John Fogerty Has the Heart of a Punk
By James A. Baumann
I think it was 2001 when J Mascis & the Fog brought their tour to Little Brothers in Columbus, Ohio. What makes that important to this story is that Mike Watt - former bassist for The Minutemen and Firehose - was part of that tour and, therefore, was within earshot when I had to go and open my big mouth.
The show was over and I was backstage sharing beers and barroom conversation. I don’t remember the route the conversation took, but at one point I heard myself sharing with a small group of fellow music fans my theory that “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was the first punk-rock song to be released.
That was when the drummer for Mascis’ band, who was sitting across from me, chimed in with, “You know, Mike really likes Creedence.”*
“Hey Mike!” he called across the room, “This guy has a theory you should hear.”
If this was a movie, this would be the point where the needle would scratch across the record and all conversation would come to a halt. As it was, a fair share of the room was now looking in my direction and all I could think was that me sharing my thoughts about the birth of punk-rock with Mike Watt was tantamount to my explaining democracy to Thomas Jefferson.
“Well,” I stammered, “I haven’t double-checked the dates of when The Stooges record came out, but I would argue that “Fortunate Son” was the first punk rock song.”**
Watt paused just long enough for me to think he was politely considering my statement, gave a combination nod and shrug, then said, “You may be on to something.” I exhaled, and everyone returned to their individual conversations.
This scene kept playing back in my mind as I read John Fogerty’s newly-released autobiography Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music. Despite the millions of records Creedence Clearwater Revival sold, the string of top hits that Fogerty wrote and sang, and his friendly, everyman vibe, his story demonstrated the heart of punk-rock time and time again.
Fogerty recounts his life with a little something for everyone. For the gearheads, there’s some guitar and studio talk. For the curious, he sheds light on the inner-band turmoil. For the romantics, time & again he thanks his second wife Julie for bringing him back from the brink of anger and alcohol.
At the heart of it all, though, are the songs. Though he was born and raised in Northern California, much of his work painted a picture of the southeast United States. It was pure Americana, like Steinbeck and Twain armed with an E7 chord. In the book he addresses this by writing, “People would listen to my songs and ask, ‘Where does this come from?’ I had trouble explaining that. I hadn’t been to Mississippi when I wrote “Proud Mary,” nor had I been to Louisiana when I wrote “Born on the Bayou.” Somehow it just seemed familiar to me. Still does.”
And, as for the music that accompanied those lyrics, Fogerty explains, “One of the huge secrets of Creedence was that this music was brain-numbingly simple, but it was the right simple. I always said ‘There’s only one right way.’”
Whatever the formula was, it worked. In 1968 the band released its first album and caused a rumble behind covers of “I Put a Spell On You” and, most famously, “Suzie Q.” Then came 1969, when the proverbial flood gates opened.
In one year, Creedence Clearwater Revival released three albums: Bayou Country, Green River, and Willy and the Poor Boys. These records included the singles “Proud Mary,” “Born On the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Lodi,” “Commotion,” “Green River,” “Down On the Corner,” and “Fortunate Son.” That’s not to mention other classic tracks like “Wrote a Song For Everyone,” “It Came Out of the Sky,” “Midnight Special,” “Keep On Chooglin’” and “Effigy,” among others.
Ponder that DiMaggio-level hot streak for a moment. Then consider that their next album was Cosmo’s Factory and that record delivered the songs “Travelin’ Band,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” “Run Through the Jungle,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” and the classic 11-minute version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
That type of output epitomizes the punk-rock ethos and is all the more remarkable when you consider that Fogerty was the only one writing songs. Plus, as he both implies and states in his book, he often had to, in essence, teach the rest of the band how to play the songs.
The fallout between Fogerty and the rest of the band - his brother Tom on rhythm guitar, Stu Cook on bass, and Doug Clifford playing drums – is well documented, and culminated with Fogerty refusing to play with them when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The public sniping and lawsuits continue to this day.
The cracks in the foundation were obvious early on. Fogerty paints a picture of him living and breathing music while the others could never match his passion. Before CCR is even formed, Fogerty tells the story of he and the guys serving as a backing band and the recording equipment malfunctions. As the rest of the band scatters, Fogerty stays put to watch the repairs happen, “Because I might learn somethin’.”
The cracks only grew during the recording of Bayou Country. Recognizing the lightning in a bottle he had captured with “Proud Mary,” Fogerty was a perfectionist with the recording. He grew more frustrated saying:
“The voices just didn’t blend, and my heart couldn’t let it stand that way. Somebody had to be brutally honest and say, ‘This isn’t gonna get it. This is probably gonna get us laughed at.’ And there wasn’t anyone else but me to say it. “Proud Mary” was the best song I had written up to that point. I knew it was really, really, special and I wasn’t going to settle for less…
“So I told the guys I knew what to do – “I’m going to sing all the parts, overdub them myself. And I will make it sound that way.” Well the other guys were really upset over that. They weren’t upset because it would be better; they were upset because they weren’t doing it. I was doing it. There were a lot of angry words, a lot of tension. Tom, Doug, Stu – they were all mad at me. I stood my ground. The other three guys left the studio, so I proceeded to do exactly what I knew how to do: sing all the background vocals. That became “Proud Mary.” That’s what you hear on the record.”
This tension existed through the rest of the band’s career, boiling down to jealousy from the rest of the band over Fogerty’s prominent role and bitterness from Fogerty about his contributions being resented rather than appreciated. Multiple times throughout the book he longs for a Lennon to be a foil to his McCartney; someone to collaborate with and bounce ideas around.
Finally, with Pendulum the well began to run dry (even if it did still produce “Hey Tonight” and “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”) and, at the end of 1970, it all came to a head. Tom Fogerty left the band while Cook and Clifford fought for a chance to step out of the shadows.
For their limp to the finish line, Mardi Gras, each remaining member of the band had three songs to write, sing, and produce. The saving grace is “Sweet Hitch-Hiker” – a rollicking single that fit the CCR model – and a gut-wrenching divorce song, “Someday Never Comes,” though Fogerty even wasn’t happy with the final result.
“I’m a little angry in the song. Bitter,” he says. “The record doesn’t really have the force I would’ve loved it to have, because the band couldn’t do that, especially as a trio. When I get the part that goes, ‘I’m here to tell you now each and every mother’s son / You better learn it fast and you better learn it young / ‘Cause someday never comes’ there’s supposed to be fifteen Marshalls on eleven in the background going r-r-r-r-r, just angry as hell. Then it should come down, down, down, in to the pathos of the chorus. We weren’t quite good enough to do that on an album where we were not really talking to each other much. I felt very sad about that situation too.”
With his band now dissolved, Fogerty’s legal battles would soon dwarf the power-struggles of the past.
Punk rock has a history of fighting back against “The Man.” For his nemesis, Fogerty had “a man,” Saul Zaentz, a true mustache-twirling, tying-women-to-the-railroad-tracks, band-robbing villain.
The initial contract CCR signed with Fantasy Records -- along with a poor royalty rate and ridiculous demands for output – transferred the copyright on all songs to Fantasy owner Zaentz. This led to the Kafka-esque situation in 1988 when a federal court judge heard the case that charged the John Fogerty solo song “The Old Man Down the Road” of sounding too much like the CCR song “Run Through the Jungle.” In short, Fogerty was being charged with plagiarizing himself.
Eventually Fogerty would win the case but it – along with a host of other legal dramas spearheaded by Zaentz and Fantasy Records - took its toll on him. When CCR disbanded, he made the conscious decision to turn his back on all those hits that he didn’t own. “Once I realized how bad I’d been screwed by Saul and Fantasy, I had to take a stand and be a man,” he writes. “Do something. And one thing I decided to do was not sing those songs anymore. The situation tortured me. If “Proud Mary” came on the radio, I’d change the channel. Creating that song was one of the greatest moments in my life, but hearing it was no longer a happy occasion.”
He held that pledge until one night in 1987 when he found himself on stage at a Taj Mahal concert along with George Harrison and Bob Dylan and was peer-pressured by Dylan to do “Proud Mary” lest “everybody’s gonna think it’s a Tina Turner song.”
The cork had been loosened and, later that year, Fogerty was asked to be part of a “welcome home” show for Vietnam veterans that was to air on HBO. Feeling he owed the vets something extra, he lifted his embargo and surprised everyone by playing the hits. During the set he remembers speaking directly to the vets in the audience saying, “I myself have gone through about twenty years of pain – and I finally faced that pain. I looked it right in the face and said, ‘Well, you’ve got a choice: you can do it for twenty more years, or you can just say, ‘That’s what happened.' You can’t change it…
“So I’m telling you guys – that’s what happened. You got the shaft. You know it, we know it, it’s reality…. In fact, send me a letter – Berkeley, California – but promise me somethin’; drop it in the box and then drop all that shit you’ve been carryin’ around. Is that a deal? Get on with it, buddy.”
Put a different accent on it and that could almost be a Joe Strummer speech.
After completing the book I re-read the introduction. In it Fogerty recounts the 2014 Veterans Day performances where he made headlines by performing “Fortunate Son” at shows in honor of the America troops. In his writing he admits to some trepidation before singing it and is sure to note he introduced it with words of praise for the troops. But then, with the President and generals in front of him, he sang:
Some folks are born, made to wave the flag
Ooo, they're red, white and blue
And when the band plays "Hail to the Chief"
Ooo, they point the cannon at you, Lord
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no senator's son, son
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one, no
Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand
Lord, don't they help themselves, y'all
But when the taxman comes to the door
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yeah
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no millionaire's son, no, no
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one, no
Some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord
And when you ask 'em, "How much should we give?"
Ooh, they only answer "More! More! More!", y'all
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no military son, son
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one, one
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one, no, no, no
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no fortunate son, no, no, no
Sure, that’s a song written in reaction to Vietnam, and Fogerty was obviously no fan of the military-industrial complex. But it’s not an anti-American or anti-troops song. It’s a pro-underdog song about someone who hasn’t always come from a place of privilege, but wasn’t going to let it determine his future. It’s a song about someone who, despite the odds, persevered and kept on fighting the good fight.
That’s John Fogerty. And that’s pretty punk-rock.
*Makes sense. Mike Watt and John Fogerty have to be the two most flannel-wearing Californians of all time. Plus, it says so on Watt’s Wikipedia page.
**The dates were even closer than I thought. Wikipedia says The Stooges first album with “I Wanna Be Your Dog” was released in August 1969 while “Fortunate Son” came out one month later as the b-side of the “Down On the Corner” single.
Welcome Home Vets
Showing some brass for the brass in 2014