being a "midlevel pop star" and why Detroit bands aren't breaking out of the city and hopping on the national charts like they used to.)