The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: John Fogerty's 'Fortunate Son'

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Jay Gabler with 'Fortunate Son'
Jay Gabler with 'Fortunate Son' (Leah Garaas/MPR)

Here's what I knew about John Fogerty before reading Fortunate Son: (a) his band Creedence Clearwater Revival put out several of the greatest albums of the rock era, all within a couple years' time; (b) he had a comeback in the '80s; and (c) he's been involved in endless litigation.

Having finished Fogerty's new memoir, I know more details about all of those things — but they're all true, and their coexistence is uncomfortable. No one except for a lawyer wants to be known for endless litigation, but that's more or less been the reality of John Fogerty's life since the early 1970s.

Though it's written in a polished and readable style (with the help of Jimmy McDonough), Fortunate Son isn't always easy to read: about the first half chronicles CCR's rapid rise, and the second half covers the bumpy later years. Fogerty's early successes came so rapidly that it seemed like almost a dream — and then that dream turned into a decades-long nightmare. Even the comeback story is bittersweet: riding the success of Centerfield, Fogerty was still so upset about the CCR breakup that he refused to play his old songs, earning crowds' ire.

Fogerty is effusive in crediting his influences, but he isn't scholarly about it. He knew what he liked, which was a lot, and he knew what he could do well — which was done extremely well. The members of CCR came together when they were just teenagers, which helps account for why the eventual breakup hit Fogerty so hard.

With Fogerty — who soon became the band's leader, and isn't unduly modest about his superior musical abilities — drawn irresistibly to the swampy, shuffling blues, CCR hit the late '60s like a tuning fork. While the Beatles indulged in grand experiments that Fogerty admired and knew he couldn't touch, CCR released a rapid-fire series of albums that captured the zeitgeist with a tuneful, hard-rocking rambunctiousness. In just two calendar years — 1969 and 1970 — CCR dropped Bayou Country, Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys, Cosmo's Factory, and Pendulum.

Songs like "Fortunate Son" and "Run Through the Jungle" were topical, but not so precisely so as to be awkward — which is one reason why they've aged so well. Songs like "Proud Mary" and "Green River," on the other hand, spoke to a hippie-inflected search for authenticity — but with a musical discipline that made them more radio-friendly than anything by rootsy peers like the Grateful Dead, whose loose approach appalled Fogerty.

Soon, CCR were being credibly described as the biggest American band in the world — and that's exactly when everything fell apart. Fogerty recounts Spinal-Tap-like feuds over questions like who stood where on album covers, and it was no secret that his bandmates were chafing at the bit to be regarded as more than sidemen. Tom Fogerty left the band, and the disastrously democratic effort Mardi Gras (1972) was described as "John Fogerty's revenge" by critics who appreciated the band's internal dynamics, though Fogerty swears he gave his bandmates' inferior songs his best efforts as a performer.

That was the end of CCR the band — but by that point, CCR the brand was worth way too much for things to end cleanly, especially since the band were under an extended contract that, Fogerty points out, would have covered all his studio albums through 1997 if he hadn't managed to buy it out by relinquishing his share of CCR's music publishing. Fogerty's rancor with producer Saul Zaentz and CCR's label Fantasy Records has been well-documented, and now it's even more so.

Fogerty's bandmates, who of course had less to lose, came to terms with Zaentz separately from Fogerty, so by the time the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, Fogerty was so upset that he refused to play with his surviving bandmates. (Tom Fogerty died in 1990.)

What about that comeback? It came none too soon, and even a number one album didn't entirely pull Fogerty out of his funk. He played every instrument on Centerfield (1985) himself, seemingly less to prove he could do it than because his experience with CCR had soured him on being a member of a band — a youthful ideal he'd formed while watching the Crickets. It wasn't until the end of the decade that Fogerty started playing CCR songs again.

Much of Fortunate Son is devoted to Julie, Fogerty's second wife to whom he's been happily — ecstatically, it seems — married for almost 25 years. In his life with Julie, Fogerty seems to have finally found peace; though his latter-day musical efforts haven't been as memorable as CCR or Centerfield, in the Julie Era they've been very respectable, and Fogerty is in a position to justly celebrate his remarkable achievements.

Fortunate Son is an informative and readable map through the long career of a great American musician. It also puts Fogerty on record about some highly contentious situations; others will have their own two cents, but here's the word from the voice that matters most. In addition to a handy musical memoir, the book is also an apt reminder: it's about the music, but for better or for worse, it's never just about the music.

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