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John Fogerty talks guitar heroes, classic songs and his star-studded new CD
John Fogerty laughs at the mention of The Dude. Although he's never actually seen the 1998 Coen Brothers cult classic, The Big Lebowski, he's well-versed in various aspects of Lebowski lore – the ins, the outs and what-have-yous concerning LA's most-famous cinematic stoner-layabout and reluctant sleuth.
"Ironically, I was on a TV show, sitting right next to Jeff Bridges," Fogerty says. "He was going to The Big Lebowski premiere later that night. At one point, he leaned over and said, 'John, there's a bunch of your music in the movie.' And there sure was."
He thinks for a second and then remembers that he did see one scene from the film. "It was when Jeff drops a joint down between his legs while driving," he says. "Lookin' Out My Back Door is playing in the car. Yeah, his character loves Creedence, but he says things like, 'I hate the fuckin' Eagles!'" He laughs, then points out quickly, "But see, I like the Eagles."
Since 1968, plenty of Dudes, Dudettes, Eagles fans and people of just about every stripe have united to form the consensus that the music of John Fogerty accounts for several key chapters in the Great American Songbook. His work with Creedence Clearwater Revival, of course, looms large: During a remarkable four year-period, from 1968 through 1972, the band landed six classic albums at or near the top of the charts, released a dizzying array of impeccably crafted, double-sided hit singles and made any car with a working radio the place to be.
"I was determined to make the best music possible," Fogerty says. "I was chasing that goal every day and every night, and nothing could stop me."
Songs like Proud Mary, Born On The Bayou, Who'll Stop The Rain and a cavalcade of others sounded so right and so perfect the first time you heard them, it was as if they were always there – and one listen was all it took to make you never forget them. Key to this response was Fogerty's masterful alchemy of sound, an unprecedented mix of bayou blues, jacked-up boogie rhythms and echoes of Sun Records rockabilly that begat the adjective "swampy." Paired with Fogerty's matchless vocal style, it remains a mysterious, enlivening and endlessly engrossing thing of beauty.
Fogerty flips through both his Creedence and solo-career back pages on the just-released Wrote A Song For Everyone, an orgy for music lovers in which the rock legend teams with a thoughtfully considered cast of all-stars, including the Foo Fighters, Brad Paisley, Bob Seger, Alan Jackson, Kid Rock, Miranda Lambert, My Morning Jacket and others. Make no mistake, however: This is no nostalgia trip money grab; Fogerty and his artful crew reignite and re-imagine the material, discovering subtle and not-so-subtle nuances, creating a vital and fresh set of music that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the bayou man's best work.
Fogerty sat down with MusicRadar the other day for a wide-ranging conversation that covered the recording of Wrote A Song For Everyone, his guitar playing technique, the impact and legacy of his anti-Vietnam war clarion call Fortunate Son, his choice of guitars through the years and the musical inner workings of CCR. So extensive was our chat that we're presenting it in two parts, the first of which follows below:
For a variety of reasons, I have to imagine that making the new album was a uniquely satisfying experience.
"While you're doing it, you're working, so you're in a particular mindset. At proper intervals, your standards kick in and you start doing your job. You know, I would get nervous. I'm a fan, but I'm also a normal person. When I walked into the room and there's Brad Paisley with a Telecaster on, I got intimidated. And you start to think that it's their record. You want to do a good job and honor them.
"The very first one was with Miranda, and my God, she's such an incredible talent. Her voice is amazing! I don't pay attention to numbers or record company/agent crap, show biz – it's about talent and music. When you have a lot of respect for somebody in that way, you want to bring your best to them and make it work.
"When time went on, I started to feel pretty dang good. I had already been with the Foo Fighters and Bob Seger and Keith Urban and everybody. You feel like you might not be standing at the top of Mount Everest, but you have a clear sky, a whole day, and you're only a thousand feet from the summit."
Was there ever a moment of trepidation while planning or making the album, though? After all, you were recording new versions of songs that many people would consider sacrosanct.
"No. I never worried about that for a second. It's not that I don't respect or have reverence for what people feel – the way that people revere the old songs. It's more that I'm a continuously working musician. I always have a guitar with me and try to practice every day. I try to get four hours a day in when I can. So I'm always trying to write new songs or improve my guitar chops. And I'm thinking of my show and touring, and how I'm going to play new songs, the old songs, new arrangements and so on.
"It's always a work-in-progress. Can I put a new twist on something? It gives me a lot of satisfaction to play in the sandbox of music. My wife had suggested this idea, and I took it to mean a certain thing. She said, 'Why don't you get a bunch of the people that you love and sing your songs?' To me, that meant making new music; it did not mean making old music at all.
"I wasn't looking backwards the way a lot of people do. You see these albums – guys my age put out things like 'Recollections' or 'My Best Years' and stuff like that. And it's looking backwards. With me, I was looking forwards. I was standing there with Brad Paisley, and we were gonna play the shit out of it."
You can hear it. You guys are going toe-to-toe on Hot Rod Heart.
"Well, that was the thing. That was exactly how I felt. When my wife suggested getting a bunch of the people I respect, it gave me an excuse to call Brad because there was a premise. I told him that I wanted him to pick the song. I'm not an expert at this sort of thing, but it seemed to me that if he picked the song, it would be a good thing. It made him invested because he would be picking something that he liked. I was amazed that he picked Hot Rod Heart – it was a compliment. He said that he wanted to turn it into 'gunfighters out on Main Street' – a guitar duel. And I thought, 'Oh, shit! I'm already dead…' [Laughs]
You don't see yourself as a guitar hero, but on a lot of your early work, particularly the jams on Creendence's versions of Suzie Q and I Heard It Through The Grapevine, your playing is right up there with people like Beck, Page and Clapton. Were you looking to guys like that back then?
"Oh, yeah. It's kind of a clear, straight line. I've been playing guitar since… 1957. I got my electric in '58, the one I got from Sears. I had heroes then, but as you go through the years… You see, rock 'n' roll kind of got a little stagnant. We went through that period where music got 'Motowned' to death. Seriously, we were getting pounded by things that sounded alike. And then The Singing Nun had a hit, and I just thought, 'Aw, jeez. Have we run out of ideas?'
"Then, of course, The Beatles hit, and there was this whole flood – the British Invasion. I was totally into it. 'Wow, this is so cool!' It was like reinventing sliced bread. My heroes were guys like George Harrison, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. I heard about Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page."
Dave Grohl and Fogerty, as part of the Sound City Players, trade licks in New York City, February 2013 © Star Shooter/Retna Ltd./Corbis
"Actually, I went to see The Yardbirds, at a roller rink in Hayward, California. We had just heard on the radio that the guitar player had quit, but the bass player took over, so I'm pretty sure I saw Jimmy Page. It was the new guy's first gig, I believe. All I know is, the guitarist was skinny and had dark hair, and I walked away saying, 'Well, that guy was no slouch. He was pretty good!' I think it was Jimmy Page.
"At the time of Suzie Q and Grapevine, I thought I was at least in the same room with that kind of stuff. There are a lot of holes in my technique. Some of the great Tele players who came along, people like James Burton, they're so good. And Chet Atkins could certainly do things I couldn't do then – and probably still can't. I couldn't play like Bill Monroe, and I always lusted after that. But in a rock 'n' roll sense, I was in the same room with those other guys. Jimi Hendrix, though, he was way ahead of us. And Clapton, because of his absolutely true, authentic blues tone and the vibrato he would get, he was ahead of me, certainly. He was probably ahead of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. I think Beck somehow leapfrogged over those guys. There was something about him that's different."
Fortunate Son could only have been written by somebody who had been in the Vietnam War – and it's just as relevant now as it was then. When you recorded it with the Foo Fighters, did you have any conversations with the band about the lyrics?
"Oh, yeah. Yeah, there was discussion in the room. I have to answer that this way: I arrived in the parking lot of their place – I had already been a fan, and I've known Dave for six or seven years. We had never really played together, although we have gotten together to try to write a song. So when I opened up the studio door, they were already in there playing – Taylor was on the drums – and this rush of atmosphere came at me. It was palpable: 'Wow, there's really a band in here!' I could breathe it, I could see it.
"Then, when we were digging into the song, I was in the control room, and [Fogerty's wife] Julie asked me a question about the day, and that was all it took. You know me – once I get to talking, it's like, 'Tell me about the war, Grandpa.' [Laughs] I know I talked about how kids felt back then, because it was important for me to get across to these guys how you may know somebody from the military who's come back from Iraq or Afghanistan, and I don't want you to think that I was a wimp, someone who ran away from soldiers.
"Most people who were my age then really didn't want to go to the Far East and fight in Vietnam, because our government, meaning Richard Nixon, was trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Young people were having none of it; they were saying, 'Screw you!' There was that Country Joe song – [sings] 'And it's one, two, three/ what are we fighting for?... I don't give a damn/ The next stop is Vietnam.' That was how the kids then felt, because the government wanted us to go die in a jungle for some rich guys in Texas. Young males wouldn't have any of it, but if you were unfortunate to have been in the military, as I was, we were hanging together.
"I know that I talked about that. In 1969, there was no difference between a 19 year old who was in the army and a 19 year old who wasn't, and I was the guy who was going to stand there and prove that. I could see both worlds because I lived both worlds. Nixon was trying to paint people who were against the war as being unpatriotic or un-American, and it didn't work for me."
"It was interesting when my kids realized, 'Hey, our dad is part of the pantheon of these other guys,' like Cream and Zeppelin and The Beatles." © Brian Hineline/Retna Ltd./Corbis
A different kind of song, of course, is Lodi. Your sons, Shane and Tyler, perform with you on the new version. Do you ever talk to them about what your songs mean? Do they ask you questions about them in a historical sense?
"They've been hearing it over time. I haven't been, like, the village elder; I haven't tried to intrude that much on them. They've come on tour with me – the whole family has, since 1997. I remember talking with Tyler in Tarlo, Finland, when he was just four years old. So they've heard a bit about me and music.
"They got interested in playing the guitar, and they formed a little band in high school. Because of the internet, they discovered classic rock, and I realized, 'Hey, they like the same stuff that I like.' It was a revelation. Back when I was a kid, you didn't like your parents' music. You hated it! [Laughs] Actually, that's not entirely true – some of that stuff I got way into. But mostly, we were rebelling.
"It was interesting when my kids realized, 'Hey, our dad is part of the pantheon of these other guys,' like Cream and Zeppelin and The Beatles and all that. I'm sure they didn't think I was as good as them. I've tried to tell them without sounding like the grouchy old man: 'You kids today, you got it too easy!' [Laughs] Mostly, I've tried to show them how much fun this all is. I think they got that part."
Tom Morello plays the guitar solo on the song Wrote A Song For Everyone. I'm curious – what does the man who wrote Fortunate Son think of Rage Against The Machine?
"I was familiar with the band. Not every single song, but I knew them. Tom was the one that I knew the most about. I met him a couple of times backstage at a couple of things, and I thought he was a really, really nice guy. He puts out this vibe of being really happy. That guy has confidence. It isn't like he has a bunch of issues and he's twisted, as it is with some people you meet. I thought, 'That's a cool guy.'
"I knew he could sure play the guitar, and I knew that Rage was political. I remember there was a song, The Battle For LA or something like that. I must say, I was more into the content than the actual music, if that makes any sense. But I hadn't yet gone on YouTube and found some extended jams of Tom Morello. If I had done that, which I did, before I called him – I went on YouTube the way any fan might do: 'Oh, my God! Look at this – this guy's so great!'"
You've described Tom's solo as being "face melting." Did you ever try your own solo – a "face-melting" one – before he did his?
"It was the opposite. When I was in the studio with Miranda Lambert and my band, I thought there should be a loopy, hippie-ish solo in that spot. In the weeks and months afterwards, I went in a couple of directions. I was thinking something like on Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl – I tried something like that. Later, when I listened to what I had, it didn't get to the level of what Miranda did. I tried it again, this time doing something like on Rod Stewart's Maggie May. I didn't like that one, either.
"Then I remembered the day we did it in the studio, when Miranda yelled out, 'a face-melting guitar solo!' I got a chuckle out of it at the time; I didn't know if she was joking or not. In my hour of desperation or need, I thought, 'You know what? I'll try something like Tom Morello,' because I'd been with him at Madison Square Garden with Bruce. And then I thought, 'You know, it would be way cooler if I just called Tom Morello.' That's what I did. It went from making it kind of cool to way-cool because there was the real guy doing it."
Ike & Tina Turner had a huge hit with Proud Mary. When you recut it, did it feel as though you were reclaiming it in some way?
"Not so much that. I love the Ike & Tina version. I get this tingle of excitement when my wife is alive with some kind of idea. She's having this intuitive thing, and I… How can I say this? I just fall at her feet and realize, you know, the oracle is tuned in. [Laughs] It really is kind of majestic when she does that. I'm talking to her about New Orleans and the music and how great the vibe is, and she says, 'Proud Mary.'
"I said, 'No, no, no. You didn't quite get it.' But she says, 'Proud Mary.' Her eyes are real big, which means that she's engaged. She was saying, 'Proud Mary. New Orleans. Like when we go to Jazz Fest; we love the Cajun fiddle and the zydeco, the great food and the boudin, the gumbo, the red beans and rice, and the horns…' She's spewing this out, and I'm going, 'This kind of sounds like a match.' And she says, "Yeah, like a journey.'
"It's putting in what everybody feels about it, but it's not official unless I do it. That's what this is – an official endorsement of where it's gone kind of in a viral way over the last 40 years. It isn't just the Tina Turner version – some of that's there. Some of that comes from the way that Jennifer [Hudson] wanted to treat it, and the way Allen Toussaint wanted to treat it.
"By the way, that was my very sincere contribution to this. My wife was spurring me on with all of this wonderful stimuli, and I said, 'Honey, I'm gonna need some help with this – Allen Toussaint!' I mean, what else could you say? He did a lot of great things, but one of those was the way he arranged the front, the slow beginning. Even though Tina did it, this has more of a gospel feel. It's really cool."