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My Life, My Music
By John Fogerty
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The long-awaited memoir from John Fogerty, the legendary singer-songwriter and creative force behind Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Creedence Clearwater Revival is one of the most important and beloved bands in the history of rock, and John Fogerty wrote, sang, and produced their instantly recognizable classics: “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Born on the Bayou,” and more. Now he reveals how he brought CCR to number one in the world, eclipsing even the Beatles in 1969. By the next year, though, Creedence was falling apart; their amazing, enduring success exploded and faded in just a few short years.
Fortunate Son takes readers from Fogerty’s Northern California roots, through Creedence’s success and the retreat from music and public life, to his hard-won revival as a solo artist who finally found love.
Table of Contents
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IT ALL BEGAN with a record. A children's record.
My mother, Lucile, was a teacher at a nursery school about half a mile from our home, down a dirt road. I remember walking there a few times when I was four or five years old. By myself. That's how innocent our town—El Cerrito, California—was then.
One day, at around this time, my mom brought me home after school and gave me this record. It was a small-size children's record, and nearly the first object I would have realized was my possession—mine alone.* My mom sort of made a presentation of it, and we listened to it together.
The sound of it! Like a bolt into my brain. On each side of this record there was, of course, a song. For all I know the artist could've been Fred Merkle and the Boneheads, but I sure do remember the songs: "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races." And for some odd reason my mother explained that Stephen Foster wrote both of them. He was a songwriter. That's just a fascinating direction for my mom to go in. When you're explaining "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to a child, you don't tell the kid that the songwriter was Johnny Marks. But my mom sat me down and explained this to me. A lot of things have happened in my life, but this one made a huge impression. And like I say, I wasn't even four years old.
"Camptown Races" I thought was an odd title, because it sounded like "Doo Dah, Doo Dah." But there was a certain flavor to the song that I liked. "Oh! Susanna" was even better! I liked how they sounded. They seemed right. I don't know another way to say it, yet I have that feeling to this day—I feel the rightness of a song when it's tight and works, from the words and music to the heart. I considered them amongst my favorite songs. So Stephen Foster became very important to me.
Just a mom, a kid, and a little record. I am still kind of dumbfounded and mystified by this. I have actually wondered if my mom had some kind of a plan—if she knew the gravity that this moment would have for me, each day deep into my life. The simple act of my mom saying to me, "These songs were written by Stephen Foster," set a tone. Opened a door.
When something hits you that hard, even when you're three years old, you begin to watch for it, to crave it. And every time I heard about Stephen Foster, I took note of the song. "Old Folks at Home" (a.k.a. "Swanee River"). "Old Black Joe." "My Old Kentucky Home." "Beautiful Dreamer." There were a lot of them. Over two hundred, I'd learn later.
The stories, the pictures, the way the songs were told—I really took all that to heart. Foster's songs seemed historic, part of America. It was important—in the same way that Mark Twain became important to me. This stuff all felt like the bedrock of America, like the Mayflower, or the way that we grow corn in Indiana. These were things that I didn't realize as a kid—whatever it was, I just knew I really, really liked it.
So when it was time for me to evolve and be my own artist, there was Stephen Foster. Riverboats and the Mississippi… I mean, "Proud Mary" could've been written by Stephen! And then there was that moment when I realized that when I did that sort of thing, it was good. It resonated so strongly when I got it right—not always immediately and sometimes even decades after a song's first inspiration hit me. I began to encourage myself to go deeper in that direction.
Now, if you had told me when I was fifteen and playing for drunks in some dive like the Monkey Inn that I was gonna somehow combine rock and roll with Stephen Foster, I would've told you that you were crazy.
People would listen to my songs and ask, "Where does this come from?" I had trouble explaining that. I hadn't been to Mississippi when I wrote "Proud Mary," nor had I been to Louisiana when I wrote "Born on the Bayou." Somehow it all just seemed familiar to me. Still does.
In recent years, I was fascinated to learn that even though he wrote all these songs about the South, Stephen Foster was from Pittsburgh! I think he wrote "Swanee River" long before he'd ever been to the South. There were other parallels between our lives. Stephen was tricked out of his royalties. And there were parallels that could have been. Foster ended up alcoholic and dying in poverty at the age of thirty-seven. A pretty sad but typical tale. And if it hadn't been for my wife, Julie, that would've been me.
I didn't get into music to get girls. Or to become famous. Or rich. Those things never even occurred to me. I got into music because of music. I just loved it. It was (and is) a mystical, magical thing. I just wanted to write songs, good songs, great songs, ones that Stephen Foster might not cringe at. "Proud Mary," "Born on the Bayou," "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," "Lodi," "Who'll Stop the Rain," "Green River," "Fortunate Son"—chances are you might know a few of those.
Now, if you're familiar with that last song you might be surprised to see it as the title of my autobiography—Fortunate Son has even been used for the title of a biography of George W. Bush!* So how do those two words apply to me? The best way I can illustrate that is by sharing a story about something that happened recently—on Veterans Day.
I was performing on a broadcast called A Salute to the Troops: In Performance at the White House. It was hosted by President Obama and the First Lady and shot on the south lawn of the White House, and shortly after being shown on public TV it was broadcast around the world via the American Forces Network.
Being part of this special evening was a big honor for me. The producer of this event was Ken Ehrlich, who also produces the Grammys. Years ago, Ken and I had teamed up for another event in Washington to honor Vietnam veterans. This time, Ken and I and Julie felt that "Fortunate Son" was exactly the right song for the occasion.
Among other things, you could call it an anti-war song, and there was some pushback over my choice—"No, we don't want him to do that song." I was very respectful: if the powers that be were too scared and didn't want me to do it, I wasn't going to make a stink, because I was there to play for our veterans, a group of guys and gals I sure have respect for and feel somewhat akin to. It's been a long relationship, you might say.
So everyone was a bit on eggshells—President Obama was sitting right up in front, and I'm sure he was wondering, "Have I made the right decision to let this go forward?" When I went to the mic, I said, "I just want to say what a great country we live in, and God bless the men and women who protect us." With that, my band and I tore into the song. I ripped into the guitar riff and all the troops stood up. Here I was, standing there and shouting out the lyric, "It ain't me! It ain't me!," and all these veterans were like frat boys, yelling out the words and just having a great old time. There was a four-star general among them. Even the president was bopping away. It was the coolest thing.
I finished the song to a huge reaction. Returning to the mic, I said, "And I am fortunate." I had thought about this—I wasn't sure I was going to do it until the very last moment—but I said those four words and I left the stage. Meaning, "Yeah, that's my song. Yes, I believe every word of it. But look who I am, look at what's happened for me. My dream came true." I was also saying, "What a great country. We do this in America, the land of the free. They don't do this in North Korea." In that way I truly am a Fortunate Son.
We had another introduction all ready to go for this book. It was pretty action-packed, with all the bells and whistles. A lot of razzamatazz. Cinematic, even. It had Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, roaring guitars, and a cast of thousands. I think Richard Nixon might've even had a cameo. But you know what? It wasn't me. I'm not a flashy guy. I'm pretty simple and from the heart. And that's how this book should be. Miss Julie pointed all this out.
Julie. You'll see that name a lot in this book. I'm not joking when I say I'd been waiting my whole life to meet her. If you're a friend of mine, you understand that she's the love of my life. You'll be hearing from Julie directly later on. She knows everything there is to know about me. It's powerful to have someone you can be so open with, and by the time you reach this book's last words, you'll know as well as she does that I'm not afraid of the truth.
Julie's a big reason I'm doing this book. She's quite aware of the emotional content in things. In the old days, I tended to not talk about it. I can yak for three days on the subject of James Burton's guitar playing. Meanwhile, something that involves anger or fear or trepidation or uncertainty I wouldn't say two sentences about. In the old days, if I was talking about some conflict or controversy regarding my band, I'd downplay it. I didn't want to sound like a whiner and I really didn't want to throw mud all over Creedence—that was still my band.
So I'd end up talking about things in a surface, almost scientific way, not revealing my true feelings. I'd circle around but never get to the heart of the matter. This is my chance to finally set the record straight.
I'm not going to sugarcoat things or make excuses for anybody, especially myself. Hell, I'm not running for president. So I don't have to hide anything. It's very freeing to make up your mind and let it all hang out. Once you shine the spotlight on your own failings, there's little else that can touch you.
I'm just going to tell you my life story the way I see it.
This is the story of a kid from El Cerrito and his musical dream. It came true, and then it turned into a nightmare. His record company betrayed him and so did his band. Worst of all, he was pulled away from his music, from the songs that to this day mean everything.
Stick around, though, because, unlike so many stories about the music business, there's an honest-to-God happy ending.
El Cerrito Days
I WAS DRIVING HOME the other day with my wife, Julie, and our daughter, Kelsy, after a long day out and about. It felt right—all of us warm and comfortable together, content from our day. Suddenly I had a flash of a memory, something that I hadn't thought about in a long time. It reminded me why I cherish these ordinary moments with my family.
My mind was back in a time when I was in the ninth or tenth grade, and I needed to get the homework for that day, which I'd somehow missed at St. Mary's High School. I'd been instructed to pick it up at the house of my friend Michael Still. He answered the door with his younger brother, both of them in nice robes and pajamas, looking freshly scrubbed. My friend apologized for their pj's, saying, "My mom likes us to get our nightly bath over with before dinner so we can relax." Relax.
I remember standing there, feeling all that warmth and happiness flowing from their home, thinking about how these boys were really taken care of. Even though I was just a kid, the disparity between my friend's life and mine was pretty clear to me: he was going to stay home and relax, and I was heading home to a cold, empty house and my drab cement basement bedroom that often flooded. There were no dinner plans—my mom was working, and my dad no longer lived with us. And no, I wasn't going to relax.
I was born on May 28, 1945. I grew up in El Cerrito, California. Years ago I made the mistake of filling out some questionnaire that asked where I was born, and since there's no hospital in El Cerrito, the correct answer is Berkeley, which is what I answered. But I didn't live there and I wish I'd reasoned that out, because now when my childhood is mentioned, it's always attributed to a place that's not my hometown.
I am proudly from El Cerrito. And warm predinner baths and robes or not, I dearly loved my early days and wouldn't trade them with anybody. El Cerrito certainly stamped a different view on me than what some hustling street kid in New York City would have gotten, or a songwriter growing up in Nashville. They're more savvy about stuff. Basically nothing came from El Cerrito, although the baseball players Pumpsie Green and Ernie Broglio both attended El Cerrito High School. I do feel really lucky to have grown up in a little town.
Things were unhurried. Everything was close and friendly and familiar, not nearly so fearful as things can seem these days. There was a little row of businesses near my house, with Bert's Barber Shop, the Louis grocery store, a drugstore, a beauty salon, and Ortman's Ice Cream—you could get a slush for a quarter. When I had a paper route, that was a daily thing.
Man, I'm not even that old but I lived in a different time. I grew up before rapid transit. A six-year-old kid could walk around by himself, head over to the market with a nickel in his pocket, and buy an apple. I remember going over to talk to the butcher to get bones for my dog. You could walk to school. I'm sure the class sizes were actually fairly large, but I recall them being intimate. The teacher looked right at me and talked to me. I had some teachers I really liked. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Fuentes. Miss Begovich, my sixth-grade teacher. She talked about education and intellectual things in a way that mattered. Miss Begovich was inspiring and always gave me a lot of time.
Officer Ray Morris was the local police officer. He rode a three-wheel motorcycle—a memorable thing, for sure. But the reason I know his name is because he was, in a sense, my commanding officer. I was in traffic patrol in fifth and sixth grade—a lieutenant with a whistle and a sweater. And Officer Ray Morris was in charge.
Once I sent away for a siren that you could attach to the front wheel of your bike. I added an old stove timer to that, so when I pulled up to a place, it would go rooooooowrrrrr DING! Outasight. One day I'm blazing down Fairmont Avenue, going all of twenty miles an hour, and I blast right through the Ashbury Avenue intersection by the school, revving my siren and timer. And Ray Morris is sitting right there on his three-wheel motorcycle, just shaking his head. He didn't come over and yell at me—the look was enough. He'd show up at our Boy Scouts meetings too. Once, my bike got stolen and it was no time before he got it back. When I look back now, it's remarkable how close and interwoven all that stuff was in my life. It was community.
Children—I prefer their world even now. I'll bet I have every episode of SpongeBob SquarePants committed to memory. Same with Hannah Montana and the Wiggles' TV show. I sit and watch the shows with my kids. A child can sit and think about one little thing for eons. Adults can seem short and snippy to them. They don't dive into things. They're in a hurry. Kids are aware of that other, grown-up place, and they think, It's okay—if I don't do anything too bad, they'll leave me alone.
So you wander around in your own little world, mostly unfettered by what the grown-ups do. I know I did. At the drugstore near my house, there was a soda fountain. I'd put my ten cents on the counter, they'd take some syrup and fizz water and make you a soda fountain drink. There was a little moment one time when I was sitting there, staring at the Green River soda label on the syrup bottle. It's an old-timey illustration of a yellow moon over a river between two banks—now it reminds me a bit of the Sun Records logo. It really struck me, like, "Wow, I'd like to go there." Green River—I saved that title in my brain, filed it away. Why did I care about that? I was eight. But I was absorbing everything, everything I thought might be important for later in my life, even if I didn't know why. That's what you do as a kid. Everything matters.
El Cerrito had a drive-in movie theater. We always called it the "Motor Movies." When we lived at 226 Ramona Avenue I had the room over the garage and the top bunk of a set of bunk beds. I could watch the movies from my bed. I remember watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and, I believe, Moulin Rouge through my bedroom window. And various monster movies that my mom wouldn't let me go see!
Us kids would ride bikes on the grounds of the drive-in, and I regularly climbed up inside the screen to the top. Next to the drive-in was an old adobe building called the Adobe Restaurant. My mom told me that the place used to have slot machines, and I learned it may have been a "house of ill repute" in the '30s and '40s. Strangely, when they closed the drive-in and a shopping mall was about to be built, an arsonist destroyed the Adobe (perhaps clearing the way for that property to be included in the new mall). I remember going through the ruins and finding square metal nails from the early 1800s.
There was a really cool place to play that was not too far away from our house. It was called Indian Rock and it was just a big bunch of boulders. There were a couple of passageways you could squeeze through. A great place to play hide-and-seek.
Of course, the ultimate play place had been the high school itself when I lived across the street on Eureka Avenue. It's a wonder any of us kids survived. I remember all these big pipes that were one and a half to two and a half feet in diameter. We were little, so we could crawl inside those things and shimmy down to the other end and hide. Kind of like in the movie Them! Jeez! It would have been so easy to have gotten sealed up inside there. No one would've found us… ever. Then there were the piles of sand and gravel—I guess they made concrete out of that. And ropes hanging everywhere that you could climb up and slide down. I think the jig was up when we found a whole bunch of glass. It was probably meant to be windows for the classrooms, but for us aspiring baseball players it made a perfect target! Busted…
One sunny morning me and Mickey Cadoo had a day for the ages. I was about four years old. First we had climbed some small apricot trees and stuffed our pockets with green (unripe) apricots. Then, after eating a few of these, we decided to "climb to the top of the high school." They were still framing the building up on the top floor, and there was a lot of exposed wood crisscrossing and not nailed down. Somehow we managed to get all the way to the top level and stand up on the frame. There was nothing but sky above us.
I had seen cartoons where guys slip on a banana peel, so to make it even more dangerous, I untied my shoelaces, letting them dangle. There was a long, thin board that was just lying across the two sides of the framed space, maybe ten feet from one side to the other. The board was about six inches wide and perhaps one inch thick. So as I stepped out onto this board, it began to bounce up and down. Right about this time, I noticed my dad down in the front yard of our house, which was just across the street. There I was, fifty feet in the air, calling down to my dad, "Hey, Dad, Dad—look at me! I'm up here!"
Well, my dad looked up and saw me there, and his heart must have stopped. I remember that he started jumping up and down, almost like dancing, arms waving in the air. And after a few shocked exclamations, he began to say, "Don't move, Johnny! Stay there, stay there. Do not move!" Somehow I stayed put and my dad clambered up the structure and got us to safety. Whew.
I lived in the El Cerrito area until I was forty. In 1986, long after I'd graduated out of traffic patrol, El Cerrito declared July 15 John Fogerty Day. That little ceremony was very small and sweet, the mayor spoke, and a few fans came from far and wide. Usually when somebody gets these things it's because they invented something or cured a disease. In my case, the official proclamation mentioned songs: "Whereas Mr. Fogerty has written 'Proud Mary' and 'Down on the Corner'…" Not everybody has a day set aside by their hometown, so being honored in that way is pretty untouchable to me. Whatever happens for the rest of my life, I will always remember that fondly.
I loved the song "Shoo-Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy," and when I was a kid I sang it everywhere. Apparently, one Sunday morning at church I became filled with the spirit and broke into the song. I started dancing, and to illustrate the lyric I made my eyes bug out while I rubbed my naked tummy. The folks in church got a big kick out of this bouncy, diaper-wearing baby belting out "Shoo-Fly Pie." The more my parents tried to shush me, the more my "audience" laughed. I'm told I created quite a scene. Two years old and already on the road to perdition!*
I can remember riding in the car in the dark back then. Nighttime. And my parents were singing to each other. With no accompaniment. They would sing a lot of old American and Irish standards, like "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "Little Sir Echo," "Danny Boy"—things like that. They weren't singing to the radio, they were just singing with each other. They'd do one song they called "Cadillac"—"Cadillac, you got the cutest little Cadillac." I asked my parents about that one. I thought it was odd that somebody would write a song about a car. They explained to me that it was actually a song called "Baby Face," and they had changed the words. When Little Richard's second album came out, he had both "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and "Baby Face" on there for the parents, and this made total sense to me.
Listening to my folks sing was really nice. I realized even then that it sounded full. I'd sit between them and sometimes sing along. If one of my parents sang a different note that complemented the melody of a song that I knew, like "Jingle Bells," I'd get curious—"That sounds good, but what are you doing?" They told me they were harmonizing. My parents were very good at it.
So that's where I first heard about harmony: sitting in the front seat in that old car with my parents. A little later, in public school, probably about the fourth grade, Mrs. Gustavson would come in and teach music for an hour once a week or so. That's where I first learned "The Erie Canal Song" and "This Land Is Your Land." There was some American songbook we were learning from. Sometimes there would be a piano accompanying us, and sometimes we were just doing this a cappella. And I always looked forward to it.
Everyone was singing in unison, all singing melody, and I'd sit there and start singing harmony. I really had fun finding a note either over or under what the class was singing. And because there were forty kids singing their part and only me singing my part, it felt pretty safe to experiment. I was drowned out a bit, but I could hear it. If it was wrong, I could quickly change before anybody heard. Both my regular teacher and my music teacher would take note that I was somehow harmonizing—and knew what sounded right. Without being told. One day we were singing "Come Now and See My Farm for It Is Beautiful," and Mrs. Gustavson looked over as I was singing away, and I said, "Is that okay?" She said yes and smiled.
Sound was one thing and lyrics another, and I have cared about both practically forever. My dad and I were in the car once, talking about the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain." We liked that song and he was explaining it to me. It seemed like a really fun place. Then we got to that "little streams of alcohol" part. I asked my dad, "What does that mean? What's 'alcohol'?" He said, "It's something grown-ups like to drink. That would be fun—a whole river full of it, like if there was a whole river of soda pop!" It's ironic: here I was, asking a guy the meaning of "alcohol" when I would eventually learn that he consumed far too much of it. And so would I.
There's certainly a lot of musical influence from both of my parents, but probably more so my mom because I was around her a lot more. My mom played what was called stride piano: her left hand would play a bass note and then a chord, and the right hand would be doing melody and also some syncopation. It was cool, kind of like boogie-woogie. And she was appropriately sloppy. It sounded kind of barrelhouse.
My mom would play the piano and sing "Shine On, Harvest Moon," and sometimes I'd sing along. This was after my parents split up. When you're a kid who's a little rambunctious and rebellious, sometimes you join in, sometimes you act like it's corny and not cool at all. But "Shine On, Harvest Moon" is still one of my favorite songs. One of the best versions is Oliver Hardy singing it in a Laurel and Hardy movie, The Flying Deuces. That version of "Shine On, Harvest Moon" was truly inspiring to me. Laurel is dancing, doing a kind of soft shoe, and Hardy is singing. It's a thirties musical arrangement, but Oliver is more bluesy. And he sings really good! Even though it was slapstick for the rest of the movie, this was serious. Nobody laughed at this. At least that's how I took it: they were presenting art.
There were five boys in our house. We were pretty rough-and-tumble, it's a wonder we didn't all end up in San Quentin. It would've been so easy to fall in with the wrong kids. None of us had any trouble that way, really. My parents—especially my mom—kept my brothers and me on a fairly wholesome path. Whenever I got too close to the edge, my mom would pull me back. I'd call us lower middle class.
My mom was a social person, kind of gregarious. After my parents divorced, she got a teaching degree and dealt mostly with emotionally and even mentally challenged young people. She knew an awful lot about that stuff—I say "that stuff" because us boys really didn't know a lot about my mom's work. Her job was across the bay in South San Francisco, so she left pretty early in the morning and didn't get back until almost dinnertime. That's a lot of day we had to ourselves, and we turned out all right.
One of The Washington Post's Notable Nonfiction Books of 2015One of The Daily Beast's Best Memoirs & Autobiographies of 2015
"A natural storyteller, folksy and crusty, Fogerty chronicles the brief but brilliant success of his band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and its tragic collapse."—Greg Schneider, The Washington Post
"A classic rock 'n' roll survivor's tale."—Mark Guarino, The Chicago Tribune
"A very readable, fascinating account of John Fogerty's life.... One of the best stories of the entire '60s rock 'n' roll era, it is Fogerty's, it is here, and it's worth reading his whole account of the thing. Glad it finally arrived."—Dave DiMartino, Yahoo! Music
"Fortunate Son will take you on a fascinating journey in the tormented artist's own voice."—Ken Hoffman, Houston Chronicle
"It is fitting that writing--i.e., songwriting--is the main theme of Fogerty's biography, which was penned with the same depth of feeling as his music.... But this isn't just an account of one musician's ups and downs with art and life; Fogerty has created a solid study of popular music over the past 50 years."—Publishers Weekly
"A cracking good storyteller."—Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., BookPage
"At the core of this book is a story of redemption fueled by the power of love, and Fogerty's memory is unerring with what brought about that turnaround: wife Julie Fogerty. Some artists cannot be stopped, and that's one of the prime lessons of this book."—Bill Bentley, The Morton Report
"Mr. Fogerty's story will entertain fans, musicians and lovers of American roots music, yet it stands as one more cautionary tale about the darker side of the music business, where artists not handling their due diligence pay dearly. Fortunate Son is the tale of one who fought those battles and ultimately emerged a survivor."—Rich Kienzle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2015
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Little, Brown and Company