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Better than a Silver Bullet 

A bootleg compilation proves that Bob Seger made his greatest music before he got famous.

Bob Seger plays a skating rink in Plymouth, Michigan, in 1974.

Bob Seger plays a skating rink in Plymouth, Michigan, in 1974.

Ken Settle

At any time of the day or night, Bob Seger is playing on a radio station somewhere in the continental United States. In Chicago, I once heard "Night Moves" three times in the span of one hour. Whether it's on the airwaves—where you're almost as likely to find "The Fire Down Below," "Hollywood Nights," or "Against the Wind"—or in more than a decade's worth of Chevy commercials ("Like a Rock") or, thanks to Risky Business, in pretty much every scene anywhere that involves somebody dancing around a living room in his underwear ("Old Time Rock and Roll"), Bob Seger is an inescapable part of the pop cultural landscape.

Based on his best-known music, you might peg Seger as a barroom blues hound—but cleaned up, with no crushed peanut shells, trampled cigarette butts, or sticky slicks of spilled beer. Though the chords, the instrumentation, and the gruff ache of Seger's voice recall a raw and raucous version of rock 'n' roll, there's a lacquered surface, a sense of restraint in tempo and energy, and a tightness that borders on rigidity—in short, it's reminiscent of late-1970s studio rock like Al Stewart and Boz Scaggs.

This is all many listeners know of Seger's career. But in the decade or so before his first national commercial success, Night Moves, he released eight studio albums and two dozen singles, almost all of them with his own bands. Some of these songs—"Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," "Rosalie," "Turn the Page"—were already popular in 1976, when Night Moves came out, or have since become so. (Thin Lizzy did "Rosalie" a big favor with a cover version on 1975's Fighting.) Most of the music from this period, though, is long out of print—the majority of the songs aren't even available on compilations. And the earliest Seger album reissued within the past decade is 1972's Smokin' O.P.'s.

This is unfortunate, because Bob Seger's output between 1966 and 1974 is undoubtedly the best music he ever made. A mossy, serrated blend of garage, R&B, folk-rock, and blue-eyed soul, it's marked by force, volume, and looseness bordering on chaos, with none of the too-tidy slickness of his later work. It's also one of the premier combinations of manic male energy and affecting sensitivity in the history of rock 'n' roll. Seger's earliest singles display an astonishing range of style and subject matter: In 1966's "East Side Story," a fuzzed-out proto-­Doors number cut by Bob Seger & the Last Heard, a girl's tough hubby leaves home and police officers bearing condolences return in his place; the 1969 Bob Seger System number "Lonely Man" melds Creedence Clearwater Revival, heavy metal, and Motown; "Sock It to Me Santa," another Last Heard cut from '66, is an amphetamine-happy yuletide appropriation of James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." The 1966 single "The Ballad of the Yellow Beret," released by Doug Brown & the Omens under the alias the Beach Bums, is a martial satire of Vietnam draft dodgers, while the Bob Seger System's murky psych-blues track "2+2 = ?," from just two years later, does a complete political U-turn to protest the war.

With the notable exceptions of "Lucifer," a glitterless glam stomp from the 1970 album Mongrel, and "Get Out of Denver," a Chuck Berry rip that kicks off 1974's Seven (quite possibly his masterpiece, and still out of print), Seger's music mellowed with each successive LP. He kept the chugging tempos and the muffled, hissy sound quality, but bashes turned into shuffles, acoustic guitars replaced electrics, and rollicking hysteria softened into reflection and resignation. By 1975's Beautiful Loser, Seger's polished, intimate, well-worn weariness had taken center stage.

In 2009 Hideout Records released Early Seger Vol. 1, but with just ten songs—four singles, two album tracks off the already reissued Smokin' O.P.'s, and four unreleased tunes—it's a pathetically undernourished overview of Seger's early career. In fact its release provoked some Seger fans on the I Love Music message board—a popular gathering place for music writers and die-hard fans from all over the world—to resuscitate a 2005 thread entitled "Bob Seger Reissue News" and gripe about the moribund status of his early catalog. Why couldn't Seger or anyone else find the will or the way to collect this music and make it available again, they wondered. Tired of waiting, they decided to do it themselves.

In November 2009 a member calling himself Myonga Vön Bontee offered to "assemble a real nice proper collection" for anybody who asked for a copy. He came up with a 27-track, 79-minute bootleg compilation of early Seger singles—not too big to fit on a single CD-R—and the message board's posters responded enthusiastically. The bootleg, entitled Never Mind the Bullets: Bob Seger 1966-1974 (among other things), inspired several fan-made album covers, the most popular of which uses a picture taken by photographer Ken Settle—according to Settle, it's of a Silver Bullet Band gig at the Rock 'n' Roll Farm in Wayne, Michigan, on July 23, 1974, and shows Seger sitting sidestage during his sidemen's extended solos on "Bo Diddley." (That pic is on the cover of the Reader's B Side.) Over time Never Mind the Bullets made its way to blogs, bulletin boards, and BitTorrent sites, and by the end of 2010, it had been written up in UK newspaper the Guardian. Thanks to the commitment of a handful of writers, the comp ranked a remarkable 111th place (out of more than 1,700 albums earning at least one vote) on the album chart of the Village Voice's 2010 Pazz & Jop music poll.

It's not clear whether Seger is aware of the bootleg—neither he nor anyone from his camp could be reached for comment. But considering that the first installment of his Greatest Hits, released in 1994, has sold about nine million copies, shouldn't Seger or his management have the music-biz muscle to release such a compilation? Of course it's possible that it would be prohibitively complicated to license music from all the record labels Seger was signed to between 1966 and '74. He began at Cameo-Parkway, whose catalog is now owned by ABKCO, the label founded by the late Allen Klein (better known as the guy who screwed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones); he then went to Capitol, then Palladium (now Reprise, currently owned by Warner), and finally back to Capitol. Between these labels, the licensing and contract clauses are presumably knotty, and the Guardian article about Never Mind the Bullets says Seger is "reportedly unwilling to license his early recordings for reissue unless historic wrongs are righted." If you're already a millionaire rock 'n' roll star, why would you want to deal with a situation like that all over again?

But that's the thing: Bob Seger is not your everyday millionaire rock 'n' roll star. When he broke big nationwide, after cutting his teeth as a regional success in Michigan, he didn't move to New York or LA. In fact, Seger has never left Michigan. This makes it hard to resent him for the inadequacy of Early Seger Vol. 1, since for the first week of its release he chose to offer the hard copy exclusively in Meijer stores—the Grand Rapids-based chain has no outlets south of Kentucky, east of Ohio, or west of Illinois.

The midwest is supposed to be the flat, beige, old-fashioned, blue-collar, conservative, cultureless netherworld conjoining the coasts, from which everyone pursuing a big dream eventually flees. Of course, once you make your way to New York or Hollywood or some other fancypants metropolis in search of fame and fortune, you just find that different, more expensive problems have replaced the old ones—problems that make it easy to look down on all the people back home who didn't have the guts to step onto a bigger stage.

But those people did nothing wrong; they just stayed home. And Bob Seger stayed with them. He writes honestly and beautifully for midwesterners and as a midwesterner—what Springsteen does for Jersey, he does for Michigan. "And sometimes even now, when I'm feeling lonely and beat," he sings on Night Moves, "I drift back in time and I find my feet / Down on main street." If this tour is indeed Seger's last, as he recently suggested in the Detroit Free Press ("It's time to go away and let the younger people take over, the Eminems and Kid Rocks of the world"), then it's even more imperative that his music—all of his music—be properly released. But even if that never happens, we'll still have our radios, where we can always find him, and we'll keep driving down the road, singing right along.

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