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All things considered, the premise of George Thorogood & the Destroyers' first show is pretty boring, having occurred in 1973 in a dorm room in the band's home state of Delaware. The second, however, is a totally different story. The year and state stayed the same, but the venue changed to the Sulky, a strip club that snagged patrons on their way to horse races. "It was kind of like a paid rehearsal. No one really paid much attention to us as long as we played something with a beat to it. Actually, the dancers got paid more than we did," Thorogood says. "These were the kind of girls who were topless, and you looked at them and said, 'No! Put something on!'"
Playing Chuck Berry and Elmore James songs to an indifferent audience as unattractive women gyrate sans shirts sounds like either a sad, pathetic hell—or fodder for fantastic life stories. Thorogood—a glass-half-full kind of realist—subscribes to the second line of thought. "For the two weeks we were there, we were very happy," he says.
Even though you figure Thorogood would be able to call it a day now, 39 years later, the gravelly voiced guitarist and his blues/rock outfit are still plugging away. Now sixtysomething, he's responsible for "Bad to the Bone," a song so frequently employed in film and TV that it has become a character-development cliché, and he has released more than a dozen records and played an incalculable number of shows.
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But a solid career isn't enough for the sharp-witted and charismatic should-be radio host/Mets fan. "The fear of failure pushes you farther than the thrill of success," he says. "I've watched Tom Jones play live, and he has this edge at his age, like, 'If I don't do good, it's back to the coal mines.' It's not fake either. It's real." Thorogood feels very much the same way. He compares himself—a musician with limited name value and skills—to superstars such as the Doors, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. But unlike those acts, who have the cachet to live a charmed life, Thorogood constantly has to hustle if he wants to be remembered.
As with much of his past work, Thorogood's 17th and latest studio album is all covers, with tracks by Berry, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters, as well as lesser-known names. The title, 2120 South Michigan Ave., is the address of the acclaimed, now-defunct Chicago blues/soul label Chess Records. Around 1972, Thorogood started this cover practice by combing through hundreds of records to find 25 to 30 "very obscure songs that were very good songs"—blues/early rock cuts untouched by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other titans. He initially did this to resurrect forgotten quality work, but over the years, his covers have gained enough good feedback that he has kept going. While he doesn't consider himself a cover musician ("Joe Cocker is a cover artist. Linda Ronstadt is a cover artist. I try to do obscure material"), he seems to do it because he recognizes the power of great songwriting and doesn't think he's all that great of a writer himself.
Thorogood draws one more analogy, comparing renowned actors such as Laurence Olivier and Meryl Streep to Denis Leary, an actor who is strong at what he does but well aware of his limitations. Of course, Thorogood is Leary. "I'm not being humble at all, no. I'm being realistic. I know what kind of chops I've got with my voice, and I know I'm not going to play guitar like Santana. Who is? I mean, come on," he says, then finds the bright side. "Let's put it this way, my friend: [People] buy champagne on New Year's Eve, but [they] buy Budweiser every day."
This article appeared in print as "Master of Reality: Hard-working blues man George Thorogood keeps his game grounded."