George Thorogood: "Sometimes the Fear of Failure Is Greater Than the Thrill of Success"
Rock 'n' roll legend George Thorogood: "Fear is the greatest motivator"
Forgive and forget. This simple philosophy seems lost on George Thorogood as he remains bitter and angry toward the record company that released his debut album some 37 years ago.
Though the album contained what became his signature song (his rousing cover of Amos Milburn's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer") and catapulted him and his band the Destroyers from bluesy bar busters to arena rockers, Thorogood still fumes over the fact that the album was initially delayed 18 months over an issue with the cover photos. How come? Rounder Records, "didn't like to spend any money," he says with a growl in his voice.
That growl, of course, is something of a trademark. Thorogood admittedly never could sing like Robert Plant or Robert Daltrey -- and he was no Jeff Beck on guitar. Yet, Thorogood found something that worked, a rough and ready style highlighting his primarily bluesy slide guitar playing -- and he's been doing it nonstop for 40 years.
Up on the Sun caught up with Thorogood during a California tour stop to discuss his playing style, label shenanigans, fear as a motivator, and that at one time he was actually a pretty good baseball player.
Hi, George, how are you doing today?
Yeah, bad to the bone.
You must be somewhat obligated to say that at this point.
Sounds good, doesn't it?
Sure, and considering the song appears in numerous soundtracks, people have gotten used to that coming from you as well.
Gotten used to it? I didn't think anybody would get used to Thorogood.
Obviously, they have. It's been 40 years already since your career began. Does that blow your mind at all, especially after saying you didn't think anyone would get used to you?
I didn't really think about it very much at that time [when my career started]. I was at a day-by-day thing. Since 1965-66, it was a foregone conclusion I would have a career as a music performer. For me to last so long, a career is only going to last as long as you're alive, living and breathing, I didn't know I was going to be doing this at 40, let alone now.
You can't look into a crystal ball and see the future. I did have a vision of what I wanted to do. I had a backlog of songs I wanted to record and some ideas for some records. I wanted to have a musical career along the lines of John Hammond or Elvin Bishop or Duane Allman. I didn't have that, but for it to last this long . . . no one knows what's going to happen.
You mention in your bio that when you started you had no idea if rock 'n' roll was even going to stick around and thought it was a passing fad. Yet, now it's interesting to think about because when you started out, rock was a new thing and today many rock 'n' roll performers are in their 50s, 60s and even 70s in some cases.
Rock 'n' roll? You're through at 20. Once you hit a certain age you become an adult, and generally rock 'n' roll is youth oriented. Am I wrong?
No, not entirely, but I think it's not just youth oriented any longer.
When rock came in, rock music was sophisticated. Rock was for adults. Rock 'n' roll was for teenagers. When people like Joni Mitchell wrote songs, those weren't for 15-year-old teenagers, they were for adults. Songs Paul Simon wrote, or Neil Young or the Rolling Stones, they wrote songs for people over 25 years old, an adult audience. That's where it's continued all along, not that young people don't like it. As rock music has grown up, the songs have grown up too. I think that's why it's lasted.
So, do you consider yourself a blues musician or a rock musician?
I consider myself a rock performer.
Yet there's a serious blues side to your playing as well. How did your sound form?
When I first picked up the guitar and got serious about, I had to wonder, "Did you think you could ever play like Carlos Santana or Jeff Beck? No. Did you ever think you could sing like Roger Daltrey or Robert Plant? No, you won't. Would you ever be able to write songs like Bob Dylan can or Joni Mitchell can? Can you do that like Jackson Browne can? No. Then what can you do? I can put together a blues band and make living doing that." So, that's what I did.
Then through rock radio and MTV and other avenues of expression, the Destroyers evolved into a rock band. Okay, not a rock band as successful as Aerosmith or ZZ Top, but a rock band nonetheless.
Other musicians constantly remark about your spirit as a musician and the energy you always put forth. What do you think they're referring to?
There are two elite athletes. One is Lynn Swann (receiver) from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the other is Dennis Eckersley (Oakland A's relief pitcher). All three of us have a theory and agree on one thing: Fear is the greatest motivator.
What's your greatest fear then?
That I'm going to get fired. [Laughs.] That I wasn't going to last and become just another bum in the neighborhood. Sometimes, when you have that motivating you, it really pushes you. Sometimes the fear of failure is greater than the thrill of success.
Speaking of fear, when you were just starting out, you really wanted to make an album. You signed with Rounder Records. You cut the record and then it was shelved for 18 months. Were you afraid that was your only chance and it had come and gone?
Of course. We had all our chips staked on "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." That was our song on the record and it wasn't an original. So if some other band like J. Geils or another established rock act recorded it, I would have had to start all over again. That was our tune, at least at that time. It broke us like "Time Is On My Side" broke the Stones. Everyone has that first tune. Boom. We had this song and we knew, we knew. And it sat on the Rounder shelf for 18 months, that's a long time.
I was tired of waiting around and tried pushing the label. They said, "If it gets recorded by someone else, just pick another song." I said, "You don't understand. I'm not a blues guitarist or virtuoso. I can't just pick up another song like Duke Robillard and make it a hit. This song is going to make me famous, I'm not going to make the song famous." (Laughs) It was a frustrating period.
What was the label's reasoning for not releasing it?
They didn't have a picture for the cover and they weren't going to spend the money to get one. One of the pictures was taken with a Polaroid camera if you can believe that.
Okay? You say Okay? It's still not okay. [Angry.] It was all I could do, what could I do? We were playing for a buck twenty a night. I had no choice. I was drowning.
So just because a single picture they held an album back for this long? I assume eventually a new photo was taken?
We gave them some pictures and they slapped them on there. It was one we took and one they got somewhere. You know some companies don't like to spend some money? That company didn't like to spend any money.
I was on the phone with our drummer in Texas. This was before email or anything, so I was going on blind faith because this was the picture they sent. The album was being released for a month, but they wanted to go to print now. I wasn't there and couldn't see what it looked like. He explained it to me over the phone. I said, "You could make it a black cover like Spinal Tap for all I care. Get the motherfucker out there."
And it was released on the day the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis, died.
Just my luck, right? But, maybe he planned it that way.
You mentioned "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" becoming your signature song. I have to wonder if you get a lot people slipping you drinks during this song? Is that par for the course?
No, that never really happened much. Maybe once or twice.
Wish it would happen more?
No, I've got a show to do. Would someone bring (Mets' pitcher) Tom Seaver a drink at the mound? I don't have time for that sort of thing.
As a musician, you've develop a kind of singular style that everyone knows and expects at this point. Bruce Springsteen was music in the same vein, but eventually branched out into other areas -- for better or worse. Have you considered flirting with other musical styles?
Sure, I've thought of that. But it's too expensive to make a mistake. You can't go into a studio and put $75,000 to $100,000 on something you not absolutely sure is going to work. Bruce Springsteen can do that if he's got $400 million in the bank. He can afford to spend three or four months in the studio experimenting with a new sound or style. Most people can't.
Besides, nobody wanted to see John Wayne do Shakespeare, right?. So even though I have other interests -- I love reggae music, I love Mexican music, Spanish guitar. I'm crazy about Mink DeVille and things like that -- I would love to experience that. But first, I'm not that good at it, and number two it would just be a waste of time and money for everybody.
OK, then. Do you have any new material you're readying right now?
Yeah, trying to get a CD out with remakes of earlier material, plus a few new ones we've never done before. It will be a combination of everything we've done over the last 40 years and few new ones.
You've made a couple baseball references during the interview. And you played semi-pro ball in the early 1970s.
Nothing I ever really took seriously. Really it was just recreational.
But it sounds like you were pretty good. If you'd had the chance, would you have considered baseball over music?
Never, no, never. Okay, let me ask you something: You've got a guy who's a rock musician, and you've got a guy who is an actor, another's a professional athlete, and a painter. Put them all in one room. Now, you've got 50 women between the ages of 30 and 60. Who are they going to go see?
I guess it would be the rock musician.
You guess? (Laughs) You've got a lot to learn my friend.
Okay, we'll leave it at that.
Just remember, rock 'n' roll never sleeps, it just passes out.
George Thorogood and the Destroyers are scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 1, at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale
Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.
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