Interview: George Thorogood and the Destroyers
Minneapolis – In another three centuries, Rounder Records’ first act may have sold as many albums as the Bee Gees now do before lunch in Hackensack. Nevertheless, Rounder remains proud of banjoist George Pegram, the “Baron of Union Grove, North Carolina,” who passed on a few years ago at the age of seventy-six. Pegram sold about 4000 albums out of the chute and has been a steady seller ever since at the rate of about fifty albums a year.
“We’ve never lost money on a record,” says Ken Irwin, one-third of Rounder’s ruling triumvirate, while driving downtown from the Minneapolis airport. “How many of the conglomerates can say that? Of course, we only spent $125 recording George.”
Those were the days (1970) when a friendly lawyer drew up Rounder’s papers of incorporation for a legal fee of two albums (Pegram’s and one by the equally popular Spark Gap Wonder Boys) and when financing came from Irwin’s medical disability for a bad skin condition. Enamored of radical politics in college, Irwin, Marian Leighton and Bill Nowlin (the other two-thirds of the triumvirate) discovered the joys of private enterprise and gradually built their “production collective” into an organization with twenty mostly overeducated employees and a catalog of about 200 LPs by acoustic acts too traditional to attract major labels.
Then the impossible happened: in 1977 and 1978, Rounder had two hit albums by George Thorogood and the Destroyers, the first a namesake, the second Move It on Over. Still more unlikely, Thorogood played rock & roll hot enough to melt the polar icecaps and flood the world’s major population centers. The marriage proved compatible because of Rounder’s tolerance for eccentricity. Thorogood’s intelligence was powerful and engaging, but he was interested in just three things (baseball, movies and the blues) and anything that wasn’t those three things (like money, drugs, fame, politics, current music) put him to sleep. Today, here in the restaurant of the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis, he wants to talk about baseball, and I’m not going to argue.
“I got a phone call from our manager today, and we got ourselves some bad uniforms: black on black, the Delaware Destroyers,” says Thorogood without waiting for a question. During the summer, he plays hardball in the mostly Hispanic Roberto Clemente League in his hometown, Wilmington. “There’s a lot of hot dogs on our team.”
“What’s a hot dog?” asks Marian Leighton, obviously not a sports fan.
“A hot dog is like I play onstage,” says Thorogood. “A showboat is a hot dog who hits .220.”
I try to tell him the story of the Eagles-versus-Rolling Stone grudge match last summer, but it is soon clear I have fallen outside his realm of interest.
“Why do you play softball?” he asks as if I’d just offered him a handful of cowflop. “I’m too young to play softball.” Exactly how young is a question he answers interviewers with a plus/ minus factor of a decade. Best guess is about twenty-seven, though he could pass for eighteen. “They don’t allow bunting or slashing or stealing. That’s all I can do, man.”
“I heard your arm was causing you some pain during your act,” I say. “Did you throw it out?”
“No, I stumbled rounding sec … look, you don’t have to print that, do you?” Horrified at his revelation of weakness, Thorogood changes the subject by running off a string of hilarious anecdotes about the 1962 Mets.
Like an athlete in training, Thorogood tries not to abuse his body. His disdain for drugs has caused wonderment among the music-business types he has encountered on the road. Once, in a small club in Nashville, some guy came back to the dressing room and snorted some cocaine. Thorogood walked over and the guy asked, “You want a hit?” Thorogood replied, “No, I was just thinking that’s the smallest spoon I ever saw.”
“I’m not trying to come off with some Ricky Nelson image,” he says, slightly irritated, when I ask him about his temperance. He doesn’t even drink much, highly unusual in his profession and incongruous given the get-loose-and-get-down nature of his music. “A lot of people don’t like liver and peas. It’s the same with me and drugs. It’s just something I don’t get involved with. Some people have been trying to say I’m the upstanding young man of rock & roll on some moral crusade-that’s a load of crap. I’ve taken out many a shortstop in my time, argued with umpires, kicked the ball out of catchers’ gloves, all of it.”