Could George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ 1982 hit “Bad to the Bone,” a classic song about being a badass to the core, actually be about the virtues of remaining uncircumcised?
According to the online “intactivist” community, the song has a hidden pro-foreskin message — and we’ve all been too cocky to realize it.
Consider the lyrics:
The nurses all gathered ’round
And they gazed in wide wonder
At the joy they had found
The head nurse spoke up
Said “leave this one alone”
She could tell right away
That I was bad to the bone
Why, pro-foreskin activists wonder, would nurses tell the doctor to “leave this one alone” other than to protect his uncut penis?
Some listeners have even listed the song in “pro-intact” playlists on YouTube — turning the track into something of a foreskin anthem.
Anti-circumcision activist Anthony Losquadro argues that Thorogood “could be writing about how women ‘in the know’ love foreskin. … This baby is going to grow up and be such a terrific lover/stud/Casanova it would be best to leave him as nature intended him to be. Altering his natural body would be a loss to women the world over.”
So what is this song actually about? Is it simply that our hero was a delinquent through and through? Or was he born with a dick so beautiful that nurses vowed to protect it at all costs?
First, let’s turn to two rock ’n’ roll historians: Alan Cross, host of the podcast Ongoing History of New Music, and Chris Swain, creator of the Rock ’n’ Roll Archeology Project.
Alan Cross: It’s an interesting hypothesis, one that I’d never considered before. I’d always thought George was talking about being recognized as an irredeemably bad seed from the moment he was born.
Chris Swain: So is a circumcision to the penis the source of his “badness to his bone”? I’m certain George just loves the idea of people’s interest in the character’s anatomy — and as avatar for the writer/performer his own organ — as source of rigorous debate.
Cross: Then again, why would the head nurse order that they “leave this one alone”? Wouldn’t that be a violation of some aspect of the Hippocratic Oath? Might she instead be making another kind of judgment?
Swain: The opening stanza suggests the nurses in that particular pediatric ward are thoroughly impressed with the manhood of a special newborn, which in turn causes their supervisor to declare the organ as perfection, not requiring any change whatsoever. Who would argue with perfection?
Cross: There’s no evidence that George had this idea in mind when he wrote this. The music video features him in a heated game of pool with Bo Diddley.
Swain: Having pored over the sacred text with this new insight, I agree with the argument and can believe his “bone” is not circumcised, but would add that more importantly, it is, in fact, well-endowed. This seems to me to be the more obvious impression and central point. So I think the point of a large member was really the message he was going for more so than if he (metaphorically) was under the knife of a local mohel! [Editor’s note: If the nurse — and not the mohel — is making the call on whether or not to circumcise, perhaps the baby isn’t Jewish.]
Cross: This is the beauty of lyrical interpretations. If you can imagine the words meaning that, then they must be true — at least in some universe.
Swain: The other three stanzas appear to spend their poetry on suggesting his ability to impress all with his bone and its badness, whether they be kings, queens, rich, good or old. So if pressed, I suggest [he has] a natural penis but of perfect proportion. The organ then goes on to impress all the rest of the characters in the song. Purely speculation, but I doubt George has given it much thought.
Perhaps we can glean more from the lyrics if we had more insight into Thorogood’s imagined operating room — specifically where a nurse might say the words “leave this one alone.” I ran the lyrics by Dr. Marc Leavey, retired family doctor, and Dr. Alex Shteynshlyuger, Director of Urology at New York Urology Specialists.
Dr. Marc Leavey: While any nurse or other health care professional certainly can (and do) express an opinion about health or medical matters, it is up to the physician to act on the issue as he or she sees fit, based on best medical practice.
Dr. Alex Shteynshlyuger: Most likely what makes sense to me is that he was born ill-looking/premature … so in this context, “bad to the bone” means “sick,” unlikely to make it. The rest of the song then is an ode to overcoming the odds, surviving and thriving. Fertility or sexual prowess is then the symbol of ‘making it’ despite the odds. I would favor this version of literary interpretation.
The other possibility is that the conversation is about circumcision. Often, boys are circumcised on day one or two after birth before discharge from the hospital. So [is there a medical] reason why someone would not be circumcised? The most common would be anatomical abnormalities such as hypospadias … a condition when the opening of the urethra is not at the tip of the penis. If hypospadias is mild, it has no significant repercussions; the boys may pee without a problem and can have children. Many older patients I see have never had it repaired.
So this may be also an ode to “victorious success” with women sexually, despite an anatomic abnormality — overcoming the odds.
Leavey: The trouble with answering [the circumcision] question is that it is a loaded one. There are religious proponents of circumcision, whose reason for doing it is that the Bible demands it. There are those who don’t do it, because their interpretation of text, or general feeling, is not to do it.
Ultimately it is up to the parents and their decision, based on religion, environment, and social pressures. There are also health issues that are debated despite any facts or studies. And there are those who just think it’s cool to look like Yul Brynner in a turtleneck sweater.
The doctors have now given us a third option: Was the character born bad, born with a perfect dick, or born premature with a mild penile abnormality?
To lay this bone to rest, I reached out to Thorogood’s camp for comment. They have yet to respond, so I tracked down the man who claims (among many other things) that he actually wrote the lyrics: James Pobiega, a.k.a. “Little Howlin’ Wolf.” He calls me on Monday night, and as soon as I pick up the phone, he’s already going a mile a minute. Take what follows with a grain of salt.
Pobiega: I have a whole bunch of tunes — tons and tons of songs I made up — called “Bad to the Bone.” I told Thorogood exactly what to do to make it, and he did it.
George is gonna tell you he wrote it. He wrote it down, yeah. I don’t want any money, ’cause I didn’t play it then — I told him what to do. But it’s up to him to fess up and say, ‘Hey, look, this guy actually told me what the hell to do.’ Where I come from, you don’t do that shit [steal people’s songs]. You’d get smacked in the fuckin’ head, get your ass kicked.
He came up to me and I was playing on the Michigan Avenue bridge, where I used to meet people [and play]. He was playing air guitar, and I said, “What’s your name?” And he goes, “George.” And I go, “George what?” And he said, “Thorogood.” And I said, “Fuck that shit, man. Thorogood nothin’. You gotta be bad, man. You gotta be bad to the bone.”
I looked at him and I saw exactly that there was nothin’ there except for what I tell him. So if I tell him to do something, do a rhythm, he was going to do it. I told him about rhythms, I told him about all kind of things. And that if he followed exactly he could become very famous, and he did.
I told him the keys, the formula, you know? He just don’t get the whole idea. He just needed a moniker, and that was his moniker. You need a gimmick, kid. And that’s what he did, he used it as a gimmick.
But I don’t really know the guy [Thorogood] other than I got into it with [Chicago jazz musician] Gerald Sims and we kinda split. But I did what I needed to do.
I make blues up all the time. For example, if I was going to put something out, I’d start, “Rumble roar, fire and smoke, earth’s quake and pipe’s broke.“ You know, that kind of stuff. “Fill its blade with molten steel. Pile drive and short circuit breaks the deal.“ You understand, man? It just comes outta me.
Perhaps we’ll never know the true meaning behind “Bad to the Bone.” Maybe there is no underlying message in “Bad to the Bone.” Maybe we’re all just spinning our wheels out here, searching for meaning in the sound and fury to a song that’s actually… B-b-b-b-b-bad. Just bad.