Thursday, May 14, 2009

Night Movies

Bob Seger’s song “Night Moves” is so famous that it scarcely needs an introduction. Having heard the song on the radio yesterday while running errands, I realized I hadn’t listened to it for quite a long time. Returning home, I was compelled to find out what people have said about it over the years. A web search turned up dozens and dozens of references to the song, but I found myself amused by what I found on a website known as Songfacts. Here is the link to the Songfacts discussion of the song, but before I discuss the assertions to be found there, here are the lyrics:

I was a little too tall, could’ve used a few pounds
Tight pants, points, hardly renowned
She was a black-haired beauty with big dark eyes
And points all her own sittin’ way up high
Way up firm and high
Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my ‘60 Chevy
Workin’ on mysteries without any clues
Workin’ on our night moves
Trying’ to make some front page drive-in news
Workin’ on our night moves . . . in the summertime
In the sweet summertime

We weren’t in love—oh no far from it
We weren’t searching for some pie in the sky 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, to the alley, or the trusty woods
I used her, she used me, but neither one cared
We were getting our share, workin’ on our night moves
Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues
Workin’ on our night moves
And it was summertime
Sweet summertime . . . summertime

And . . . oh, the wonder . . . I felt the lightning
Yeah, and I waited on the thunder
Waited on the thunder

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off? I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closin’ in
Night moves . . . night moves
Night moves . . . night moves
Ain’t it funny how you remember
I remember, I remember, I remember . . .

Here are some of the assertions one can find on Songfacts, followed by my rebuttal:

“Fact”: Bob Seger revealed in an interview that the “song from 1962” he refers to in the lyrics is “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes.
PROBLEM: “Be My Baby” wasn’t released until August 1963. Assuming this interview with Bob Seger ever took place at all, one might conclude that Bob Seger is either lying or he has a bad memory, but there’s another way to interpret his claim, which is to interpret it as a proverbial “Freudian slip.” Since the song tries to invoke the nostalgic past, or at least a teenage nostalgic past, Seger’s revelation that he was inspired to write the song after seeing George Lucas’s American Graffiti, released in August 1973, may be true. The tagline on that film’s 1973 theatrical poster is, “Where were you in ’62?” Seger’s confusing the year of “Be My Baby” with the tagline of American Graffiti reveals the way the song draws from motion picture images, from re-presentations of the 1960s, to make sense of the past. What all this reveals, of course, is that the song is really about time, his alienation from the past of his youth (“summertime”) and the weight of age (“autumn”). This sort of high romanticism is characteristic of Seger’s best music.

“Fact”: The song is autobiographical. “The girl had a boyfriend away in the military, and when he came back, she married him, breaking Seger’s heart.”
PROBLEM: “We weren’t in love—oh no far from it . . . we were just young, and restless, and bored.” The lyrics operate at such a high level of generalization (“black-haired beauty with big dark eyes”) that any specific reference to a flesh-and-blood human female is impossible. Change the line to “raven-tressed beauty with pale skin and big dark eyes” and you have one of those dark, mysterious, and provocative women that populate the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Moreover, the actual time period when these activities—by rather stereotyped teenagers, I might add—took place is as elusive as are the period settings in the stories of Poe. Because of the broad level of generalization, the time period could be the 1950s as easily as the 1960s—and that’s just the point. The images in the song are drawn from representations of the 1950s and 60s—that is, from later movies that are set during this historic time period. If the song is about the singer’s memory, curiously, it is a collective memory, not an individualized or specific one.

The problem with this autobiographical reading is that if he and the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes were “Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues” (the singer assumes we all know what he means by this, that we are all drawing from the same source of cultural knowledge), what is the age of the (unrepresentable) boyfriend away in the military? After all, teenagers having sex in the back seat of an automobile is painfully stereotyped teenage behavior. For teenagers, like most people, it was a whole lot easier then, as it is now, to have sex in bed, or on the living room floor for that matter. For some reason, however, the singer and the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes (according to the autobiographical reading, the proverbial mouse who played while the cat was away) preferred the back seat of a Chevy, an alley, or a backroom. Obviously the memory the song is about isn’t about “unrequited love” at all, but about the pleasures of transgression, of illicit sex. “Neither one cared” because they both equally relished the deliciousness of the illicit relationship. So the song is arguably about a memory that may have been, an erotic fantasy that occurred with a girl-who-never-was. The problem with those who prefer the autobiographical approach is that they mistakenly believe there exists a clear window with an unobstructed view of their subject. No such window exists, just as no memory exists apart from desire. The point is, the lyrics may be a representation of past experience, but that doesn’t mean they are literally autobiographical. It’s possible to argue that the song succeeds precisely because it captures a collective form of experience, not the experience of a single individual.

“Fact”: He really did screw the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes with the boyfriend away in the military in the back seat of his ‘62 Chevy. BUT . . . 62 (three syllables) didn’t fit lyrically, so he changed it to 60 (two syllables).
PROBLEM: How do we know it was actually a Chevy and not a Ford? After all, most biographical information about Bob Seger indicates he was born in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit; Ford Motor Company is based in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. Why not sing “62 Ford,” since his birth took place in a hospital named after the automobile-making benefactor Henry Ford? “62 Ford” has the same number of syllables as “60 Chevy.” Why does he say a Chevy rather than a Ford? Well, because “Chevy” rhymes with “heavy,” as in, “where the woods got heavy.” But he could have written the lyrics as follows:

Out past the cornfields where the woods became dense
In the back seat of my ’62 Ford
We were just young, and restless, and bored
Workin’ on our night moves

If this revision doesn’t seem as poetic as the lyrics in the actual song, that’s because it isn’t, although Ford rhymes with bored, and who knows how many times he re-arranged the lyrics? The point is, does it make any difference whatsoever whether it was a Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Nash or Rambler? Apparently, “Chevy” has something more all-American about it than “Ford,” and we all know that Chevrolet later used Bob Seger’s song “Like A Rock” for an advertising campaign. Perhaps the Chevrolet division of General Motors appreciated his reference to “Chevy” in the multi-platinum selling “Night Moves,” and decided to repay the favor. So much for his allegiance to Ford Motor Company and the Henry Ford Hospital in which he was born.

A friend of mine, now retired, once told me an anecdote about going to the movies. He had just seen the James Dean film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and upon exiting the darkened theater was amused to notice that fellow male viewers of the film were standing in the lobby practicing their best James Dean imitation. His anecdote is illustrative of the power movies have over our imaginations and the construction of our identities. It is interesting that Night Moves is also the name of a 1975 film starring Gene Hackman—even the title of Bob Seger’s song is derived from a movie. The lesson: Artists are notorious liars (although perhaps not intentionally so), and therefore the last person you should trust to explain the meaning of an artwork is the artist himself.


frankenslade said...

Great stuff! I will be sharing your analysis with my Seger-watching friends at Rock Town Hall.

Bent said...

Looks like your hypothetical re-write would've screwed with the rhyme scheme (basic couplets, mostly):

"Out past the cornfields where the woods became dense
In the back seat of my ’62 Ford
We were just young, and restless, and bored
Workin’ on our night moves"

(Nothing rhymes with dense, here)

Anyway the lyrics seem less than finely honed - my favourite toe-curler being:

"We weren’t in love—oh no far from it
We weren’t searching for some pie in the sky summit"

But thanks for making me dig out my old vinyl to give it a listen!