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Unfortunate Sons

An oral history reveals how power grabs and crowded egos doomed CCR.

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Author Craig Werner, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Wisconsin, writes that Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty "comes as close to the spirit of the men and women of classic blues as any musician ever to come out of white America." CCR's swamp-rock grooves may have sounded quintessentially southern, but the band that created them hailed from northern California. For Fogerty, the South had always exerted an almost mystical fascination--whether it was, as he puts it, "the whole southern folk legend ...Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, the river, and all that went with it" or the music--with its authenticity and emotional intensity. "All the really great records or people who made them somehow came from Memphis or Louisiana or somewhere along the Mississippi River in between," he says in Werner's book, Up Around the Bend: The Oral History of Creedence Clearwater Revival. "I just had a lifetime dream that I wanted to live there."

Even Fogerty's born-on-the-bayou vocal delivery was, in his words, "an affectation, it's something I had to work on"--a style he achieved by imitating, through careful practice, the high-energy delivery of performers like Little Richard and Wilson Pickett. Fogerty, rhythm guitarist and brother Tom Fogerty, bassist Stu Cook, and drummer Doug "Cosmo" Clifford hailed from the San Francisco suburb of El Cerrito, and all took an interest in the rock and roll pioneers, blues, and R&B artists heard on the area radio stations (and in their pre-Creedence days, all played in a variety of garage bands, including one with the unfortunate moniker the Golliwogs). Success was slow in coming. It took ten years for Creedence Clearwater Revival to score its first hit in 1968 with a version of the Dale Hawkins hit "Suzie Q."

In Up Around the Bend, Werner allowed the individual musicians of Creedence to tell their own stories in their own words. Combining his interviews with older quotes culled from a variety of sources (dates included), Werner has organized the book by subject matter, thus illuminating any change in perspective that may have occurred over the years. Werner provides the occasional commentary, but the focus is largely on the music. (Readers interested in a more detailed account of the band's legal hassles and personal conflicts--of which there were many--are advised to check out Hank Bordowitz's 1998 book Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival.)

From the beginning, CCR's no-drugs policy put them at odds with the prevailing psychedelic groups of the era (such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane). As Clifford puts it, "We weren't part of the scene. In fact, they used to call us the boy scouts of rock and roll." John Fogerty felt like "an outsider in my hometown" and was at any rate unimpressed by the lengthy jam sessions that characterized the performances of the San Francisco bands. Fogerty preferred a more unembellished approach. In the studio he produced and arranged all of Creedence's material. He also got things done quickly. "I gotta have an engineer that really plays ball with me, really rolls along, because I've done all the thinking previously," he says. "I don't like to sit around and wait to be inspired in the studio."

John Fogerty wanted his music to appeal to a wide cross section of listeners. In Werner's view, he succeeded. "At its peak," Werner writes, "CCR reached an audience that encompassed hippies, bikers, counterculture intellectuals, rock and roll traditionalists, grunts trying to relax in the hooches and PXs of Vietnam, and a whole bunch of kids who couldn't have cared less about anything other than a good tune and a rockin' beat."

The commentary the author has collected from the early '70s reveals a band affirming a strong sense of togetherness. "In a lifetime you are lucky to have one true and honest friend. I have three," Clifford said in 1971. Clifford allowed John Fogerty to lead the band, doing things his way. It worked. Whether he was writing of violence on the domestic front ("Run Through the Jungle") or railing against a system that sends the poor to the battlefield while exempting the sons of the wealthy or influential ("Fortunate Son"), Fogerty had his finger on the pulse of the national zeitgeist.

Things began to unravel when the other members of Creedence demanded greater creative involvement (Tom Fogerty left the band in 1971 to pursue his own personal vision), and a reluctant John Fogerty finally gave in to Cook and Clifford's wishes. The result was a precipitous decline in quality, as evidenced by the band's final two recordings, 1970's Pendulum and 1972's Mardi Gras, the latter recorded the year of the band's breakup.

Clifford and Cook's recent comments reveal a lingering bitterness at Fogerty's insistence on being in control and the suggestion that he was ultimately responsible for the success of the group. The post-Creedence years were marked by Fogerty's estrangement from his ex-bandmates (he never really reconciled with his brother Tom, who died of respiratory failure in 1990) and legal battles with Saul Zaentz's Fantasy Records. Cook, who blames Fogerty for their involvement with Fantasy to begin with, grouses that "we still have the most pathetic domestic royalty rate of any artists living." His ex-bandmates' refusal to help Fogerty after he was slapped with a self-plagiarism suit by Fantasy in 1985 only served to fuel his resentment. The mutual animosity came to a head at Creedence's 1993 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where Cook and Clifford were informed that a still indignant Fogerty would not let them perform with him.

Today, Cook and Clifford perform the classic CCR songs with their aptly named Creedence Clearwater Revisited, while Fogerty, in this book's more recent interview passages, comes across as a man proud of his achievements, secure in his place in the rock and roll pantheon, and who claims to have moved past the rancor and pain of the past (with a little help from wife Julie). Given the resentment that informs his references to his old bandmates, his claim rings a bit false.

Up Around the Corner: An Oral History of Creedence Clearwater Revival. By Craig Werner, Spike, $13.50.

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