10 Takeaways from John Fogerty's Memoir

by Jeff Suwak

John Fogerty's Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music is much like his music - a simple, no-bull tale told straight from the heart and oozing with blue collar integrity. Too many rock bios end up feeling like either exercises in arrogance and self-aggrandizement or soulless attempts to check off another box in the "celebrity legacy" checklist. Fortunate Son is different. It is the memoir of a man who recognizes his own achievements but, in that recognition, never forgets that he was once just a kid from El Cerrito, California (and he makes certain we understand that, though he might have born in a Berkeley hospital, he is a child of El Cerrito and damn proud of it).

Fogerty addresses many of the things that he had kept quiet about in the past, including his true feelings about Creedence Clearwater Revival. He discusses the massive success of his music, but never with a sense of braggadocio. Rather, it feels like a man nodding with pride at the end of a hard day's work. When he talks about his encounter with a Vietnam veteran who tells him how "Bad Moon Rising" helped get him through the war, there is no feeling whatsoever of a "rock star" talking down to a fan. Instead, there is only an earnest sense of respect and humanity from one man to another.

As much as he despised Nixon (and Fogerty lets us know precisely how he feels about Nixon) and as much as he disagreed with the Vietnam War, Fogerty always held firm to a deep love for what America represents. No matter how angry or disappointed he became with the nation's political machine, he never lost sight of the fact that he was lucky as hell to have been born where he was. As he proclaimed on the lawn of the White House, with President Obama sitting in the crowd, Fogerty never forgot that he is, indeed, a fortunate son.

1) "Run Through the Jungle" is commonly believed to be about the Vietnam War, but it was actually about the United States. The idea for the song had begun floating through Fogerty's head ever since Charles Whitman climbed atop a tower at the University of Texas and started shooting into the crowd below. "The song," Fogerty writes, "is really about gun control." He goes on to discuss his views on gun control with a balanced perspective (and no, he is not simply "anti-gun," so chill out, people).

2) The most influential musician for Fogerty was Stephen Foster, the "father of American music" and writer of such classics as "Gwine to Run All Night" (better known as "Camptown Races") and "Oh! Susanna." When he got older, Fogerty came to realize that his music was really an attempt to fuse Stephen Foster's Americana with rock and roll.

3) Fogerty served in the Army Reserves from 1966-67. Most of his time was spent doing busy work, including a hellacious amount of marching. One day, while marching, he noticed a smudge on the toe of his boots. He started trying to work it out and found, to his bafflement, that it seemed to move on him every time he tried to fix it. For days he worked at this mark and, as he did, the hints of a story began to play out in his mind. This story would eventually become the song "Porterville," and the experience proved to be a landmark in his songwriting career. From that seed of artistic self-awareness, later classics such as "Proud Mary" and "Born on the Bayou" were born.

4) As a child, Fogerty got an autograph from the legendary Lightnin' Hopkins, writer of classics such as "Mojo Hand" and one of the most influential guitarists to ever pluck a string.

Lightnin' signed only with an "X" and did so in secret, apparently willing to reveal his illiteracy to a boy but not to anyone else.

Fogerty kept the autograph in a drawer for a long time but eventually lost it.

5) While CCR was still wearing Himalayan yak hats under the moniker of "The Golliwogs," they earned one of their first big breaks as opening act for Sonny and Cher. They played well enough to earn an encore.

The curtain opened and they began to play Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog" (which was also memorably covered by The Rolling Stones). Almost immediately, the curtain closed right back up.

It turned out that "Walking the Dog" was the exact same song that Sonny and Cher were slated to open with.

6) Fogerty got the inspiration for "Born on the Bayou" while doing sound checks in San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom. While practicing "I Put a Spell on You" (or, so he says, he is pretty certain that was the song), he started playing around with the sound of the guitar and then directing the rest of the band to play along in E.

A mysterious, swampy sort of sound started to rise up out of this improvisational jam, but just as the whole thing was coalescing, the stage manager pulled the plug and told them they had to go. The manager said the amount of time they were taking was ridiculous and that they weren't ever going to make it anywhere, anyway.

Fogerty looked right at the dude and told him that, in one year's time, he would see just how mistaken he actually was.

Sure enough, one year later CCR was too big for the Avalon to afford.

7) "Up Around the Bend" came to Fogerty while he was riding his motorcycle through the hills.

8) Fogerty is a perfectionist and admits he can be rather hard on himself. One song, however, earns particular disdain.

"You Got the Magic" was one of the two songs (the other being "Evil Thing") to sneak out of the 1976 Hoodoo recording before Fogerty and Asylum decided to pull the album out of production. Unfortunately for Fogerty, bootlegs filtered out into the public and the whole thing remains a blemish on an otherwise great career.

"It sounds more disco than anything else," Fogerty says, "and disco sure did suck. That was a silly era in rock and roll."

No disagreements on that matter, Mr. Fogerty.

9) Folk musician extraordinaire and early environmentalist Pete Seeger was the greatest performer that Fogerty ever saw. "He'd be talking, telling a story, that skinny body of his rocking, and his head would go back, and out would come 'Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.' You were there in the boat with Pete. Then he'd get everyone in the audience to sing along in three parts. It's like 'damn, how did we all just do that for an hour?'"

Seeger is largely forgotten by the general listening public today. Not by Fogerty, though. "I've witnessed the Franks, the Sammies, the Dinos, the Elvises," he writes, "but Pete Seeger just had the magic."

10) There was a lot of tension in the air when Fogerty played on the White House lawn for a "Salute to the Troops" program. Everyone wanted to know if he'd play "Fortunate Son" and, if he did, how the crowd would react. It was long considered, after all, an anti-war anthem.

Fogerty, a lifelong supporter of veterans, decided to roll the dice and play the song. As he nervously ripped into the classic, the crowd of veterans erupted like "frat boys," dancing and singing along. Even President Obama was bopping his head to the music.

Fogerty had written the song as a condemnation of American political elitism. He meant it when he wrote it and he means it still. At the end of the day, though, he doesn't let that overshadow the fact that he also got pretty fortunate along the way.

Fogerty's legacy is unique among his peers. He was never truly part of the counterculture, despite being associated with it. He was not fond of the drug scene, nor was he fond of the way that the anti-war movement morphed, in some circles, into an anti-American one.

His music is not generally considered "visionary" in the way that the music of folks like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin is. That's a mistake, though. Fogerty was doing something totally new and original, though perhaps more subtle and less pretentious than some others. Part of the misperception of Fogerty's music may result from the simple fact that he was so good and workmanlike in his composition. While other groups were loosening up and taking music into more abstract spaces, Fogerty was trimming every bit of fat away and constructing tight, seamless works of art. Few people who hear "Born on the Bayou" for the first time would guess that Fogerty not only isn't from Louisiana, but had never even seen that part of the country at the time he wrote the song. It's so meticulously crafted that it sounds traditional, not experimental, and ancient rather than aesthetically unique.

Fortunate Son shines new light on Fogerty's musical vision. Beyond that, it reveals the man in a way that's never been done before. He might be a legend, but John Fogerty doesn't put on any airs, and he doesn't hold back in his book. What comes through is the impression of a brilliant, difficult perfectionist who loves making music for the sake of making music, not for the fame or money it brought. Beyond that, it gives the impression of a man who refused to sacrifice the integrity of his artistic vision, no matter how much pain or difficulty his stubbornness might have brought. It's a damn good read for fans of rock and roll.

December 1, 2015
More Song Writing

Comments: 2

  • Jim from North Billerica, MaFYI, Aerosmith did "Walkin' the Dog" as well on their first album as well.
    Shame he lost Lightnin'' Hopkins mark.
  • Patrick from Wahiawa, HiWhen "Detective John McClane" tunes in "Fortunate Son" just as the "Fire Sale" strikes in the movie "Live Free or Die Hard," we know that these two are "That Guy," ready to be the hero, no matter what the cost.
    That Guy may be reluctant/tired/unappreciated, but is always ready to say "Yippee Ki-yay" (Motherf--ker)! when the chips are down.
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