<i>2120 South Michigan Avenue</i>: Chatting With George Thorogood

George Thorogood's 17th studio album ---- is an obvious tribute to Chess Records. He recently told me the story behind it.
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A Conversation with George Thorogood

Mike Ragogna: Hi, George.

George Thorogood: Mike, always a pleasure. Where are you located?

MR: Iowa.

GT: Iowa, the home of Bob Feller.

MR: Nice!

GT: ...and Johnny Carson, and Harmon Killebrew...

MR: ...and don't forget The Donna Reed Show.

GT: Oh yeah, although, it was really shot in Burbank, but that's okay.

MR: So, your 17th studio album--2120 South Michigan Avenue--is an obvious tribute to Chess Records. What's the story behind the project?

GT: Well, it's just been kind of building up. It's a lot of songs we've been doing for a long time--some of them we've done in shows, some of them sound checks, and some we had never played. Some of them I didn't even know were with Chess, such as "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and "Rocket 88." Capitol was interested in a follow-up to "Tail Dragger," which was on The Dirty Dozen CD we put out two years ago. They thought that was still hot, and they wanted to move quickly on another project, so they came up with the Chess concept and asked if I would be interested in doing an all Chess thing. I said, "I would be, but let me check out the catalog." That got a little tough, but we hung in there and we got thirteen songs.

MR: It got a little tough because it was overwhelming?

GT: No, it got a little tough because a lot of the songs that had never been recorded weren't that good. (laughs) Then, there were a lot of them that had already been recorded by us--we did like twenty songs by Chess already--and I don't know if Capitol was aware of that or not. There were also a lot of songs that I just couldn't play, so we had to bring in other people to help me play. If we hadn't had Jim Suhler or Tom Hambridge, I never would have pulled it off, especially Jimmy Suhler because he can play anything.

MR: What was it like in the studio? What was the dynamic like?

GT: I'm not much of a studio guy, Mike. People say, "Was it a labor of love?" I say, "No, it was a labor of hate." (laughs) I'm a live performer, so I go into the studio looking at it like this: You have to eat your vegetables and you have to do exercise. You don't have to love it, but you have to do it. I do it because I know what the results are going to be and I'm pushing for those results and that would be to get my crazy ass on stage and to get the right material to do that. Of course, it's always good to have product out there, but you want to have quality product, something people can sink their teeth in, not just anything. So keeping that in mind, everyone that was around me was hearing, "I don't want to do this anymore!" And they'd say, "George, do you want to go to Iowa and play live? Do you want to play in Des Moines?" I go, "Yes, I do." And they say, "Well, then you've got to eat your vegetables, George."

MR: And thank you for doing your exercises and eating your vegetables.

GT: That's just me, though, not everyone is like that. Some people get in the studio and stay in there for a year, then they get on stage and freak out after two songs. I'm just not that guy. Everybody is different.

MR: When you look at the great catalogs of music that you are representing on this record, I'm curious how you decided what went on here. Obviously you were looking at material, but I imagine that you also didn't want more than one or two tracks by a single artist...

GT: We wanted one, not more than one, from each artist. If you look at some of these songs--the original "Let It Rock" was one minute and fifty-nine seconds. So, to fill out a whole record, a lot of these songs were really, really short. That's how they made records back then, and we had to figure out a way to extend these songs, without making them boring, and without destroying the essence or quality of the tune itself, you follow?

MR: Right. Although, you might say you "destroyed" it, so to speak.

GT: Well, I wanted to put a Destroyers stamp on it, but I didn't want to "destroy" it.

MR: (laughs) Now, you also wrote two of the songs on this project.

GT: Actually, it was more Tommy's thing. He said, "What do you think of this tune?" I told him it needed a little work around the edges, and I kind of took over. It's like a football player gets the ball down to the fifteen-yard line, and then I run it into the end zone--that's basically how we work.

MR: And you get a great song out of it. Nice.

GT: That's the point, isn't it? As long as you get the result. That's what we're after, the final result.

MR: George, 2120 South Michigan Avenue basically sounds like a live record. It sounds like you guys went in, had fun, and knocked it out.

GT: Well, that's why you're called a recording artist. It's supposed to sound like that--it's not always the way it's done, but that's how it's supposed to come out in the final result.

MR: Yeah, right? Are there any of these songs that, as you were going through the catalogs, you were surprised you hadn't recorded before?

GT: There were a couple that I had never done, ever. Usually, I don't go into a studio unless I've done a song half a dozen times and I know I can really nail it. There were a couple of them that I had never done at all, but I heard it and knew that the musicians we were working on could do it. Some of them were close enough that I said, "I think I can sing this, but I know I can't play guitar on it." I knew I could sing "My Baby," but there were other parts of it that I knew I would have problems with, which is why Jim Suhler was so essential to this project.

MR: You also had Buddy Guy on board.

GT: Well, he's been doing "Hi-Heel Sneakers" since the early '60s. It's a staple of his live show or at least it was at one time.

MR: Now, you're going to go out on tour to support this thing. Are you going to mix this stuff up with other material or will you play straight through the record? What are you going to do when you tour with this?

GT: I don't think it would be too good of an idea to go through Iowa and say, "Well, tonight, we're not going to play 'Bad To The Bone' or 'One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.' I value my physical health too much for that.

MR: (laughs) Well, you do have your standards. The four that come to mind, of course, are "Bad To The Bone," "Move It On Over," "Who Do You Love," and "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." Do you ever get sick of playing these things?

GT: No, and I'll tell you why. I picked those songs originally for playing them live--that was the sole purpose of putting them down on the record. So, they're serving their purpose to me. There were a couple of them we did in the studio that I just never thought would catch on, and still to this day, I don't see the appeal in these two songs at all, but fans liked them so much that I couldn't ignore them. That said, ninety percent of the material heard live was selected long before we went in a studio. We set the whole act up like that.

MR: Did you test drive some of the songs that you feature on this album live before you went into the studio?

GT: No.

MR: Now, you went back to 12 x 5 with The Rolling Stones cover, right?

GT: Oh yeah.

MR: And, of course, it's the title track--"2120 South Michigan Avenue."

GT: That was probably my only interjection of the whole record.

MR: That's the most personal to you?

GT: Yeah, I said, "We can't not have this. If anyone on this project either disagrees with me about this or says that it's not going on this record, I'm walking." Those were the guys that turned me on to Chess to begin with, so how could I not do it? It's not a Rolling Stones song, per se, it's written by Nanker Phelge, which is an alias of Keith Richards'. This is the tune, this is it, this is the whole essence of why I'm standing here right now, this band. I'm not going to cut "Satisfaction," I'm going to cut something that's close to the project. If you can't see the wisdom in that, I do, so just trust me.

MR: So, when you look back at your humble beginnings...

GT: ...I try not to look back, it's too scary. (laughs)

MR: So, when you look forward but still catch a hint or two about your past, what does it feel like? What kind of a ride has it been in your mind?

GT: Well, you really don't have time to think about that because you're doing it so much on a day-by-day thing. You don't really have the time to reflect and look back on the whole thing because you're moving all the time thinking, "What can I do next to keep going and keep my head above water? What can I do today so I can still be here tomorrow?" You know what I'm saying?

MR: Yup.

GT: So, you don't really have the time to really look back on that all--maybe someday I will. Now, though, everything is moving too fast for me to do that. I do look on our song list every night and say, "This is a good balance of what you're doing now and what you've achieved since the first album you put out." When we do a live show, we try as hard as we can to get a song off of every record.

MR: Nice. You fit it all in?

GT: Sometimes we make it, and sometimes we don't, but we get close.

MR: Given the environment out there, and looking at the future...

GT: They'd better do something about the environment, man, or there's not going to be anything left.

MR: Well, let's get it out of your system right now. It's a mess, right? What's going on here?

GT: Where you live, every time I go to that area around Chicago, the ozone layer gets lower and it gets hotter there every year. They've got to punch a hole in that thing or people are going to be stifled to death, you know what I'm saying? But maybe you were talking about a different environment, I don't know.

MR: (laughs) Well, I'm talking about the one we're living in.

GT: That's the most important one, isn't it?

MR: I hope, it just doesn't seem like we're always paying attention to it though.

GT: Well, they'd better be, or else record sales won't mean s**t.

MR: (laughs)

GT: Nothing will mean anything if they don't take care of that. I just read an incredible article where they were talking to Mick Jagger. They were talking about how he's made a lot of money, been a big star and just achieved a lot, and then they asked, "What is your most valued asset?" He said, "My health." That says it all, doesn't it?

MR: Yeah, that sounds right. Personally, I really hope that as a planet, we start working together and dealing with this more quickly than we have been.

GT: Yeah.

MR: Hey, considering the career you've had, I wanted to ask you what advice you have for new artists?

GT: Stay away from fried food and stay out of Italian cars.

MR: (laughs) Alright, that works.

GT: That's about the only advice I can give you.

MR: Is there anything that you're utilizing now, as far as social networking and all of the new technology that's going on?

GT: I'm waiting for Dylan to call, you know? Like everybody else.

MR: I thought he'd already called by now.

GT: Maybe he has. I've been talking to you.

MR: Oh, so sorry to keep you. (laughs) One last question. Are there any songs on this album that when you play them you go, "Yeah, that's great..."?

GT: Probably the Bo Diddley one. That one's really important to me. Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry are like a religion. You can't do an interpretation--you have to do it.

MR: George, I so appreciate your time.

GT: Mike, it's really been a pleasure. You're great.

MR: Thanks man, all the best.

1. Going Back
2. Hi-Heel Sneakers - with Buddy Guy
3. Seventh Son
4. Spoonful
5. Let It Rock
6. Two Trains Running (Still A Fool)
7. Bo Diddley
8. Mama Talk To Your Daughter
9. Help Me
10. My Babe - with Charlie Musselwhite
11. Willie Dixon's Gone
12. Chicago Bound
13. 2120 South Michigan Ave - with Charlie Musselwhite

Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney

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