ROLL AWAY MY CHOICE
“Took a look down a westbound road, right away I made my choice”
Well I know it has been awhile since the last blog but let’s just say life has gotten in the way from having the time or inclination to write but things are better now and getting back to normal. On a positive note I have recently acquired lots of new CD’s courtesy of a couple of box sets I purchased which will no doubt be making their way onto this page soon as future soundtracks. Before I begin this installment you should know two things regarding the subject matter. The first is though I have been to a lot of places in this country, I have never been to Michigan. Second, other than a quick trip around the corner holding on for dear life with someone else at the throttle one time, I have never ridden a motorcycle. Both of which are important things to realize about the music for this installment of The Soundtrack Of A Photograph. The song and the singer have been staples in my life for over 30 years now and the love and appreciation has never gone away. The photographs for this installment serve as a reminder to me of decisions and choices in photography and how although clarity is usually the ideal for a photograph, sometimes a little blur or distortion can make things interesting.
First to the singer and then the song itself. Bob Seger, along with his Silver Bullet Band has been one of my favorite performers for most of my life. The combination of that gritty voice coupled with the Mid-Western spirit and songs that come from the gut has brought me much happiness through the years. I first became aware of him when I was younger. As I mentioned in the last installment I had no punk or metal or pop phase like some of the kids I knew growing up. It was all the usual you might say. I am not really even sure where I heard him for the first time, but in the period between the mid to late 70’s through the early 80’s it is safe to say he was right up there in terms of sales and hit records. So becoming a fan was probably based around hearing any one of the classics like Night Moves, Old Time Rock & Roll, Against The Wind, Hollywood Nights, and the list goes on and on. The one thing I do remember for sure is the first thing I bought by him (on cassette no less) was his 1982 album, ‘The Distance.’ Though not an album most people or fans recognize by him, for me it remains my favorite album of his all these years later. My wife quite wisely said something several years ago which is that in the pantheon of American rockers you pick your sides early and you become either a fan of Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, or John Mellencamp. Arguments might be made for others to that list but all four men are roughly contemporaries and therefore can be linked together. So early on, despite growing up in New Jersey, my allegiance went to Bob Seger.
” I too am lost, I feel double-crossed and I’m sick of what’s wrong and what’s right”
Though some critics have said The Distance bears a little too much resemblance to Bruce Springsteen’s music at the time of its release that has never been an argument I have accepted, in spite of the presence of East Street Band pianist Roy Bittan on some tracks on the album. In truth though Seger has skillfully utilized lots of musicians over the years, including players from John Mellencamp’s band and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, the music does not reflect those artists All four men have an individual spirit that has carried them through the decades and it is not based on copying what the other guy is doing. Years later Bob Dylan settled this matter quite nicely for me when in a Vanity Fair article he said-
“Some people call Bob Seger the poor man’s
Bruce Springsteen, but personally, I always
thought Bruce was the rich man’s Bob
Seger. Love ’em both though.”
What I have always felt about the album is that it was more of conscious decision on Seger’s part to seek a subtle change in the music on The Distance, after that impressive run of hits. Not that I am denying those hits, and The Distance had a few as well, but nothing that approached the mega-hits such as Old Time Rock & Roll that are still radio staples to this day. That is one reason why it resonates so for me. Lyrically I find it to be perhaps his greatest work. The album starts with the hard charging ‘Even Now’ which still has one of the best ways of describing a troubled relationship that I have ever heard, in calling them “pointless one act plays.” Then there is the piano thumping nod to Seger’s Detroit roots in Makin’ Thunderbirds. After that comes a vicious guitar riff for Boomtown Blues and later a signature saxophone solo in the song House Behind A House by longtime Silver Bullet Band member Alto Reed. Remember way back in Part 2 of this blog about Jimmy Castor I mentioned that his solo on It’s Just Begun was one of my favorite sax solos of all time? Well Alto’s solo on House Behind A House is one of the others. But the albums greatest track in my opinion is the subject for this Soundtrack Of A Photograph.
“And we rolled clean out of sight”
If you had owned The Distance on vinyl (or even cassette like I did originally) Roll Me Away would have been the first song on the second side of the album. Back in those days I often felt like the first song on side 2 was the make or break determination as to if an album was really good, or just mediocre. Sure, the first singles the label would put out might be track one, two and three, but it is when you turned it over to hear the next side that you really knew what you were dealing with and whether it was a great album or filled with a lot of filler So with a subtle piano opening Roll Me Away begins and at least for me, its position as the first song on Side 2 (the way I still think of it, rather than track 6 as it is now via CD or download) sold me on this being a strong album. Rather than dissecting the song just have a listen for yourself right now.
The first thing you realize is that it starts with a choice, as sung in the opening line. Back story is not needed here. We just know that the narrator is heading off. We do not know exactly why he is leaving, or for how long he intends to go though we know that he and the girl he meets both feel a sense of loss being double crossed and fed up. Some songs fill in all the blanks but as songwriter Bob Seger made a choice with this song to start the story somewhere in the middle and stop well short of the end. The rest of the song is heavy on the motif of choice as well, culminating with the key line of the song near the end-
“Stood alone on a mountaintop staring out at the Great Divide
I could go east, I could go west, it was all up to me to decide”
It is a powerful song, and one that did not fully sink into my psyche at the time, being all of 14 when it was released in 1982. It took me until I had lived a little before I realized what a special song it is. Many years later when Bob Seger finally got around to releasing a Greatest Hits package in the notes for this song he mentioned how it had started off as an all out rocker. In between takes some of the band started toying around with this more mid-tempo rendition and it clearly worked much better. The lyrical piano and driving accompaniment from the rest of the band is perfect as it weaves around the heartfelt vocals of Seger. The song has obviously remained close to his heart as well, since it often is used as the concert opener. There is just something about the driving tempo and perhaps also a sense of empathy that most of us feel at some point in our lives towards what the protagonist is setting out on in the song that makes it such a winner.
“Gotta keep rollin’, gotta keep ridin’ keep searching ’till I find what’s right
But rather than give you yet another out on the road cruising around listening to music sort of blog installment to the accompaniment of Bob Seger, I instead want to use this idea of choice, that idea as sung by Seger in the song of it being “all up to me to decide” and relating it to photography. You may have noticed a certain out of focus nature in the photographs I am using here and it was done by choice. The constant in all of these photographs is they were all taken in a moving car (this is where my disclaimer about never having been on a motorcycle or having been to Michigan comes in). Photography like any art form is all about decisions and choices. The obvious one for a photographer is lighting, both the friend and enemy to anyone who has ever picked up a camera. Then there is the area of focus-or what am I actually taking a photo of decision one makes, trying to remember such fine points as utilizing the rule of thirds (for example if you were taking a photo of a lake at the shore of a mountain you might devote one third to the sky, one third to the mountain, and one third to the lake, so that too much space is not focused on any one element). Then comes the technical details like shutter speed and what aperture to use. Another big decision is what type of lens to use. Then it is often a question of should I use the tripod or should I try to take it freehand. Then comes a decision about whether it would be a good time to use a filter or not. Maybe making it sepia toned or black and white would enhance the photograph as opposed to color. Then while contemplating all of these ideas you may have to make a choice about how to handle the weather. Wait the rain out or try to make use of it somehow. Or then you have something like fog, which can be a great tool if other pieces fall into place, but can just as easily spoil it all in a heartbeat if it rolls in at the wrong time.
Because there are so many decisions and challenges to getting good results it can be discouraging sometimes when the end product does not come out the way you thought it should in your head, or the way you planned it. Before switching over primarily to digital I shot on film, where you had to patiently wait for the prints to come back (since I have never learned developing ) and often times in those days you would find mixed results because you could not see a preview of what you just photographed to help you make adjustments like you do these days with a digital camera. Even with the digital camera and the preview screen though, I often do not fully realize the vibrancy of colors or how well I framed something until I get home and load the photos up on the laptop. So even with a digital camera you still have to trust that the choices that you make out in the field will result in a good image and are not marred by the one thing you neglected.
“Just then I saw a young hawk flying and my soul began to rise”
Though I do experiment with all the things I mentioned above I have a confession to make regarding my own photography. Often times I just ‘go with it.’ I do not make a lot of the choices I mentioned above that I could to enhance the photograph. Certain things are quick and easy adjustments to make with the push of a button or a turn of the dial on the camera, while others require a lot of time to set up and often due to the exuberance of the moment and finding something I want to photograph, I often just take the photos at a relatively automatic setting instead. That is my choice, and though sometimes I may wish I had taken the time to have reflecting light bouncing off the shimmering waters of a lake with the clouds frozen in time at the exact moment a hawk swoops down majestically as the wind whistles through the grass, I think there is also enough room in photography for people to just take the image as it looks in the actual moment and not have it be so ultra-enhanced it does not resemble a photograph. The photographs I am using here are a result of that sort of thinking.
“And as the sunset faded I spoke to the faintest first starlight,
I said next time, next time we’ll get it right”
While my wife was driving us through the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York a few years ago I decided to experiment with taking these photos while the car was moving since there was little traffic down those quiet roads. It made me think how on the one hand they can be viewed as totally wrong in every technical sense of the word, they somehow worked for me personally because they captured the moment, and the rolling motion of that car ride. It was my choice, and my decision to take the photographs in this manner, and as I said in the very first installment, there is something very personal about photo taking. If the end result is to always have publishable photographs and never showing ones that might be construed as mistakes by others because they have a little blur to them, or are a little dark then I may as well sell my cameras. I prefer instead to think about the moment, and that decision to take those photographs in a particular way for me, and if they work for me as I view them later on then that is all that matters. But rather than climbing up on a soap box to delve into this more I will leave it there except to say that just like the character in ‘Roll Me Away’ standing on the Great Divide and deciding which way to go, the photographer has a lot of choices to make. It may be the right one or the wrong one, but it is all up to him or her to decide. I like taking photos first and foremost for myself, and though sometimes my choices as a photographer do not always work out, there is one choice that was easy. For photographs of the landscape outside the window of a moving car (you can pretend it’s a motorcycle if you prefer), Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band’s song Roll Me Away is the Soundtrack Of A Photograph for this installment.
Roll Me Away-Written By Bob Seger
All photographs by Robert P Doyle
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