GT interview with the late, great Sheila Rene'

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Q&A with George Thorogood

Sheila Rene': We're rolling (tape) now.

George Thorogood: That's an appropriate button you're wearing, "I Love Rock And Roll." That's you. That says it all.

SR: It's the title of a Joan Jett song. I just found it one day and bought it. Speaking of songs, I have in my hands one fine new album. You've found some great tunes here. What brought these particular songs to your attention?

GT: What or who? Well, it came to my attention if we don't have an album out, we won't get too many more gigs; and you've got to have an album to get gigs. To have an album you have to have songs. To have songs that nobody has done before or you've never done before. The well was tapped out. We put a lot of people out on point looking for material. We got some help from Bob Thiele and little or no help from Waddy Wachtel.

SR: No? That's not what I've heard.

GT: That guy's crazy! He's crazier than I am. I made the mistake of mentioning Frank Zappa's tune "Trouble Everyday." He said 'we're going to record that thing.' I said 'we're not going to record that. That's Frank's. That's "Like A Rolling Stone" to Dylan. That's Frank's.' Waddy comes back with 'you're not leaving here without recording it.' I said 'it won't be easy.' Waddy says 'I don't care. And he made me do it.'

SR: It's my favorite song on the album for me.

GT: Then it was worth it to get Sheila Rene' to come speak to me this afternoon.

SR: Absolutely - and you speak of his genius. What was it for you?

GT: That's like combing the globe and trying to put your finger on God's best work. All of it was beautiful, all of it was great. His attitude, his style and there was never any music he could not master. He was funny and musically equipped. He had it all as opposed to guys like me who get up and beat the hell out of one chord and pretend like they're always testing for an hour and a half.

SR: (laughing) You're right.

GT: You can't explain genius any more than you can explain the air we breathe. Asking me to explain that is ridiculous. I can't explain it any better than I did. The greatest minds in rock and roll couldn't figure him out - what have I got to lose?

SR: Give me the Waddy Wachtel story. He came to see you perform one night and decided he wanted to work with you. Yes?

GT: Naturally, I'm the last to know anything. Waddy Wachtel, as you know, has this great body of work from the '70s, '80s and '90s. He's everybody's guy. It came to my attention that he wanted to work with me. I never knew about his work until he worked with Keith Richards. I said 'Keith with a studio musician? I don't know about that.' But Waddy is a unique case and I went to see the Expensive Winos live and he supplied the guitar on that tour. I said 'okay, this is kinda funky, this makes it.' I met him and the problem was shuting the two of us up (laughter) to get us to play the music. It was like finding this long lost soul brother that you'd lost around 13 or 14 years of age. His whole childhood was mirrored of mine, completely. The difference between us is that he mastered the guitar. He's another genius.

SR: George, you're great.

GT I've got another story for you. He did three things in the studio that no one have been able to make me do. They've not even tried. He got me to play a little slower, turn down and shut up for five minutes. That's an impossibility and I did it.

SR: What a great soul you have. I read a quote from you once stating that the reason you and John Lee Hooker were so good together was that you both did it wrong.

GT: (laughing) Exactly. I'm still doing it wrong. I need people like Waddy or Hank Carter just so it's not real wrong. Just to balance it out. I was fond of saying 'I love playing the guitar so much that I never took time to stop and learn how to play.' I still go up to people and say 'show me something today.' Wow, that's cool when did you learn that and they say when I was 13.'

SR: You didn't pick up a guitar that early.

GT: Yeah, here I am in my 40's and I never took the proper time to learn the proper way. John Lee Hooker is a very primitive player; he's very driven, very rhythmic and he's not too concerned about technique. He's just concerned about how it makes him feel or other people feel. I'm the same way.

SR: I think John Lee just turned 80 and selfishly, I had to tell this man now how much he means to me. His music and his humanity.

GT: Thank you. I look pretty good for 80.

SR: No, darlin' not you. I remember Hooker showing up to play with you at the Warfield in San Francisco one night and he brought his own six-pack.

GT: That's Hooker. He's always thinking about somebody else.

SR: And now he's working with his daughter on an album.

GT: That's great.

SR: "Jail Bait" was written by Andre Williams. Did he record this song first? I know I've heard this song a long time ago.

GT: That's the idea. Wow, what's the date today?

SR: Today is May 14.

GT: Okay, let's phone up the UPI and Natural Museum of History on the phone. Mark this date since it's the first time anybody stumped Sheila Rene'. No, no, no. You usually get everything first. I usually go over my records and you know this stuff. This is the first one.

SR: No, did he record it first? Who was he?

GT: Who is he? He's still working.

SR: Wow.

GT: I called up Elvin Bishop and told him that I was going to record this song, "Jail Bait." There was a pause and he said 'that's Andre Williams.' I asked what he thought of that? He goes 'Yeah that's a good one.' Then I thought 'Oh, no. Elvin was thinking about doing this song, too.' Waddy walked into the Rolling Stone's camp and Keith Richards gave him holy hell about "Jail Bait." Richards said 'you guys.' And it would be a great song for Bishop to record. It's hard to find obscure material anymore. It's almost impossible.

SR: I know. That's why I'm curious about these songs.

GT: Elvin was tipping his hat; and at the same time kicking me in the butt for saying I was doing that one.

SR: You have 462 websites all around the world.

GT: Is that good?

SR: George, that's very good.

GT: Let me write this down.

SR: I couldn't get into all of them but it was so great to see. What's up with Olga in Finland?

GT: Sheila, I don't even know what a website is. (laughter abounds) The last website I saw had some kind of spider in it. (lots of laughing in the room)

SR: Oh, no.

GT: I don't know about the Internet or websites. I don't know about computers.

SR: A lot of your fans certainly do.

GT: I'm not putting the knock on it. I haven't had time. I've been making records, cutting sound, laying down tunes and boogying on the bandstand.

SR: John Hiatt is an old buddy of yours and his tune "The Usual" made it on this new album. That guy is such a great writer.

GT: Old. How old is John?

SR: I'd guess late '40s.

GT: That's not old.

SR: Hey, give me a break, I'm 58.

GT: You said old friend.

SR: George, it is in years and ...

GT: I think you mean a long-time acquaintance.

SR: There you go. I know the song "The Usual."

GT: What album is it on, do you know?

SR: No, not off hand.

GT: I was told that it was never recorded by him. Where did you hear it?

SR: I believe he has played it live. I'd say a Cow Palace show. He has such a great sense of humor.

GT: All his stuff is funny. He's a funny writer.

SR: Elmore James is represented well with his "Manhattan Slide."

GT: I don't think we missed too many people on this record. We got a little of everybody.

SR: Even a new Thorogood tune, "Night Rider."

GT: Yeah, right. I wrote that song quote unquote. It took me about eight minutes to get those lyrics together because Waddy said 'you got this riff what do you want to call this thing?' I go 'Let's look through the Allman Brothers entire catalog then the Doobie Brothers and Johnny Winter and see how many Night Rider's there are out there. He said 'you got lyrics?' and I said 'Sure, I got lyrics.' Of course, I didn't at that time. I went home and snuck off to the toilet and starting writing.

SR: It's amazing to me how many musicians write in the toilet.

GT: The thing about it is that you've...some times you work better when there's a gun to your head. I had to do it. I had no choice.

SR: This is the ninth album with EMI. They must be doing something right.

GT: Really? You can tell that to our manager.

SR: I just mean that you wouldn't stick around if they weren't doing right by you.

GT: Doing right by me was allowing me to record the material that I know we need to keep the Delaware Destroyer's head above water. It has been a real struggle the last couple of years. A real struggle. I mean it's... you know this band. They always say that hindsight is 20/20. Probably the only person who knows this band better than Mike Donahue or Jeff Simon is me. I know what works for our group. I know the material that works. To go to a company and say we've got this song, "Get A Haircut...Get A Real Job," "I Drink Alone." Something like that or "Born To Be Bad" or "If You Don't Start Drinkin' I'm Gonna Leave." Now if they present a script, right? Then they say 'I don't think this is a good move for you." What's this movie about? I play the part of an ex-drunken gun fighter in the old days of the West and I keep falling off my saddle. Then they go 'I don't think this is good material for you.' Did you ever think of doing Shakespeare? You follow what I'm saying. That's the rough edges when you say doing right by somebody. Well, doing right by somebody is a loaded question. Do you mean doing right by giving me lots of money or lots of promotion or lots of freedom.

SR: All the above.

GT: Freedom. That's what it's all about. That's what everything is about. Free to do your job. You have a style that you do, right? A style since you've been doing this. When you're with a company and they say this is not how it works anymore, then it's like saying Westerns aren't selling anymore. So Clint Eastwood did not stop making Westerns, he just stopped making movies because that's what he makes. Okay, it's not what the kids are buying so I said fine I won't make any records. This is the work I do. So, as far as doing right, it's like you go out on a date and you want to be yourself. When that starts to get confused and they say if you're gonna do that you might only sell 200,000 copies. So, I'll sell 2,000,000 copies. 200,000 people will be happy. That's what you call the give and take. That's why I'm always sparing. I'm getting pretty exhausted about it.

SR: Yeah... I understand.

GT: It seems that everytime we get around to making a record there are all new people in the company, in the business and they're always saying 'What can we do for George Thorogood?' I tell them that I'm not a rookie no more. This is what I do. You hire John Wayne to do a Western. The heads of Columbia say we've got to get this guy's career going. I say 'Wake up! It's been going' (laughing) It's been going for 20 years now.

SR: You do seem to have worked out a pattern where you do you music, tour until you drop. Interesting tours with very interesting bands like ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones. Two, three years, you come back and do another one.

GT: Sheila, you want to start your own record company?

SR: (laughter) No, no, no.

GT: I know. It's just refreshing to have someone come up to you and say 'looks like you know what you're doing.'

SR: Oh, yeah. Everybody knows you know what you're doing.

GT: I learn for you people. I learn from the Elvin Bishop, The Allman Brothers, The Stones and the Bill Grahams. That was my school. I tell our producer listen here's where it's at. I didn't write the book I just memorized it. I don't come in here saying that I've got this unique system. It's not that unique. I just watched how it was done by the pros. When I first met you I was learning.

SR: George...

GT: When I had out my first record out I wasn't coming with the answers. I'm coming with the questions. (laughing). I interviewed you. I wanted a crash course on how this thing was done.

SR: I remember you jumping in one leap from the sidewalk into the back seat of my Volkswagen convertible. My producer Eileen Duhne' was in the front seat. Duhne' and Michael Coats send their best. Coats said to tell you that he has a son who's a lefty. Were you a lefty in your baseball days?

GT: (laughing) No. I'm right handed all the way. Maybe I should have been a lefty. It wouldn't have hurt me either way.

SR: I can't help but notice your snakeskin bracelet. Is Mom still making the snakeskin jackets?

GT: Thank you. (laughing) No, she has retired, been retired.

SR: Does it make you feel good, all kidding aside, to be back out with ZZ Top. Are they fun on tour?

GT: When they're around. They keep to themselves and they have a schedule that they have and they have to conserve their energy for the show. What's fun is any time you're out and you lay new material on your people. When they start to pop on it, that's the real fun part. You select material for ages and you don't know if it'll work It's a process, first you have a gut instinct that the song will work for us. Then you have to see if you can play it and then you look to see if no one has recorded it recently. Then you've got to sell it to the record company, oh boy! Then you have to see if you can squeeze it on the radio. The final test is can you play it live and if you can, does the audience dig it. If they do then you've got enough to keep you going for another 18 months or two years. That's a hard process to go through. A lot of artists don't care or at least that's what Waddy says. Many artists just don't concern themselves with that kind of conscious approach to it. A lot of those people aren't opening for ZZ Top either. (laughing) They're sitting home waiting for the phone to ring and book 'em somewhere.

SR: "Rockin' My Life Away" That's what we do. You dedicate that song to our "Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis.

GT: Yeah, absolutely. It's his tune and he brought it to my attention. I didn't want him to come looking for me. (laughing) He's not the kind of man I want to have on my bad side.

SR: I understand. This tour kicked off May 9 with ZZ Top. You're going through May 31 and then what?

GT: Then I'm going back to Los Angeles and we'll see. I'm taking these things one block at a time in my life. It's too dangerous to just wing it anymore. It takes much more preparation than it used to take. There's just so much money involved. It used to be that there was 18 places to play in the world. There was the Ash Grove, The Bitter End, Bottom Line, Fillmore East and Fillmore West, the Warfield, the Troubadour. That was it. Now it has completely changed. And we don't have the big guy anymore. We don't have him to help us out. We don't have him take over and just do it. All we had to do was show up and play. We're at the world's mercy now. It used to be that you could come to Mr. Graham and you could say 'Mr. Graham my voice is weak. I'm trying to get this part in this picture. I don't know if rock and roll is any good. I don't know if I can get any work plus they're trying to deport my son-in-law and I want to do a lot of work.' Bill Graham would just say (GT does his BG voice here) 'Not to worry Tex, I'll make 'em a offer they can't refuse.' You were in good hands. All you had to do was show up.

SR: Bill Graham. I think of him often.

GT: I'll never, ever might say the Rolling Stones, J. Geils and George Thorogood and the Destroyers, but what did it always say above those names?

SR: In unison, Bill Graham Presents.

GT: Always. (laughing) Even now it says that.

SR: Even now.

GT: What I'm saying is that it's tough to make those moves anymore. You really have to do your research. When Mr. Graham was around it was a little easier. He did all the worrying, all the connecting and you just played the guitar. That's the way it should be.

SR: Every once in a while before I moved to Texas I would get a vision at the Fillmore or the Warfield venue of Bill taking notes on his yellow note pad. He's still around.

GT: Bill and Frank are probably hanging together. While we were messing around with "Trouble Everyday" I'd mention Frank Zappa and people were really cheering and happy about Frank. I said 'You know Frank, he just split because he was done with this. He had turned us on to everything we could possibly be turned on to. Now, he's waiting for us.'

SR: Jim Ladd, an old buddy of yours. This is going to run from tape on his website,

GT: Yeah, but you keep using the word old.

SR: I'm sorry. I'm thinking long-time acquaintances.

GT: Yeah, right. I just spoke to Ladd recently. We talk all the time.

SR: Great.

GT: Guess what we talk about?

SR: What?

GT: Rock and roll. He's Mr. Rock and Roll. He's the guy.

SR: So, I'm into good music. I don't care what you call it. I bring this up because the tune is "Get Back To Rockin'."

GT: I meant it in a universal way. Get back into rockin' is us. I heard it and that's us. It was a demo tape from a guy from Texas. If there's a song that's us, that's the one. I didn't mean it in a musical term. As opposed to killing, hating, beating, maiming and whatever. This is what the music did for me. It got us off the path.

SR: What's the path?

GT: When I was in junior high, there was a thing called the path. Guys who wanted to impress girls would come up to some little guy and say 'meet me at the path.' There would be fights there. You dreaded the path. You had to fight him in front of the whole school and get beaten or you chickened out and then you still looked bad. The Beatles came along and no body went to the path anymore, they went home and listened to the records. Get back into rockin'!

SR: At this point in your career, what are you looking to as a new challenge.

GT: My challenge 20 years ago was to break in and stay in. That was a big one. If you're playing slide guitar you have one thing going for you and one thing going against you. All the people you're trying to play for are hip people. They're already hip to Ry Cooder, Canned Heat, Savoy Brown and John Hammond. They're all hip to that style of guitar...Duane Allman and Johnny Winter. That's how I play all right? However, those guys are the greatest guitarists in the world. So, you're going to really have to deliver. So they're aware of what you're doing but at the same time you're going to have to be really, really good at it for them to hire you. That was the big one.

SR: And now?

GT: To work with the big boys I've got to be at least as good as the big boys in some fashion. My challenge now that I have the gig is to keep it. That's the challenge. Pete Rose said that when he was a kid all he ever wanted to think about or do, was to be a big league baseball player. When he was 40 and he was still in the big league he said 'that's all I want now.' So ever since I can remember all I've wanted to do is be in a successful rock band. It's a struggle now just to stay in it. It's harder to stay in it than to break into it. That is my motivation every time I step on the bandstand. You've got 50 per cent who've heard you a lot so you have to be better than the last time they heard you. Then there's the other 50 percent who've never, ever seen you before so you have to blow them away, too. It's always there with me. If you don't go well you're not going to make anymore records and Bill Graham Presents isn't going to hire you and ZZ Top isn't going to ask you to open their shows. If you fade then Sheila Rene' is not going to come around and talk to you about Jim Ladd. (laughing) so that's my motivation. That's my challenge.

SR: I don't know what it is about the slide guitar that hits me like the metal doesn't, country doesn't. I can't figure out what that sliding does. What's your favorite guitar at this point.

GT: Right now?

SR: What are you playing on stage tomorrow night?

GT: That's my favorite guitar. Always has been. The Gibson 125.

SR: You and Ted stick with those Gibsons.

GT: I broke into playing on an acoustic guitar and I've tried a million guitars. It's like people drive certain cars because their bodies fit into that car better. I've tried other instruments and they didn't work for me at all. That was good because I'm the only guy who plays the Gibson 125. Nugent doesn't play a 125; he plays a Birdland, a much more sophisticated instrument.

SR: One last question George. Are you a happy man, with your music and your personal life?

GT: Yeah, I'm lucky to be one of the two percenters in the world. I've always argued with Tommy Lasorda when he was always saying he has the greatest job in the world. I'd say 'Sorry Tommy, I get paid to play my guitar in a band and Waddy is probably the only other person I've met...Keith Richards doesn't say that, but he lives that. He loves it. I run into so many people who do this for a living and they're always groaning. Especially the rock guys. Not the Blues cats. Hooker is very happy. All the rockers seem to be miserable. They're either not famous enough, or not rich enough. I pulled Brian Setzer to the side once and I said 'Brian, every night you go on stage you're Eddie Cochran reincarnated. Don't you remember when you were in highschool and you were nothing. You couldn't even do 15 push ups in gym. They gave you grief for being a freak or creep or whatever? You make your living playing a guitar. What's the deal here?' Some people come to see us and they ask 'why is this guy so happy?' I say well excuse me, I'm living my dream every night. Who cares if it's out of tune and I sing a little flat?

SR: It's a party.

GT: I get down to the ballpark and say 'Just give me a uniform, put me in the lineup. I don't care where I play.

SR: Is there anyone that you haven't collaborated with that you would like to play with?

GT: Collaborated with?

SR: Yeah, written with, played with, wrote a song with, just hung out and talked to? You've worked with some dynamite musicians in your lifetime.

GT: That's a good question.

SR: You've met them, played with them.

GT: I've got one thing left. I've got one move left. I met your man James Brown over in London. I met him and I finally met B.B. King. I went to see Little Richard live for the first time and met him afterwards. I made sure I called Jim Ladd the next day to tell him all about it. I finally went to see Dylan, met Dylan. I've played with the Rolling Stones. I've met John Fogerty, played with him. At least I talked with Dylan, that's something. There's only one thing left.

SR: Have you heard who's managing Fogerty?

GT: Yeah, Bill Graham Management. I played with Carlos Santana in New Zealand. He was amazing and wonderful. Of course, I worked with John Lee Hooker. So, I'm going to put the question to you? Who's left to talk to, meet and work with? Who's left?

SR: Don Was.

GT: I think I can think of a bigger name than that.

SR: I'm not thinking big names as much as I am producer.

GT: I don't mean working with. I mean meeting eye to eye, shaking their hands.

SR: Yeah, but Was has produced most of the people you mentioned.

GT: He's not a performer.

SR: He certainly is. He was in the band Was (Not Was). He has just come out with a tribute to Hank Williams. (Thorogood's rendition of "Move It On Over" put him in the spotlight, big time.)

GT: See Hank Williams would be another name for the list, but he's dead.

SR: I understand that.

GT: Okay, I'm going to retrack here. Let's go right up the totem pole here. John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Now we get into John Fogerty, David Crosby, Bob Dylan, The Stones, who's left?

SR: I see your point. Who's left?

GT: Come on. Are you crazy? The Beatles. That's all that's left. I've never met any of them or worked with those people.

SR: There are three left.

GT: Yes, there is and I'm going to meet one of them at least. They played in Madison Square Garden with Bob Dylan at the tribute show. Dylan was up there and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers we backing him up. George Harrison was playing guitar with him. We were told that nobody could come near the stage while this is happening. Luckily, some of the guys working there were people that had worked in our crew sometime along the line. They knew me and knew I was there. I said 'All I want to do is one thing.' They asked 'What's that?' I said 'I want to sit on some part of the stage. Nobody has to see me with my guitar. I'm not going to play it or plug it in. I'm going to sit on the stage while one of the Beatles and Bob Dylan are playing.' I can say I was on stage with the Beatles and Dylan. You see. You don't find many cats like me that talk like that.

SR: You're absolutely right.

GT: Waddy Wachtel talks like that.

SR: That's why you guys hit it off so well.

GT: Exactly. When I was in the 11th grade I didn't hear nothing about producing records or anything. I said 'I'm going to grow my hair long, play a guitar and hang out with the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan.' The Beatles are the only ones left. When Ringo Starr takes out his All-Stars, I've got a great opening band for him.

SR: Damn right.

GT: I don't think I'm ever going to get a chance to open for McCartney. I don't think that's going to happen.

SR: Why not? He's coming out again.

GT: Okay, my name is on the list.

SR: I'll do what I can. (more laughter)

GT: There's one more act that I've somehow missed. I've never seen him and I'd love to work with them. That's Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. I think that would be a good rock and roll show.

SR: Damn right. He's out touring now too. Get your manager on it!

GT: Other than that, like you said, Don Was. That would be a great thing to have an album produced with him, but that's fine. My motivation is before I leave this to meet and play with the Beatles. I talked with Zappa on the phone once. That's was good enough.

SR: I got to interview him twice.

GT: See there, you know what I'm talking about. If I were an actor, I'd be saying I've worked with Pacino, DeNiro, Hoffman, Nickolson, but I haven't worked with the fat kid yet.

SR: Brando.

GT: Beatles. Brando. Brando. Beatles.

SR: Thank you for a good album. Thanks for coming back again.

GT: You're welcome.

SR: Thanks for this time with you today. I love you, George.

GT: Always, Sheila. My pleasure. Keep up the good work.

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