John Fogerty: Highway Mystic

Music Features John Fogerty
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Nirvana had a reputation for being suspicious, even disdainful of rock ’n’ roll stardom and the weight of the past. Yet Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl was grinning like a schoolboy when John Fogerty joined him on stage at Stubb’s in March during South by Southwest. Now the lead singer/guitarist for the Foo Fighters, Grohl would not allow an icy façade of hipster cool to camouflage his excitement at playing with the one-time leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Their shirts—Grohl’s red-plaid work shirt echoing Fogerty’s blue-plaid version—merely hinted at a deeper tale of influence: a thrift-shop ethos of finding new uses for old, cheap materials. Like an old shirt, something as useful as Creedence’s songs needn’t be discarded; they merely had to be recycled in a new context. The occasion was the sixth and final performance by the Sound City Players, the group Grohl assembled for his documentary movie Sound City. Fogerty, who made a brief appearance in the film, seemed equally happy about this meeting of rock ’n’ roll generations. With his thatch of brown hair parted down the middle, he was eager to prove he had more to offer than an oldies show.

“I don’t walk around feeling like an elder statesman,” he says, “Dave treats me like that sometimes, and I have to tell him, ‘I’m running that way; try to keep up with me.’ I like to think my best work is still in front of me. I feel energized and honor-bound to get this stuff out of me. I feel like there are still a lot of songs to write and record and a lot of shows to play.”

Fogerty and the Foo Fighters immediately jumped into a parade of Creedence’s hit singles: “Travelin’ Band,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Keep on Chooglin’,” “Bad Moon Rising” and “Proud Mary.” The guest’s guitar and tenor voice had that signature twang from the familiar recordings, but the house band had a heavier, grungier approach to the songs. Some of the original light-footed agility was sacrificed, but a darker, more muscular bottom was gained. It wasn’t a question of being better or worse than the long-ago singles; it was a question of being different enough to give the songs a new personality for both old fans and new.

“The Foo Fighters are an absolutely incredible force of nature,” Fogerty says; “there’s such a unity there. The day we recorded at their studio in Los Angeles, I opened the back door and I said, ‘Wow, there’s a band here,’ meaning these are a bunch of guys who are locked in together. You can jump in the car and just go. With them I’m playing those Creedence songs in a how-I-am-now style.”

The final number of the evening was “Fortunate Son,” a top-20 single in 1969 and one of the best songs ever written about income inequality. That problem has only worsened since the ’60s, and there was an increased sense of urgency and discordance as the Foo Fighters added more fuzz to the guitars and more thud to the drums. “Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand, Lord, don’t they help themselves?” Fogerty sang. “It ain’t me; it ain’t me; I ain’t no millionaire’s son.” It was the same story he first told in 1969 but now it reflected a new era’s technology.

“Now that we have better equipment, Marshall amps that can handle the crunch, the song sits right there,” Fogerty notes. “The crunch gives it that push and makes it more modern sounding. That’s what the Foo Fighters do; that’s what they’re good at. I wanted it to have some little twists and turns to make it our own. If you’re a rock ’n’ roller these days and not looking backwards as the Stray Cats might, when you plug into an amp, that’s how it sounds. It’s a change not only in equipment but also in mindset.”

A studio version of this same collaboration is the kick-off track on Fogerty’s new album, Wrote a Song for Everyone, released today, May 28, on the singer’s 68th birthday. It’s a typical late-career gambit for an aging music legend: revisit the old hits with younger guest stars. Fogerty mixes it up a bit by inviting young country singers (Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Alan Jackson and Zac Brown) as well as young rockers (the Foo Fighters, My Morning Jacket, Dawes, Tom Morello, Kid Rock and his own sons Shane and Tyler Fogerty). Fogerty further alters the formula by collaborating with two of his peers—Bob Seger and Allen Toussaint—and by unveiling two newly written songs that he sings without any guests.

“I stressed that I wanted every artist on this album to give me back their vision of the song,” Fogerty said, “rather than doing the song the way I did it 40-some years ago. Let’s make things different; let’s not just do the record again. A lot of tribute albums don’t work because everyone’s in such a hurry; there’s not much of a budget and everyone’s so busy. They say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know ‘Proud Mary’; it goes like this.’ And they do it in one or two takes. I didn’t want that.”

Fogerty didn’t want his guests sending in parts they had overdubbed over the backing tracks in another city, miles away. He wanted to be in the studio with them, and in every case, except Zac Brown and Kid Rock, Fogerty got his wish. And that was essential in coming up with arrangements unlike the originals.

“My Morning Jacket, for example, moved ‘As Long As I Can See the Light’ into this cosmic, spacey point of view,” Fogerty says. “When we started in that direction in the studio, I was a little nervous. But I’ve learned in my life that when you ask these artists to express themselves, you have to keep your mouth shut, John, and see what happens. It sounds like we’re going into another dimension, traveling to where things are more technologically complicated, and worried about not being able to get back, which is what the song is about.

“I was just so knocked out to be in the studio with Miranda Lambert, trying to find a key on ‘Wrote a Song for Everyone’ that worked for both of us. We spent the whole day trying different things and she sang on every take. At the end of a pretty exhausting day, we were listening back and suddenly Miranda says, ‘Face-melting guitar solo.’ I thought of Tom Morello at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and said, ‘I’ll do a cool solo like Tom Morello.’ Then I said, ‘No, I’ll call Tom Morello and have him play a cool Tom Morello solo.’ And that wouldn’t have happened if Miranda and I hadn’t spent the day together. That’s the best version of that song ever.”

A song changes as it’s passed from singer to singer, band to band, generation to generation, and yet it retains an unchanging identity. Now that he’s in his 60s, Fogerty has seen the process from both sides. Two nights after the show at Stubb’s, Fogerty had his own SXSW showcase at Austin City Limits’ Moody Theater, and the set list included not only the Creedence songs that influenced the Sound City Players but also songs such as Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special” and Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” that influenced Fogerty when he was a youngster. He reinterpreted those songs as freely as My Morning Jacket and Ike & Tina Turner had reinterpreted his.

“All the people I first discovered were older than me, obviously,” Fogerty points out. “I was singing along to records when I was still in diapers. My parents watched this program, Hoffman Hayride, Spade Cooley’s show, back when there were maybe two channels on TV and only on a few hours a day. It introduced me to songs like ‘San Antonio Rose.’ My older brothers—Tom was four years older and Jim was six years older—were into R&B like the Penguins, the Crows and Charles Brown, stuff like that.

“Then the Robins came along, and I loved those songs ‘Down in Mexico’ and ‘Smokey Joe’s Café.’ The first time I heard Elvis’ ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ was on the R&B station, so I assumed it was a black guy. In Berkeley there was a very good folk festival and I met Pete Seeger and Lightnin’ Hopkins within five minutes of each other. I didn’t realize my influences were unusual until I grew up; I thought everyone loved Hank Williams and Louis Jordan. I was lucky I didn’t have a lot of conservative older relatives who tried to religiousize me.”

He grew up in El Cerrito, Calif., an East Bay suburb that was a blue-collar adjunct to nearby Berkeley. Fogerty, Doug Clifford and Stu Cook, all born in 1945, met at Portola Junior High School and were soon backing up John’s older brother as Tom Fogerty and the Blue Velvets. When they signed with Fantasy Records in 1964, the label renamed the quartet the Golliwogs. By the time they released their first album in 1968, they had renamed themselves again as Creedence Clearwater Revival.

By this time, the younger Fogerty was the lead singer and chief songwriter, but the band’s first two charting singles (after several flops as the Golliwogs and Creedence) were remakes of older songs: Dale Hawkins’ 1957 rockabilly hit “Susie Q” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ 1956 R&B single “I Put a Spell on You.” Creedence’s third chart single was “Proud Mary,” which was later famously redone by Ike & Tina Turner. For Fogerty’s new album, “Proud Mary” undergoes another radical remake with Toussaint and the Rebirth Brass Band adding a strong dose of New Orleans to the song’s steamboat imagery.

Records are frozen in time, but songs aren’t. When Creedence added bristling rock ’n’ roll guitars to “I Put a Spell on You,” they shifted the emphasis from the spell-caster’s heavily echoed control of the situation to the spell recipient’s nervous reaction. When Ike & Tina added a funky bottom to “Proud Mary,” they changed the perspective on the titular riverboat from that of a Mark Twain adventurer on deck to that of a black worker on the Memphis docks. When Fogerty and guest vocalist Jennifer Hudson retackle the song for the new album, they emphasize the view from the Louisiana levees by including Cajun music (the Savoy Family Band), zydeco (Rockin’ Dopsie Jr.), New Orleans R&B (Toussaint) and New Orleans brass bands (Rebirth).

“I loved Ike & Tina’s version of ‘Proud Mary,’” Fogerty says, “because it wasn’t a copy of mine. I’d loved Tina for a long time. As a guy in a bar band, we did ‘I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine’ and a few others. When someone can take a song and make it work in a completely different arrangement, it means the song really had something. When I worked with Keith Urban on ‘Almost Saturday Night,’ for example, I wanted something different. I’d seen him play the banjo in his show, so I said, ‘Why don’t we use the banjo on this?’”

Singers change as well. The perceptions of the 23-year-old John Fogerty who recorded “Lodi” in 1968 are not the same as those of the 67-year-old Fogerty who recorded the same song for the new album with his sons Tyler and Shane, 20 and 21 respectively. When he first wrote that song, John was trying to imagine what it might be like to be a professional musician when you’re no longer young. Now he no longer has to imagine.

“You grow up loving the Beatles and wanting to do that,” he says, “but in the back of your mind is the thought that you might end up in a small town like Lodi again. Maybe you’ll lose your fast ball and be sent back to the minors. There were years in the middle of my career when you didn’t hear about me when I thought I was like the guy in that song. I recently read Elton John say, ‘I’m just heading toward being 80 and playing at the Holiday Inn.’ I got a kick out of that. You have to keep up a sense of humor about it all.”

When he was a young boy, Fogerty, his brothers and his parents would pile into the family car and drive away from the Frisco Bay into rural California, where cattle still grazed the brown hills. There were wooden railroad trestles stained dark brown; there were snack shops shaped like a giant concrete orange or a giant concrete Indian teepee. There were tiny towns with little more than a stoplight and a general store with evocative names such as Dos Palos and Loomis.

“I became infatuated with all those little towns up there,” he remembers. “One of them was Lodi and at the age of eight I knew I liked the sound of it and I would someday write a song about it. I carried that title around forever and sometime around 1968, I said, ‘What story can I tell about Lodi?’ I came up with that phrase, ‘Oh, Lord, stuck in Lodi again.’ I’m 23 years old at the beginning of my career and I’m picturing a guy at the other end of his career and wondering what that would be like.”

What he imagined was a 40-year-old rockabilly singer, who was once “on his way,” according to the magazines, but was now stepping off a Greyhound bus in California’s Central Valley for a low-pay, one-night gig. It’s been a while since he’s had a record deal or even written a new song, and he concludes, “If I only had a dollar for every song I’ve sung, every time I’ve had to play while people sat there drunk, you know, I’d catch the next train back to where I live.” The tumbling momentum of the guitar riff and drums imply that this character is headed down a path that’s not likely to take a sudden turn.

“When I was 23 and wrote that song,” Fogerty concedes, “I felt it was a bit tragic, because I didn’t want that as a young man. But now when I see guys near my age playing in a club, it doesn’t feel so tragic. They’re not kids, but they’re still playing because they want to play. I walked into this place near Phoenix and this guy was singing ‘That’s How I Got to Memphis,’ an obscure country song by Tom T. Hall that I really love, and I was enjoying the song. They could have been Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. I knew that guy was there because he loved what he was doing. He could have been home watching Dancing with the Stars, but he was there because he loved it. Life has a lot more to offer than just the 100-meter dash.”

In the new version of the song, Fogerty’s two sons add blues and boogie guitar that make it sound more like a Drive-By Truckers number than a Creedence tune, but the story is the same. “When my kids sing the words to ‘Lodi,’” he says, “they’re not thinking that they’re going to end up like the guy in the song. They’re like me when I wrote the song; they don’t see themselves in it like I do now. So I really enjoyed the irony.

“At 23, I knew, ‘I’m a musician and this is what I do.’ Do I want to work in a bank? ‘No, I want to be a musician.’ When you’re young you’re in such a damn hurry about everything. You feel like it’s you against the world. You feel like it’s stacked against you, that the old people hold all the cards. When you get to this age, you find out there is no ‘they.’ They’re not all conspiring at the same country club; they’re just a bunch of old, befuddled folks. But I know that when I’m moved, I can create music that I still like, that’s up to my own high standards.”

When Fogerty wrote the two new songs on the album, “Mystic Highway” and “Train of Fools,” he didn’t make the mistake of so many aging rock stars and pretend that he was still 23. He didn’t try to imitate his former, long-gone self; he wrote as a 67-year-old man trying to make sense of where he is right now. Both songs use transportation metaphors to examine life’s journey from a point that’s closer to the end than to the beginning. Both take the view that the shape of the entire trip is more important than any particular short cut or detour.

“Train of Fools” describes a passenger train pulling out from a station after midnight carrying “a hundred souls taking their last ride.” Multi-tracking guitar parts as if he were a one-man Foo Fighters, Fogerty gives the song a dark, grungy heaviness to reinforce the fatefulness of our lives. A beautiful woman finds her life empty when her beauty fades; a rich man feels equally empty despite his vaults of gold. Drug addicts, child-abuse victims, finger-pointing critics, we all reap what we sow.

“I’ve never written anything like that before,” Fogerty says. “It’s like an episode from The Twilight Zone. My wife says, ‘I’m not sure I like that song; it’s so dark and depressing.’ I got a big Cheshire cat grin and said, ‘That’s right.’ Those are my favorite songs.

“I had made an earlier attempt at it, and it was god-awful, like Elvis bouncing around the stage in his white suit at Vegas. I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, god, John, that’s dreadful. Am I going to hand that to somebody?’ I said, ‘You’ve got this phrase, ‘Train of Fools’ what’s that about? Instead of holding a guitar and a clock, think about what that title means. Be a writer.’ I thought about it, and I pictured this group of people on a train, what’s their story? The more I thought, the more ominous it got, the more there was at stake. It took my breath away.”

More optimistic but no less ambitious is “Mystic Highway.” This one has a lighter, Creedence-like blend of rock ’n’ roll and country, mixing electric and acoustic guitars, B-3 organ and bluegrass mandolin. A terrific, two-bar guitar figure announces the song but then gives way for the bouncy, twangy verses, only to return for the anthemic chorus and an epic guitar solo. The lyrics declare that “out across the constellation there’s a place behind the sun, where everything is connected, everything and everyone.” After the big, space-rock solo, there’s a hand-clapping, string-band gospel bridge before the rock ’n’ roll chorus returns.

“‘Mystic Highway’ is a title I wrote in my notebook 20 or 30 years ago,” Fogerty recalls, “and I knew exactly what it meant: it’s the road that you travel. I pictured a family on a long journey, weary but not worn out, standing by the side of the road, looking to heaven and knowing they still have a long way to go. It goes through this life and beyond into other dimensions, however you picture heaven.

“But I couldn’t write that song when I was younger. I didn’t know how. Every time I tried, I couldn’t do it. I needed more perspective. I had to have thought about all of this a lot more. I’m in the middle of a song singing something that sounds like a happy bluegrass ditty and the next thing I’m talking about some place behind the sun where everything’s connected. If you’re still hurrying through life as a young man, you probably don’t have time to think about that.”

Like these two latest numbers, most of Fogerty’s songs begin as titles in his notebook. He bought his first notebook in 1967 at a neighborhood drugstore, and the very first words he wrote down in it were “Proud Mary.” Much of Fogerty’s favorite music comes from the lower reaches of the Mississippi River, and he wanted to write a song about that region, but he needed a focal point. He leafed through his notebook, spotted those words “Proud Mary” and had the title for his song. And once he has a title, he says, everything becomes easier because you keep the lines that relate to that title and throw away everything else.

“I grew up in an era when there were a lot of instrumentals,” he says. “When there aren’t any lyrics, what’s that song about? I asked Duane Eddy that and he said, ‘Yeah, but if you have a great title you know what it’s about.’ I realized the same thing applied to songs, so I often have a title first. I’m so fascinated by how this works for me. For me, songwriting doesn’t go “bing!” and I run into the other room to write it all down. When you start a song it’s so frustrating, you catch a word here and a word there, but most of them you have to throw away. That’s what a title does; it makes you stick to the subject.”

Fogerty stuck to the subject like glue during those four years, 1967-70, when he wrote almost all the famous Creedence songs. The songs were just pouring out of him, and many of them were becoming Top 10 pop hits. It’s the kind of run that few artists ever experience, but even for the best of them it always comes to an end. For Fogerty, it was a particularly bitter ending as he wound up fighting with his bandmates and his record label and finally breaking up Creedence to launch a solo career marked by the occasional brilliant album (most notably John Fogerty and Centerfield) and long periods of inactivity.

“I thought I was competing with the Beatles,” he admits. “I remember telling people that the Beatles are #1, so being #2 isn’t so bad. When you’ve waited all your life to do something, you feel that that’s the only thing you should do. You’ve been aiming at it since you were four years old, and you don’t know if you’re any good. All you know is that you want to harness every ounce of energy to be a rock ’n’ roll singer and songwriter. I was twirling like a hurricane among a lot of people who were standing around trying to hang on to something.

“I would compare it to an athlete who’s just gotten noticed in college or the pros; he’s hit that moment when everyone’s noticing that he’s got talent. What’s he’s supposed to do? If he’s a pitcher, he has to try to strike everyone out. If he’s a batter, he’s supposed to hit a home run every time. He’s not supposed to take up fly fishing. So music was all I did. My home life suffered and other things suffered.”

If the pace of his music-making slackened after Creedence broke up, his home life improved. And now he can sing about the “Train of Fools” and the “Mystic Highway,” because he’s ridden that train and gone a long way down that road. His vision of a heaven on the other side of the sun may seem sentimental to some, but he doesn’t care.

“I don’t think there’s a god up there with a face,” he says, “but I do believe we’re all part of the universe. I believe that universe smiles on you if you’re a good Catholic, a good Muslim or a good non-believer. I believe if you’re moving toward the good, it’s good for the whole universe, and if you’re moving toward the bad, it’s bad for the whole thing. When people call me corny, I’m not insulted. I go, ‘Yeah, that’s me. And you’re pretty cool too.’”