Tuesday, October 20, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: John Fogerty, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music



John Fogerty, one of the most successful and acclaimed American songwriters of the past fifty years, guided Creedence Clearwater Revival through the late 1960s and early 1970s as they churned out classic record after classic record, blazing a gloriously out-of-step trail of music steeped in early rock and roll, soul, and Americana. Their short stint as the premier American band of their generation was followed by their tragic, almost pathetically bitter and acrimonious split, which has passed into rock lore and continues to this very day, at one point even pitting brother against brother. Hank Bordowitz' excellent biography on the band, Bad Moon Rising, has been reviewed previously on this site, and former CCR schoolfriend and associate Jake Rohrer's memoir, which includes a lot of details on his time working with the band, has been discussed here as well. However, until now there hasn't been a book directly from any of the members of Creedence until John Fogerty's just-published autobiography, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music.  In Bad Moon Rising, the other members of CCR (Stu Cook, Doug Clifford, the estate of Tom Fogerty) spoke with the author, while John did not. John's book now finally gives fans and readers his side of the always-contentious CCR dispute, as well as his take on his post-Creedence career and the incredible highs and lows he hit along the way.

***Thanks to Sarah at Little Brown for sending me a copy of the book to review!***


John begins his story with the most important thing in his life: music. A short introduction has him recalling his mother sharing her love of music and singing with him and how from a small child he was interested in the process that went on behind the music: the writing, the arranging, and the performing. There is, however, a slightly cringe-inducing moment when he claims that his love of soul, blues, and jazz music can be traced back to him having a black baby doll as a child; such slightly odd little moments of candor are sprinkled throughout the book and will be touched upon throughout this review. From here, the book begins the narrative proper with John's birth in 1945 and his childhood growing up in El Cerrito, California during the the 1950s. Interestingly, while the divorce of his parents seems to have loomed large in his psyche, apart from fond memories of family vacations and mentions of some hardships (economic and otherwise) that the family endured during his childhood, this section of the book is almost completely devoid of any mention of his relationships with his four brothers. Indeed, the only two who are mentioned at all are Bob (who has been John's personal assistant since the end of CCR) and Tom (his CCR bandmate, of course), and even then there wasn't much depth. Likewise when he describes his school days, there are lots of anecdotes and memories recalled, but he makes it sound as though he, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford were barely acquaintances during their years in school whereas just about every other book and article on CCR describes them as being good friends from junior high onward. In any event, it's when John gets to 1964 and the band signed with Fantasy Records where the really interesting stuff starts to happen.



John's recollections differ markedly from those of his CCR bandmates and Bordowitz' book regarding how he came to assume his dominant role in the band: John claims it was a mutual decision that allowed him to become the sole songwriter, singer, arranger, producer, and manager of the band, whereas Bordowitz' book and the other band members have claimed that John gave them an ultimatum that he wouldn't work with the band unless they acquiesced to his demands. What's not up for debate is that they were suckered into a horrendous contract and publishing agreement by Fantasy owner Saul Zaentz (more on this in a minute) and that under John's direction, the band went on to churn out classic after classic in a remarkably short period of time without ever seeing any of their earnings. Back to their onerous contract, John throws a new wrinkle into the story by claiming that Stu, whose father Herman Cook was a prominent Bay Area attorney, lied about showing the contract to his dad before the band signed it. All other accounts state that Stu showed it to Herman, but John claims that when asked at the time by the other three members whether he showed it to his dad, Stu paused and then said "...he said it's okay" which John took to mean as a "no." Whatever the truth, it's an interesting and entirely plausible possibility.  This book really excels when John focuses on his songwriting and recording process during his CCR and solo years and when he is able to convey the joy and excitement from those moments when he knew he'd labored away to create something great. It's an almost palpable feeling and really comes across effectively (just read the section on writing "Proud Mary" to see what I mean). However, the CCR years as a whole are depicted almost as though they were a chore or a Herculean labor instead of the heady, halcyon days they were. Tom is spared many of John's barbs during this time; indeed, he spends most of his time lauding the progress of his older brother's rhythm guitar playing and his timing. The targets of his ire, really throughout the entire book, are Stu and Doug. Stu is constantly disparaged as a barely-adequate bass player (which I don't agree with based on my own ears) and a constantly negative and pessimistic personality (which I can believe). Doug is portrayed as a remedial drummer at best (again, I don't agree) and more interested in the trappings of rock stardom than the music itself (again, plausible). I have no issues with John criticizing them or his perceptions of them, but it got to the point where it seemed he was going out of his way to knock them down and honestly, it got old after a while. It also got old when he would follow up every barb with a qualifier like "I hope I don't sound like I'm being mean" or "I know it sounds bad, but it's the truth" (I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea).  He had an interesting take on Tom's departure from the band and their final disastrous album as a trio. Regarding the former, he states that had he (John) been the older brother, it wouldn't have bothered Tom that John was the dominant force in the band; regarding the latter, John claims it was Stu and Doug's idea to have each of them contribute 1/3 of the album whereas again, every other account has it being John's ultimatum. The truth, as is usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle but it only highlights what a messy and inglorious end it was for a band whose music was infused with such joy and life...



...and this is where the book starts to get a bit weird. John's firsthand account of his "wilderness years"  in the 1970s when he was literally incapable of writing music is fascinating and good to finally have directly from the source. Tied down in all of the CCR-related animosity, lawsuits, and a crumbling marriage, after a couple of solo albums in the early 1970s he was unable to produce music for the next decade. He spent much of his time in his cabin in Oregon hunting, fishing, and staying out of the music business completely. Finally freeing himself from Fantasy in the early 1980s via a deal of questionable judgement where he gave up all rights to his CCR material (which he later reacquired), he had his major comeback with 1985's Centerfield album before he again stopped making music for another decade before returning for good with 1997's Blue Moon Swamp. It's interesting and telling to note that John admits to being hell-bent on playing every instrument on his albums until Blue Moon Swamp, when he realized there were other people who could play in his band that he could trust to perform as he wanted.  Perhaps this lack of trust in Stu and Doug was at the root of his need to have the ironclad control he had during the CCR days, although he doesn't really go down this road. From the mid-1980s onward in the book, though, the narrative is dominated with John's almost obsessive mentions of his wife Julie, to the point that Julie herself writes half of each chapter after they first meet.  Let me state upfront here that I love my own wife dearly and am thankful every day that I have her in my life, so I can understand John being in a good place in his life now that he's found the right woman. However, he just about crosses into John Lennon/Yoko Ono territory with how all-consuming and omnipresent it is. So much of what he writes about includes references to Julie or somehow a mention of her where she seemingly has nothing to do with the situation he's writing about. The last third of the book, where they alternate paragraphs to give their perspectives, is almost too cloying in its sweetness to be enjoyed. I'm by no means disparaging the love a husband and wife have for each other, and it's a beautiful and blessed thing indeed, but it's so overwhelming that the last sections of the book were a real slog to get through. Julie has been John's manager for the last several years, controlling his image, stage presentation, and musical collaborations (at least according to the book) so I suppose it's understandable, but it just got to be too much. As with Lennon, the problem isn't that Fogerty loves his wife so much...that's commendable and admirable. It's that it's so all-consuming that it crowds everything else out, and that includes self-awareness, the lack of which is one of the most striking things about this book.



This lack of self-awareness manifests itself numerous times throughout the book, with John finding a way to blame almost everything bad that has happened to him on something or someone else. Whether or not it's true in each case, the end result is that he comes off seeming very bitter and petty about slights and events that happened almost half a century ago. The most stunning example of this is when John gets to the debacle that was CCR's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. As everyone knows, after the rather tense speech they all gave, John played the customary concert with Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, and others while Stu and Doug sat humiliated and dumbfounded in the audience, barred from joining in onstage. All accounts in the years since have claimed that John sprung this on them at a moment's notice right before they were due to take the stage. John adds a wrinkle to the story saying that he informed them days before that he'd be doing this and that Stu and Doug pretended to be surprised by it so they could go crying to the press about how mean he (John) was. This just doesn't sound plausible in the least, and again, while the truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle, it doesn't result in a good look for John, especially as he again rationalizes it by saying that Stu and Doug "only cared about the money, not the music" anyway.



Creedence Clearwater Revival have always been a confusing band in terms of legacy as the joy and excitement their music conveys has always been directly at odds with the acrimony, bitterness, and anger that has continued unabated from their 1972 split to the present day. And so it goes with this book: what should be a joyous celebration of John's life and career, not to mention his musical and marital rebirth, is constantly marked by petty and snide asides directed almost exclusively toward his former bandmates (to be fair, the venom spewed at Saul Zaentz is 100% justified). There's not any one particularly earth-shattering comment made that spoils the book...rather, it's spirit suffers a death by one thousand cuts, each little chipping away until the entire thing becomes quite dour. It's a real shame as the music and the story behind it should be (and is, in the places where the book stays on track) such an interesting and happy one. That being said, this book is still a must-read for any CCR fan and, along with the Bordowitz book, essential in order to have another angle from which to view the whole story. It is, however, also a book that illustrates what is meant when fans are often warned not to learn too much about their heroes. If you're able to separate the person from the art like I am, then this book is an illuminating read (and this is by no means meant to cast aspersions on John Fogerty, who I do believe is, on the whole, a good person) but in totality his book is not the satisfying and affirming read I'd hoped it would be.

MY RATING: 7.5/10



3 comments:

  1. A bit of an ouch book it seems. I've always loved CCR and they've always figured in pretty heavily into the late 60's Vietnam decade. I grew up in East Texas and when I heard their music I thought they must have been from Louisiana or something. I'd agree the truth lies somewhere between the lines, though it seems there's still some animosity there. It's hard for me to imagine that it's still that raging or why wouldn't they have played together at the '93 induction to the RnR Hall of Fame. That would have been such a peace offering at least in the eyes of the fans. Sort the way Pink Floyd did some years back in London (I forget the event, Live Aid or something).

    At any rate, I doubt seriously that Doug or Stu "only" cared about was the money. I haven't met any musician that didn't love what they were doing or why else buy an instrument and play to begin with--that just makes no sense. I like John and the music he's created but he does seem a bit egocentric when it comes to his music, which is a bit understandable after what he'd been through I guess.

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    1. Yeah, his claim they only "cared about the money" is laughable, especially because obviously so did he! If he didn't, why did he spend all those years in litigation trying to get his rights (and therefore, his MONEY) to all of his CCR music back from Fantasy Records? I can guarantee you there will NEVER be a CCR reunion...way too much bad blood on both sides, to the present day (hell, they were suing each other in new lawsuits just a few months ago). A real shame as their music was and still is absolutely fantastic.

      It's ironic how happy 99% of their music is, and how bitter 99% of the years since their split have been.

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    2. As an addendum to the excellent point you made, I've yet to meet ANYONE, musician or otherwise, who works as hard at what they do and are happy to NOT get paid for it.

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