Interview and story by Don Wilcock
I love veteran performers who find their niche early in their careers and just keep honing and honing that style until it looks so effortless and comes across in live performance so tight it makes you scream. George Thorogood – who headlines the final show of the Capital Concert Series at Albany’s Empire State Plaza Convention Hall on Wednesday – is such an artist. Early in life he was told, “You got all the moves, kid. You got it, (but) you’ve got no voice.”
“So that’s when I took up the guitar,” he told me in one of five interviews I’ve done with him since 2004. “I said I’m never gonna be able to write like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. I’m never gonna have the pipes of a Robert Plant or an Eric Burdon. I know I’m not gonna play like Carlos Santana. So I said, what can you do? And I sat down. I said, ‘Well, I can hammer the shit out of one chord. I know a little bit about slide guitar, and I know how to be funny.’ So I took those three elements and said, ‘This is what I’m gonna go with ’cause this is all I got, see?’”
Thorogood loves to look at things coldly and analytically. He is brutally honest in his own self-evaluation. “They can only push you so far. You can’t take a .295 hitter and turn him into a .335 hitter. You might be able to stretch it into a .300 hitter, but you can only stretch it so far. You’re either gonna go into the stratosphere, or you’re not. There’s only so much push they can do to push Thorogood up into the level of a Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty or whatever. I’m not bitter at all. Bitterness is ridiculous. Bitterness is for high school girls who didn’t make the cheerleader squad, not for grown people. I’m there! I’m still there! I’m working! That’s the whole thing to begin with.”
The fact is Thorogood is a boogie monster, and he delivers anthems like “Bad to the Bone” and “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” with the ferocity of a machine driven by a mad man. Not to mention his secret weapons – Texas guitarist Jim Suhler (who’s been with him since 1999) and drummer Jeff Simon (a friend since high school).
“There’s a different animal on stage than there is off stage,” he explains. “Something takes over when you go on the bandstand. You become a confident heterosexual on stage. Off stage when it’s done, it’s done. It’s over. Then, I’m just a regular shmuck walking the streets like everybody else, but on the bandstand it’s a different story. I’m paid to perform, and that’s what people want to see. People can spot a phony.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years, one thing people admire more than anything, maybe even more than humility is confidence, and if you have that persona of that on stage, people are gonna pick up on it. And I do have confidence on stage. I have all the confidence in the world. Once I get done with that, it’s like, ‘You better drive. I don’t know the way. I don’t know what I want for dinner. You figure it out!’ I’m just normal, but the stage thing is a whole different animal. So, if you get up on the bandstand with me, that humility would probably completely disappear.”
Thorogood talks about being funny. For most hard rockers, humor gets tangled up and lost in the testosterone. Not for Thorogood, because he learned his shtick from the great bluesmen to whom humor is not just a technique in their shows, it’s part of their survival mechanism.
“Bob Dylan can stand there all night and never say a word, right? So can Miles Davis. George Thorogood can’t. So, I got that from (blues saxman) Eddie Shaw. When I started writing a song, he said, ‘Now, don’t just be funny on stage. Write funny into your originals. Be funny and be bad, and you’ll have a career just like Jerry Reed.’ Eddie gave me 90% of that, and Hound Dog (Taylor) gave me the rest.
“What lasts longer than funny? There’s only two things in the world that you can have naturally besides confidence and that’s sexy or funny. And that’s gonna last forever. Johnny Carson asked Jackie Gleason once, ‘Why was “The Honeymooners” a hit, and why has it lasted so long? Was it the writing? Was it the charisma between you and Audrey Meadows? Was it the teamwork between you and Art Carney?’
“Gleason thought for a second and said, ‘The reason it lasted was it’s funny,’ and he’s right. It’s funny. A long time ago I thought, ‘I’m not sexy. I’m not that good-looking. I’m never gonna play like Carlos Santana. I’m never gonna write like Paul McCartney. What can I do? What is it that I have?’ And I said, ‘Be funny! Nobody does that.’ Chuck Berry is very funny. Is Jerry Reed funny? Yes, he is. Very few people approach it like that, and I said, ‘But that’s what I am.’
“The only way I got through junior high school or high school was by cracking jokes. Comedy was my first love when I was 12 years old. I had like 300 jokes in my repertoire. Music came along, and I said, ‘Why don’t you combine the two? If you can get people to dance and laugh at the same time, you got something. You got something going.’ And my music is funny. Figuring out my band is like trying to figure out the plot to a Three Stooges movie. The Three Stooges? They’re the Stooges, nobody else. It makes you feel better about yourself.”
“When I’m doing these tunes, what I learned from Rodney Dangerfield was to point the finger at myself. That way you can’t go wrong. Nobody can get mad at you.”
John Lee Hooker was funny!
“I’m playin’ with the Rolling Stones and J. Geils in 1981 in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, right? Where does Hooker live? San Francisco! Hooker and I are getting along great. We’ve been in videos together. I’ve been to his house. We watched baseball together. So now, here is what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna go on stage. Bill Graham is there, and Peter Wolf is there, and Keith Richards. I’m gonna bring Hooker to the show, and I’m gonna have him get up and sing with me in front of 80,000 people, and I’m gonna have Mick Jagger and Peter Wolf waitin’ on my table for a month ’cause I got the man!
“So at the time we have the same booking agent, and I say, ‘You gotta get Hooker to come down and do this with me.’ And he goes, ‘I’ll work it out.’
“So my booking agent comes to the show, not Hooker. And I go, ‘Well where is he? I’m goin’ on in two hours. We gotta get him up there, right?’ And he goes, ‘Well, I got an answering machine, and I told him what you wanted him to do.
‘“ Then I got an answer back, and the answer was, “Mike, th-th-th-this is the Boogie Man. I-I-I’m gonna tell you. I got the message on Ge-e-orge. You know I lo-o-o-o-ve him. I’d l-l-love to do the show with the Rolling Stones and Peter Wolf, who I love. I’d love to be there, but I can’t make it, man. I’d love to be there, but, man, she’s really cute, man!’”
George Thorogood’s thought for the day now that he’s 64 and on his 40th anniversary tour?
“Rock and roll never sleeps. It just passes out.”
WHO: George Thorogood & the Destroyers
WITH: Fifth On the Floor and Scotty Mac & the Rockin’ Bonnevilles
WHEN: 5pm on Wednesday (June 25)
WHERE: The Empire State Plaza’s Convention Hall, Albany
HOW MUCH: FREE