Interview: John Fogerty
Interview by Joshua Klein
There's a song on the new John Fogerty record, Revival, called "I Can't Take It No More", where the former Creedence Clearwater Revival leader calls out the current administration with rage and frustration. Of course, Fogerty's going to take it-- he has no choice, and neither do the rest of us waiting out the clock. But he's not going to take it sitting down. In fact, Revival is the most righteous =46ogerty's been since his CCR heyday, which was one of many good reasons to talk with the legendary songwriter about everything from the state of the nation to his new disc loaded title to how he came up with so many immortal songs (hint: hard work played a big part).
Pitchfork: When I told someone I was speaking with you, they called you one of the most underrated songwriters of all time. I thought: Underrated? You've written at least a dozen of the most recognizable songs of all time. Do you feel underrated?
JF: No. [laughs] No, I don't. Let's put it this way. I feel happy about the songs I've written. I'm a great lover of the craft of songwriting, and I sure admire it in other people when I see it-- past and present. When I was a kid I was kind of learning at the knee of everybody who had come before. I feel comfortable with what I have accomplished. I feel happy to be able to work in that environment, and that I have a lot of songs left to be written, somewhere. People may be mixing up the word with "under celebrated" perhaps. I'm probably not in some circles as well known as some other folks. That's only because of the confusion with my name, or Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Pitchfork: You did name your new record Revival.
JF: Actually, my dear wife Julie named it. It's interesting. She had convinced me and others that Revival was the name. After I had gone on for a while knowing that that was the name of it, during the pre-production leading up to the release, I thought that she was referring to how I felt. What I felt was that my songs-- especially if you hear a collection of them, an album-- I really sensed a higher level. The songs seemed to be coming from a guy who knows what he is doing, confident and assured about his craft. That's how I felt. Especially when taken all together, it's powerful. It feels to me like I've returned to form, as in my earlier days. But as I said that to a few folks, my wife said, "That's not what I meant." [laughs]
OK, prey tell, honey, what did you mean? She said, "Well, long ago you had a big group with a lot of success, and then you kind of went down the road into a lot of darkness, a meandering and winding road, as it were. Now you've come out into this wonderful place where your personal life is very happy, and your music is reflecting your newfound happiness in your heart. That's where your music is coming from, and that's what the revival is." I kind of looked at her and went, oh. It's not too far removed from what I had guessed, but because I was the one it was happening to I didn't perceive it as the journey that she was watching. [laughs] When she first said "I think we should call it 'Revival'," I kind of reacted like, well, yeah, that's kind of obvious. It was too plain. I had lived with the word associated with me for so long it wasn't like a new, fresh idea. I kind of see that word all the time! [laughs] But she tried it out on many other people, and they reacted strongly, so I said OK.
Pitchfork: You also have a song on the new record called "Creedence Song". It doesn't get more obvious than that!
JF: And that song really-- how can I say it?-- it makes a statement in a couple of ways. Obviously, just writing a song and calling it "Creedence Song" is certainly a touchstone to my past, and really music that is still played to this day, in a really modern and vital way, I guess you could say. The other kind of inescapable fact is that I'm speaking of Creedence and referring to Creedence in a very fond and happy, loving way, which might make many of my fans who have been watching a long time go wow, that's kind of new, coming from John! I have been known to say-- what's the word?-- a cynical remark here and there about my former band and some of the circumstances. What this kind of signals is that I'm a happy guy, a happy fellow who considers himself very lucky to be doing this and that there's still an audience and a reason for me to be making music. The way I relate to my days as Creedence now is in a very positive and happy way. This song is sort of a giveaway, revealing a portion of my heart in a very current state of affairs. In some quarters, I guess, people will be happy and relieved that I'm feeling that way.
Pitchfork: You could have called it "Golliwog Song".
JF: [laughs] If I had called it "Golliwog Song" I don't know what it would have been. Because I would have had to make it sound like that, too! [laughs] Therefore probably nobody would have paid attention!
Pitchfork: I think it's because you draw so enthusiastically from your traditional rock and roll influences that you've been so consistent over the years. People know what a John =46ogerty song sounds like. They know the voice, they know the production. Could you write a song at this point that didn't sound like a John Fogerty song?
JF: I could do it-- and I have done it-- if I was really trying to do something different and almost be somebody else. Especially what happened after "D=E9j=E0 Vu", which I thought was a bit of a departure. It certainly had a lot of leanings toward acoustic and fingerstyle guitar. I felt that it was a tangent, similar to other tangents I had taken in my career. I looked back and saw that I had kind of gone off on these interesting avenues-- to me, perhaps-- but that I had maybe left my fans behind. So I refer to it as wanting to get back to my center, the middle of me, the place where I'm strongest. That's the idea. I feel that my best work is in that place. It certainly is very much rock and roll and from that point of view. I've tried even on purpose sometimes to get away from that, and the further I get away, the most disastrous the result [laughs].
Pitchfork: You might not be underrated as a songwriter, but I think you are underrated as a producer.
JF: Well, thank you for noticing that! If you go back and actually check the credits on all the records that I've made, I've produced all my music though the years, starting with the Creedence records. I'm not going to sit here and say I always know what I'm doing [laughs]. But when I'm on it, as I certainly was during the Creedence time and I feel that I am now, too, there's a real clarity. You can just see what you're supposed to do. I realize there have been other times where I was maybe not so sure. Of course the result isn't always happy. That's also a sense that I do know what I'm doing, and I sure know what I ought to sound like, which is the producer's job.
Pitchfork: Something different about this record and the last record is that you've become really specific with your politics. You name names.
JF: Look, I have very strong feelings about some things. I happen to believe-- put it this way, all of our politicians, no matter what their political party and affiliation, everybody is human. Therefore, by definition, nobody is perfect. It's the nature of the game. We all make mistakes. Politicians make mistakes. Sometimes they even make big mistakes. But that's all they are. They just choose the wrong thing. I just happen to feel that in this case, with this administration, it's not simply bad judgment. I think these are bad people behaving badly, very much having a sinister purpose or agenda that is very self-serving a selfish. Lining their own pockets, lining the pockets of their friends, and making all the rest of us pay for it, of course. That's the intensity of my own emotions and feelings about this. For the life of me, I can't remember a bunch of Democrats in recent memory who got together as a group and said-- I mean, I know there was a Billy Sol Estes, and that LBJ had a couple of things that he did that were pretty much for his own good. But I can't remember such a group of people in power having the reigns of power and taking the entire country to a place that makes their close friends so wealthy, so quickly. It really seems bad. That to me is, more than the war itself, it's that agenda, that perversion of power, that I'm referring to as the "Long Dark Night".
Pitchfork: A lot of people compare George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, or the Iraq War with Vietnam. But not a lot of people talk about those differences. The group of people with such focused power to do wrong.
JF: Nixon had his "golfcart army"-- Halderman, Erlichman. Basically they were running around trying to protect Nixon and the whole political dirty tricks thing. It wasn't until later that Erlichman was trying to hawk ice cream or something. Whereas these guys now are doing stuff that lines their pockets now. It's so much more about power and money. The whole Halliburton thing, or Blackwater. All these different groups of people that are put right in the path of billions of dollars of American tax payers' money. If I had enough time I could have named all of those people [in the song], too! [laughs] The song would have been 400 minutes long.
Pitchfork: You've obviously played protests, and you play a lot of songs people play as protest songs. Would you consider yourself a protest singer?
JF: Only at times. I think at times the very strong feelings I have about my country coincide with my musical ability, and I'm able to actually turn it into music, a song or even hopefully a memorable song, sometimes. You may find it surprising, but I'm a very intense, proud American. I love being an American. But I come from a generation that came of age in the 60s, so that intense pride sort of comes out a little differently in me than it does in, say, John Wayne. Now that I'm a lot older, I certainly revere John Wayne as an icon. Heck, he was a cowboy, and I love cowboys. But during the Vietnam era, he was too dang right wing. He was status quo, everything's great. He was against the protesters and for the Nixon White House, and his politics I think-- I think-- tended to be quite conservative. He could have almost uttered the phrase "stay the course." [laughs]
I'm just made differently. Man, I just love being an American, I love my country. But it happened to me during the Nixon time, especially pre-Watergate, that as I watched Nixon for the first time in my life I felt shame. I had to analyze myself. What is this emotion? I realized that my government was separate from my country. It was the first time I ever felt ashamed of the government, not the country. I felt that the population as a whole, of which I am one member, I was proud of that. I was proud of our history, all the things that have lead us to where we are and what we stood for and stand for still-- I hope. But there was a distinct difference. That was the first time I could see that what the government was doing was not necessarily what my country wanted to have done. Which is probably how I feel now. That pride as an American comes out a little bit different. I can salute the flag. I can totally support the troops. And yet I am against what my president is doing with those troops.
Pitchfork: "Fortunate Son" is just steeped with disgust at what Nixon was up to.
JF: Well, it was so glaring. It was so obvious during Nixon's time that the children of privilege-- the senator's son, the president's son, if he had one, or at least the president's daughter's boyfriend-- they weren't going to war. They were going to have a cushy job somewhere. Whereas the poor, lower class grunt was going to be the guy in field getting shot. It made me so angry. I'm not the first guy to notice it, but it made me so angry that the rich old men make the war, and the poor young men have to fight it.
Pitchfork: In "I Can't Take It No More", you explicitly apply "Fortunate Son" to whom I take is George Bush.
JF: Put it this way: The sound of that track is a giveaway. The energy, the frustration, the anger, the intensity is a giveaway to those emotions. I've listened to the White House, the administration, and certainly George Bush for years now-- we all have listened to this stuff. And my feeling is I can't take it no more! We all know he lied about the casualties for one thing. They continue to lie about the casualties on both sides. We're killing Iraqis by the hundreds of thousands-- we are, or the insurgents are. We're even lying about the American casualties. If you get killed a certain way, they don't list it as died in combat. I understand if you get blown up in certain quarters of the country that's also not listed as died in combat. The total figure of deaths or casualties in Iraq doesn't get counted in the main column.
Of course, then there are all the "civilian contractor" deaths. Just that one portion is a lie. Of course, the WMDs was a lie-- I'm picking apart my song here. And the detainees? I'm talking about the detainees before the war! There's one guy we famously beat the crap out of until he said "Yes, Saddam has weapons of mass destruction!" We basically went to war with the testimony of one detainee that we tortured. Every night Bush gets on TV and says we must stay the course. We must prove we're not cowards, and we're not quitters. I've just had it! It's tired, it's old.
Pitchfork: The gall of that guy, to eventually give in and compare Iraq to Vietnam and then cite that as a reason to stay!
JF: It's the mess that he's created. The one that I loved was after Petraeus did his testimony-- I didn't actually watch, because I was disgusted-- there was a picture of him, the front page, and the headline was "Bush declares things are going so well"-- because of the surge-- "that we can now bring home 30,000 troops." The real truth is that we had to bring home 30,000 troops-- which of course brings us back to the level we were at before the surge-- or else we had to institute a draft. Those guys have all had three tours of duty now, so if he sent them back again basically there would be a revolt! The spin was that he was bringing them home because we were doing so well! God! Wow! It just makes you crazy.
Pitchfork: People tend to forget that you were drafted, and you served.
Pitchfork: You weren't a draft dodger.
JF: Well, I was drafted, but I managed to then get myself into an Army reserve unit. So I didn't go to Vietnam, obviously. My credentials are not like those of the poor guys who served and died. I am nowhere near that commitment or trauma.
Pitchfork: But you didn't run away or hide, either.
JF: No. I certainly have the experience. I know at least a portion of the inner workings of the military, and I sure know how a young guy feels when his government is coming after him to take him to war. I've experienced all those feelings. It isn't something I just read about somewhere. It's all firsthand.
Pitchfork: Of a lot of the acts of that era, how many other musicians that you knew of were drafted and served?
JF: Not a lot. Only a few. But there were some. I was always amazed that Hendrix had been in and gotten out before the whole thing blew up. He was in the Air Force for two or three-- maybe four years? That surprised me that he had served that long. Right now I can't think of anyone that was in the regular Army, or regular military. Gary Lewis was, famously.
Pitchfork: That, of course, is the biggest difference between then and now: no draft. If there were a draft, would that finally get people out on the streets?
JF: Of course! I believe that's the dirty subversion that George Bush is trying to pull off in the meantime. If he keeps it quiet enough, low-key enough, he feels he can get away with it. This whole control of the media-- you never see any caskets draped with flags. You never see a plane landing with a hundred caskets on it. Why? Because they made sure, after the first month or so of the Iraq invasion, they made sure all those planes land somewhere in the middle of the night. No press is allowed to see it. There's that famous photo, probably four years ago now, of a whole room full of caskets with flags draped over them. That never happened again. They managed to clamp down on the media. Up to about a year and a half ago it was scary how quiet our media was being. That was a scary time. I was literally thinking "fascism" at the time.
Pitchfork: And given all that we know, there must be ten times as much we don't know or can't know.
JF: There you go! Exactly. I think I know about some of the lining of pockets, things like Blackwater. But those things have sort of accidentally come out. Look at the price of the war. We didn't equip our army well. We didn't go over there with body armor or good machinery or good equipment. All those billions went some pace else. That whole thing is very disturbing.
Pitchfork: We should talk a little about music, too. You famously had a string of number two hits-- five between 1969 and 1970 alone. Back then the competition was impressive, but did that rile you guys at all, to come so close but never hit number one? I'm sure there were some great songs at number one ahead of you.
JF: I'm sure. There always were. At the time, everything was going so well, I didn't worry about being "only" number two. Also, these were double sided singles, much of the time. I always felt Billboard changed their policy because of us. After about five singles that were double-sided hits-- and listed with separate numbers-- they instituted a policy of one single with two hit songs listed as one number. I always though we wore 'em out. But I didn't concern myself with that at all. I was just happy we were having hits all over the radio. Looking back, many of the songs in rock and roll history that I assumed had big high number, many of which were million sellers, didn't make it to number one. Famously, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going on," some other Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard songs. Huge, humungous radio hits. Back in their era it was probably somebody like Patti Page or something. In my era is was probably somebody like the Fifth Dimension, something more pop, a little bit more middle of the road that would occupy the number one position while we were number two.
Pitchfork: Bruce Springsteen has never had a #1 single. "Dancing in the Dark" was a #2.
JF: That could be. But I'm sure the album was #1. Creedence had #1 albums. Was there more than one? I remember Green River. I remember some of the other albums just hung around for weeks and weeks and weeks. That was the coolest. At some point we had maybe as many as three albums in the top 10. Certainly two. That was wonderful, There was so much Creedence music being played on the radio I never looked at the shortcomings.
Pitchfork: What a luxury, to be able to release an album every six months.
JF: Or sooner!
Pitchfork: Is it at all surreal, to be part of the language that all musicians speak?
JF: I know what the question means, but I'm so much a part of the audience in that regard. I learned all this stuff by hearing James Burton or Reggie Young playing on soul records, hearing all these great guitar licks and that approach to guitar music. At some point I was able to do it pretty good and create music for my band. If we were all in a room, you sometimes feel like you actually are walking around with James Burton and Reggie Young and Duane Eddy, and we're all on this cosmic, psychic journey together in the same room. It's like we can all hear some song start, and we all nod our heads with a smile and an affirmation. This never, ever happened, of course, but I think all of us that do this would say that we've all felt that connection to each other. It's almost a communal feeling. You validate each other.
Pitchfork: Were the songs just coming to you that quickly? Do they come to you quickly?
JF: During that period of time, I had kind of looked around at our situation. "Suzie Q" was a hit, something you pray all your life for. We finally got a hit! But then you're basically a one-hit wonder, and we were the classic version: a cover song with a unique arrangement, in the spotlight. That's the classic one-hit wonder syndrome. I looked around and thought, "God, I sure don't want that to happen to me!"
I determined, we're on the tiniest record label in the world, there's no money behind us, we don't have a manger, there's no publicist. We basically had none of the usual star-making machinery, so I said to myself I'm just going to have to do it with the music. I looked within my own band and wondered about our chances. What I saw was people that could make music that was basically coming from me. I don't mean that to sound full of myself; it was just an honest appraisal. Basically I wanted to do what the Beatles had done. I sensed that I just had to do it myself.
So I got very, very busy. Every night I worked on writing songs from about 9 o'clock until about 4 o'clock in the morning. I had a routine, or a discipline, that went on for about two years. All the songs weren't great. I used to say for every song you heard I'd probably written 10 that were no good. Meaning, really, I start down the road with them until I realize, no, this is crap. It's not worth pursuing. Then I throw it away and start something else. But the music was coming really quickly, and it was really good. That was the amazing part. There was so much stuff at a really high level.
What happens is, especially when I was writing for my band, Creedence, and it's the way I write now, I go into "guitar lick" mode. When I do, it sort of leads into a real song. I'd say to myself, your songwriting is coming up with a guitar lick, and the rest is easy! [laughs] I was deluding myself that the song was almost not important, but I think the real thing that was happening was almost like self-hypnosis or mediation. The guitar lick was the transcendental key that unlocked my brain. It freed me. And then it all became easy. It's funny now, because I've had times when it wasn't easy. But that's what I was going for, a guitar lick. The happy accident that lead every bar band in the world to want to play those instantly recognizable songs, like "Up Around the Bend" or "Green River" or "Proud Mary".
Pitchfork: After a while, though, you slowed down. You stopped playing Creedence songs, and the gaps between albums went pretty long.
JF: Well, then I hit-- all the stuff that happened to me, I'll just say it that way. And I really kind of didn't get back on my feet until "Centerfield" became a hit-- by the way, that was #1. Then I had a lot of emotions and things to deal with, so I went away again and came back with "Blue Moon Swamp." That was quite a labor, I must say, even though it turned out really good. It was hard. It was just a lot of stubborn, hard, slow going to finally get those songs. A lot of digging. It was difficult. Whereas this album, Revival, that's the part that was the most fun and makes me feel really great.
Pitchfork: It's interesting that songs seem to come quickly to you, but at the same time you did go long stretches without writing.
JF: When the bad stuff was really intense in my life, it was really what you would call writer's block. Your facility is just not as good because you feel so bad. I've heard of people right on the verge of suicide coming up with some of their best work. I wish I could think of an example, other than Van Gogh, perhaps! [laughs]
=46or me, at least, when you don't feel good you're not at your strength. Centerfield, I was feeling pretty good and pretty strong, but what happened after Centerfield, that album basically opened the door and let out all that anguish that I had felt up until that time. That's why Eye of the Zombie is not so good. It took me years after that the understand what had happened. How did it go so wrong? How did it get so dark? I can clearly see it was because once Centerfield, came out and hit the top of the charts, it was like all those pains came out of you as if to say: you see? You see how bad it was? I could see the penitentiary that I'd been staying in.
A bunch of bad crap came out, and it's on Eye of the Zombie. Blue Moon Swamp, I think is kind of a triumph of keeping focus-- even if I wasn't perhaps at the top of my game. Kind of willing it to be good songs and a strong album. The real difference with Revival is that my heart is so happy. I can't even express to you the joy I had once I sensed I had six, seven, eight good songs. I felt like I truly could do what I used to do long ago. You don't like to admit that you're not there when you aren't! [laughs] But I could see that I was a guy who rediscovered songwriting and the joy of music. It was so clear. Once I started, the good stuff started coming again, like the old days. It was almost effortless.
Yeah, every song is not a radio hit, but there's a cohesiveness. That just makes me feel great. I'm a happy guy, and very happy to be doing music. I think that's the change. I think that's what happened. I know when I went to listen to a collection of songs on this album-- it wasn't all done yet-- I listened to them all as a group one day and my sense was, wow, this is really a lot of good stuff. It had a power that was separate from each individual song. I don't know if that makes senses. I could tell, this guy knows what he's doing! This has a very clear assuredness to it that you expect from an artist who knows what he's doing. He's not fishing around or mailing it in, trying to fill an album. This is a guy very much involved in doing good work. I thought, people are going to get that. They're going to see that John =46ogerty is, for some reason, doing a good job here. I know we all go through that process when we listen to music, especially from guys we've paid attention to for a while, who have had careers. You can tell when they're on and when they're not. We've all sensed when people we like are mailing it in, at various times. When a guy is obviously not doing that, it makes you feel really good! It's so great to be back on track and feeling that way again.
Pitchfork: It wasn't fun or funny to you, but from the outside it was almost a joke when you were sued for sounding too much like yourself. It must be hard to sound like yourself again after you've been sued for sounding like yourself.
JF: [laughs] "Creedence Song" is the perfect example. At other times, especially after that lawsuit, I'd be in my room and get into my little swamp groove. I'd be playing something vaguely reminiscent of the Creedence era songs, because that's my natural thing to do, from all the people that I've learned from-- Bo Diddley, Carl Perkins, Elvis, or Howlin' Wolf. I'd go into that mode where I sort of sounded swampy-- "Born on the Bayou"-- and then suddenly a little gremlin, or a little lawyer, would jump up on my shoulder and say, "No no no no no! You can't sound like that, 'cause I'm going to sue you!" I would immediately run away and hide. It would just kill the inspiration. It would die. The minute I started to feel like I was doing something reminiscent-- boom! It was over. But during "Creedence Song" I had that same thing happen, and I willed that bad guy away. "I'm going to sound just like this, and that's too bad!" I basically got over it.
Pitchfork: It was mind over matter.
JF: I had to feel strong enough about the ground I was standing on that it was OK. It's one thing if I were an alcoholic or had mental institution issues or something. But none of those things happened to me. What happened was I had demented, perverted, legal people coming after me-- or even jealous people-- to push me off my game. And they did. So I finally felt secure enough about myself to say you know what? You can't do that to me anymore. This is what I love to do, I sound like this when I'm on my game, and I'm just going to go forward with it. Other people want a career or success because they think that will help them find their personal life somewhere. I've done it the other way around. What I have is what everybody else is looking for. I know I've got it made. I know I'm a very lucky man. That came first. Then the music and the career just kind of took care of themselves.