I would have happily interviewed John Fogerty about his stream of immortal songs with Creedence Clearwater Revival. In the event, however, he had a bleaker and more personal story to tell. This appeared in The Word, July 2006.
From the window of his Marylebone hotel, John Fogerty looks down upon the railway station where, a lifetime ago, The Beatles scampered happily in A Hard Day’s Night. Those were the days when a young American boy could pick up a guitar and dream of uncomplicated stardom. But this boy’’s learned better since.
Many are the rock’n’roll war stories that recall the Jarndyce & Jarndyce case of Dickens’ Bleak House. But few resemble that spirit-withering lawsuit as much as the unhappy saga of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
John Fogerty’s long-gone quartet, for whom he wrote such towering anthems as Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising and Green River, were perhaps the greatest American band of their time. Between 1968 and 1972 they built a monumental body of work that has never sounded silly, indulgent or dated. But as the music business proverb has it: “Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.” Fogerty has spent over 30 years in seemingly perpetual quarrels with former friends, colleagues and even family members.
In his measured, steady voice, he talks of those events with an obsessive care for dates and details. It’s painfully clear that he’s been over the territory many, many times. “This stuff is so dreadful,” he says quietly. “It causes a big knot in your stomach.”
In a savage howl Fogerty sang of the bayou and the backwoods: he steered rock away from psychedelic trippiness towards the earthy roots of blues and rockabilly. In one way he was like Brian Wilson, for both men wrote vividly of worlds they never in fact inhabited. The troubled Beach Boy was not the bronzed, surfing airhead his songs celebrated. And Fogerty, who grew up in the Bay Area of Northern California, knew nothing of river-boats or Cajun queens; he simply invented a magical conflation of distant Mississippi and Louisiana.
“Exactly,” he admits, frankly. “I don’t know why I was so fascinated with it. There was no specific moment where I said ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna collect swamp lore’. The best I can reason is that so much of the music I love seems to come out of the swamp or the Delta. I was fascinated by this place that was so exotic to me.”
Fogerty formed a band with his older brother Tom on rhythm guitar, and two friends, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford on drums and bass. In 1967 they signed to a local label called Fantasy, soon to be owned by one Saul Zaentz. Having wisely changed their name from The Golliwogs to Creedence Clearwater Revival, they unwisely signed a fresh contract: “We were really just young kids,” says Fogerty, ruefully. “We all signed, we were all in this together. It was not an ominous occasion: Saul was our best friend, we thought, it was like all five of us together in this thing, trying to succeed.”
Any drawbacks in the contract were at first masked by Creedence Clearwater’s massive success. What really bothered Fogerty was his band-mates:
“I didn’t understand all this negative energy coming from the other three,” he says. “There was always this pressure that they wanted to write songs and be the singer and make up their own musical parts, and I saw all this as a threat to our well-being. I’d been with these people more than 10 years, and never in all that time had they shown the ability to write a really good song or sing very well. So I felt threatened. I’d hear it walking through airports, all this snickering and bickering, all these voices behind my back.
“Finally the pressure mounted to a roar, and they called a ‘band meeting’, at which the other three guys demanded an equal say in all things Creedence, a democracy. I didn’t know what to do. I was the leader of the group, and the manager, and we knew we were, at the moment of that band meeting, the Number One band in the world. The Beatles had broken up, and the NME or Melody Maker here in England, the centre of the rock’n’roll universe, declared us Best Band In The World. It was a vindication that I must be doing something right, but they wanted to change all that.”
Fogerty’s bewilderment was compounded when his brother Tom abruptly left the band. “That boggles the mind, because he got everything he wanted and now he’s leaving. I was now the third leg on a three-legged stool, because Doug and Stu are joined at the hip, and I could see that from now on I would be out-voted on everything. It wasn’t until years later that I understood why they were coming at me with all this negative energy, why even my brother was so angry with me. My wife Julie said, ‘Well they’re jealous of you, because you can do that and they can’t.’ And Tom was the older brother, so it must have been tough. But I didn’t get it. I’m not jealous of anyone.”
Creedence soon crumbled but Fogerty was still in contractual thrall to Fantasy and Saul Zaentz: “I found myself in this horrendous predicament because after the band broke up, after selling millions and millions of records, they let everybody else out of the contract, while I was held in an iron grip. I owed them hundreds of recordings, for which I was going to be paid very little. Ouch! It seemed like everybody figured I should get punished extra because I was more talented. There was this whole mindset of ‘We’re gonna stick it to John’ with the assumption being, I guess, he can weather the storm better than us because he’s more talented.
“It was an amazing betrayal by my best friends, though I didn’t know that until many years later. Going to a shrink, he said, ‘That’s betrayal.’ Oh OK, I just knew I was stabbed in the back. I had done so much to make these other people wealthy.”
But then, amazingly, everyone’s money vanished. The group had invested their savings in an off-shore shelter which duly failed to pay up: “It was a scheme and a scam but we were so young when all these experts told us it was OK, it’s legal, this is how the Rockerfellers and the Kennedys and all the smart rich people handle their money. And we believed that. So I sued everybody involved in giving that advice.” The other Creedence members veered between joining John and suing him too; the money was eventually recovered, but the former colleagues were never reconciled.
Meanwhile Saul Zaentz and Fogerty had yet another war to fight. On John’s 1985 solo album Centerfield was a track called The Old Man Down The Road which the Fantasy boss alleged to be a steal from an old Creedence song, Run Through The Jungle. Fogerty was in effect being sued for self-plagiarism: “The truth of it was they were looking for an excuse to sue me,” he says. “It was such a flimsy premise. But again it cost me a lot of time and money; and over the four years it was going on they wouldn’t pay me anything for my other material. It was very cruel. Anyway the jury realised it was farce and the two songs weren’t alike and the case was settled in my favour.”
(In a parallel action, though, Fogerty was forced to revise another track, pugnaciously titled Zanz Kant Danz.)
His big wheel kept on turnin’, but only just. Estranged from his band-mates and at permanent loggerheads with Fantasy, Fogerty endured some personal and professional wilderness years. Another low-point was the death of Tom Fogerty in 1990: “Even in the final weeks of his life my brother was telling me ‘Saul Zaentz is my best friend’, and you know how that must have felt for me, as Saul Zaentz was my worst enemy. Tom was in total denial. It’s one of the sadnesses of my life. Not only did it never get resolved, but Tom wouldn’t even look at it in a real way. They call that denial.”
For nearly two decades John Fogerty refused to play any Creedence songs on his tours. But an almost mystic turning point occurred on a pilgrimage to the Mississippi grave of the blues deity Robert Johnson. “I was standing there,” Fogerty remembers, “and I thought about Robert Johnson and who owned his songs. The typical case for a long-gone blues guy is that a smart lawyer in New York City gets to own the music, someone whose only feeling is for the money.
“It disgusted me but then I thought, It doesn’t matter: spiritually, they’re Robert’s songs; he owns them forever. And I realised that was my predicament: everyone knows I wrote those songs; they don’t care about the money, they know the songs came from my heart. That was a revelation to me.
“I was taking these trips at the time without realising why I was going to Mississippi. It was like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, where he’s making these things out of mashed potatoes and has no idea what the symbolism is. I was doing this. I thought I was going to Mississippi to look up old bluesmen. Seven years later I realised the real reason was so I would find myself at Robert Johnson’s grave and have this epiphany. I would come to the realisation that I should start doing my songs and it would feel OK.”
Only recently, however, has the gunsmoke cleared. Saul Zaentz became a top movie mogul (he produced One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and owns the film rights to Lord Of The Rings) but his 2004 sale of Fantasy to another label, Concord, was enough to re-unite John Fogerty and his Creedence legacy. First fruit of the new alliance is a compilation CD, aptly named The Long Road Home.
“It should have happened a long time ago,” says the singer, “but it’s great that it finally has. I met Concord and realised they were OK people who actually desired to treat me better. And the funny thing was, once Saul Zaentz and his cronies were out of the picture, all the feelings about Fantasy Records went away. The emotion has gone now. I simply know, academically, that I will stay away from Saul Zaentz and my band-mates; it’s just something you learn, like staying away from a rattlesnake.”
And the biggest turning point of all? “Meeting Julie and falling in love,’ says Fogerty of his wife of 15 years. “That’s the big one. When we met I was still a pretty angry, confused person. I know how I fell in love with her, but looking back I wonder how she ever saw anything in me. And slowly, over the years, the knowledge that somebody loves and will help you, is a profound feeling. You slowly give up your hardness and your bitterness. It dissipates.
“One day I woke up and realised I hadn’t been thinking about this stuff for a while, where it used to be like a fresh wound. Now I realised Julie meant more to me than anything. If I were to lose my career now, I wouldn’t care. What I have is what everyone else wants. I’m the luckiest guy in the whole world.”