Under the Radar

Bob Seger Rethinks the Vietnam War

NPR's music blog just published "Where Have All the Bob Seger Albums Gone?," an epic post about the sorry state of the music catalog of one of America's greatest rockers. A surprising number of albums are out of print on CD, including everything from his early days before he earned national fame. There are only a handful of collections available to purchase digitally from iTunes, Google Play or the Amazon MP3 stores and nothing (nothing) available from streaming services like Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music.

Kids don't know about Bob unless they're trawling the depths of YouTube. If you lose a copy of a smash hit album like Against the Wind, there's no way to buy a new copy. Seger was a huge regional act before he broke through with "Night Moves" and a lot of that pre-1974 music was among his best.

Seger is a first-wave baby boomer and he reached adulthood right as the Vietnam War and the draft began to dominate young men's lives. That discussion became a part of his music.

In 1966, he sang lead vocals on The Beach Bums' "The Ballad of the Yellow Beret," a parody of "The Ballad of the Green Berets" by SSG Barry Sadler, the massive hit single that held the #1 spot on the Billboard charts for five weeks in March & April 1966. (Check it out here if you really don't know the original). The song was so huge that it inspired John Wayne to make the 1968 movie The Green Berets and the song was recycled as the movie's theme.

"Yellow Beret" is credited to songwriter "D. Dodger" on the single and Bob is backed by local Detroit band The Omens. They're coming down hard on the college kids who wanted to avoid the war. He opens with "Fearless cowards of the USA/Bravely here, at home they stay" and goes on from there.

The Ballad of the Yellow Beret

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Less than two years later in January 1968, Seger had changed his mind. "2+2=?" (spoken as Two Plus Two Equals What?) is one of the highlights of Ramblin' Gamblin' Man, the debut Capitol records album from the The Bob Seger System. The album's title song cracked the Top 20 as a single but most people thought Bob was a one-hit wonder for the next six years.

On the music side of things, "2+2=?" is driven by a piercing, insistent riff that's likely to give listeners a brief headache before they submit to its power. White Stripes leader (and fellow Detroiter) Jack White has called it his favorite song and suggested that it might have subconsciously suggest the monster riff for "Seven Nation Army."

By this point, working-class guys like Bob were realizing that their friends and neighbors were getting drafted and getting killed while the rich suburban kids were getting a pass because they could afford to enroll in college.

Well I knew a guy in high school just an average friendly guy And he had himself a girlfriend and you made them say goodbye Now he's buried in the mud over foreign jungle land And his girl just sits and cries she just doesn't understand So you say he died for freedom well if he died to save your lies Go ahead and call me yellow 2+2 is on my mind

All I know is that I'm young and your rules they are old If I've got to kill to live then there's something left untold I'm no statesman I'm no general I'm no kid I'll never be It's the rules not the soldier that I find the real enemy

The sentiment between the two songs isn't really all that much different, but the situation hasn't gotten real. War is having consequences and, much like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," "2+2=?" is a song about average American guys who don't have the resources to beat the system.

2+2=?

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Vietnam is the last American war to inspire a flood of popular music about military service. As we lead up to the premiere of the 18-hour The Vietnam War documentary this fall on PBS, we'll continue to explore the role of Vietnam in arts and entertainment.

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