It ain’t me

Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp

Based on what I know of his catalog, the last word I would use to describe John Fogerty is angry. OK, “Fortunate Son” was seething, but that was a righteous anger, a rallying cry against the privileged classes. But for the most part, Fogerty’s legacy, first with his seminal band Creedence Clearwater Revival and later during his unlikely comeback as a solo artist, is one of loving devotion to his craft. His folksy observations on life captured in songs like “Down on the Corner” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” carry an everyman appeal without the slightest hint of belligerence or bitterness.

fogertySo it was a surprise to me to find so much vitriol in Fogerty’s recently published autobiography — puzzlingly, if predictably, titled “Fortunate Son,” considering the agonies described within its pages. Much of the suffering he bemoans is brought on by the legitimately rotten circumstances of CCR’s rise and fall. An onerous contract with its record label robbed the band of much of its income and Fogerty of his songwriting royalties. While this wasn’t uncommon in those times (just ask Grand Funk Railroad), Fogerty was subjected to unusually harsh provisions that essentially forced him into musical exile for more than a decade following CCR’s breakup.

About that breakup: Fogerty has nothing good to say about his former bandmates, including his brother Tom. That’s a little odd. Most music bios I’ve read will reference some early period of productive collaboration, if not pleasant harmony, the good times before things went sour. According to Fogerty, that never occurred. He was an extraordinarily committed musician and songwriter, while Doug Clifford, Stu Cook and Tom Fogerty appeared to be along for the ride, enjoying the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle but contributing very little to the band’s success. This is where it gets difficult to fathom — Fogerty describes a dynamic in which he alone oversaw the band’s output, from writing the songs, teaching the guys their parts, supervising the recording sessions and doing the mixing and editing (which included re-recording his vocals over theirs when he determined they weren’t good enough, and at least in one case, painstakingly splicing the drum track to fix Clifford’s apparent bad timing). I completely accept Fogerty’s brilliance at face value — his music speaks for itself. But it’s hard to believe he could have established CCR’s beloved legacy with little more than bumbling sidekicks.

Reading between the lines, it’s more likely a case of a singularly gifted musician with a relentless perfectionist streak, the natural consequence being that he couldn’t get along with anyone. This bears out in Fogerty’s post-CCR experience, during which he continued to churn through musicians that didn’t measure up and ultimately relied on a “one-man band” approach that allowed him to control every last detail of the production. Not surprisingly, this didn’t make him any happier as he burned himself out on endless minutia while getting further away from the spontaneous, collaborative spirit that drew him into rock ‘n’ roll as a youth.

Happily, Fogerty comes to terms with it in the final chapters of the book, when at the urging of his wife, he produces an album in which current acts — encompassing rock, country and gospel genres — do their own versions of his classic songs. He’s honest about the initial anxiety he feels as he watches those bands take his music in uncomfortable new directions.  But perhaps recognizing his new role as one of rock’s elder statesmen, with his legacy firmly established, he learns to let go. Only through this process does he find a sense of peace and finally embrace, despite nearly a lifetime of misery, the title of fortunate son.


Polynesian field of dreams

It’s understandable when high school football players confidently envision a future of NFL stardom with no apparent concern for what happens if things don’t work out. That’s what 17- and 18-year-olds do. But when parents, coaches and college recruiters buy into the fantasy, or at least enable it, we get the scenario explored in the new indie doc “In Football We Trust.”

Centered on a small but rabidly football-oriented Polynesian-American community in Salt Lake City, the film tries to establish a connection between this particular variation of the immigration story and how these new Americans quickly came to embrace the game that dominates our nation’s sports landscape. But along the way it exposes a phenomenon commonly found in American society — often (but not necessarily) among groups of lower socioeconomic means — in which in all hopes of success in life are pinned on athletic prowess.

The underlying premise of “In Football We Trust” rests upon how Pacific Islanders’ warrior culture suits them for the game of football. Indeed, the notion of a “Polynesian pipeline to the NFL” is not an exaggeration — according to the filmmakers, Samoans and Tongans living in the U.S. are 28 times more likely to play in the NFL than any other ethnic group. The film presents interviews with several current and former pro players, including Troy Polamalu, Vai Sikahema, Haloti Ngata and Star Lotulelei, as evidence.

But the high rate of success glosses over the reality of the NFL. It’s a hyper-competitive environment sifting through thousands of athletes, and only a relative few will make the cut. And Sikahema notes that as hard as it is to break into the league, it’s even harder to stay. The youngsters profiled in the documentary, all accustomed to churning out Friday night highlights with ease, discover the challenges of reaching the next level, namely a collegiate program prestigious enough to showcase their abilities and launch an NFL career. At no point do any of the adults in their lives temper the enthusiasm, and while no one wants to discourage a young person’s dreams, there are times when a dose of straight talk would seem to be appropriate.

Instead, the young men encounter varying degrees of setbacks, ranging from issues with academics/attendance and petty gangster crime, commitments required by their Mormon faith, and in one player’s case, a simple inability to pick up the speed and complexity of Division I collegiate football. Such mishaps are unfortunate but not heartbreakingly unexpected — all of us at some point in our lives realize certain dreams are not going to happen. The boys draw on family and other resources to cobble together backup plans, and life goes on, but needless to say, none of them finds their way into the promised land of the NFL.

You can catch “In Football We Trust” on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, January 25, or, for those of you in town, at this year’s Green Bay Film Festival in March.


Ziggy played… and played…

Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young?

It’s an unfortunate but understandable phenomenon that it’s not until an artist dies that his or her work is properly evaluated and appreciated. I saw that process play out on Sirius/XM over the past week following the death of David Bowie. The homage wasn’t unexpected given the satellite service’s music-geek approach to programming, but the breadth of the airplay was amazing to behold. In addition to a special in memoriam channel devoted exclusively to Bowie music, his songs blanketed the classic rock, underground garage, ’80s alternative and new indie music lineups. Even the Bruce Springsteen channel, wholly dedicated to the Boss’ catalog, featured Bowie tracks. From this outpouring I was treated to an alternate take of “Heroes” sung in German, (“Ichhhh… ich bin kö-nig!”), an acoustic version of “Never Let Me Down” by Britt Daniel and a gloomy “Lazarus” from Bowie’s just-released final album. All of it was a testament to his ability to connect with listeners across genres and generations.

David Bowie probably would have been disappointed to know that the first album of his I bought was “Let’s Dance.” I was a teenager, and I liked anything with a good beat and catchy melody (plus he sort of looked like me, which most rock stars didn’t). “Let’s Dance” delivered. It was Bowie’s most commercially successful album, but it led him into what he later described as a creative slump during which he found himself laboring to please his new audience. That vapid teenagers like me were part of that audience must have displeased him to no end.

Thankfully for Bowie, he shook himself free of the pop star machinery and back into new creative directions. While I wasn’t accustomed to being challenged with such impulses, I slowly came around to understand the long, veering arc — in which “Let’s Dance” was a minor blip — that traced Bowie’s career. His stuff from the early ’70s, inadequately described by many as his “glam” period, is as fresh, charged and groundbreaking as anything to come out of the post-Beatles era. Shortly thereafter, he offered his most accessible hooks — for the adult me at least — with gems such as “Golden Years” and “Young Americans.” His more experimental adventures of the 1990s and 2000s, on the other hand, tended to lose me.

But that’s OK. He wasn’t charting his career for me, or the charts. He left such glories to true pop stars such as Dave Clark, Huey Lewis and Lenny Kravitz, whose formula rock hooks appealed to the teenage me and still occupy a warm place in my heart. That said, it’s unlikely they will be remembered with the universal acknowledgment and acclaim I witnessed on the airwaves last week.

So the story goes

The practice of journalism and art of storytelling need not be mutually exclusive, but anyone who has tried to meet both objectives will tell you it’s not easy. Journalists are by trade restricted to telling the story as it happened — if that story involves a city council committee looking at a zoning request, then that’s what you’re stuck with. Unless a committee member pulls down his pants in protest over the decided course of action, it’s not likely to be a great story.

Storytellers, on the other hand, are not as concerned with facts as with developing a compelling narrative. But the further they stray from plausibility, the greater the risk of losing meaning. Even pure works of fiction need a basis in reality to capture and hold an audience.

One of the best examples of a writer mastering both is Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” which chronicles the famously disastrous 1996 climbing expedition that claimed several lives on Mount Everest. What makes it a breathtaking (no pun intended) page-turner is the fact that it’s rooted in reality. The people who die in the book really died; likewise for the survivors, which included Krakauer. He gives readers the next best thing to climbing the mountain themselves: a literary equivalent of virtual reality.

He does so, however, with the benefit of a few narrative twists and turns that were subsequently disputed by others who were there. The strongest of these challenges came from guide Anatoli Boukreev, who documented the event in his own book, “The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest.” As a professional mountaineer accustomed to keeping his wits in the fog of high altitude, his account comes off as more trustworthy, but also more cut and dried. It’s still a great read, just not the gripping tale spun by Krakauer. While Boukreev was highly critical of the moneyed amateur climbers courted by the commercial guide industry, which he blamed for creating the environment for just such a disaster to occur, Krakauer embraced these Joe Schmoes as major characters in his book, because he understood that readers were more likely to identify with them. I’m willing to overlook a few quibbles over minor details, because it’s a superior story.

Krakauer has gone in different directions since “Into Thin Air,” becoming a bloodhound journalist of sorts in the Mormon expose “Under the Banner of Heaven” and, just last year, “Missoula,” which explores a rape scandal that brought national attention on the Montana college town. Both books carry a distinct agenda within the subtext of Krakauer’s prose. His reporting raises troubling questions worthy of our attention, but too often the writing pushes the reader toward certain conclusions. That’s unfortunate, because the facts Krakauer presents are strong enough to perform that function themselves. It’s almost as if he didn’t trust the story to tell itself, which it did so eloquently in “Into Thin Air.” The storytelling instinct, once applied to such perfection, only clutters those later efforts, and in the process undermines some pretty good journalism.

Looking back through the future

It’s fascinating to observe dated notions slip through the facade of the futuristic visions offered up in science fiction. No matter how ambitious and forward-thinking any future-oriented premise is, the fact is it remains a product of its time. Why, for instance, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, did Luke Skywalker and Han Solo have that distinctly ’70s-style feathered shaggy hair?

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the original “Star Trek” series. To be sure, there are some wildly imaginative visions of the future that must be acknowledged, the foremost being Gene Roddenberry’s conception of a universe with vast racial diversity that’s evident within the microcosm of the USS Enterprise. Viewers in the 1960s were exposed to Vulcans, Andorians, Horta and dozens of other alien species that, while completely fabricated, seemed as natural on the set as the healthy mix of white, black, Asian and Hispanic faces we’re familiar with here on Earth. And the women, while horrendously objectified by today’s standards, do find a place in the working world of the Enterprise crew.

But, it was the 1960s, and you can bet your last quatloo that the men had crew cuts, the women wore short dresses and the captain was a white male earthling. That was, after all, how society was organized at the time. But digging deeper, you find a lot of episodes devoted to the upheaval of that culture. More than a few touch on the hippy/drug movement, women’s liberation, racial bigotry and an overriding concern with the Cold War. This last theme typically played out in the United Federation of Planets’ ongoing existential struggle with the Klingon Empire, or alternately the Romulan Star Empire. Unapologetically brutal and ruthless, the Klingons most obviously represented the future’s version of the Soviet Union, while the equally savage but more mysterious Romulans might have been closer to the Chinese.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until a recent viewing of “Balance of Terror,” which details the Enterprise’s first encounter with the Romulans, that I caught an unmistakeable parallel to a defining episode of the ’60s, the Cuban missile crisis. In a nutshell, a boundary scuffle between the Enterprise and an intruding Romulan vessel threatens to escalate to intergalactic war. Because of the Enterprise’s remote position, communication with Federation leadership is sluggish and guidance is unavailable, leaving Capt. Kirk to confront decisions with “millions and millions of lives hanging on what this vessel does.” He finds himself under immense pressure as the stakes grow and the consequences of his actions, or inaction, become increasingly grave. Add to this a crew that’s beginning to splinter as frayed nerves give way to heated bickering and flashes of bigotry. Through it all Kirk holds it together, although he admits in a private moment with Dr. McCoy his wish for a simpler calling.

I’ve read numerous accounts of President John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis to a peaceful resolution. It never ceases to amaze me how close we came to a global nuclear conflict that likely would’ve claimed hundreds of millions of lives. By all accounts only two men, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, were able to prevent it from happening. Had others been in their place, the world as we know it would not exist and a good many of us would have perished, or would never have been born. It’s hard to imagine the pressure on Kennedy as the crisis spiralled out of control, the calls for war mounting from all quarters while he desperately sought a way out. But a look into the future — through the eyes of the past — may have given us our best glimpse yet.