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.

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