Friday, September 6, 2013

John Fogerty at 68

I cringed slightly to learn that John Fogerty’s newest collection, Wrote a Song For Everyone, is both a duets album and a career retrospective. Both of these tend to be the product of artists ready to be embalmed. But at age 68, Fogerty has surely earned the right to secure his legacy however he deems fit. I’m just not persuaded his best work is behind him.

Fogerty is of course best known as leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival. When I saw him live in concert, he led with CCR’s defining classic, “Born on the Bayou,” a B-side track that nevertheless cemented his place in rock history. This track, and its A-side, “Proud Mary,” proclaimed CCR’s subsequent arc of organic rock, infused with a mix of country, soul, blues, and zydeco.

Rock was deeply split in 1968. While Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, and Steppenwolf nursed a highly produced blues-rock that evolved into heavy metal, acts like Little Feat and The Band championed a more austere, rural sound. CCR appeared, superficially, to come into the latter camp. But Fogerty also cherry-picked sources like doo-wop and Motown. Thus, like Hendrix, CCR’s popularity transcended race in what was still a shockingly segregated music business.

Fogerty could relate to his audience in ways many pop stars couldn’t, because he was one of them. Where the MC5 constructed their vision of bohemian poverty, Fogerty was a middle son from a broken home. He didn’t need to fake unpretentious aspirations in “Porterville” or “Hey Tonight.” While Country Joe McDonald wailed his bombastic “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die Rag” against Vietnam, Fogerty, a genuine draftee, expressed real shared sentiment in his signature classic, “Fortunate Son.”

CCR burned fast and hard: they released five albums in 1969 and 1970, each an acknowledged classic. But Fogerty was also a tyrant. As lead guitarist, vocalist, and chief songwriter, he felt free to make demands of his bandmates. In band photos, John’s brother Tom, original bandleader when they cut some unsuccessful 45’s as The Golliwogs, looks haunted as his former band, and his career, drift outside his control.

Despite their distinct retro sound, CCR wasn’t unique in their time. Gram Parsons labored to create his Cosmic American Music, though he dwelt beneath the shadows of popular artists like Roger McGuinn and Mick Jagger. The Eagles created a slick, commercial version of CCR’s sound, getting the number-one hits that evaded CCR. But it’s tough to imagine these acts’ success without Fogerty and CCR bequeathing them an eager audience.

Tom Fogerty quit the band in January 1971, and John’s remaining bandmates lobbied for more creative control. Badly outnumbered, Fogerty acquiesced, but refused to sing lead on songs his bandmates wrote. He made his merely adequate bandmates sing their own songs, essentially sabotaging CCR’s final album, which is nearly unlistenable. Fogerty now refuses to play with his surviving bandmates (though his reasons are complex and not entirely unfair).

Asked to name CCR’s classics, fans might cite “Proud Mary,” “Down On the Corner,” or “Lookin’ Out My Back Door.” These bouncy singalong gems remain radio staples. Yet on broader view, Fogerty’s repertoire proves remarkably pessimistic. Early on, Fogerty penned songs like “Bad Moon Rising” and “Fortunate Son.” This only got more extreme with time; tracks like “Someday Never Comes” and “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” bespeak an extremely bleak outlook.

CCR’s bitter split was followed by years of battles with their label, Fantasy Records, over who owned Fogerty’s compositions. An unfairly lopsided contract limited Fogerty’s control of his own songs, and Fantasy licensed CCR’s songs in ways that cheapened their image. (Fogerty’s songs have recently appeared in commercials for Walgreen’s and Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, among others.) Incensed, Fogerty stopped playing his best songs rather than grant royalties to Fantasy.

During the years of alienation from his own work, Fogerty, a notorious perfectionist, struggled to produce listenable recordings. Though fans embraced his album Centerfield, its immediate follow-up, Eye of the Zombie, failed completely. His album Hoodoo so completely failed to meet Fogerty’s standards that he ordered the master tapes destroyed. He so faded from view that a 1993 Reuters report called him a “recluse.”

Around this time Johnny Cash, one of CCR’s early proponents, appealed to Fogerty to play his classics, lest America remember “Proud Mary” as an Ike & Tina Turner hit. For this and other reasons, Fogerty’s live shows became highlight reels of CCR’s best moments. When I saw him live in 1997, over two-thirds of his set consisted of CCR hits and, at age 52, remained a tireless performer, highly keyed to his audience.

Reclaiming his CCR works really revitalized his creativity. Although charting solo tracks like “Almost Saturday Night” and “Centerfield” captured audience attention and kept his name alive in a turbulent music business, even fans must admit that most of his early solo work lacked the CCR spark. But when “Proud Mary” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” returned to his repertoire, he suddenly became able to produce albums like Blue Moon Swamp and Revival, indubitable sequels to CCR’s best work.

In some ways, Wrote a Song For Everyone feels like a possible capstone for Fogerty’s career. He could retire after this: by revisiting twelve of his self-penned classics (ten CCR tracks and two solo songs), melding his style with popular rock and country artists, asserts his broad influence in today’s most popular guitar-driven music genres. Yet the two original tracks display a continuing creative vitality, suggesting that, if he chose, he could keep playing.

Some pairings seem surprising. My Morning Jacket’s dreamlike arrangement on “Long As I Can See the Light” brings new insight to the track’s short-term melancholy and longer-term optimism. Bob Seger’s take on “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” complete with piano line pinched from “Night Moves,” turns this into a Seger track that merges seamlessly with his classic work. And Fogerty teams with Alan Jackson, another veteran prone to comebacks, to revitalize “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”

Other combos seem downright natural. The Foo Fighters sound like they were made to record “Fortunate Son,” while Miranda Lambert, possibly the best thing going in today’s moribund pop country milieu, pairs sweetly with my absolute favorite CCR track, “Wrote a Song For Everyone.” And the massive ensemble, including Jennifer Hudson, that joins Fogerty on “Proud Mary” manages to meld Fogerty’s original with Ike & Tina’s remake, bonded with a distinct zydeco/jazz flourish.

Fogerty’s two original tracks convince me that he still has distinct future possibilities. “Mystic Highway,” a straightforward country rocker with a gospel-style breakdown, could fit seamlessly on his 1980s albums, while “Train of Fools” could have come off Blue Moon Swamp. Considering his band’s early dissolution and his long legal troubles have kept Fogerty from truly fulfilling his potential. But these tracks reassure me that, perhaps, his best work isn’t yet done.

In some ways, John Fogerty emblematizes today’s music business. In particular, he represents the ongoing battle between the “music” half and the “business” half: should the need to make a profit trump the artist’s prerogative to create art that feeds the soul? A generation from now, nobody will remember lucrative acts like One Direction. John Fogerty’s work will long outlast the man himself, because it nourishes the human spirit. And this new album proves that definitively.

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