When I'm feeling lonely and beat
I drift back in time and I find my feet
Down on Mainstreet
Read full Lyrics
Main Street in Ann Arbor c 2005
Bob Seger’s "Mainstreet" is the sixth track on the artist’s Night Moves
album, released in October of 1976. It was the fourth single from the album to hit the airwaves, and reached as high as No. 24 on the Billboard Music Charts (attaining No. 1 status on the Canadian RPM
The subject matter of Bob Seger’s "Mainstreet" is pretty straightforward. It’s a nostalgic look back on a time in a young man’s life that is full of mystery, budding self-awareness, and romantic/libidinous longing (if there is a difference between the two in a young man’s heart/loins). Seger relates: "Again, that's going right back to the 'Night Moves' situation where I was writing about my high school years in Ann Arbor (southern Michigan, home of the University of Michigan and county seat of Washtenaw County) and what it was like - the discovery, the total naïveté and fresh-faced openness that I went through. It was sort of an entire awakening of my life; before that, I was kind of a quiet, lonesome kid." (Gary Graff, October 1994, Detroit Free Press. "Bob Seger Tells The Stories Behind The Hits")
When it comes to the actual location of the clubs and bars discussed in the song, however, the subject becomes more clouded. While he has suggested it is an amalgamation of various streets and situations, we know for certain from Seger’s own words that the closest approximation to the street that has been memorialized in the song is actually Ann Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which branches off of the city’s Main Street.
What we do not know for certain is the specific location of the club or the name of the dancer. Seger has related slightly different accounts at different times. He can no longer recall the name of the “little club downtown” where his “long lovely dancer” was found, nor can he even remember who the dancer was, exactly. In one account, he suggested that the woman was one of the many that would perform in the windows of this now-anonymous club.
In another account on 93.3 WMMR Rocks!, he explains: "'Mainstreet' was written probably about my first girlfriend - as was 'Night Moves' - but she didn't dance in a bar or anything like that. A lot of it is she probably had the influence on it, but I made up the scenario. Although I did like to walk on Ann Street, which is just off Main Street in Ann Arbor, and there would be a kind of smoky atmosphere in there, and it actually was a black blues club. And there was a guy who used to play there called Washboard Willie, and I loved his band. And I would try to stand outside and listen to the band as long as I could before they shooed me away."
Bob Seger c 1977
Seger is not the only one who remembers Washboard Willie. Information on the Delta Bluesman can still be found online. Two of his songs are readily available on the album American Blues Legends ’73.
Washboard Willie (born William Paden Hensley) passed away in 1991 at the ripe old age of 82. He adopted his name because he washed cars for a living. For a time his band was named The Super Suds of Rhythm, after a brand of laundry detergent that was popular at the time.
Listening to the raucous, stomping piano and wailing harmonica of Willie’s "I Feel So Fine" and "Kansas City," one can almost imagine the sound spilling out onto Ann Street as a young Bob Seger stood outside the smoky club watching it all through the windows, the sights and sounds and smells permeating his subconscious and planting the psychic seeds that would grow over time into the song we know today as "Mainstreet."
During that time in 1960s, when Bob Seger was prowling the streets of Ann Arbor, the little city was quite a hotbed of political and cultural happenings. The Students for a Democratic Society, which would eventually become a major force of change and controversy in the U.S. anti-war and Progressivism movement, had their first major meetings there.
Musically, the place produced a number of lasting bands that would seem to far exceed a city that even today has a population of only 115,000 people. Alice Cooper, MC5, Iggy Pop, Brownsville Station, George Clinton, Mitch Ryder, and The Rationals were all playing in the city at the same time that Seger was coming up. It was a very lively time for the little city of Ann Arbor. Traces of that vitality can still be heard echoing through the notes of Seger’s "Mainstreet," a musical snapshot of one small corner of the universe that will never exist again outside of American-music mythology.
Time has long ago paved that street over, and what is left today is the same place only in geographic terms. The energy and the spirit of it belong now to history. For the three minutes and thirty-four seconds that "Mainstreet" plays, however, we can still stand outside that anonymous club and watch through the windows that long, lovely dancer as she sways to the smoky beat of Washboard Willie and the Super Suds of Rhythm. For that little span of time, Ann Street is still on fire with the passion of protest and rebellion and new musical legacies being born. And if we are quiet and listen very, very hard, we can catch glimpses of the world as it was to that dreamy young man - a place full of mystery, vitality, and infinite possibilities, with an entire span of life spread out wholly before him, the past so brief and inconsequential that it’s hardly worth remembering at all.
~ Jeff Suwak
(Thanks to Mark for the Songplace suggestion)Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.
Browse all Songplaces