Who’ll stop the rain?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY GREG SCH­NEI­DER Greg Sch­nei­der is The Washington Post’s busi­ness editor.

The fall of rocker John Fogerty.

Imag­ine be­ing a kid in the 1950s and ’60s and watch­ing the rise of Elvis and then the Bea­tles. You’re no­body in a nowhere town, but like ev­ery­body else you form a rock band, along with your brother and a cou­ple of bud­dies from school. You learn your shabby in­stru­ments while play­ing cov­ers in a dive bar. Then, over the course of one glo­ri­ous year, magic hap­pens. You put out records and they sell like crazy and you be­come the big­gest band in the world. Dream come true, right? Not for John Fogerty, lead singer and song­writer for Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Re­vival. His band’s brief but bril­liant suc­cess — CCR was the only Amer­i­can band that beat the Bea­tles head-to-head in record sales — teed up a life­time of strug­gle. The hard­ships came not for the usual rea­sons of drug abuse or lack of tal­ent but be­cause of sad lit­tle jeal­ousies and the sign­ing of a bad con­tract.

Now Fogerty lays out his ver­sion of the whole tor­tured saga in his memoir, “For­tu­nate Son.” Fogerty is a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller — folksy and crusty and prone to wan­der­ing off onto col­or­ful side­tracks. There’s a bit­ter­ness, though, that threat­ens to over­take his story in the same way that the le­gal woes hi­jacked his ca­reer. Luck­ily, the dark­ness never quite saps the charm out of “For­tu­nate Son,” a tale of a life in mu­sic that de­serves fresh at­ten­tion.

Cree­dence was root­sier than the Bea­tles, catchier than Bob Dy­lan and the Band, and tighter than the Grate­ful Dead. In 1969, the group logged an al­most in­cred­i­ble string of hits in a sin­gle year — “Proud Mary,” “Green River,” “Bad Moon Ris­ing,” “Down on the Cor­ner,” “For­tu­nate Son” — usu­ally re­leas­ing two at a time on 45s, the B side as big as the A. To hear those tunes to­day, it’s some­how sur­pris­ing to think that Fogerty just sat down and wrote them; they sound like stan­dards from 100 years ago.

One of the plea­sures of the book is watch­ing Fogerty strug­gle to ex­plain where those swampy, time­less songs came from. He was not, in fact, “born on the bayou.” He was born in 1945 and grew up in El Cer­rito, Calif., a small town near San Fran­cisco. He never even went to Mis­sis­sippi or Louisiana un­til late in life.

His par­ents had five sons and di­vorced when Fogerty was a teenager. He con­jures up an al­most Twain-like child­hood of backyard camp­ing, boy­ish pranks and tin­ker­ing with cars and ra­dios. Froma young age, he re­sponded to old-fash­ioned Amer­i­can mu­sic, and it was a rev­e­la­tion when he re­al­ized that one man, the mid-19th-cen­tury com­poser Stephen Foster, had writ­ten such stand­bys as “Swa­nee River,” “My Old Ken­tucky Home” and “Beau­ti­ful Dreamer.” Even­tu­ally he was drawn to blues­men such as Lead Belly and Light­nin’ Hop­kins and, as the rock scene de­vel­oped, turned up his nose at the in­dul­gent jams of the Grate­ful Dead in fa­vor of tight shows put on by soul stars James Brown and Jackie Wil­son.

So all that was in his head, and one day at age 22, he’s at home with his guitar, words and riffs bub­bling around, and next thing you know he comes up with a song, and it’s “Proud Mary.” This was a pro­found leap for a guy who’d been play­ing Lit­tle Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly” in a group called the Gol­li­wogs. His de­scrip­tion of that mo­ment ra­di­ates be­wil­dered joy: “You’re look­ing at this shad­owy, cloudy shape, you start to go in a di­rec­tion and whump! The veil is lifted and sud­denly there’s a song, a great song. It was like be­ing struck by God. I was sit­ting there quak­ing with this pa­per inmy hand.”

Once that veil lifted, the songs just poured out.

Fogerty is no mystic, though; he comes across as a striver, as some­one who tries harder than ev­ery­body else. You can hear that in the strain in his voice on some of those songs. He didn’t just lis­ten to mu­sic, he dis­sected it — the way a guitar sounded, the sub­tleties of a rhythm — and then reengi­neered it. When in­spi­ra­tion hit, he was ready.

Those same qual­i­ties helped drive apart the band. Fogerty doesn’t sug­ar­coat his de­mands for per­fec­tion, his im­pa­tience with his mates. In his telling, they were con­tent to let him fig­ure ev­ery­thing out but jeal­ous when the ac­co­lades started to flow his way. And Fogerty pulls no punches in set­tling old scores. Un­doubt­edly bassist Stu Cook and drum­mer Doug Clifford would quib­ble with some of the retellings. (Fogerty’s older brother Tom, who played rhythm guitar for Cree­dence, died in 1990.)

What makes the story au­then­ti­cally tragic is that the band planted the seeds of its own de­struc­tion, sign­ing a dis­as­trous con­tract with Fan­tasy Records just as they were about to hit it big. Fogerty lost con­trol of his own com­po­si­tions. All of his hits for Cree­dence were owned by Fan­tasy, and he was on the hook to de­liver hun­dreds more songs in the com­ing years— but he re­fused to do it. Fogerty says he reaped only a frac­tion of the money that was rolling in. The band got caught up in an off­shore tax scheme that he says was en­gi­neered by Fan­tasy, snar­ing them in a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion that ate up his sav­ings in le­gal fees. Cree­dence songs kept crop­ping up in com­mer­cials, and Fogerty had no au­thor­ity to pre­vent them from be­ing used. The predica­ment gave him an ul­cer by age 24 and bot­tled him up for decades — he quit mu­sic for long pe­ri­ods and took refuge in booze. Be­ing sued for pla­gia­riz­ing your own work— which he even­tu­ally was — must rank high on life’s frus­tra­tion me­ter.

For all that, it was in many ways Fogerty’s stub­born­ness that de­prived the world of years and years of his mu­sic and per­for­mances. He sim­ply re­fused to play ball by rules he felt were un­fair. An emo­tional high point of the book comes in 1987, when he plays a show in Washington for Viet­nam vet­er­ans. For the first time in years, he per­forms the old Cree­dence tunes—“Born on the Bayou,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain”— and the vets go wild. Af­ter­ward, one of the vets gives Fogerty his ser­vice medal. Over­whelmed, Fogerty pins it to his guitar strap.

Even that high doesn’t last, as Fogerty con­tin­ues to strug­gle with the sense of be­ing cheated out of his own legacy.

He cred­its the love of his sec­ond wife and his sec­ond shot at cre­at­ing a fam­ily with pulling him through the tough times. But the book is also a love let­ter to Amer­i­can mu­sic in all its forms, from hill­billy to jazz to soul and, of course, rock-and-roll. His pas­sion and en­thu­si­asm are gen­uinely touch­ing— though a long sec­tion at the end where he fawns over present-day record­ing stars is tough to stom­ach.

To­day Fogerty feels a lit­tle re­moved from the all-stars of clas­sic rock. He has drifted in and out of the public eye over the past cou­ple of decades — weirdly un­aged (fa­mously re­sem­bling Star Wars’ Han Solo in a flan­nel shirt), still able to toss out a mem­o­rable song. “For­tu­nate Son” should be just what he needs to get him back out there in the lime­light— in cen­ter field, of course, where he be­longs.


John Fogerty and his band Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Re­vival once out­sold the Bea­tles.

By John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough Lit­tle, Brown. 406 pp. $30 FOR­TU­NATE SON My Life, My Mu­sic

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