Of all the unnecessary worries I had going into my freshman year at the University of Michigan (and there were a lot), the one I now laugh at most is that I wouldn’t like Ann Arbor. Having grown up in a major metropolitan area, I was hesitant about going to school in a college town.
As if it’s possible to not like Ann Arbor.
This place means something different for all of us who’ve lived here, certainly, but something I especially love is how much history is embedded in the city — how many people have walked these streets, have discovered my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants, have pulled all-nighters in my favorite study spots before I arrived. I love that idea — that I am becoming one of so many people that have been shaped by this place.
Something I love even more is that the people who live in Ann Arbor shape the town as much as it shapes those who temporarily stay. The energy in these streets is somehow more malleable, more attuned to the specific group that’s here right now than to the countless faces that came before. Maybe that’s just the nature of a college town, but it’s still amazing to think about what Ann Arbor used to be like and what we could help it become.
One of my favorite times to picture is the Ann Arbor of the late 60s. I’m an avid fan of what my friends have jokingly termed “dad music” — Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, The Beach Boys, basically any music that resulted from the Vietnam War — and seeing photographs from The Michigan Daily of the University in those days sparked that interest even more.
With this in mind, you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Bob Seger, singer of “Old Time Rock & Roll” and numerous of my other dad playlist staples, is from Ann Arbor.
I immediately started listening through his songs, on guard for anything that might be about Ann Arbor. After doing some research, I was able to piece together a Bob Seger’s Ann Arbor tour, so to speak. It’s beautiful how this place that’s shaped me so much has also shaped some of the music I love.
The song “Mainstreet” was written about a little old jazz club on West Ann and North Main Streets, where Seger used to listen to a performer known to everyone in town as Washboard Willie. There’s a certain wistfulness to the opening guitar riff. You can almost picture it echoing down the quiet streets, the soft piano chords underneath it as solid as the footsteps on the pilgrimage home.
“Standin’ on the corner at midnight / Tryin’ to get my courage up …”
That club is long gone now, and the dreamy dancer Seger longs for has long since disappeared into the chords of life. Instead, there’s a party store with faded awnings and crackling window paint at that intersection, a brick building casting a shadow over the juncture. There’s a hotel across the street, the kind where visiting parents or alumni or businessmen might stay when they come into town.
But somehow, the sort of hazy, hopeful scene that the song sets up doesn’t feel that far off. Sure, it might not be happening in the exact same place, but even now, decades on, something of Seger’s sentiment still rings true. Walking these streets at night, the everyday commotion not gone, but softened, wondering about the lives of passersby — that Ann Arbor scene still happens, still shapes us, still compels us into that same wistful wondering that’s audible on Seger’s record.
“Sometimes even now, when I’m feelin’ lonely and beat / I drift back in time and I find my feet / Down on Main Street …”
Seger grew up in the neighborhood along Packard Street. He’d frequent Blue Front, the old convenience-store-turned-craft-beer oasis, with his brother; it was an easy walk from their home. Talks of bringing it back never seem to reach conclusions, but the bright awning is still there, a reminder of what — and who — used to be here.
Another of Seger’s old haunts is still as much an institution in 2021 Ann Arbor as it was in the 1960s. Brown Jug Restaurant at the corner of Church Street and South University Avenue is today just as beloved as the music of Seger, their former pizza delivery boy. Although Brown Jug declined to comment for this story and Seger’s music rarely plays at the restaurant these days, it still somehow seems fitting that he was involved with this Ann Arbor staple; it seems right that he, like so many of us, has memories of nights centered on this place.
Brown Jug isn’t the only long-standing legacy Seger grew up with. The singer also used to play concerts at the University’s fraternities. Chris Cioe, the musician and writer who provided jazz instrumentals to The B-52’s and The Manhattans, among others, vividly remembers seeing Seger, clad in “skin-tight black jeans, a turtleneck and a blue Beatles style cap — the quintessential greaser-rocker,” performing on the front lawn of the Chi Phi house at 1530 Washtenaw.
These days, the music echoing out of the old stone structure might tend more towards Chance the Rapper than Creedence Clearwater Revival, more towards hip-hop than old-time rock ‘n’ roll. But if you think hard enough about what this scene might’ve looked like in 1966, it’s not so hard to picture Seger playing on those front steps. It’s not so hard to imagine the twanging of the guitar floating out across the busy street as the brothers and their dates danced in the sunshine, caught at that exciting juncture between culture and counterculture that came to define their generation, both shaping and being shaped by Ann Arbor.
Seger’s fingerprints are also still visible at Pioneer High School, which Seger attended back when it was still Ann Arbor High. He lettered in track and field, graduating in 1963. You can still find his photograph in the yearbook. It makes all of this a little more real: He really was here. Those lyrics really are about this town. You really have seen the same landscape, walked the same streets.
That shared experience is wistfully portrayed by “Night Moves,” one of Seger’s most-loved songs, and arguably one of his best. Its longing lyrics and the vivid scenes of late nights sneaking away whenever possible still feels like a real account of what it means to be young.
“Workin’ on our night moves / Tryin’ to lose the awkward teenage blues …”
The song was inspired by “grassers” that Seger and his friends held in high school, out on Zeeb Road. They turned on the headlights, played records from the car, drank, smoked and danced. “Night Moves” is simultaneously an idealizing tribute to that youthful rebellion and a sincere, profound rendering of it.
“We weren’t searchin’ for some pie in the sky, or summit / We were just young and restless and bored / Livin’ by the sword / And we’d steal away every chance we could / To the backroom, the alley, the trusty woods …”
As I reached the end of the Bob Seger tour, it felt as if it truly came full circle, from the wistful longing of “Mainstreet” all the way back around to the earnest remembrance of “Night Moves.” The songs seem to have the same energy as Seger intended when they were initially created, somehow — the same bittersweet recollection of earlier, less complicated, but no less meaningful days. The honest version of Ann Arbor we see in Seger’s lyrics that still affects us years down the road seemed a fitting place to end.
Maybe this candid sentimentality is why Seger’s music has endured these many decades, because it’s Seger’s Ann Arbor that I’d most like to think is still accurate: Young people, still trying to figure their lives out, earnestly stumbling towards some nebulous future, but just as sincerely trying to appreciate the good days before we’ve actually left them.
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