by Perry Meisel
It was the doggedly homespun sincerity of George Thorogood's first LP that, truth be told, finally converted me to p--k in 1977. How could any thwacky guitar belter - no matter how funky, no matter the innocence of his roadhouse upbringing - stay so mannered without knowing it? The pretense to authenticity was both tedious and appalling; p--k by contrast meant showing (off) the manner at the heart of every matter. But Thorogood has persisted in his apparent folly, and five years later to distinguish between conscious authenticity and witting affectation seems like hair-splitting. The result: Thorogood is arguably the twangiest nonschooled rhythm guitarist since Keith Richard.
Thorogood is at his fiery best on his new, and third, LP, Bad to the Bone (a complex of puns, on EMI America/Rounder), putting on the (sometimes rhythm and) blues the way he puts on his genes. More coiffed and do-ed in concert last Saturday at the St. George Theater on Staten Island than at local clubs in years past (fitter venue anyway for a traditionalist), the catarrhalThorogood remains decidedly minimal in his deployment of personnel both live and on disc - just bass, drummer (a good one), and tenor sax (a luxury), a sparseness designed to leave his guitar all the room it wants. Flashing red hoops of steel and flipping them over like flapjacks in mixed metaphors like this one, Thorogood's densepack ranges from laminated brassiness at the metal end of his tonal spectrum to grunting wood at the other.
But the sparseness is dangerous as well, especially when Thorogood rests a song too much on his dubious voice (a little fuller, strangely, in concert than on disc). No Marshall Crenshaw(the failure is clearest on sweet songs like Jimmy Reed's "It's a Sin"), Thorogood could care less. He retains the boyish habit of the roadhouse singer too much of the time - letting the flab of his voice show along with all its incidental texture, deflected by no particular wit or even embarrassment.
The guitar, though, redeems him. It's perpetually scalding in Thorogood's preponderant Chuck Berry moods (on Chuck's own "No Particular Place to Go" and Thorogood's bop-titled disciple piece "Back to Wentsville"), both on the new record and in concert. His other three grooves - straight boogies like John Lee Hooker's "New Boogie Chillun," Britishy blues ballads like "Bad to the Bone," and old Diddley thompers thrown in from earlier records for the gig - are too predictable by contrast, despite the old Savory Brown crash thunder he can milk (for example, from the album's title tune). When he's of a mind, though, Thorogood almost shreds the sound, rewashing its elements - the whole goddam tradition - and even pressuring it in certain supreme moments, almost like such preeminent rhythm guitarists of his generation as Greg Ginn of Black Flag or the Gun Club's Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
But however rich Thorogood may be on wax, his live performances appear to have becomebighall trash scenes (biz success maybe), at least on the evidence of both Thorogood'sdemeanor last Saturday and that of the devoted neorednecks who came to hear him - I counted only one CAT hat but innumerable flannel shirts and beer cans. Rolling determinedly butprogrammatically through his major grooves, Thorogood reminded me of an otherwiseperfecto-knit Orleans playing an aggressively lazy concert some years ago - dispiriting as hell compared to the hot wax. If I used to find Thorogood appalling, he's now in danger of becoming tedious - except, of course, when he chases Chuck.
Such uneven performance betokens Thorogood's symptomatic rather than monumental status. Unfortunately, my desire to let p--k wipe away the distinction between manner and matter doesn't help when people act under authenticity's preconceptions anyway - too often they end up ventriloquizing both their sources and their crowds without ever realizing it. Like the narrator of Thorogood's recover of Dylan's "Wanted Man," Thorogood's music, especially live, is everywhere and nowhere at once, not quite sure what it is. Neither am I. "Wanted Man" is an expression (among other things) of the inevitable anonymity of the traditional artist, though in Thorogood's hands it can get pathetically literal. Done rather anachronistically as a picking ballad on acoustic, it describes the Singer in a light like Thorogood's own: "I might be in Colorado or Georgia by the sea/Working for some man who may not know who I might be."
Young and supple enough to take advantage of influence rather than be captured by it, Thorogood seems nonetheless too recalcitrant, too bound to the habits of the roadhouse to move beyond his present level without a bigger conception and a bigger (or somebody else's) band. If he fails to understand just what he's got in his hands, he can aspire only to heavier metal and (maybe) money.
Originally published in The Village Voice, December 7, 1982