Bluesman George Thorogood recalls busking in SF

Kind Bay Area fans gave the once poor street singer food stamps


He might have traveled back through time to do it, but Delaware-born, Boston-bred blues powerhouse George Thorogood has jump-started the dying concert-album medium with the 27-track December release of “Live in Boston, 1982: The Complete Concert,” captured from his hometown Bradford Ballroom on Nov. 23. The guitarist and his backing outfit The Destroyers broke through earlier that year with the single “Bad to the Bone” and had opened for the Rolling Stones on the band’s 1981 tour. The album’s marathon set crackles with extended versions of catalog classics (“I’m Wanted,” “Cocaine Blues,” “Move it on Over,” and a 13-minute take on John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”), witty audience banter, and a guitar-saxophone duel. When he checked in before Christmas, Thorogood, still spry at 70, swore that he left his heart in San Francisco.

When the pandemic hit, I wound up listening to your first two remastered Rounder albums on repeat — 1977’s “George Thorogood and The Destroyers” and “Move it on Over” from 1978 — and it felt like punk rock.

Well, the blues is never gonna go out of style. I was doing an interview with someone a few years ago, and I said, “What is the one emotion that all human beings experience at one time or another?” And he said, “Well, love.” And I said, “You’re outta your mind! You can live your whole life without love! The one thing that everybody can relate to is pain.” I mean, when you’re born, the doctor smacks you on the ass and you start crying! And that’s just the day you’re born. Look at some of the most famous songs that have come across the universe — the angst and the pain that’s in them? People go for it because they can relate to that. So Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”? She’s more in pain than she is in joy, and that’s the greatest song in the world, ever. But how

Go on…

Well, I actually kind of started out in San Francisco, in Ghirardelli Square and Union Square, and on Grant Avenue. Those are my old stomping grounds. I was living there, but I wasn’t living high on the hog, believe you me. I was a street musician, and I got there at the beginning of February of ’73 and I left around late April, and I was staying where anybody would put me up. And the people in San Francisco were really great to me. A lot of times they didn’t put money in my guitar case. They put in food stamps, to make sure you didn’t spend your money on drugs and booze.

How did you become a busker?

Well, at the time, I knew John Lee Hooker was living in Oakland and playing. And I went to California to meet him, to see if I could get a job playing in his band, because I had his style down pretty great. And I actually did meet him, but I didn’t assert myself enough. I didn’t say, “Hey, John, put me in your band!” So I saw other people playing on the street, and they said, “Oh, you’re hungry, huh? Well, no one’s gonna give you a sandwich for nothing.” So playing on the street was a matter of survival.

But it was tough going?

I think I pulled down maybe six, seven bucks at the most, on a good day. And I remember that I actually wore out my shoes. And a guy loaned me a pair of shoes that were really awful. They were cutting into my ankles, and I was really in agony. I didn’t even have any socks. A woman saw us playing and took my friend and me in and let us sleep on her floor one night, and she said, “I’m not kidding — you’re really in bad shape here! But listen, I just got a new credit card from Sears.” So she took me down to Sears, bought me a pair of shoes and some socks. I can’t remember her name or who she was. But my God, she was like an angel! That’s the kind of people who I ran into in San Francisco. And then I came back there a few years later and started to play around the Bay Area when our first record broke — KFAT and KSAN really got us going.

Dare I ask? Have you written a “COVID-19 Blues” yet?

I’ll sit there and think, “Maybe I’ll write a song.” But then I’ll listen to Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and I go, “Why? These are the greatest songs ever written! The world doesn’t need another one!” My little things I write are like comedy songs, very tongue in cheek. If Paul McCartney is Shakespeare and Bob Dylan is Steinbeck, then George Thorogood is Rodney Dangerfield.

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