Bob Seger Talks 'Maddening' Recovery After Surgery, And When He Hopes to Be Back on the Road

Bob Seger
Clay Patrick McBride

Bob Seger

Bob Seger would love to play a concert these days -- heck, he'd just like to go to a concert. Or sing. Or play guitar. Or work out.

That's not happening at the moment, of course. Seger is in the midst of a three-month recuperation from a surgery he had during October, which brought a premature end to his Runaway Train Tour after just 13 of its 33 announced dates. It did not, however, delay the release of his 18th studio album I Knew You When, which came out Nov. 17 and debuted at No. 1 on the Top Current Rock Albums chart, No. 2 on Top Rock Albums and No. 25 on the Billboard 200, his 13th album on that chart.

The 10-song set (13 on the deluxe edition) is dedicated to and heavily influenced by his long friendship with the late Glenn Frey, whose Jan. 2016 death spurred a year and half of process of writing and recording, both brand new songs and material from Seger's prodigious vaults that fit the theme.

As he convalesces, the Michigan rocker has had to sit in his suburban Detroit home on the sidelines watching it roll out, feeling "restless" and ready to get back into active duty. But he was certainly happy to share some thoughts about it, and his pending return, with Billboard.

First of all, how are you feeling -- which, given the circumstances, is a very real question.

It's my seventh week and I'm in a three-month recovery, which ends Jan. 22, so I'm about halfway through. The pain is down; I'd say it's one out of 10, but it's constant. It's nagging, and unfortunately I can't sing or play or lift anything more than five pounds, not over my head, until it's gone. So it's difficult to work out or anything. I can walk. That's about it. It's maddening. I'm just stuck here. But they warned me of this. They said it was going to really hurt for about three months afterwards, but the payoff is (the surgery) didn't go anywhere near my larynx. They went in the back, so my voice is probably fine. So I think it's going to be OK, I really do. But, God, it's taking a long time...

And the timing couldn't have been worse.

Oh, and it was going so good, the tour was. The band was playing so great. I hated to stop.

I Knew You When is both about and dedicated to Glenn Frey -- the cover is even a photo of you from 1966, when you met him. A lot of people don't know what a long friendship it was.

We became really good friends, and he sang on "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," my first national single. So we'd been friends for over 49 years when he passed. He was probably my best friend outside of my band, and we stayed in touch all those years. We were a couple of lower to middle class kids from Michigan who became really good buddies, loved the same music, shared the same passion.

So how did the album come about?

About three months after he passed I did a memorial (for Frey) in L.A., and just before that I got the idea of listening to some of my old songs and I found "I Knew You When" and I thought, "Oh my gosh, this even sounds faintly like an Eagles song. This is perfect. This would be a great title for a Glenn tribute record." So when I saw (Frey's widow) Cindy in L.A. I asked her, "Would you mind if I did that? It's your legacy; I don't want to mess it up." She said, "No, I'm sure it'll be in good hands with you," and I said "OK, that's what I'm gonna do," and that was the beginning of it. I had "I Knew You When," and then I started studying the old stuff and writing new stuff and recording a couple of covers, and a year and a half later it was done."

You've done a couple of guest performances with the Eagles, at the Kennedy Center Honors and the Classic West concert. What were those like?

[Laughs] Oh, it was terrific. They're old friends, and I'm so happy to see they hired Vince (Gill), who's another old friend of mine. That was a great move. And of course I was thrilled to do Deacon's first show, which was Dodger Stadium. It was really cool seeing the passing from Glenn to his oldest son.

Between the songs about Glenn and the covers of Lou Reed ("Busload Of Faith") and Leonard Cohen ("Democracy"), and with all the musician deaths of the past few years, is this an album about mortality?

It's celebrating the struggle that Glenn went through, 'cause I know. I was firsthand. I was there. In a way I was a lot luckier than Glenn, and I think he kind of envied me because I didn't have to deal with three or four other people. I always get to do exactly what I want, and that was maddening to him. But then, of course, Leonard passed and Lou passed in '13 and that was a heavy hit, and I give a nod to (Little Feat) drummer Richie Hayward 'cause he's playing on four songs and he died in 2010. And then Gregg (Allman) died and then (Tom) Petty died and... it's tough 'cause you're living with it every day you're working on it. I've been looking at these pictures of me and Glenn and I had a picture with Cindy and (Frey's children) that I've been looking at the whole time I've been doing it, like "Don't mess this up!" I did a guest DJ thing on the Eagles' new SiriusXM channel and shed a few tears listening to his songs. It's been a bad year and a half. I'm kind of glad it's behind me, but I'm glad I did it.

I Knew You When also has some moments that could be interpreted as political.

Some of it's political, yeah, but mostly it's about Glenn. "Blue Ridge" is about the Civil War, and I thought it was kind of a metaphor for what we're going through right now. I mean, have you ever seen the country more divided politically? It's kind of like a political civil war right now, everybody just divided down the middle. So I thought that song made sense. And "Runaway Train," let's put it this way: When I sang at the Kennedy Center thing I met Barack Obama, who's my favorite president in my lifetime. We all got to meet him and Michelle and shake hands. I only had a second to talk to him; I said, "I gotta tell ya, Mr. President, thank you for your wise and dignified service," and that's as much time as I had. And look at what we've got now, so there you go. (laughs)

You made some lyric changes in "Busload Of Faith," too, to reference Trump as well as the Flint water crisis.

I went to Lou's estate and told them what I was going to do. I said, "I'd like to drop the one verse about rape and about abortion and all that, and I'd like to drop four references to religion that are kind of negative." I changed five lines and dropped one verse, and they were fine with that and said, "Oh yeah, go ahead." So I did that, and there you go.

Are you champing at the bit to get back out and play some of the new songs live?

Oh yeah! I don't believe you should do more than five new ones, but I'd like to do at least that. We did get to play "Busload," but the band's got 'em all down. I'm sure "Runaway Train" will get in there. "The Highway" is fantastic live, so it's going to be fun.

What kind of timetable do you have for a return to the stage?

We're kinda looking at mid-March, hoping I'll be up and OK by then, but I just don't know. But we've got to do these 20 (shows) that are outstanding. We have 200,000 tickets out there, so we have to honor that. Those people have been great; They've held on to their tickets all this time, so that's the first thing we've got to do, but I don't know when, exactly.

Is there any concern you might not be able to?

Well, this pain's got to go away, so we can't really book anything yet. They say, "We can't guarantee it'll ever go away," but that's what doctors have to say. I think it's gonna be OK, but if it doesn't (go away), I'm done, dude.

This is probably the last thing you're thinking about, but is time off letting you think about more new music?

About the only thing I can do is listen to a lot of music, just studying different people I really like and some of my favorite songs and favorite singers and just keep drilling myself with music that I like and analyzing it -- Why do I like this? Why do I like that? -- and get ready for writing. That'll be the first thing I'll do, I'll do a little bit of writing before the tour, and then I'll have to start rehearsing for the shows.