Saturday, July 1, 2023

It's getting hairy

Bob Seger could've sung the phonebook and "Down Home" would've still grooved

I've lately been obsessing over the Bob Seger System's "Down Home" from Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, released in 1969. Notable chiefly for the sublime strut of the title track and for "2 + 2 = ?," one of the most powerful Vietnam protest songs of the era, Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, Seger's first for Capitol, is an uneven album. On the rocking stuff, his band—Dan Honaker on bass and vocals and Pep Perrine on drums and vocals—is white hot, no more so than on "Down Home," a riff, a grunt of a song powered by a bare-bones arrangement and a propulsive performance. Essentially a blues tune, it's made graphic by angry stop-starts and a characteristically fierce, howling vocal from Seger, whose slides into and out of his screech still startles me.

"Down Home"'s a story song, but the story's muddled. In a proto-Springsteen vein, Seger spins yarn but it's full of holes, though the narrative absences are intriguing. There are a lot of characters for a two and a half-minute song: Chicago Green, a naive girl "famous for her childlike mind," her Aunt Mary, her troublemaker boyfriend Little Willy (so-named four years before the Sweet hit), and her cousin Eddie, "who's unsteady on the levee." Willy's an asshole; he likes "kicking trippy hippies in the head with his hobnail shoe," while Eddie's a two-bit criminal who's "pitching for pennies, rockin' for bennies." He lands in jail. Well, Chicago bails out Eddie, "which tripped out Willy"—he starts shouting and raising hell—so Chicago and Eddie

wandered off somewhere
They couldn't find their way home
Any road home
Oh, and there's also the singer, who's somehow involved in all of this, and, according to the Genius lyric site anyway, a guy named "Jason" who's in love with Chicago, according to Aunt Mary. Got all that? The impression trying to piece together the story is of falling asleep while watching a late-60s biker/road/noir flick; upon waking you remember some characters and some names, but blinking at the screen at 3 a.m. you realize that a lot of what they did and why they did it is lost. Gotta watch again.

None of this matters a lick. The song is so raw and so rawly played—fellow Detroit-area native Michael Erlewine, who later founded AllMusic, plays a dirty harmonica—that they words are incidental, a half-recollected dream that the music inspired. Seger's guitar riff is so sinuously nasty it gives the impression of a downed power line shooting off sparks while folks run for cover. Honaker's bass is alert and funky, in syncopation with the riff, all of it tied firmly to the dirt at the musicians' feet by Perrine's stunningly forceful drumming, his snare in particular the sound of jail doors slamming shut (particularly on the vinyl version). When someone in the studio finds a shaker just in time for the last verse, the song leaps into a higher, even more dangerous gear. My pulse quickens, that's for sure.

Meanwhile, Seger howls and growls the story, crooning in the early verses to set the scene, such as it is. He and co-producer Punch Andrews play some tricks with the production, panning his vocal across the stereo spectrum on certain lines in a lame attempt at mood or emphasis, or maybe a trippy evocation simulating where Willy and Eddie's heads are at—either way it gently dates the song. Yet that and the muddled story are muscled out of the way, and out of mattering, by the tune itself, so rocking, so grooving that Seger could've sung the Wayne County phonebook and the song still would've moved. In the event, it's fun to try and fill in the blanks and spaces of the storylines, wondering on how each character is best served by a stomping, bad ass blues like this. Sadly, there's no live footage I could find of the System playing the song live during their brief career.

It goes without saying: play loud.

Photo of Bob Seger System circa 1969 via Psychedelicized

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