Good fortune may have smiled upon John Fogerty, but he damn well earned it. In his candid and gripping new autobiography, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music, his life jumps off the page with the same sweeping power as the classic songs he’s penned over the years about steamboats, bayous and green rivers.
It’s a riveting story ripe for a major motion picture: formative musical struggles, garage band makes good, seismic international superstardom with Creedence Clearwater Revival, festering inter-band dissension, savage battles with his record company, acrimonious breakups, solo career stasis, crippling writer’s block, a triumphant comeback with the Centerfield album, coming to terms with his storied CCR legacy, endless lawsuits with his former band mates and Fantasy Records nemesis Saul Zaentz and spiritual redemption, thanks to the love of a good woman, his wife Julie.
He’s the modern day Stephen Foster. Fogerty’s exquisite songs, borne out of tight economy and fiery passion, evoke a tangible sense of time and place and his work takes its rightful place among the Great American Songbook. Add his supernatural bluesy soaked howl of a voice, commanding incendiary guitar playing and consummate chops as a record maker and you’ve got the complete package, a bonafide musical MVP. Join us for a no-holds-barred conversation with John Fogerty navigating the good, the bad and the ugly of a formidable career.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Working on this book and tackling some major issues head-on, were you able to exorcise a lot of your demons?
John Fogerty: Yeah, I think there is a bit of that. I think most of the demons were probably already gone. I think the main thing was finally being able to put it down on the written page rather than a disposable thing like a magazine or newspaper that’s here today and gone tomorrow. (laughs) I think I had done quite a bit of work on my demons either consciously or just by the sheer blessedness of being around Julie, my wife. There’s really been a lot of healing.
Sometimes I’m surprised; I shouldn’t be but I can talk about it pretty freely now and openly. Emotional content was something I was not real good at talking about when I was young or even 25, 30 years ago. (laughs) Over the years I’ve become very aware of, ‘Oh, I’m not thinking about that anymore, am I? I’m not all upset about that.’ There’s a whole lot of that sort of thing, which I can’t say happened by itself but…the fact that my life got better and I got happy in my heart, became full of the blessings I do have, meaning a wonderful wife and wonderful kids. Life every day is pretty great.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Reading the book, I was surprised to read that while CCR were making huge strides and standing toe to toe with the Beatles as the most popular band in the world, you were experiencing little joy due to inner band issues and pressures.
John Fogerty: Yeah, you’re exactly right. In some ways now that I’ve allowed myself to out everything in perspective, I’m happier about things that happened in 1970 or so then I was then. I mean, I do love thinking about the old band and going over to England to play Royal Albert Hall; that was pretty special. We were certainly thought of like the Beatles and for a moment there at least we were considered the number one band on earth, and not everyone can say that.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you start to feel CCR was sitting on top of the mountain?
John Fogerty: I really didn’t feel that until probably the later part of 1970. As the stresses really started to become almost a choking kind of thing, I began to feel that I didn’t know what was gonna happen. I felt the guys in my band were all headed for a disaster and yet we’re gonna find out in just a few months that we’re the number one band in the world. I didn’t really feel it had quite occurred yet, although there was a moment when we happened to be in England and I think it was the first time we played the Albert Hall. That was when we were a quartet and Tom (Fogerty) was still in the band. I was doing an interview and Tom came into the room and said, “Have you heard? The Beatles just broke up.” I looked at him and went, “Oh, no, wow.” I felt at that moment as a fan being startled and kind of sad about it. Then immediately Tom said, “They just handed it to us.” (laughs) I’m not sure I quite believed it then. But he was certainly aware of the competition or the comparison.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you realize that music was your way out?
John Fogerty: Oh, very young. At first, I was just intrigued, being four-years-old, asking questions. I was so musical; for my fourth birthday they gave me a snare drum. I don’t think it was too long after that where the top head got a big hole punched in it. (laughs) I mean, everybody else thought of me as being musical too. By the time I was 8 or 9 I was already starting to imitate the sounds of the records with my mouth and sort of writing songs, putting words together and thinking in imagery. I didn’t really know what it meant but I was drawn naturally into it. I was very passionate and loved it. It was something that I really enjoyed a lot.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you start writing songs?
John Fogerty: Wow…I remember the first song I wrote when I was about eight-years-old. I don’t know how complete it was. Walking to school I’d be listening to the rhythm and blues station, which was KWDR in the San Francisco Bay Area; in fact, it was actually out of Oakland. One of the commercials was something about doing your laundry. They used the phrase “wash day blues.” So I started writing a song about that all the way to school for a few days. I could walk to school—it was only about three blocks from my house. I know I wrote the song and couldn’t tell you what the words were as I don’t remember. (laughs) But what I remember was the title and the concept. And so after that, every now and then I’d get an idea to write about something but it was pretty much derivative, meaning spurred on by something else that I’d heard around me like Little Richard singing about (songs) “had a gal named Daisy, she almost drive me crazy,” that sort of thing.
It wasn’t really until the 8th grade; between the Stella guitar and piano we had in the house I would fumble around playing notes on the piano. I made up instrumentals at first. In 8th grade I was playing piano in Mrs. Stark’s music room after school when I was in junior high. I could play Do You Wanna Dance and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. The first day I did it I just sat down at the piano; I came up from PE class and walked right by where the music room was where I also had a class during the day. So one day I just walked in and sat down at the piano and played a couple of things. I thought I was by myself and then a couple of other kids wandered in and the next day I did the same thing and there were a few more kids. After a few days doing that there might have been 10 kids in there and it seemed like a cool thing, a little gathering.
Rock Cellar Magazine: At what point did you first recognize your writing had stepped up a notch?
John Fogerty: I’d say the first one was Porterville, which I wrote while I was in the Army. The other songs I’d written in the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs were pretty much based on popular music. I was thinking in terms of what I heard on the radio and trying to write a song that sounded like what I heard on the radio. Therefore, the songs I was writing then were derivative and kind of amateurish, pretty much copying and sounding like that. It was usually something like, ‘I’m gonna write a song about breaking up with some girl.” So you’d have a song called You Can’t Be True or you’d have a song called Fight Fire which we did in the Golliwogs. Even before that. Tom had some songs that were even more teenage doo-wop.
They weren’t bad, they were just sort of entry level and very imitative of what was on the radio. But perhaps in a style that already three or four years old whereas when I was marching around in the Army; I started doing this out on a parade field. It was very very hot, about one hundred and ten degrees so the heat coming off of that asphalt was more like one hundred and thirty degrees. I think I was having this delirium and started doing a narrative, kind of telling a story to myself and that story eventually became the song Porterville, although it happened over quite a stretch of time and geography. When I was in the Army I didn’t have a name for it. But I was sort of telling this story about a kid that was from the wrong side of the tracks and that his father was considered no good and maybe a criminal. I didn’t specifically know what had gone wrong but the law had come and taken the father away and the son was feeling that that stain was on him; all of this was narrative, more like a story that I was thinking about while I was marching along.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Did CCR feel a part of the San Francisco music scene or did you feel removed for the other bands?
John Fogerty: I want to say that we felt like we were part of that, but more philosophically and less musically. We were young guys and a young band. I think we felt that our music was more blue-collar. It was more like what we had grown up with, rock and roll and rock and roll roots; anything from the rockabilly of the ‘50s all the way up to cool stuff from the Beatles and the Stones. But philosophically as far as our own politics and the way we looked at the world as young guys in it I think we felt very much akin to somebody right out of the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane. That was pretty much how I felt about life too. There were just a few little tweaks. (laughs) I didn’t think I should be stoned while I was in front of people making music. (laughs) I had grown up going to professional shows at the Oakland Auditorium and seeing people that were very disciplined like James Brown and Jackie Wilson and Duane Eddy. It was a learning experience; How are they doing this? What makes this so good? I wanted to do that so I was watching and paying attention and everything seemed to be done with a purpose and a direction, particularly to move and make people dance and that sort of thing whereas a lot of the so-called hippie music seemed pretty sleepy and introspective. I had less affinity for that, but I did love listening to the so-called underground radio station, which at that moment in time was KMPX. That was the very first underground station with the DJ Tom Donahue.
Rock Cellar Magazine: There is a winning economy in your songwriting, production and guitar playing and solos, what inspired the “less is more “philosophy? How did you resist the urge to fill up the empty space?
John Fogerty: I’ve made that mistake myself. You learn as a human being, especially as you get older. You’re actually able to forgive yourself for your foibles and your missteps. Sometimes you forget that’s your own personal philosophy. Sometimes you think, “I’m gonna make this song that’s so involved.” I don’t know why you do that, but later you listen to it and you go, “Oh my, I sure missed the mark on this one.” As far as the economy in my work, I think I learned that because of the kind of people I revered. Certainly in the music the early rock and roll songs that Elvis did. Leiber and Stoller’s work with the Coasters particularly was a personal favorite.
I just loved that they were a songwriting team and they aspired to that in the same way my mom would talk about Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael and people like that that were very famous. Like Leiber and Stoller, their songs were so wonderful, things like Youngblood and Idol with the Golden Head, Poison Ivy, and Searchin’. They would create these songs which I learned later they called “playlets,” meaning little stories and of course you had to be able to tell the whole story in the time of a song which was usually less than three minutes, two and a half maybe. I really liked that. Of course, the simplicity of wonderful instrumentals like Duane Eddy in particularly; I did admire the Ventures too, but Duane seemed to have this real knack of making these wonderful instrumentals. It was almost like English 101: “here’s what I’m gonna talk about” and then in verse two “now I’m talking about it and here comes the bridge”, and here’s his variation and then at the end on verse three it was, “okay, here’s what I just talked about” and then out…(laughs) Your English teacher would have been very proud of that whole thing.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Speaking of economy, your work as a producer with CCR is extraordinary, who were your models that influenced your approach as a record maker?
John Fogerty: That’s a great question. Some of the early Elvis records, it was pretty much Elvis producing those because he had a vision of what he wanted. It was also Sam Phillips with him on those Sun Records, but as he went on to RCA and got to have a little bit more of a voice I think Elvis was pretty sure how much there should be on his records. The Coasters, of course, I didn’t realize it until later but Leiber and Stoller were actually also acting as producers. But I certainly became aware of Brian Wilson having a very firm grip and signature on the Beach Boys music. At the time I don’t think I realized he had so many songwriting collaborators; I think I always just assumed each song was written by Brian.
But there was a lot of collaboration: I guess Brian wrote a lot of the melodies and in many cases, but not all, would have someone else working on the lyrics. But Brian for sure was coming up with the harmonies and the arrangements and the direction. Then of course you have the Beatles with George Martin. With the Beatles it was just so clear and just so great. Even though I’d heard of production and producers before, but with the Beatles you realized it was a very high honored thing to have just the right part and no more. I admired all of them so much. George’s guitar playing was just perfect. In those days we didn’t jam and get to the middle of a song and just play any old thing (laughs); we would have rehearsals and you’d kind of figure out what the part would be so from then on, when you played that song, that was the solo. He was that sort of guitar player and I learned that and I really liked that ‘cause that’s what I was thinking most of the time.
But for all the Beatles records, George Martin loomed very large in my awareness of the idea that the producer is there helping guide the band. It was a pretty exalted position. They collaborated and obviously the Beatles had great ideas but the fact that there was an adult (laughs) that they could share to make sure it all came out okay.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve said that there are four ingredients needed to make a great rock and roll song, fill us in.
John Fogerty: Well, yeah, somewhere along the way I think in the ‘60s, it was the way I felt about it.
Number one, you have to have a great title for a song ‘cause that sets the direction. I know that I really loved songs that had intriguing, cool titles; some of them happened to be instrumentals like Rumble, which is pretty cool and Rebel Rouser, so many of the Duane Eddy songs. Something that had occurred to me because of those instrumentalist was, ‘Wow, it’s a cool title and it tells you about the song but they could have called it ‘XYZ’ cause there’s no words; they could have named it anything.’ So the title in this case is very important.
The next ingredient needed is the actual sonic imprint of the record. What does it actually sound like? In other words, if you could somehow take a snapshot and hold it up and look at it. I think I used Smoke on the Water and My Girl in my book as examples; they’re drastically different but they both have a very cool sound. I think that’s what catches your ear so that’s two.
Number three, it’s the song itself, meaning you take everything away and you’re like a singer/songwriter just sitting there with your guitar or singing it a capella. What place do that melody and words put you in? There are songs that are profound and there are songs where the words sound great just to say. Sometimes a record can be good but the song is not so great. But you’re almost are always gonna do well if the song is great. In most cases, those three are enough but for the music I grew up on and also love to create, number four I call the gravy or the cherry on top. The very, very best singles have a great guitar riff; the song would have been okay without that riff but if you’ve also got a great guitar riff — that is the very highest level of making a single.
Rock Cellar Magazine: I’ve always admired your work as an evocative lyricist painting images as strongly with words as your music. For example, the line “pumped a lot of pain in New Orleans” from Proud Mary. As a lyricist who were your signposts?
John Fogerty: Of course, Lennon and McCartney. Also, Keith (Richards) and Mick (Jagger); those songs, especially the great ones are timeless.
Rock Cellar Magazine: But there’s a poetic nature and storytelling ability to your writing that’s very much your own.
John Fogerty: Thank you for that. Boy, some of that I can’t really explain. Obviously I love Bob Dylan. I love some of the old time guys, people like Harold Arlen and I certainly love The Wizard of Oz and Irving Berlin. I value the craft of songwriting very highly and very deeply. Every once in a while you would hear a record or a song that just seems more; it seems above the everyday sort of pop hit.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Is there a CCR lyric for which you’re especially proud?
John Fogerty: Well, as a song looking back Have You Ever Seen the Rain? is pretty good. But that was real; I was basically writing about the breakup of the band and using the natural phenomenon that we’ve all experienced when rain can be falling down on you coming down out of a blue sky. It’s just really how I felt and how I landed in that little metaphor, I have no idea. I just know that a lot of times in CCR I’d be thinking to myself, “We’re accomplishing our greatest dream, why are we so unhappy?” And I have to say without trying to cast any blame, there’s enough of that in the book of course, but sometimes it really is personalities of people where they really just cannot coexist. There’s something that’s just gonna make it tilt. I mean, it sounds kind of funny to say about people that have been together for ten years but we’d been together kind of off and on and off and on; it wasn’t constant. Then I think once the thing became official, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re really a success and we’re actually a real band, this is what I do.’ Then everyone started wanting to kind of take some sort of ownership of it or move the direction in their direction. But I do think a lot of that was actually just personality. It’s like a married couple, (laughs) dysfunctional and always fighting. (Laughing) No matter what you do it’s gonna always end up the same way.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Bands are like marriages, when was CCR its strongest and most cohesive and on the same page?
John Fogerty: I would say 1968. It really stated when I got out of the Army in ’67 and certainly by the fall of ’67, September, October, November and into 1969. We were still struggling and we still had our eye on a prize that was way up there somewhere; none of us thought of ourselves as very highly developed musicians. I think we thought we were a good band. Me personally; I was nowhere near the level of somebody like Chet Atkins. I strived to have at least good taste. I did talk about that with the band a lot, about having good musical taste because that’s something where even if you can’t play a lot you can play the right little bit of stuff.
Rock Cellar Magazine: In the book you say “Those Creedence songs I created so every guy in every bar can play them and sound like the records.” Was it tricky to get to a place of writing and producing sings that fit into that ethos?
John Fogerty: Well yeah, that was the challenge. That was and still is the whole deal. (laughs) I mean, aw man, there are lots and lots of wonderful musicians in the world and you can go see lots of bands, thousands, millions of them and they sound pleasant, particularly a cover band has got it made. But even a band playing originals, even if just the singer sounds okay, you’re gonna have a pleasant experience but for songs that are actually built on arrangements, meaning the parts that the musicians should and almost have to play with that song. Then you’ve got a presentation of that song. I dare say if you play Proud Mary, the version by Creedence at least, you should have that groove going. It should sound like that. If you play a bunch of Metallica riffs it won’t be the same. It just won’t feel like Proud Mary by CCR. By the way, I love Metallica.
Rock Cellar Magazine: In the book you chart your differences through the years with your brother Tom and former band mates Stu Cook and Doug Clifford. But let’s revisit when times were good, what are your most indelible “holy shit” moments with CCR.
John Fogerty: I think there are probably a bunch of them, certainly being on Ed Sullivan. That was sweet; we held that as a very high watermark of success. Wow…having an album reach number one, which I think Green River did and also Cosmo’s Factory. There were quite a few of those things. I think standing ovations, which we accomplished early on actually. We were playing four nights at the Fillmore West. The rocket had just started to take off; this was the time of Bayou Country and maybe Bad Moon Rising was out. So we finished our set and they called us back for an encore so we go out and we said, “Well, what do we do?” So we played one song and then we left and then they called us back out again. They called us back out four times. That was on Thursday and the same thing happened on Friday. Saturday and Sunday. We played 16 encores.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’ve created your fair share of classic rock and roll riffs with songs like “Up Around the Bend” and “Green River.”
John Fogerty: One of the things that I noticed in my songwriting, my mission and my directive to myself was to try and make a record, a single. So the little push I was trying to give myself would be when I had a guitar in my hands, I’d be fiddling around playing notes and maybe trying to come up with some sort of a riff that could be part of the song. Invariably what would happen, let’s say with Up Around the Bend, I would come up with a riff and then go, ‘I really like that, that’s a cool riff.’ Then that would set me off into writing the song.
The weird part about all of that, of course, is you could have the song without the riff. You could write a great song and be nowhere near any sort of guitar riff at all. The fact that I seemed to almost trick myself into readiness by coming up with a riff first (laughs). I’m not quite firmly clear about how I came up with the riff or Up Around the Bend but I seem to remember being fascinated with the intro or the little guitar riff in A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation). I liked that song by Marty Robbins and it was a big hit in the ‘50s; I think it came out around ’56 or ’57 and it had a really cool guitar riff and I kind of learned how to play it. I think it was in the key of G. So I would play that on the guitar and seemed to sense that led me as a form of reference to the Up Around the Bend riff. That’s kind of the way I remember it. It may have bene something that occurred by osmosis over a few days; all I know is playing the first part of Up Around the Bend and when I made the choice to go down to the “A” and playing it down there again I went, “Oh…That was kind of unusual.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: The guitar solo on that song is compact and packing a lot of emotion into a very brief solo passage, which is redolent of your guitar style.
John Fogerty: Well, I always tried to be that guy, not that I always succeeded. I had been sort of trained by the rock and roll radio and was learning from all the greats that had come before, going all the way back to the early ’50s in R&B hearing BB King and the “5” Royales guitar player who was named Lowman Pauling. There’s a song by the “5” Royales called The Slummer the Slum. Their first big hit was with a record called Think. It was an R&B hit in the summer of about ’56. They had several records with incredible very rock styled guitar solos. And of course Elvis came along with Scotty Moore playing all that incredible stuff, I’ve always said that Scotty invented rock and roll because basically he was in the first rock and roll band so you have to give him credit for being there. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: Over that period with CCR you were incredibly prolific. How do you account for that productivity? Did you feel like you were in the zone?
John Fogerty: I was pushing myself very hard to be at that highest level and that really meant I was throwing away a lot of stuff. As I would talk about in those days, I used ten as my number. But I would say, “For every song you hear from me I’ve thrown away ten other songs.” That means I’d start down the road on something and it might happen in the first day or it might happen the next day but I’d get to that point where I just couldn’t go any further or I could go further. But most of the time I couldn’t go any further and I’d go, Aw man, I don’t know what to do with it… So then I’d say, Just stop and throw that away. If it’s any good it’ll come up again. You’ve got to go on to something else. I was just pushing myself to where everything had to be as good as Proud Mary. That was the benchmark.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Where do your drive and strong work ethic comes from?
John Fogerty: Hmm…Desire and feeling a great need. I think certainly my upbringing. Even though my parents divorced, they were both what we call children of the depression or part of the depression. We were not rich by any means; I would call us lower middle class. I wasn’t living in a shack; I was in a little suburban neighborhood but especially because of the divorce we did not have any disposable money. I wore hand me downs, that sporty of thing. So I felt driven to succeed. You just accepted their station in life, oh, that’s where our family is; that’s who we are. I grew up as a kid that was gonna have to save his money to buy a guitar.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You dreamed big.
John Fogerty: Yeah, you looked at somebody like Elvis or the Beatles. I do believe there was a slight difference between myself and even my brother Tom in the sense that I really wanted to be that musician. I wanted to be the guy who could play and really play cool stuff. At some point I felt and I still feel that way that Tom’s dream and desire was more in the direction of being famous, of being a star in other words and less about having to play really great, that sort of thing.