One song defines the tempestuous musical times of John Fogerty. Not Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising or Born On The Bayou, outstanding rock songs though they are. Fogerty, the creative force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival and rasping voice of swamp rock, chose Fortunate Son as the title for his acclaimed 2015 memoir not just because it is a memorable composition but for the impact its reception had on his life.
Fortunate Son was written as an anti-Vietnam war song and there was trepidation when Fogerty was asked to perform it for a Salute to the Troops broadcast at the White House on Veterans’ Day in 2014, hosted by the Obamas.
‘When I went to the mic, I said: “I just want to say what a great country we live in, and God bless the men and women who protect us.” With that my band and I tore into the song. I ripped into the guitar part and all the troops stood up. Here I was standing there and shouting out the lyric, It Ain’t Me, It Ain’t Me, and all the veterans were like frat boys, yelling out the words. There was a four-star general among them. Even the president was bopping away.
‘I finished the song to a huge reaction. Returning to the mic, I said: “And I am fortunate.” Meaning: Look at what’s happened to me, my dream came true. We do this in America. They don’t do this in North Korea.’
Some folks are born Made to wave the flag, Oh, they’re red, white and blue And when the band plays ‘Hail to the Chief’ They point the cannon right at you
It ain’t me, it ain’t me I ain’t no senator’s son It ain’t me, it ain’t me I ain’t no fortunate one
It wasn’t quite his meaning in the lyric but Fogerty knows he was a fortunate one. At first he thought he would avoid the draft but then the notice came. Thankfully, he served his time in the Army Reserve, ‘trying to be invisible, in the group, somewhere in the shadows’. The great lingering fear was Vietnam. The description of his fasting and self-inflicted illness to force his discharge in 1968 is disarmingly honest. ‘I know a lot of people would say, “God, how unpatriotic. You’re supposed to go out and fight for Uncle Sam.” It’ll strike some as un-American, even cowardly.’
But Fogerty had never accepted the politicians’ justification for an unwinnable war. ‘My generation thought it was the most useless exercise that our country could be involved in, and we were powerless to stop this stupid thing but trying our darndest through protests, music and all the rest…
‘I began to feel the war (and possibly most wars that have been fought) wasn’t actually about the flag; it was about a very small group of rich, powerful people, usually men, who were able to bamboozle a nation to go to war for some myth they had created. This gets shrouded in patriotism but it basically comes down to money, making a profit.’
Some folks are born Silver spoon in hand Lord, don’t they help themselves But when the tax man comes to the door Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale
It ain’t me, it ain’t me I ain’t no millionaire’s son It ain’t me, it ain’t me I ain’t no fortunate one
Guilt is probably a factor here. ‘Maybe I looked like a hippie wacko but as a guy in a rock ‘n’ roll band, who was the same age as those soldiers, I tried to represent the cause as best I knew how. I must admit that practically every time I’d think about the guys, our vets, I would cry. I’d hear Where Have All The Flowers Gone? on the radio and would lose it. Because it was just so senseless.’
The Berkeley-born songwriter says Fortunate Son was not inspired by any one event. ‘Julie Nixon was dating David Eisenhower. You’d hear about the son of this senator or that congressman who was given a deferment from the military or a choice position in the military. They seemed privileged and, whether they liked it or not, they were symbolic in the sense they weren’t being touched by what their parents were doing. They weren’t being affected like the rest of us. Usually I strive to make my songs more general but that was one case where, when I said It Ain’t Me, I literally meant me.’
Some folks inherit Star-spangled eyes Ooh, they send you down to war And when you ask them ‘How much should we give?’ They only answer ‘More! More! More!’
It ain’t me, it ain’t me I ain’t no military son It ain’t me, it ain’t me I ain’t no fortunate one
Fogerty was driving his jeep in 1974 when news broke on the radio that Nixon had ordered a withdrawal of troops. ‘I can remember shaking my head and going, “Let’s make damn sure we never do something that stupid again.” As I looked through the windshield the thought formed: Y’know, I still don’t know what we were fighting for. Down the years, I’ve wanted that to be the last line of a song.’
The musician, who appears in both Rolling Stone lists of top 100 rock singers and guitarists, tells the humbling tale of helping a school benefit in the 90s by auctioning the signed hand-written lyric to his big hit Bad Moon Rising. A vet confided how much that song meant to him and his unit in the Vietnam jungle, explaining how they blasted out the music in their encampment as they went into action. ‘Sometimes all is lost and all you can do is be brave. No matter how you feel about it, there’s no other choice. These guys were being brave to the nth degree. You feel a little sheepish in the presence of something like that. I sure wasn’t taking any bows.’
Forrest Gump was not the only movie soundtrack to make use of Fortunate Son's powerful yet often misunderstood message about class and abuse of power. As Fogerty says: 'It's the old saying about rich men making war and poor men having to fight them.'
In a chapter on his songwriting methodology, Fogerty says that unlike most songs where unfinished melody and sketchy lyric would co-habit and gestate for some time before fruition, Fortunate Son, which appears on Creedence's fourth studio album Willy And The Poor Boys in 1969, was written in 20 minutes. ‘But I’d probably been thinking about everything that was in that song for three or four years. I didn’t know it would start “Some folks are born…” – that came from nowhere.’
Fogerty started to keep songwriting notebooks in 1967, and the opening entry of his first volume was ‘Proud Mary’. ‘For some reason that phrase had come into my brain, and I thought it was a good song title. It sounded cool but I didn’t know what it was about.’ The lyric came after he’d received his honourable discharge, and the song’s memorable riff echoed Beethoven’s Fifth. What began as a story about a humble domestic evolved into a paddle steamer ride, with ‘Big wheel keep on turning’ pronounced toinin’ in deference to Howlin’ Wolf. On the threshold of his 23rd birthday Fogerty knew he had ‘entered the land of greatness’.
‘The veil is lifted and suddenly there’s a song, a great song. Happily and luckily it wasn’t the last time I got to feel that way.’ Not for the first time, Fogerty angered the rest of Creedence – brother Tom, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford – when telling them he would sing all the parts on Proud Mary after a ragged recording of the track. ‘I wanted to make something for the ages. To be great, like The Beatles.’
Briefly, after the Beatles break-up, Creedence were dubbed the biggest band in the world. But inner conflicts – bad blood rising – would lead to self-destruction. ‘In a sense we had outfoxed everybody. Here we were on this tiny label with no budget, no manager, no producer, no publicity. One by one I had assumed all the roles out of necessity. Now we were being called the No1 band. We’re about to play one of the most famous halls in the world [the Albert Hall], but instead of being happy, everybody is miserable.
‘1969: no one had a better year that year than me. Three hit albums in one year. It was like winning the World Series, but in music.’
Fogerty’s bandmates would not have been best pleased to be portrayed as uncreative, lazy and disloyal, and they have had their say about a zeal they thought bordered on the autocratic. ‘I don’t feel I was a tyrant in Creedence, even now,' Fogerty writes in his memoir. 'Was I sure-handed, a perfectionist, even bull-headed about what I wanted? Yeah, you bet, sometimes. Those moments when I had to teach a song or an arrangement, explain why something didn’t work – I think I was pretty gentle and supportive. I didn’t berate or belittle someone in front of everybody else.’
He described Creedence as a three-legged stool when his brother left. The end was inevitable and Fogerty really was a one-man band then. The story of their slow disintegration is told warts, wars and all; the mutiny after the bounty. ‘Instead of actually doing the work, they contented themselves with grumbling about it from the sidelines… I feel like I was given the gift of having a very clear understanding of what to do. That might have been the greatest gift of all. You have to have a leader, and in all bands you need a purveyor of taste. If I was not the sole judge, I was certainly the final judge.’
The life-changer was meeting his wife Julie. ‘I was a freight train of sorrow. I only weighed about 120 pounds, drank too much, smoked too much. Sometimes I wondered if I would make it out of the 80s alive.’ Tom died in 1990; at the induction of Creedence into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame three years later, Fogerty refused to play with Stu and Doug, teaming up with Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson instead. The wounds would remain raw.
A powerful strand of the autobiography concerns Fogerty’s relationship, or rather lack of it, with Fantasy Records chief Saul Zaentz. Fogerty paid the price for naivety and next to no legal representation when the first contract was signed. That deal had a devastating effect on his life because Fantasy owned the copyright on all songs. ‘Besides me, nobody wrote songs in Creedence that amounted to anything, so when we broke up the other guys were set free. Not me. Fantasy had not only chiseled me out of a fortune, they still owned my future. I was enslaved.’
Then there was the infamous plagiarism case when Zaentz claimed Fogerty’s song The Old Man Down The Road, from his vaunted Centerfield album in 1985 (the title track was adopted by the baseball fraternity), was a blatant copy of the Creedence track Run Through The Jungle, which Fogerty wrote and Saul owned. A jury sided with the writer after a debilitating, bitter battle.
The kid from El Cerrito, California, who wrote and sang about a bayou land he had never visited despite a passion for Mark Twain’s timeless literature, eventually visited the Mississippi burial grounds of the Blues legends. He had pledged not to sing any songs from the Creedence era because he would have to pay royalties to Zaentz – Green River had been his favourite album containing such gems as the title track, Bad Moon Rising, Lodi, Sinister Purpose and Wrote A Song For Everyone – but he changed his mind during a trip to Robert Johnson’s grave. He told himself: ‘Dammit, John, you gotta start playing your songs before you’re lying in the ground like Robert. Everybody knows they’re yours. It doesn’t matter who owns them.’
Creedence may be long gone and the waters still muddy but the revival continues. When the 73-year-old Fogerty takes the BluesFest stage at London’s O2 Arena on October 25 for a show opened by fellow San Francisco Bay Area giant Steve Miller, those Creedence songs will be relived, Fortunate Son surely among them. And we will be the fortunate ones.
A tale of two revivals: Fogerty’s own hard-fought revival as a solo artist after the burden of being the creative force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival