December 13, 2006 at 1:00 am

March 25,1983

He's a national superstar, but our hometown hero's still the same fiery workingman

Bob Seger performs on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in 2006. (CBS)

Bob Seger is a national pop music star by chance, not by choice.

That statement may sound disrespectful, but on the occasion of Seger's downtown "silver anniversary" (according to best records, his performance at Cobo Arena tomorrow will mark the 25th time he's headlined the venerable riverfront cavern), it's the grandest compliment one could pay to the Motor City's proudest export since '55 Thunderbirds.

Seger has been a sectional superstar-in-residence, a hometown hero, about as long as any native under 35 can remember. In the process he forged a unique bond between himself and his local fans, largely because nearly everyone in his generation can wistfully recall seeing him perform at so-and-so's high school gym or ice arena back in the 1096s. His raspy, hell-bent-for-leather brand of rock 'n' roll was a shared experience of emergence, embodied in one fiery young singer. We may have taken him for granted in those days, but it was almost impossible not to admire him.

A working man's hero

That's because he gained his stature the old-fashioned way: he e-a-r-n-e-d it. In a blue-collar urban environment where the measure of a man is his sweat and dedication to the task, no one worked harder than Bob Seger. Hard work was all he had known since his father left him, his mother, and his brother behind on Ann Arbor when he was 10. He opened shows for such incongruous acts as Iggy Pop and Kiss, nearly anywhere he could get on the bill. He performed 250, 260 days a year, it made no difference. There was a fire burning down below, and it was burning savagely.

Many rock historians point to Seger's classic 1968 single "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" as his breakthrough to prominence. But it wasn't until the release of his eighth album some seven years later, the ironically titled "Beautiful Loser," that Seger became an instant national artist. The main reason, some suggest, is that "Beautiful Loser" was the first LP to reveal Seger's gift for melodic, introspective music as well as rowdy rock, thus attracting feminine consumers. "All his other albums appealed to male rock 'n' rollers," says one insider. "And male rock 'n' rollers buy 20,000 copies."

You probably know the rest. Three consecutive albums selling at least two times platinum (the record's industry's milestone of 1 million copies sold); the monster of them all, 1980's "Against the Wind," nearly four times platinum; and the latest masterpiece, "The Distance," smartly moving through the million-selling ranks as its single, Seger's honeyed version of Rodney Crowell's "Shame on the Moon," rides atop the national charts. The rest of the world loves a working man's hero, too.

The accidental superstar

Which brings us back to the proposition that Bob Seger is a superstar by accident. Even now, he's still the same. Unpretentious. Insecure. Not bloodthirsty. Outwardly, at least, nothing has changed. If anything, he's working harder and more determinedly than ever, realizing that the fight to stay on top is harder than getting there. It could be why Seger is dropping big hints that this tour or the next one may be his last.

He closeted himself in the recording studios for well over a year to polish "The Distance" for near perfection -- so long that some national rock-watchers were asking, "Whatever happened to?" questions. He made the difficult and controversial decision before his tour to replace veteran Silver Bullet bandsmen Drew Abbott and David Teergarden with relatively unknown guitarist Dawayne Bailey (who's meshed with the band excellently in concert, according to road reports) and former Grand Funk drummer Don Brewer, trying to make one of rock's best live sounds better.

Seger hired a second guitarist, Marc Chatfield, so he could give full concentration to singing. When fans went into an uproar early in the tour over the absence of Seger's piano solo Turn Back the Page, he brushed it up and put it back in the set. He made the surprise decision to wedge Detroit into the tour earlier than expected. Including his management, presumably so as not to get road weary before playing at home. (He flew into Detroit yesterday from shows in Birmingham, Ala., and will leave directly afterward for Vancouver, British Columbia.)

Seger is staging five sellout concerts at Cobo in eight days. He just as easily could have filled 15. The Cobo shows are said to be the fastest sellouts in Detroit history, a history that includes Sinatras, Whos and Stoneses.

Hot tickets

The CTC computer ticker terminals were specially reprogrammed to keep Seger concert tickets in the Detroit area, much to the chagrin of fans in Flint, Kalamazoo and other Michigan cities, guaranteeing local fans first crack at seats (and paving the way for future concerts in outside areas before tour's end.) And today, Seger is conducting his first local press conference in five years, at which it's rumored he may announce something nice he's planning to do for the unemployed in his home area, the area in which he chose to stay and live when nearly every other celebrity of national stature goes for the glitter.

Yet, the truly gratifying fact is that fan fervor is now occurring with equal intensity elsewhere. Seger & The Silver Bullet Band have been going the distance in nearly every city on their 1983 tour since it began Feb. 15, shattering box-office records like icicles. In Atlanta, they're comparing Seger to Elvis Presley.

Last week more than 40,000 people crammed into The Omni in Georgia's capitol for three sold-out shows. It was the largest concert series ever in that city, the only other rock performer to even attempt three concerts there, much less sell them out, was -- you guessed it -- Presley, nearly 10 years ago.

Body of work runs rich, deep

Bob Seger was suddenly the biggest Yankee to hit Atlanta since General Sherman. His photo was splashed across the cover of the local entertainment magazine, joined by a story which basically asked, "Who is this guy?"

"It's really something when you consider that both Atlanta and Detroit are both cities under heavy recession," says Seger's manager, Punch Andrews. "There was a lot of input from (concert promoters) who said, 'We can't pay you what you want. Your price is too cheap ($12 and $11 in Atlanta, promoted by Detroit's Brass Ring Productions). I said, 'Not if we save you $20,000 in advertising by selling out in one day.' I think (fans) appreciate the fact that you worry about how much you're charging them."

Perhaps more than Presley, Seger is becoming the Kenny Rogers of rock 'n' roll, and not just because of the similar beards or the fact that Rogers and Sheena Easton recently remade Seger's "We've Got Tonight". Like Rogers, Seger has created a body of music that nearly transcends considerations of sex and age -- virtually no rock performer attracts a greater sweep in audience years -- or even personal taste. And his body of work now runs so rich and deep that the concert selection problem becomes what to take out, not what to leave in. Bob Seger has become a symbol, a victorious representation of the fight for the American Dream.