The interview was in its third hour and John Fogerty was still searching for the right analogy to describe his confusion during the last, lost decade. He had been locked for most of those years in an artistic straitjacket.
Fogerty's eyes finally lit up. He found the image: Jack Nicholson's character in "The Shining," the guy who sat at the table for months feverishly working away on a novel--but he was just typing the same sentence over and over.
"That's how it eventually got for me," said Fogerty, whose hits with Creedence Clearwater Revival established him as one of the most commanding writers and singers ever in rock. He was sitting in his rehearsal studio in this community near Berkeley, giving his first formal interview since 1975.
"I was wrapped up in all kinds of legal and financial messes that kept me from making a record," he continued, talking rapidly as if trying to purge himself of the years of frustration and doubt. "But I had to do something positive. So, I sat in this room 10 hours a day, playing the guitar and the drums and the bass. I'm talking about years. I was trying to keep in shape for the day I would make another record."
When the problems were resolved early in 1983, Fogerty began recording his new album, playing all the instruments himself. But the music sounded too dated, too much like old Creedence stuff. He returned to the studio and did the whole album over.
"This went on for weeks," Fogerty added. "I had heard these songs so many times I didn't know what to think. I was confused . . . flat, burned out. That's when I thought about the guy in the movie.
"What if I was just making old Creedence records and the rest of the world was waiting for something modern . . . like Prince or Madonna. The record company might listen to it and say, 'John, I'm sorry. This is the modern world.' "
But Fogerty's fears were unfounded. Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Bros. Records, was the first person to hear Fogerty's new music--and he was ecstatic. Even more than the Beatles, Creedence had always been Waronker's favorite rock band and the new stuff was as strong as Creedence--only more contemporary.
Waronker brought in other members of his staff and they, too, agreed: This shaped up as an album of major commercial and historical proportions. Rather than rush the album out last fall, they decided to wait until this month so that they could put together an ambitious promotional campaign.
Radio programmers apparently share Warners' enthusiasm. When a single, "The Old Man Down the Road," was released in December, it was an instant hit on rock stations and declared a "breaker" (as in "hitbound") on pop-oriented Top 40 stations by the influential Radio & Records trade publication.
The album, "Centerfield," will be released this week and critics are likely to be just as pleased. More than Presley or the other early greats of rock were ever able to do, Fogerty has recaptured the purity and vision of his peak days.
"It's like I've come out of a nightmare," Fogerty said. "Don't get me wrong. I don't want this to sound like self pity. I'm in a positive mood. I tried to tell a few people that things would work out, but I could see that they really didn't believe me. And I understood why. It had been years since my last album and that one wasn't really very good. But I always believed that this day would come. What else was there to do? Put a gun to your head?"
There was a point during Creedence's glory days in 1970 when John Fogerty felt invincible. The singer-guitarist had already written, arranged and produced some of the most prized records ever in rock, including "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising," "Green River" and "Who'll Stop the Rain."
With the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, those hits established Creedence as the world's biggest-selling group. At one point in 1970, Creedence needed two new songs for a single--quickly--before leaving for a European tour. Fogerty only had a weekend to come up with them.
So, he went home and wrote the songs--"Up Around the Bend" and "Run Through the Jungle"--on Saturday and Sunday. He recorded the vocals on Monday and had a demo copy of the songs in his hand before leaving for Europe on Wednesday. That double-sided hit, too, went into the Top 10. By the time Creedence broke up in 1972, the band had sold $150-million worth of records around the world.
But things had deteriorated so severely for Fogerty by 1976 that his new company, Asylum, advised him against releasing his second solo album. Label chief Joe Smith advised Fogerty that the album just wasn't up to the writer's standards.
That was the last anyone outside Fogerty's family heard new music from him. That is, until last summer, when he flew down with six songs to play for Lenny Waronker.
Even though Fogerty dropped out of sight, Creedence's music continued to be played regularly on the radio and was featured in films, including "An American Werewolf in London," "Twilight Zone--The Movie" and "The Big Chill." One movie, "Who'll Stop the Rain," even drew its title from a Creedence tune.
In addition, rock and country artists--from Emmylou Harris and Alabama to Bruce Springsteen and the Minutemen--recorded or featured Fogerty songs in concert. When Fantasy released a live Creedence album (recorded in 1970) three years ago, it received extensive airplay and climbed on the national charts.
Fogerty was even a hero to musicians who came out of the British punk scene and normally enjoyed nothing better than lashing out at "old" '60s rock stars. When Fogerty's name came up during an interview with the Clash's Joe Strummer two years ago, it took me nearly 10 minutes to get Strummer to talk about his own music again.
Strummer then asked the same thing that so many other Creedence fans were asking: Whatever happened to him?
Because I had interviewed Fogerty several times in the early '70s and had even accompanied Creedence on part of its final European tour in 1971, I called him soon after the live album came out.
He hadn't done an interview in years, but I thought the ground swell of affection for his music might convince him it was time to talk. But he wanted no part of it.
"I don't want to be like one of those guys in People magazine," he said at the time. "You know, the ones who sit around and talk about the old days. I'll talk when I have some new music to talk about."
Sitting now in his rehearsal studio, Fogerty expanded on why he kept his silence. He lives with his wife Martha and their three teen-agers in a comfortable but certainly not lavish house within jogging distance of his old El Cerrito High School.
"I just didn't have anything to say," Fogerty began. "The picture I always have is of a dog who goes away. He doesn't sit there and lick his wounds in front of you. Animals are pretty smart that way. Nothing is worse than a has-been rock 'n' roll singer telling you his problems.
"A few years ago, Russ Gary, who engineered lots of the Creedence records, called and said I must be proud that all the old records were still being played on the radio. But I said, 'No, it wasn't worth it. The way I am living . . . not getting any sleep, worrying over what is going to happen to my music and how I'm going to provide security for my wife and family.'
"But what good would it have done to say all that publicly? It wouldn't have made me feel any better."
For the same reasons, Fogerty rejected offers to go on the road and replay the Creedence hits.
"Could you imagine going out and singing 'Rollin' on the River' night after night without any new songs? If I had any creativity left at all, that would have certainly killed it. It's humiliating to feed off the past."
Fogerty's tension began with Creedence. After building the band into a success, he saw it fall apart. Though Fogerty designed all the hits, brother Tom, who played rhythm guitar, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford eventually clashed over artistic and business issues.
Tom left the band in 1970. Cook and Clifford were given a larger role in the final album. They wrote six songs for the LP, none of which were even remotely up to Creedence standards, and the album, "Mardi Gras," was a disaster critically. The group broke up before entering the studio again.
About the final days of Creedence, Fogerty said: "The review in Rolling Stone called 'Mardi Gras' the worst record ever made by a major group and they were right. The review didn't offend me; it was drivel. The only thing worse was going on tour and doing those songs live.
"The audiences could tell. We were so bad they started throwing money at us. I'm not kidding. I've still got a quarter I saved from Denver, our last show. Doug was singing whatever he was singing, and I was getting pelted. I felt like throwing them too. I asked myself, 'What are we doing this for?' "
Still signed to Fantasy, Fogerty made a country-flavored solo album titled "Blue Ridge Rangers" in 1973 and had a Top 10 single with a lively remake of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya." But longstanding frustrations with Fantasy Records--over issues ranging from royalty rates to promotion to the amount of recordings due--caused him to go on strike in 1975. He felt the pressures were affecting his songwriting abilities--and that there was no way he could resolve the differences with the label.
David Geffen, then head of Asylum Records and now an entertainment business mogul, stepped in and worked out a $1-million deal under which Fantasy would retain overseas rights to Fogerty albums, but the U.S. and Canadian rights would pass to Asylum.
Even Fogerty admits that his first Asylum album--despite a couple of top level tunes, including "Rockin' All Over the World"--was a commercial and artistic disappointment. His second Asylum LP was never released. Joe Smith, who succeeded Geffen as head of the label, feared the LP would damage Fogerty's reputation. He sensed something was troubling his artist and advised him to take care of it before trying to attempt another LP.
The problems were twofold, according to Fogerty. First, he resented the continuing relationship with Fantasy, which he felt had made a fortune on his music while paying him a low royalty rate.
Second, he discovered that his life savings were in danger. The money had been placed in a Bahamian bank tax shelter that eventually lost its charter--and the Creedence funds, Fogerty said. All four members of Creedence sued the Edward J. Arnold Accountancy Corp., an Oakland accounting firm, charging mishandling of the funds. They won an $8.6-million judgment in 1983, of which Fogerty received $4.1 million. The case is now on appeal.
Though most of that money will go to taxes and legal fees, Fogerty felt he won a moral victory. Within weeks of the jury decision, he began planning the album that became "Centerfield."
Fogerty now looks upon the day in 1976 that Asylum rejected his second album as the turning point in his struggle.
"I knew it wasn't a good record," he said, looking youthful at 39 in his Creedence trademark jeans and flannel shirt. "The songs weren't happening. A lot of that album were just gibberish. I even ended up putting a kind of Scottish drum corps instrumental track on there because I couldn't think of anything else to do.
"When Joe (Smith) told me to take time off and sort out my personal problems, I was relieved. I never dreamed it would take nine years, but there's no way I could ever have made a record the way I was. I just couldn't concentrate on the music. I had tried to work my way through it because that was my job--making records."
It took years for Fogerty to unscramble himself from the legal and financial problems. He discussed the complex issues at length, even stating that (after taxes and the Bahamian bank losses) he only made about $1.5 million from all the Creedence hits. Here are excerpts from that discussion:
Why was Fantasy still an issue in 1976? You were off the label except for overseas.
I didn't want to be associated with them in any way. Every time I'd turn on the radio and hear a Creedence song, I'd picture them sitting over there in their big building laughing at me . . . thinking of all the money they made off us and how little they gave us back. The picture of a slave was pretty well in my head. These guys were wealthy beyond anybody's imagination. Creedence sold $150 to $200 million worldwide. . . . That's what enabled Fantasy to go off and do all these other things . . . buy up record companies, make movies ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus").
(A Fantasy Records spokesman declined to comment on Fogerty's remarks except to insist that the original Creedence contract was comparable at the time to what other Bay Area groups, including the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, received at other labels. In addition, he said, Fantasy offered Creedence 10% ownership in the company in 1969--a point Fogerty disputes.)
How did you resolve that issue?
We finally made a deal where they would keep my artist royalties from future Creedence sales and I'd take back my overseas rights.
What about the accounting problem?
I was working on the synthesizer one day in this room when we found out the money was gone. My lawyers had looked everywhere and they finally realized there were no more places to look. I went right over to the mall and said, "I need a symbol because these guys ain't getting away with this." I got an earring. It isn't just a simple affectation. To me, it was a sign of strength, of fighting back. I still wear it and it reminds me of how I felt that day.
How did you try to fight back?
I called Joe (Smith) and said I've got real financial troubles, tax problems. Who can I talk to. He sent me over to Irell & Manella, a law firm in Century City. That's when we started making plans to sue the accountants. Besides the Bahamian matter, the accounting firm had put about $1.5 million of my songwriting money in other accounts, but I knew I owed that for taxes.
I received the money in one day, put it in my bank account and it stayed there until the IRS took it. I literally could not have afforded the suit if the law firm hadn't carried the ball. The only money in front of me was what I would earn on songwriting (on post-Creedence releases) and I didn't know when I'd write another song?
How did you get into this system of rehearsing every day?
There wasn't any alternative. I couldn't hire a band when it might be years before I could make another record. So I'd go into the (rehearsal) room every day at 8 in the morning and sometimes stay there until 8 or 10 at night. If I was going to make a record all by myself, I needed to be better on each instrument. I'd listen to the radio and tell I wasn't good enough. Besides, the rehearsing gave me something to do. I could feel my playing get better every day.
You must have felt like giving up at times? How did people around you act as the years started to add up? Do you think they ever gave up?
I could feel people trying to cheer me up and trying to comfort me. But I also felt them thinking that it was time I gave it up and admit that I had failed. But I knew it was going to come out all right. I guess people aren't used to dealing with someone who is obsessed .
Do you consider yourself obsessed?
I'm just using a term that I don't really know what it means. But there has to be some of that--the idea that a man goes into a room and stands in the same four-foot space, every day for 9 1/2 years with no apparent result. If I saw someone doing that, the first word I'd use is, "That man is crazy."
I used to think before all this happened that I had it all down and I knew the answers. I really did think at one time I was invincible when it came to making records. But I didn't have that feeling again until this year. In between, I'd get mad . . . I'd get scared. I couldn't do what I wanted to do. I felt like I was in jail. I felt like I was in this dungeon. But the only answer was to keep going.
Fogerty's new album is on Warner Bros. because his contract was switched to the Burbank-based label when sister label Elektra/Asylum moved its headquarters in 1983 from Los Angeles to New York. Waronker, a respected record producer who had worked on albums by Randy Newman and James Taylor, was thrilled. To him, Fogerty represented a mix of rock passion and traditional songwriting skills.
"Centerfield" isn't a concept album, but it is filled with commentary. "I Saw It on TV" is a bittersweet reflection of America over the last 30 years, a harder-edged, politically conscious "American Pie." The track concludes with a brief but striking instrumental reprise of "Who'll Stop the Rain."
In a reference to Watergate and the Vietnam War, Fogerty writes about an old man, rocking listlessly on his porch and reflecting on some of the ironies involved:
And them that was caught in the Cover
They're all rich and free
But they chained my mind
To an endless tomb
When they took my only son from me.
On ending "TV" with a reprise of "Rain," Fogerty said: "To me, the rain to me was all the words, the baloney coming out of Washington . . . the same old rhetoric, and the baloney is still coming. It blew my mind that Nixon got elected the first time. It doubly blew my mind that he got elected the second time. So what happens now? We've got an actor in the White House."
"Searchlight" and "Zanz Kant Danz" describe the helplessness and anger of Fogerty's lengthy legal and financial turmoil. The lyrics of "Searchlight" are, in part: "Here in the darkness I'm runnin' blind/Been stumblin' for all these years."
But there's also songs like "I Can't Help Myself" and "Centerfield" that speak of artistic rebirth. In the latter, Fogerty utilizes a baseball setting to describe his own re-found energy: "Well, put me in coach/I'm ready to play, today. "
Though "The Old Man Down the Road" sounds almost identical to early Creedence records, the other tracks on the album update the style with such contemporary touches as drum synthesizers.
"I was aware that things had changed . . . technology had improved and styles and fashion also change," he said, explaining some of the new musical touches. "I was definitely aware of the need to move forward. I didn't want to sound just like I did 10 or 12 years ago.
"Aside from matters of style, I think the album fits right there with any Creedence album. Actually, parts of it are better. This put it right alongside 'Green River,' feeling-wise."
One of the most distinctive features of Creedence music was its Southern, Delta roots sound. Even today, many rock fans are surprised to learn that the band was from Berkeley. They pictured Creedence as a Memphis or New Orleans band.
Fogerty realized he was creating a Delta sound by the time of the group's second album, "Bayou Country," but the sound was created inadvertently.
"To me, there was always something Southern about rock 'n' roll," Fogerty explained. "I was into rock before Elvis, but he was the one who had the biggest impact on me. I remember seeing him on the Dorsey Brothers' TV show. He was everything I wanted to be. I used to hold a broom in front of the mirror and try to be like him. Maybe the fact that he was from the South made that part of the country so exciting to me."
Fogerty began using the Southern imagery when writing "Proud Mary," still his most successful song.
"I could have put it on the Sacramento River, but I loved the sound of all those Southern places . . . New Orleans, Memphis," he said. "So, 'Proud Mary' had to be on the Mississippi River.
"I started doing that with other songs. I'd put my own experiences in that special setting. In 'Born on the Bayou,' for instance, I just described my own childhood. I had a dog, I went to picnics on the Fourth of July. I didn't run through the backwoods bare, but I did with swimming trunks. I just threw in a little voodoo images to create this special little world and it stuck."
Despite his outpouring of hits, Fogerty never had the high profile of many of the '60s rockers, including Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or the Rolling Stones. One reason was he avoided the fast-lane life style that attracted a lot of media attention in those days.
"I loved rock 'n' roll and I thought I was pretty good at it," he suggested. "With Creedence, I thought we put on a heck of a stage show. We were every bit as exciting as anybody else out there. But I didn't think my job was also to go out and be crazy. For one thing, I wanted to live. I didn't want to die. It was not my idea to go out in a blaze of glory on the back of a Harley.
"The only that counted was the music. I could see a lot of that wild life style produced really cruddy music. I always wanted to make great records and I didn't want anything to interfere with it."
With the album due in the stores this week and the video of "The Old Man Down the Road" finished, the normal next step for Fogerty would be to go on tour. But he wants to have another album released before he hits the road, probably not before next year.
"Most people would figure that the last thing I'd want to see after all this time was another studio," he said. "But I can't wait to get back to work. I feel like the guy I was in '68 and '69 again. For 10 years, I lost touch with that guy. I'm confident again. I want to make another album. I'm tired of being a living has-been."