The song begins with a smoky, haunting figure played by Alto Reed on saxophone. Cymbals shimmer in the background, and Seger frames the chords on electric piano.
Now Seger launches into the first verse. The instrumental backing is sparse, nothing more than a guitar rumbling down low and an occasional cymbal to accent the dream-like quality of the lyrics. Seger’s vocal is restrained as well, spoken almost conversationally, as if to someone sitting in the seat next to him. His singing is quiet, but still expressive. His delivery perfectly conveys the sense of repetition and restlessness described in the lyrics. (Audio clip – 192K.)
On a long and lonesome highway, East of Omaha,
You can listen to the engine moaning out his one note song,
You can think about the woman or the girl you knew the night before.
But your thoughts will soon be wandering, the way they always do,
When you’re riding sixteen hours and there’s nothing much to do,
And you don’t feel much like riding, you just wish the trip was through.
Although it is a little hard to discern at this point, due to the approximate rhymes, the six-line verses have the unusual rhyming pattern of aaabbb. The long lines and the approximate rhymes add to the conversational effect, while the repetition of the rhyming seems to emphasize the monotony described by the lyrics. Now Seger delivers the first chorus.
Here I am,
On the road again.
There I am,
Up on the stage.
Here I go,
Playing star again.
There I go,
Turn the page.
Note the now different, but still unusual rhyming pattern: abacdbdc. The odd-numbered lines, ending in “am,” “am,” “go,” and “go,” rhyme closely, with their immediately preceding or following lines. But the even-numbered lines, ending with “again,” “stage,” “again” and “page,” take longer for the repeating pattern to occur. The overall effect, especially with the short line length, is of repeating patterns within patterns. The final rhyme completes the larger pattern, so that both the rhyme and the words provide a complementary sense of ending one unit in a larger work: “Turn the page.” The stronger beat on the chorus strengthens the sense of repetition.
This is a good time to point out the unusual perspectives Seger employs. During the verse he refers to himself in the second person: “You just wish the trip was through.” In the chorus, he speaks of himself in the first person: “Here I am.” Even in the verse, though, there are the alternating perspectives implied by “here” vs. “there.” The overall impression is of Seger the observer standing apart from Seger the performer, commenting on his actions but separate from them, watching himself going through the motions.
Seger continues the subdued, conversational tone on the second verse, although with other instruments quietly making their appearances. Seger’s electric piano emphasizes the dreamlike feeling of distance, with its inherently unnatural sound.
Well you walk into a restaurant, strung out from the road.
And you feel the eyes upon you as you’re shaking off the cold.
You pretend it doesn’t bother you, but you just want to explode.
Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can.
All the same old clichés, “Is that a woman or a man?”
And you always seem outnumbered, you don’t dare make a stand.
Although still conveying the sense of constraints fencing him in, Seger’s vocals give some sense of the underlying feelings not fully expressed. Notice how on the word “cold” and the phrase “other times you can” he manages to break free from the melody slightly, as if trying to shake off some heavy burden, in addition to the cold. (Audio clip – 200K.)
Let’s take a look at the dramatic structure of the song. The first verse provided one self-contained scene, of the singer traveling from one town to the next. Now the second verse conveys another perfect little scene, in a scant six lines, of a stop in a restaurant. The language is used with poetic precision. You understand that the protagonist has long hair, without the singer ever having to refer to it directly. The tension and dramatic conflict of the situation are clearly felt.
Now Seger delivers the third and final verse.
Out there in the spotlight, you’re a million miles away.
Every ounce of energy you try to give away,
As the sweat pours out your body, like the music that you play.
Later in the evening as you lie awake in bed,
With the echoes from the amplifiers ringing in your head,
You smoke the day’s last cigarette, remembering what she said.
The first line of this final verse again conveys the sense of separation between observer and actor, by referring to the singer as “out there” and “a million miles away.” The next two lines add to this effect, conveying little of the feelings that the singer must certainly feel while performing, but instead limiting the viewpoint to external, physical observations: “the sweat pours out your body like the music that you play.”
Here the sax figure that began the song now reappears. As a dramatic mechanism, it signals another shift in scene, this time the first within a verse. It also gives us a sense of having come full circle, and completed another cycle: another performance delivered. Its smoky iridescence also perhaps symbolizes the reference to the “music that you play.” (Audio clip – 56K.)
The final three lines paint the closing scene of the day. The instrumentation fades, leaving Seger naked, his vocals unadorned. The words show the singer alone, with nothing but a cigarette, the memory of another girl, and the ringing in his head of the performance just delivered.
Another chorus follows, sang as the preceding ones were, quietly, with understatement. But then another chorus comes, and Seger’s vocals begin to break free a bit, finally showing some of the emotion lurking beneath the surface of this actor playing the part of a rock star. Brilliantly, Seger skips the last line of the verse, which so strongly provides a sense of closure, instead repeating the preceding line, “There I go.” (Audio clip – 224K.) The effect is to leave the listener in suspense, waiting for some sense of finality. The song then closes with the third appearance of the haunting sax figure, which provides the missing feeling of completion.
I love this recording for a number of reasons.
There is also the relationship of the performance that was recorded to the subject matter of the song: Seger notes in the liner notes to his Greatest Hits collection that the track was recorded in Detroit’s Cobo Hall, the first time that Seger and his band had headlined in an auditorium of that size. So this particular performance turned another page of sorts in Seger’s career, marking the end of the period that is the subject of the song, and the start of his prominence as a national figure.