George Thorogood: The World According To George

  By Jeb Wright
Photos by Jake Willoughby

George Thorogood & the Destroyers have been pumping out their unique blend of R&B, Soul, Blues and Rock since the release of their debut album in 1977. Over the past 35 years, the one they call Lonesome George has made a living having fun onstage playing killer rock n roll songs, including “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” “Move It On Over,” “Who Do you Love,” “I Drink Alone” and his signature song, “Bad to the Bone.”

Classic Rock Revisited sat down with Thorogood to check in on him before he took the stage at the First Council Casino in Newkirk, Oklahoma. We found George to be brandishing his famous wide-toothed grin as he opened the door to his dressing room stating, “Well, you have perfect timing. I was just about to doze off.”

From the beginning of the interview it was clear that we were going to have a good time. Thorogood enlightened us on everything from famous people from Oklahoma, to the 1975 Boston Red Sox, to what is wrong with the world today, and how being nominated for a blues award for his latest album, 2120 Michigan Avenue means he has blown it. In between topics, we managed to talk a little music as well, including what it was like on the set of the video for “Bad to the Bone” and why “I Drink Alone” became a Thorogood classic instead of a hit for Country star George Jones.

Jeb: Welcome to Oklahoma, George.

George: This is quite a state with an amazing history to it. Oklahoma won, hands down, in the Bill James book for the state that has the all time baseball team. It is a list of the best players, all around, who came from Oklahoma. Warren Spawn, Johnny Bench, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Mercer and a lot more all came from Oklahoma. Musically, Woody Guthrie, Leon Russell and JJ Cale all came out of Oklahoma. You have James Thorpe; the world’s greatest athlete who is from that state. James Garner and Gary Busey are also from Oklahoma. I am sure there are others…Calvin Coolidge, a President, we can’t forget him.

Jeb: I had no idea you were an Oklahoma Historian. I did know you love baseball, though. Are you a Red Sox fan?

George: I followed the Red Sox back around 1975. Over the years I got know Bill Lee, Ferguson Jenkins and Bernie Carbo pretty well. They also had Luis Tiant, Freddy Lynn, big bad Jim Rice and George Scott.

I was watching a game and the Yankees, who I am not too crazy about, were playing the Red Sox. Someone hit a ball down the right field line, right in that tricky corner. Gary Sheffield is running to get the ball. A full grown adult…a grown man…picks up something in his hands and starts beating it against Sheffield’s head. Sheffield has a knee jerk reaction and hits the guy and then picks up the ball and throws it back in. The Fenway Park people got a hold of the guy and threw him out of the game. I think that guy should be banned from all ball parks for life.

What happened to the days when you went to the ball park and had peanuts and Cracker Jacks and hoped to get a foul ball? You know what I mean…it was an event and if your team won then that was just a bonus. It was a ball game.

Jeb: It sure has changed since then.

George: I was watching a ball game last summer and I knew I had seen everything. Somebody hit a home run at Wrigley Field in Chicago into the left field seats. This kid, who must have been eleven years old, had a glove and he caught the ball. He caught a treasure; a home run ball. These adults came around and started telling him to throw it back because it was not a Cub who hit the home run. He had this confused look on his face. The one who made him throw it back… the adult…was his DAD! The world is fucking sick. I saw another game from Wrigley Field and the guy threw it back and it was a Cub who hit it [laughter]. What is the deal here? What happened? Somewhere along the line something went haywire.

Jeb: What do you think happened?

George: I think it boils down to the price of oil going up. When the price of oil goes up, the price of gas goes up. You have to get products to the stores, so that means the price of bread goes up; everything goes up. The price of the tickets to the ball game goes up and the price the players want to be paid goes up. What happens is that teams now have to win because they have so much fucking money tied up in the team.

Tonight, I am going to have to play better than anything these people have ever seen in their life. I will tell you why…these people had to spend 90 bucks to fill up their gas tank. If they are not Native American, then they will have to spend 75 bucks for a ticket. They will spend 20 bucks on two or three beers. You are up to 185 bucks. They still have to pay a babysitter and they will probably stick around to do a little gambling. Before I have even played one note of music, they are up to 300 dollars out of their pocket and that is how good you have to be. I have to be at that level and there is no going back. You don’t go out there and give a relaxed performance. Some people coming to the show are going to the only show they will go to all year because that is all they can afford. I don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, come see me tomorrow” or “You should have seen me last night.” It just doesn’t work that way.

Jeb: Do you feel pressure to always step up your game because of this? When you have a bad day do you have to make yourself get up?

George: No, I am on all the time, anyway. I am like Tom Jones. I demand the same from the band and the crew. I can’t stand these guys who are in bands and they show up six hours late to the rock show. They are IN the band! Once they show up then they are mean to the audience. I can’t believe these people. You are in a rock band; that is what you do for a living. How can you be late? Think about that for a minute…your dream was to be Keith Richards or Mick Jagger and that is your gig and you show up late? Everybody wants to be a rock and roll star; the President wants to be a rock star. I am a rock star and I want to be one, too. People say, “What time is Thorogood and his band going on?” Someone says, “They go on at eight.” The guy says, “What time do they show up?” They say, “Seven-thirty.” The guy says, “Seven-thirty? That is not much time.” The guy says, “They show up at seven-thirty in the morning!”

Jeb: You brought up the Rolling Stones. Kemper Arena, 1981, you opened for the Stones and they were off that day and you were on. You blew them away.

George: [looks at me like I am insane]

Jeb: What? You don’t believe me?

George: Thirty years later, I’m starting to believe that because I have heard that from so many people from all areas of the world. I just go, “Okay…” Now, it must be true if it has been said that many times. I have to tell you this…I went up to Bill Wyman, Ian Stewart and Bill Graham and said, “Do you think I’ll ever be as good as Mick Jagger on stage?” One of them, I don’t remember which one, giggled and said, “You’re there now.” Another one said, “You would not be here if you were not that good.” Bill Graham said the same thing to me that you just said. Now, I want to be clear about this…YOU brought this up…

Jeb: I did…I brought it up.

George: I want you to know that I’ve got to pay my way to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is a mystery to me. I will give you a list of people who have came to see us live; we will start at the top and we will stay there. Mick Jagger came on his night off to see us play. We are talking Mick Jagger, who is not just a rock star, he is an international celebrity. Bob Dylan came to see us play, that is heavy. Emmylou Harris came to see us play and so did Johnny Rivers. Johnny fucking Rivers…I love him to death. He has an ego the size of the planet. Peter Wolf has come to see us play. Robert Plant, John Lee Hooker and Prince have come to see us play. Are you ready for this? Jeff Beck came to see us play. I guess we are in, or at least we are in with the people who are in!

Jeb: I saw you in Kansas City back in the ‘80’s and you had Johnny Winter open for you. Imagine that…Johnny Winter warming up YOUR crowd.

George: Johnny Winter came to see us play back when we released the first record. The list of people is amazing but I still buy a ticket to get into the Hall of Fame. What is that all about? Do I have bad breath? It is a strange world.

Jeb: I have got your new album, 2120 Michigan Avenue, which is the address for Chess Records and it, has been nominated for a Blues award.

George: We blew it.

Jeb: What do you mean? It has not been awarded yet.

George: My record is blown; they nominated me. I have been doing this for almost forty years and I was never nominated for an award. Did you know the actor Edward G. Robinson was never nominated for an award?

Jeb: That is amazing.

George: That means he did a great job. They never noticed him because he was so good. It is like when Hank Sauer got the MVP award over Stan Musial back in ’52. Sauer’s stats were much worse than Musial’s. People couldn’t believe that they did that and the reason given for why Sauer got the award was because Stan didn’t put up Musial like numbers. He was penalized for only hitting .320 instead of .330, those bastards! It is the same with Edward G. Robinson. They all said he was great but that he never did anything that really stuck out. He actually did win an award. He won a Lifetime Achievement Award but he wasn’t alive anymore; he even fucking missed that.

Jeb: I have to ask this before they come and kick me out. What was it like filming the video to “Bad to the Bone”?

George: It was okay but I’m not much of a video guy.

Jeb: This is a classic, though.

George: Yeah, but you didn’t know that then. I was just basically trying to use MTV for promotional purposes. MTV was new and they didn’t have a lot of stuff to play and they had not been taken over by a big corporation yet. I knew this was the time to get it. We also did a song called “Nobody but Me” by the Human Beinz that had some kids in it and they were dancing but I wanted to do another one that would be like a mini-movie. Originally, I wanted it to be a poker game but the director said that we should be shooting pool. I couldn’t shoot pool so they got Willie Musconi to come in and do the shooting plus we had Bo Diddley in the video.

The record company wanted BB King but I told them that, first of all, BB King doesn’t know who I am and, second of all, BB King is too dignified to play with us; he’s not bad. He is great but he is not bad. We got Bo Diddley. The director and I got together and we decided that Willie Musconi’s name was going to be Mr. Big, even though he is really small. Bo’s name is going to be Bad Bo and I’m going to be The Kid.

There were a couple of things in there that were borrowed from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, like when Eli Wallach shoots the three targets but the last one doesn’t go down, so he does that thing with the whiskey bottle and it goes down. I decided to do that with a pool ball and the ash from a cigar…I hit the cigar and the ash hit the ball and it went in the pocket. That was my original idea that borrowed from Eli Wallach.

I will tell you about that place where we shot that...The Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner, the boxer, used to train there in the ‘60’s. They were still training next door to us and it was really a down and out place. We were literally taking winos off the street and giving them bottles of wine to use them as extras in the scene. The pool tables were all ripped to shit; you could play better pool on the parking lot. The balls were all chipped and Willie Musconi saw this and couldn’t believe it.

Willie had two custom made pool cues and he had a body guard who had a loaded 45 automatic. Willie is the real deal and he rarely smiled. He had just come out of eight years of retirement. I asked him, “What brought you back, the money?” He goes, “Naw, it’s that son of a bitch Minnesota Fats, he’s always running his mouth. He’s all talk.”

I asked him where he learned to shoot pool and he told me his parents were Vaudeville actors. Willie is not a tall man and when his parents would do these shows for six or seven hours a day, he would be backstage and stand on phonebooks and shoot pool all day. He didn’t have any idea what the game was about but he just kept shooting and shooting and shooting.

He taught Paul Newman how to shoot pool for the movie The Hustler. They stayed in the best hotel in Chicago for six months and every night they shot pool in the basement of this hotel. He told me that Newman couldn’t even hold a pool cue but he got him. I said, “Give me one tip on shooting with the stick, anything.” He said, “Don’t miss.”

Jeb: I think Born to Be Bad is the best album you put out. Which do you think is best?

George: That is one of our best selling albums, if not our best selling. The Live album is right up there too. It was a Gold record for us. I think, cover to cover, song to song, Born to Be Bad; I rate this as our best record. It has good songs all the way through. Some albums have one or two great ones but this one is good all the way through.

The cover to that album has a story. I really wanted to be in a lineup. If you look at the cover, at the top, you will see that it is crooked. Everybody thought that it looked cool and they asked me if it was my idea. It was actually EMI/Capital’s idea. They were so cheap they just stuck it on another cover and they didn’t do it right and it was crooked. They didn’t want to tear it off and do it over so they just left it like that. When they gave me the Gold Record I could tell the gold part was elevated. I asked someone why they did that and they told me that there was another record underneath it. They just took the label and the record and stuck in on top of the other one. That is vintage Thorogood, first that and now they nominated me for an award!

Jeb: Well, I hope you don’t fucking win.

George: Thank you [laughter]! My idol is Dennis Leary and he even got nominated for something. I owned the throne. The Red Sox are just another schmuck team for me now in the American league. You want to know why? Because they won. The best thing that ever happened in Susan Lucci’s career was that she had twenty-two nominations and never one. She kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and once she won, no one talks about her anymore.

Jeb: Last one: Tell me the story behind “I Drink Alone.”

George: I was listening to a lot of country music at the time and I was trying to write a song for George Jones. I thought this would be the perfect one for him. I went to EMI/Capital and told them that I was writing a country western song called “I Drink Alone” for George Jones. They looked at me and said, “Are you an idiot?” I said, “I don’t think so.” They said, “The perfect guy for you to write that song for is you. The title is great and the lyrics are great, so go home and put your people on it. That is why we hired you and not George Jones!”