Thursday, May 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival


The sheer number of great songs Creedence Clearwater Revival released in their short career between 1968 and 1972 would be the envy of most bands with careers three times as long. I remember as a kid hearing all of their songs, whether on my dad's records or on the radio, and thinking that this was clearly a band that had had a long and successful career, only to be shocked later on when I learned that they only functioned as CCR for three and a half years!  For that brief span of time as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Creedence, led by John Fogerty, was a hit single machine, churning out classic after classic. Perhaps that's unfair as not only were their singles great, but their albums were as well, with many more album cuts matching or surpassing the quality of their 45s. The quality matched the quantity (they put out THREE albums in 1969...compare that to most bands of the last thirty years taking that many years or more BETWEEN albums). However, as short as the band's career was, the drama surrounding their break-up in the subsequent years has been never ending. It's once been said that the story of Creedence is "the saddest story in rock and roll." After reading Hank Bordowitz' book Bad Moon Rising, I can see why.

***special thanks to Meaghan at Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

While Bordowitz subtitled his book "the Unauthorized Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival," he has drawn on enough sources, as well as interviews with the band members (and their friends and families), in order for it to be considered a definitive history of the band. The numerous footnotes at the end of the book attest to his research.

The book begins with the childhoods of the four band members: Tom Fogerty, and his younger brother John, along with John's school friends Stu Cook and Doug "Cosmo" Clifford.  Growing up in suburban San Francisco, in El Cerrito, California, all of the boys were bitten by the music bug, with Tom having minor success as a singer and songwriter in the local area. John, Stu, and Doug formed the Blue Velvets while in junior high and high school and, upon graduating high school in 1963 and giving up college after a year, decided to make music a full-time career. Bringing Tom into the fold and latching on to Fantasy Records, a small indie label in the Bay Area (where John worked in the shipping area), they changed their name to the Golliwogs at the insistence of the label who tried to use the band to cash in on the recent British Invasion bands. Sporting ridiculous white fuzzy wigs which the label made them wear, the released several singles that didn't do anything in the charts, Tired of "working at the car wash" and earning little to nothing playing local bars and clubs in the area (at one point, they only had $20 to their names), the band reached a critical point by 1967 where they decided to make the music they wanted to make, and on their own terms. Changing their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival and signing what they'd later discover to be terrible contract with Fantasy Records and its owner Saul Zaentz, the band ended up becoming one of the biggest selling bands of all time, rivaling heavyweights like the Beatles, Stones, Who, and Led Zeppelin in terms of number of records sold and money earned.  However, while the hit records and accolades kept pouring in, the vise-like grip of control John Fogerty exerted over the band began to create tensions among the lifelong friends. John wrote all of the songs and, after the band recorded the instrumental backing tracks, did all of the overdubs himself: lead guitar, vocals, backing vocals, organ, piano, harmonica, saxophones...everything. He also produced and mixed all of the records and acted as the de facto manager of the band. Any requests by his bandmates to be more involved in the process were met by threats to leave the band and rebukes from John that his vision is what had gotten them to be so successful in the first place. Eventually, despite the success, Tom left the band in 1971 and John gave the ultimatum that Stu and Doug had to each 1/3 of the following album and that he'd only contribute rhythm guitar to their songs. The resulting album, Mardi Gras, was their worst one and after a final disastrous tour, the band split. But that's just the beginning of the drama...

The remainder of the Creedence story is a sad document of in-fighting, lawsuits, musical failures (and in John's case, rebirths), death, and unresolved feuding. I won't go into all of the details here...I'll save that for anyone who reads the book because, in all honesty, there's so much of it! But some things I do want to touch on: John Fogerty's writer's block after a couple of solo albums that stalled his career for ten years until his rebirth in 1985 with his Centerfield album was a strange thing to read about, especially as his inability to write music seemed to stem from nothing more than his bitterness and resentment toward Zaentz, Fantasy, and his former bandmates. Stu and Doug stuck together through thick and thin and to this day continue to play together as Creedence Clearwater Revisited. Tom had an unsuccessful solo career and never reconciled with his brother, which is doubly sad since he died in 1990 from AIDS complications due to a tainted blood transfusion during the numerous back surgeries he underwent in the 1970s and 80s. Throughout it all, there has been bitterness and fighting, with John and his brother Bob on one side, and Stu, Doug, and Tom's son Jeff on the other. Lawsuits, fights in the press, and bad blood have been ever present. Apart from reuniting to play at Tom's wedding in 1980 and at their 20th high school reunion in 1983, they've never performed as CCR since the break-up in 1972. The ultimate betrayal was at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1993 where John had arranged ahead of time (and behind the scenes) to have Stu and Doug banned from playing with him onstage, humiliating them after their acceptance speeches and making himself look pretty terrible as a result.

One thing that was put into stark relief by the author was just how self-centered John Fogerty seems to be as a person...as the author aptly put it, even the death of his brother gave John a chance to make everything about how it affected him ("Tom died, and he left me with the turmoil"). There doesn't seem to be a lot of "big picture" reflection by John. Yes, he was the creative force behind CCR, but he's outright dismissive of his bandmates and basically says in later years that he was Creedence. Naturally, this rankled Stu, Doug, and Tom/Jeff. There are many bands with dominant creative personalities (for example, Pete Townshend in The Who) who still have no problem getting the input of their bandmates and acknowledging their contributions. Not so with John...as Stu cuttingly said, "we asked John to play baseball, but he wanted to play all of the positions."  He seems to be a person who wants it both ways, no matter what the situation: for instance, he sold his rights to CCR songs to Fantasy in 1980 so he could get out of his contract, and then spent the next twenty plus years complaining that he doesn't make enough money from them. He's been consistently voted down three-to-one, fair and square, by the other guys when it comes to approving CCR compilations or the use of their songs in movies and ads yet he still complains about it. But when pressed on all of this, he claims he "doesn't hate" the other guys, which is hard to believe especially as he's quoted late in the book as saying "I hate them!"  It got tiresome to read after a while, and this is no fault of the author who is just reporting the facts impartially, although I did get the feeling toward the end of the book that more of Bordowitz' personal feelings on the whole matter started to seep through. The tone and framing of John's behavior took on a decidedly negative manner toward the end, but I didn't have a problem with it since I was feeling the same way!



Apart from a few minor typos, my only criticism of the book is that, in spots, it tends to read as more a collection of interview quotes stitched together than a narrative, but this doesn't happen often enough to be a real issue. Additionally, while all of the photos in the book are in black and white, some of the reproductions are quite poor and grainy...it would have been nice if they could have been of higher resolution (but perhaps this was a budgetary constraint so I can't fault it too much). Ditto for the album covers, which are obviously sourced from the CD booklets (you can see the "Compact Disc" logo in the corner). Pictures of the original vinyl covers would have been nicer but, again, perhaps the author or publisher didn't have access to them. 

In closing, this is an excellent book about the sad and twisted saga of one of America's greatest bands of the 1960s and a really tragic tale. Bands split all the time, but the acrimony between John and the other three has lasted for so many years and torn a family apart in such a way that, if it's not the "saddest story in all of rock and roll," it's certainly in the top three.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

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