Is “Still the Same” the greatest thing Bob Seger ever did?
It’s one of his biggest hits: Of the 32 Hot 100 singles Seger scored between “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” in early 1969 and “The Fire Inside” in 1991, only three rode higher: “Shakedown,” “Shame on the Moon,” and “Night Moves.” But chart performance is not necessarily a measure of quality. And so you might nominate another Seger song as the greatest thing he ever did. For example, “Hollywood Nights,” which would get lots of votes from people I know. Or “Turn the Page.” Or “Get Out of Denver,” a particular favorite of mine. Or a track from one of his early, out-of-print albums.
(Despite the advertising industry’s best efforts to make me hate it, I could cast a vote for “Like a Rock,” too. The best verse from that song, the last one, never made it into the truck commercials anyhow: “20 years now/Where’d they go . . . I sit and I wonder sometimes/Where they’ve gone.”)
But I keep coming back to “Still the Same.” In the lyric, Seger sketches the character of a successful gambler and describes meeting him years after their first encounter. The words mean what they say—I can’t figure a way to turn them into an allegory for romance or a philosophical commentary on a broader truth. The performance is almost stately. It does not kick ass like like “Hollywood Nights” or “Feel Like a Number” or “Her Strut” or “Katmandu.” Neither is it one of those ambitious pop songs like “Sunburst” or “Ship of Fools.” Although it shares some similarities with the title track from Against the Wind, it’s more solid and substantial. The best thing about it might be those gorgeous backing vocals—simple oohs and aahs rarely set off a lead singer’s performance so well.
I suspect that my fondness for “Still the Same” has a lot to do with its context in that summer of 1978. In that season, suspended between high school and college, whatever was the still the same in my life wasn’t going to be that way for long. I was about to move from a world I knew and could navigate with ease to one utterly foreign to me. In that old world, I’d always been able to turn on the charm long enough to get me by. But if, as Seger says, the trick to staying on top is to never play the same game too long, maybe that meant I should change things up in the new world: try on a new personality, work on becoming somebody different when I got to college, something new to stay in the game of making friends and impressing people. But if I did that, would my old friends recognize me after we’d gone our separate ways? Seger seemed to say that yes, they would—but that they might not care anymore. “I just turned and walked away/I had nothing left to say.”
Better then, I decided, to stay who I was, to keep what I knew, to blunder off to college the same geek I’d always been. To do otherwise would be a bluff I couldn’t fake.
But anyway, “Still the Same”—best thing Bob Seger ever did? You be the judge. There’s a terrific live performance from 1978, when all of us were still impossibly young. I can’t get the video to embed properly, so click here to see it.