By Christopher Gray
SEPTEMBER 2, 1997: On the Old Scorekeeper's great tote board in the sky, not much rings in higher for 1997 than John Fogerty's new album, Blue Moon Swamp. EPMD are Back in Business, Bill Gates bought Apple, the feds even balanced the budget, and none of it even comes close to having the soul of Creedence Clearwater Revival back in the mix. Not even da Bulls' "One for the Thumb" NBA title nor NASA's landing of that glorified erector set on Mars compare. Don't believe me -- cynical? No surprise there, but try this little test: Talk to anyone under the age of 25 (that's me), and no matter their background, you mention the Sixties and they'll either run from the room screaming or fall to the ground laughing. Drop Fogerty's name, though -- or better yet crank up a CCR album -- and suddenly that ironic attitude disappears like it was, oh, abducted by aliens or something. To a demographic labeled "pathetically angst-ridden" by no less than the Op-Ed page of The New York Times recently, "Born On the Bayou" and "Up Around the Bend" can still get folks my age pretty damn worked up.
And how 'bout them Baby Boomers, anyway? Fogerty's songs are essential to The Big Chill, Born on the Fourth of July, Apocalypse Now, and Forrest Gump. Shit man, for anyone who remembers having Creedence around the first time, the return of John Fogerty -- that John Fogerty -- must make it seem like Vietnam never happened.
Yeah, right. We wish Vietnam had never happened. Same goes for Watergate, the oil/hostage crises, crack, Reagan, AIDS, Saddam Hussein, Rodney King, O.J., Oklahoma City, Fort Davis, Cheryl Hopwood v. UT Law School -- you name it. But life is fucked up, and in our enlightened age where people get their caps peeled for selling a few million rap records, flashing their headlights at the wrong car, or coming out of the closet on a daytime talk show, things ain't exactly improving. In this context, then, what could be better than having the man behind "Commotion" and "Who'll Stop the Rain" reappear?
"It feels great," says that man himself, calling from his tour bus somewhere between Seattle and Vancouver. "A lot of people have waited a long time. I'm amazed when they come up to me and say that they waited. I go, `Wow, really?' I thought the only person waiting was me, because I sure was. But it's really nice of them to say that. The fact that there's still interest, and that they care about me and my songs, that makes me really happy."
As his first album since 1987's Eye of the Zombie, a barely noticed blip on a radar screen clouded with George Michael, Al B. Sure, and Pebbles, Blue Moon Swamp has a lot of lost time to make up for -- and does it ever. It's a 12-song ride aboard that archetypal stagecoach/freight train/'55 T-Bird, speeding down the American highway, where if your brains don't get splattered all over the pavement you just might learn something valuable. And the highway winds up exactly where you knew it would, where it has to go -- right to the sticky swamps of the South, a place where sorrow and celebration mingle so freely it's still nearly impossible to tell them apart.
It was the sound of these swamps that inspired Fogerty as a kid in the small-town confines of El Cerrito, Calfornia, and it's this sound that propels him now; "Bring It Down to Jelly Roll," from Blue Moon Swamp, is as good a Southern anthem as the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," the Black Crowes' "Hard to Handle" (yes, I know Otis sang it first), or "Sweet Home Alabama." That's right, bubba.
"The first music I listened to was blues and country, and both of those are very Southern by nature," he says. "Rock & roll was very, very Southern. When I went to the first Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction [in 1986], all 10 people in the first induction ceremony were from the South. I actually was aware of this that night. I was looking, and I went, `Hey, I rest my case. This is why my music's so Southern, because what I was listening to was so Southern.'"
Rock & roll was indeed born in the South, but it didn't stay put for long, and when Fogerty, his older brother Tom, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford took it to the world in the early Sixties, CCR quickly became the sort of worldwide currency the International Monetary Fund only dreams about. Last year's Wrote a Song for Everyone, a tribute to Fogerty from Chicago's eensy-weensy Pravda label, brought bands from as far away as Finland, Australia, and Great Britain to honor a man who's downright sheepish about all this praise being heaped his way.
"For me, it was probably Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley and James Burton," Fogerty says, ticking off (along with Booker T & the MGs) his own heroes. "I'm a little bit humble about it because I feel people like James Burton [Elvis' legendary sideman] are a lot better than I am. I still pay a lot of homage to my influences. It's flattering, but it is a little strange that people say I influenced them."
How could they deny it? Imagine life without "Green River" or "Bad Moon Rising" or even "Sweet Hitchhiker." Especially "Sweet Hitchhiker." Musicians' hearts would still break playing the same old faceless club night after night, but if Fogerty hadn't written "Lodi," they wouldn't know why. How many people first heard Marvin Gaye, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Buck Owens through Fogerty's grapevine? No sense counting, though that old rock aphorism that everyone who heard the Velvet Underground's first album started a band holds for Creedence too.
"I'm so passionate about music," Fogerty says. "I just love music. It is not a commodity to me. It is not something somebody leaves to you in their will, like some strange keepsake in the closet. This is my whole life, it's what reverberates through me. I've known I was going to grow up and be a musician from the time I was four years old or even younger. I could almost not do anything else, I'm so compelled to be a musician."
Fogerty found that out the hard way when, around the time his Centerfield album came out in 1985, he found himself in a tooth-and-nail court battle so messy all it lacked was a bloody glove. Saul Zantz, head of Fantasy Records, for whom Fogerty's songs made millions, sued Fogerty for plagiarism, contending he'd ripped off his own song, Creedence's "Run Through the Jungle" on Centerfield's chart-topping single, "The Old Man Down the Road." Fogerty won the case (surprise), but the experience -- plus protracted haggles with former bandmates Cook and Clifford -- left him wounded, confused, and worst of all, inactive; the Blue Moon Swamp tour is only his second in the past 25 years, and the first in which he's playing all the CCR classics.
"I mean, for years and years, I felt like I should probably divorce myself from it or something," he says. "You can never do that, I guess, not if I wanted to continue in music. I guess I could have just slammed the door behind me, like some of those people that get religion and go off and live in a commune or something. I now have really eliminated all that. I don't even think about those people anymore.
"I feel great about doing my songs, and they are my songs. The thing I tell myself is, I'm the spiritual owner of these songs, forget about all the legal or the financial garbage. I am the spiritual owner. They came out of me. When you're hearing "Proud Mary" or "Green River," those are John Fogerty's life. It isn't somebody else in the band, it's really just John Fogerty's life. His childhood, his reflections, his personality, his way of doing things."
If anything, Fogerty's tribulations have sharpened him that much more. Now he knows his way of doing things backwards and forwards. This is Blue Moon Swamp's great strength: It's pure Fogerty. And because it is pure Fogerty, not only does it sit comfortably astride the Beatles and the Stones on top of the rockpile, it looks much further back for more kindred spirits.
A century or two back, stories about Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, Buffalo Bill, and Huckleberry Finn blended into our national image. They were symbols of an epic quest for an American self, men who constantly pushed frontiers, but always kept close that which they held dear. In the end, it was the journey that shaped their identity, and therefore ours. If rock & rollers are our modern frontiersmen, then John Fogerty is Daniel Boone.
"Music is what I want to be," he says. "Music is wonderful. I love to play, I love to be able to create music, I love to be able to sing. I think that since I was given a talent, it's up to me to work at it. I have to do something. Ken Griffey, Jr. was given an amazing talent to play baseball, but that doesn't mean he just sits on his rear end and it all comes out. He's gotta work, and the fact that he does so well is a tribute to where he's taken his talent. I feel the same. I think it was something I was given, and it's like a diamond -- it's up to you to polish it."
After 30 years of polish, if you can't see yourself in at least a couple of Fogerty's diamonds, try taking the lump of coal out of your ass. If you've ever heard a jug band down on a street corner, or jumped into a cold river on the hottest day of the year -- or couldn't ever imagine running out of road, energy, or potential -- Fogerty's your man. And as the man, he's happily married and hopping from gig to gig with wife and family in tow. He plans on touring a lot more now that he's back. And he is back.
"I guess you'd say I've always known that I would somehow get it done," he says. "Get to the place where I would be a happy musician, and I'm finally there."
Creedence Clearwater Revival was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the same year this author graduated from high school. John Fogerty plays the Austin Music Hall Wednesday, September 3. The Bottle Rockets open. Bring a smile and a song for the banjo!
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