The Detroit rocker’s second LP from 1969 remains a bizarre blindspot in his catalog
Noah is the strangest denizen of the already murky land that is Bob Seger’s first decade of record-making. In fact, it’s barely even a Seger album at all.
The seven albums Seger made before his career finally started taking off in 1975 have been out of print for decades. Seger is said to prefer it that way, showing a puzzling lack of pride in his early output and refusing to ever let that portion of his discography see the light of day again. But in this case, it’s kind of understandable.
That decision has been keeping a lot of great music out of circulation for a long time. There are at least two generations of Seger fans who remain unaware of his pre-fame catalog, including killer albums like Mongrel and Seven, mostly-covers record Smokin’ O.P.’s, and solo-acoustic left turn Brand New Morning. But even in this shadowy section of the Seger legacy, Noah remains a mystery on multiple levels.
Word has it that after Seger’s 1969 debut LP Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man failed to set the globe ablaze (despite its title track landing in the Top 20), Seger became momentarily uncertain about the path forward and contemplated knocking the whole thing on the head. Hard as it may be to imagine now, he was allegedly so disenfranchised that for a while he wasn’t pulling his weight as bandleader of The Bob Seger System.
Predicting what happened next would have required the kind of otherworldly prescience usually confined to those who make their living staring intently at crystal balls and other people’s palms. While there’s little evidence of exactly how it went down, it seems as though Seger’s trusted manager Punch Andrews–who maintains that role to this day–brought in another guy to share frontman duties with Bob.
AUDIO: Bob Seger System “Noah”
That guy was Tom Neme. He was a perfectly fine singer and a decent enough songwriter, but through no fault of his own, there was one thing he definitely wasn’t: Bob Seger. This wouldn’t have been a problem if not for the fact that he was suddenly co-leading The Bob Seger System, and sharing the spotlight on Noah, released in the autumn of ’69 to a very confused cabal of Seger fans.
Seger sings only half of the songs on Noah, and one of those is a Neme tune. He appears as a writer on only four — one of which was a leftover from his last album, and another could barely even be categorized as a song. The rest of the record was Neme’s ball to run with. All of the foregoing facts would appear to account for the album’s commercial performance making Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man look like Thriller in comparison.
Wise decisions were apparently thin on the ground as concerns Noah, but one of them was the idea of frontloading the record with three Seger vocals. For the nine minutes it takes to move from the title track (an undeniably catchy piece of curiously British-sounding pop-rock) through the hard psych of “Innervenus Eyes” and the Neme-penned R&B grinder “Lonely Man,” with Seger’s soulful pipes as infallible as ever, it’s possible to pretend you’re listening to a normal Bob Seger album.
That possibility quickly flies out the window with the next track, “Loneliness is a Feeling.” There’s nothing overtly wrong with the song or Neme’s delivery, but it sounds like he wandered into the wrong room from another session. When Seger chimes in momentarily towards the end there’s a brief illusion of the ship being righted, but that notion is permanently dispelled with the arrival of the next track.
The six-minute “Cat” is the single most inexplicable moment in Seger’s entire catalog, and it can’t even be blamed on Neme, who neither wrote it nor sings on it. Drummer Pip Perrine lays down a tribal-sounding beat. The groove is augmented by additional percussion presumably played by the other band members, whose lack of adherence to Perrine’s beat could conceivably be related to controlled substances. This theory gains more ballast as one digs further into what can only be called a song in the most general sense of the word.
With no other instruments intruding, Seger starts unleashing a stoned-sounding torrent of words that fall somewhere between a parody of Beat poetry and the inscrutable stylings of ’60s outsider vocalist/drummer Bongo Joe. It can only be hoped that Seger’s utterances were improvised, especially when he shifts into a sexual come-on that leads to an under-the-sheets encounter complete with America’s heartland rock hero loudly simulating an epic climax. Oh, and the whole thing sounds like it was recorded inside a barrel, with a tube sock over the microphone.
AUDIO: Bob Seger System “Cat”
It’s tough to come back from that, but Neme gives it a try, God bless him, taking the lead on the next four songs. To his credit, “Jumpin’ Humpin’ Hip Hypocrite” is actually much better than its title might suggest. And the others are perfectly serviceable variants on the late-’60s rock template. Neme tags out for the album’s final track, as Seger returns to the fore with “Death Row.” This is the most powerful track on the album, which is telling, since it had been hanging around at least since 1968, when it was originally released as the flip side of Seger’s single “2+2=?” and bears an entirely different production style from the rest of Noah.
Like most of what the Seger System had recorded pre-Noah, the track bears a raw, garage-rock intensity that’s fully on par with their Detroit contemporaries like The MC5. But in this context it’s a bit like a porcupine in a room full of balloons, inevitably blowing apart everything else on the record.
Fortunately, there’s a happy ending to the story. Soon after the Noah sessions, Seger somehow got his mojo back, kicked poor Neme out of the band, and eventually graduated to the glory we all know well. Don’t feel too bad for Neme though, he’s still out there singing, having moved into Christian music, so seemingly he’s got his spirituality sorted, too. And who knows? If he hadn’t been there to help shock Seger back to reality, maybe the world would have one less rock hero today.
AUDIO: The Bob Seger System “Death Row”