December 13, 2006 at 1:00 am

Nov. 3, 2003

Seger's back in the groove

Bob Seger works in his rehearsal house in northern Oakland County. (Detroit News file photo)

Way out in the woods of northern Oakland County, where the only sound comes from the Zen swish of a maple leaf drifting to the ground, Bob Seger waits for the writing gods to give him five more songs.

The golf clubs beckon. The Pistons are in town. But a job is a job, and he must write.

He needs five more songs because at the last minute, his manager of 38 years, Punch Andrews, decided that his "Greatest Hits 2" needed new music, along with the established hits. The CD was yanked back from Capitol Records and two new songs, "Satisfied" and "Tomorrow," were taken from his forthcoming studio album, and put on the greatest hits disc, in stores Tuesday.

"Punch said, 'We've got to put some new songs on!' and I said, 'I've been telling you that for six months!' " Seger says with a laugh. "Satisfied" is a bluesy shuffle already being spun on WRIF-FM (101.9) and "Tomorrow" is a big, crunchy rocker driven by an AC/DC-ish riff.

But after all, it's been nine years since his last album of new music, "It's a Mystery," and the fans want raw meat.

What is Seger up to?

The real mystery is Seger himself. The rocker, who for Metro Detroit baby boomers is the most visible reminder of the vibrant local rock scene of the '60s, still looms large in their imaginations. Where is he living? What's he doing? When will he tour?

Unlike local peers from the '60s such as Iggy Pop and Ted Nugent, Seger is hardly overexposed. Unlike Iggy, he doesn't tour and release albums every year, and unlike Nugent, he doesn't call attention to himself in public, so there is a certain mythic quality to his infrequent appearances.

He was a whirlwind of activity for 20 years, from the early '60s through the early '80s. And years of record-making, playing high school gyms all over Metro Detroit and endless, grueling touring helped make his name shorthand for the rawness and honesty of Detroit music.

Born in Detroit in 1945, as a boy Seger learned how to play the bass ukulele from his father, Stewart, a medic at the Ford Rouge plant. After a brief $4.20-an-hour stint in a Ford plant himself, Seger turned to music, and by the mid-'60s he was recording brash, punky songs such as the anti-war song, "2 + 2," and the angry young man rant, "East Side Story."

The new CD is Seger's second greatest hits collection. The first was released in 1994 and is still in Billboard's Top 10 for catalog sales. The new collection of 14 digitally remastered songs brings together many of his later hits, as well as songs that were in movies such as "Shakedown" from "Beverly Hills Cop II" but weren't collected on albums.

The two new songs were picked "because they sounded the most done," says Seger. "I've got some other great stuff, but the vocals aren't final or whatever."

And now Seger is five songs short, so as soon as his visitor is gone, he'll go out to the barn just yards away and climb the stairs to his guitar-filled studio, where he sits on a leather sofa facing the woods and writes songs.

"This is my favorite time to write," says Seger. "The kids are in school, so I've got this six hours a day, five days a week, when I can do it. I love being out here. I can just bash away and nobody comes down that drive, I don't get any mail. My wife (Nita) wants me to move closer to our house, so I don't have to drive so far, but the lawn mowers! I can't record with lawn mowers and planes, and trucks going by."

Will he tour?

The biggest question looming for everybody: Will Seger tour? With 18 albums and years of touring behind him (up to his last one in 1996) there's a built-in population of fans who e-mail and call his office in Birmingham clamoring for new music and tours.

But at 58, Seger has other distractions and priorities. Like his friend, comedian Tim Allen, he is an avid physics and astronomy buff, even inserting a little physics riddle on his new song, "Tomorrow": "Tell me the truth now, what happens if neutrinos (subatomic particles) have mass?" (The answer used to be, the universe shuts down. Now, we're not so sure).

He not only sails but also has won the prestigious Port Huron to Mackinac race twice (he's sitting it out until the lake levels go back up). He is a 15-handicap golfer, a regular at Pistons games and enjoys taking his kids -- Cole, 11, and Samantha, 8 -- to places such as Washington, D.C., where they explore museums.

That's apart from the many long-term rock 'n' roll friendships he maintains, with Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey on speed dial. As for touring, he's hedging his bets.

"I don't know if I'm up to touring physically. I'm 58," he says. "That plus the time commitment. Playing onstage is a ball, and I know I can still do it, but there's an hour for soundcheck and two hours onstage. We can only play every other day now; that's all my voice will hold up for, so it's the other 45 hours that are so dead-boring that you want to scream. I just don't know. I've told the guys in the band no, that I'm not going to. But I've also said 'Never say never.' And with the new album coming out sometime next year, I might feel the urge."

Seger is getting encouragement to tour from an interesting demographic: his kids. Cole takes saxophone lessons and in September had his instrument case signed by Clarence Clemons at the Bruce Springsteen show at Comerica Park.

"My kids want me to tour," Seger affirms with a grin. "Oh, yeah. My daughter was 1 when I was last on tour in '96, so she doesn't remember it at all. My son remembers it a little bit, he was 4."

What his kids would see is one of Detroit's most exciting live performers, an almost criminally underrated singer with the rare ability to roar in a rock 'n' roll context, but a minute later convey heartbreak and sensitivity.

No doubt that underrating and his base in a flyover city has caused the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to experience collective brain fog and somehow not induct him for the past few years he's been eligible.

More than anything else, this has mobilized the Seger Internet fan forums. Even his friends the Eagles are agitating for their old friend (Royal Oak-born Frey sang backup for Seger on "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and other '60s hits).At their Oct. 14 concert at the Palace, the Eagles dedicated their 1979 hit "Heartache Tonight" -- which Seger co-wrote -- to him. Frey got the crowd to give one of the loudest roars of the night when he said of Seger, "This guy should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!"

Of the oversight, Seger shrugs. "I'm nominated again this year, so who knows?"

A new reality to music, lyrics

Mention of Henley and Frey brings the conversation to vocal chops. Seger marvels at the fact that Henley and Frey are singing "way up high" still, just as on their early records.

He chuckles. "I say, 'Go E flat! Turn it down. I'm old, I can't sing that high anymore!' " he laughs. "Joni Mitchell once said to me, 'Let me tell you, I've been there. You smoke, I smoke. Those high notes are gone -- they're not coming back. Just ... turn it down!' "

Despite his complaints, Seger's beefy voice has withstood 40 years of constant use; the odometer has rolled over a few times.

"It's amazing, it's still right there," he says. "Some of the real high notes like on 'Katmandu,' I can't do that anymore. And 'Old Time Rock 'n' Roll,' that was F sharp, oh boy! I couldn't do that anymore. I've got to go two steps down for that. But that's cool because the guitar sounds better there."

On "Satisfied" he growls about being a "broken-down dog ...Who can still snarl with the rest," he says, laughing. "That's about it! There's a new reality to my music, to my lyrics."

But seriously -- Seger has been singing wistfully about his lost youth since he was a mere pup of 31.

"Well, when I was 31 and writing 'Rock and Roll Never Forgets,' I figured, if I'm lucky, I've got five years. I felt like I was old for rock 'n' roll then! Who knew that we'd be going to see the Stones when they're 60, or McCartney?

"Although when McCartney's 64 it's going to be funny to go see him!

"I remember when I was 16, I said, 'I hope I make it by the time I'm 25. By the time I'm 30, I will have made 50 grand and I can drive my motorcycle across Europe. Then I can go and get a real job!' "

Back when Seger was playing every high school gym and cafeteria in Metro Detroit alongside peers such as the Rationals, the MC5, Mitch Ryder and the Scot Richard Case, it probably did seem far-fetched that he would be still in the business 40 years later. But he wasn't figuring on the sheer tenacity of Punch Andrews. For years, Andrews has kept a sharp eye on Seger's business at all times. Woe to the miscreant who tries to pull something against Seger's -- or now, Kid Rock's -- interests, on Andrews' watch.

In 1966, Motown Records, arguably at its peak, offered Seger a record contract for twice the money Capitol did. Andrews thought one white rock band -- Rare Earth -- was going to draw most of Motown's attention, so he steered Seger to Capitol, where he's enjoyed an unusually long run.Seger still marvels that the highest price on his last tour, in '96, was $35.

"Punch has always been smart that way -- find the middle price and knock it down $10 or $15. And he's always talking about the record company. (Seger imitates his manager's raspy shout.) 'Lower the CD price! Nobody's buying it! Lower the price!! That's what they do with cars!! ' "

"He's right," Seger says. "You have to sell records, you just don't say 'OK, we're buried now, just get your music off the Internet.' You've got to battle for your segment of the market."

Thinking about the many great singers and musicians he knocked around the Hideout and the Mummmp with, Seger becomes wistful.

"It was mostly bad management for them. Even with Mitch Ryder -- bad management. I just got lucky. As I told Kid Rock, go with Punch, you've got a wealth of experience. People have tried to get Punch to manage them; J. Geils Band, Diana Ross. He said no, I like your stuff, but my plate's full. If he'll take you, you ought to do it."

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@detnews.com">swhitall@detnews.com.