Greg Schneider is The Washington Post’s business editor.
Imagine being a kid in the 1950s and ’60s and watching the rise of Elvis and then the Beatles. You’re nobody in a nowhere town, but like everybody else you form a rock band, along with your brother and a couple of buddies from school. You learn your shabby instruments while playing covers in a dive bar. Then, over the course of one glorious year, magic happens. You put out records and they sell like crazy and you become the biggest band in the world.
Dream come true, right?
Not for John Fogerty, lead singer and songwriter for Creedence Clearwater Revival. His band’s brief but brilliant success — CCR was the only American band that beat the Beatles head-to-head in record sales — teed up a lifetime of struggle. The hardships came not for the usual reasons of drug abuse or lack of talent but because of sad little jealousies and the signing of a bad contract.
Now Fogerty lays out his version of the whole tortured saga in his memoir, “Fortunate Son.” Fogerty is a natural storyteller — folksy and crusty and prone to wandering off onto colorful sidetracks. There’s a bitterness, though, that threatens to overtake his story in the same way that the legal woes hijacked his career. Luckily, the darkness never quite saps the charm out of “Fortunate Son,” a tale of a life in music that deserves fresh attention.
Creedence was rootsier than the Beatles, catchier than Bob Dylan and the Band, and tighter than the Grateful Dead. In 1969, the group logged an almost incredible string of hits in a single year — “Proud Mary,” “Green River,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son” — usually releasing two at a time on 45s, the B side as big as the A. To hear those tunes today, it’s somehow surprising to think that Fogerty just sat down and wrote them; they sound like standards from 100 years ago.
One of the pleasures of the book is watching Fogerty struggle to explain where those swampy, timeless songs came from. He was not, in fact, “born on the bayou.” He was born in 1945 and grew up in El Cerrito, Calif., a small town near San Francisco. He never even went to Mississippi or Louisiana until late in life.
His parents had five sons and divorced when Fogerty was a teenager. He conjures up an almost Twain-like childhood of backyard camping, boyish pranks and tinkering with cars and radios. From a young age, he responded to old-fashioned American music, and it was a revelation when he realized that one man, the mid-19th-century composer Stephen Foster, had written such standbys as “Swanee River,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Eventually he was drawn to bluesmen such as Lead Belly and Lightnin’ Hopkins and, as the rock scene developed, turned up his nose at the indulgent jams of the Grateful Dead in favor of tight shows put on by soul stars James Brown and Jackie Wilson.
So all that was in his head, and one day at age 22, he’s at home with his guitar, words and riffs bubbling around, and next thing you know he comes up with a song, and it’s “Proud Mary.” This was a profound leap for a guy who’d been playing Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly” in a group called the Golliwogs. His description of that moment radiates bewildered joy: “You’re looking at this shadowy, cloudy shape, you start to go in a direction and whump! The veil is lifted and suddenly there’s a song, a great song. It was like being struck by God. I was sitting there quaking with this paper in my hand.”
Once that veil lifted, the songs just poured out.
Fogerty is no mystic, though; he comes across as a striver, as someone who tries harder than everybody else. You can hear that in the strain in his voice on some of those songs. He didn’t just listen to music, he dissected it — the way a guitar sounded, the subtleties of a rhythm — and then reengineered it. When inspiration hit, he was ready.
Those same qualities helped drive apart the band. Fogerty doesn’t sugarcoat his demands for perfection, his impatience with his mates. In his telling, they were content to let him figure everything out but jealous when the accolades started to flow his way. And Fogerty pulls no punches in settling old scores. Undoubtedly bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford would quibble with some of the retellings. (Fogerty’s older brother Tom, who played rhythm guitar for Creedence, died in 1990.)
What makes the story authentically tragic is that the band planted the seeds of its own destruction, signing a disastrous contract with Fantasy Records just as they were about to hit it big. Fogerty lost control of his own compositions. All of his hits for Creedence were owned by Fantasy, and he was on the hook to deliver hundreds more songs in the coming years — but he refused to do it. Fogerty says he reaped only a fraction of the money that was rolling in. The band got caught up in an offshore tax scheme that he says was engineered by Fantasy, snaring them in a federal investigation that ate up his savings in legal fees. Creedence songs kept cropping up in commercials, and Fogerty had no authority to prevent them from being used. The predicament gave him an ulcer by age 24 and bottled him up for decades — he quit music for long periods and took refuge in booze. Being sued for plagiarizing your own work — which he eventually was — must rank high on life’s frustration meter.
For all that, it was in many ways Fogerty’s stubbornness that deprived the world of years and years of his music and performances. He simply refused to play ball by rules he felt were unfair. An emotional high point of the book comes in 1987, when he plays a show in Washington for Vietnam veterans. For the first time in years, he performs the old Creedence tunes — “Born on the Bayou,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” — and the vets go wild. Afterward, one of the vets gives Fogerty his service medal. Overwhelmed, Fogerty pins it to his guitar strap.
Even that high doesn’t last, as Fogerty continues to struggle with the sense of being cheated out of his own legacy.
He credits the love of his second wife and his second shot at creating a family with pulling him through the tough times. But the book is also a love letter to American music in all its forms, from hillbilly to jazz to soul and, of course, rock-and-roll. His passion and enthusiasm are genuinely touching — though a long section at the end where he fawns over present-day recording stars is tough to stomach.
Today Fogerty feels a little removed from the all-stars of classic rock. He has drifted in and out of the public eye over the past couple of decades — weirdly unaged (famously resembling Star Wars’ Han Solo in a flannel shirt), still able to toss out a memorable song. “Fortunate Son” should be just what he needs to get him back out there in the limelight — in center field, of course, where he belongs.
By John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough
Little, Brown. 406 pp. $30