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Music: High Tide on the Green River

6 minute read
Jay Cocks

Along time coming. Too long, by any reckoning, to wait for a new record by a man who has written some of the clearest, most enduring songs in all of rock. But Centerfield, John Fogerty’s first album since 1975, sounds as if he has never been away: out of time but never out of touch. His music always seemed timeless anyhow, torn out of some imaginary territory in rock’s persistent musical past, and it always seemed natural. It still does. Only it has all come very hard.

In 1969, as the seminal force in Creedence Clearwater Revival, he sang, “The man from the magazine/ Said I was on my way/ Somewhere I lost connections/ I ran out of songs to play.” It was as if Fogerty had seen the future plain. Seven years later, that haunted little reverie from a tune called Lodi had turned into grim reality. He had lost out on–been done out of, he would say–millions of dollars in a bitter wrangle with his money managers. He got jammed up legally, and creatively he had gone dead dry.

For those who came in late: there was no one in their time making better, stronger American rock ‘n’ roll than Creedence Clearwater Revival. From 1968 through 1972, Creedence made seven albums that grossed worldwide upwards of $150 million. Fogerty wrote and sang nine Top Ten singles in a period of three years. He had served a hitch in the Army Reserve in 1967, and Run Through the Jungle and Fortunate Son may have been the first songs about Viet Nam that sounded as if they could have been sung by soldiers as well as peace marchers.

There were three other members of Creedence–Doug Clifford, Stu Cook and John’s brother Tom–but it quickly became clear that it was John’s band. This caused some resistance among the others. They were chafing against the autocracy of a young man whose Arcadian visions of a mythic America (Green River, Proud Mary) were as ample and unsentimental as his urban cameos (Down on the Corner), his musical allegories (Travelin’ Band), his raunchy rockers (Sweet Hitch-Hiker) and his heartsick love songs (Wrote a Song for Everyone).

He was, in short, a great American songwriter, with the clean-cut narrative gifts of Chuck Berry, the honesty of a Hank Williams and the rave-up musical skills of a perfesser in a Saturday night juke joint. The guys in Creedence were good, but they were outclassed; almost anyone would be, but that did not make the situation any easier. The group disbanded in 1972, and four years and two halfheartedly received solo albums later, Fogerty shut himself down. He did not stop making music–“Once you stop the next step is backward, and you’re going to end up in a bar some place in Albuquerque”–but he did something much harder. He started all over again.

“My creative switches had kind of gone off,” he says. “There was an anvil over my head. I would owe music for the rest of my life. Writing, the music, my understanding of ‘arrange’ and ‘produce’ were gone. But I told myself that when I got good enough musically, it would come back. I knew that if I kept working on the music, not getting somebody else to play bass or anything for me, that if I somehow understood the music again the way I did in the beginning, when it was so personal, when I did it with my own two hands, I knew that somehow each of the motions would help release me.”

Every morning, Fogerty would slip into his tiny studio in El Cerrito, Calif., and practice. Guitar. Bass. Keyboards. Drums. He would go home for dinner, see his wife Martha and three children, then practice again into the night. On weekends he would practice in the TV room, “where my family could see I was actually alive. I just had to get better and better.” During all this time, there were frequent bulletins from the legal and accounting fronts, and consequent flare-ups. Floor lamps were kicked, walls punched. “And then Dad got mad” was the way his daughter Laurie would polish off a family story. “But then, Dad was always mad.” Dad kept practicing, pressing. He did not write a song for something like eight years. Then the legal troubles started to clear up. Finally, Fogerty began to write.

; Growing up in El Cerrito, he and his brothers used to have sing-alongs with their mother and father in the car. Now, after he took his son Sean off to a drum lesson, he would pull his blue Toyota Landcruiser off the Eastshore Freeway onto a frontage road near the water, move over into the front passenger seat and work on some new tunes. It took five months to get enough material to play for the president of Warner Bros. Records. “Well, Lenny,” Fogerty cracked, taking a seat in the executive office, “how does a 39-year- old has-been rock singer get you to listen to his records?” “I guess we’ll just listen,” replied Lenny Waronker, who knows a good thing when he hears one. That day, he heard one right away.

“My favorite place in all the world is Green River,” Fogerty will say. “My favorite musical spot was captured in that record.” Centerfield takes him right back there. This is Creedence territory revisited, redefined and redistributed over a different part of the map. The rhythmic tidal pull of the old band has been worked down to something homier, although no less funky. Fogerty, who arranged, produced and plays all the instruments on this album, is less a one-man band than a single-engine soul train. Instrumentally, Fogerty will probably make no one ache with envy–“I’m a pretty good bar band” is as far as he will push it–but as a writer, there is still no one around any better.

The record is full of sunlight and nightmare. Searchlight is one of Fogerty’s magisterially eerie songs. The album is charting nicely, and its first single, The Old Man Down the Road, is moving smartly toward the Top Ten. It sounds like nothing else on the radio, a swampy, spooky piece of back- country funk about a mojo man who becomes a figure of mystery, and of death. The record is laced with such strangeness but, overall, fetches up, even at its fiercest moments, a feeling of exuberance and release. “Put me in Coach/ I’m ready to play today” goes the chorus of the title cut. Just like Chuck Berry’s brown-eyed handsome man, John Fogerty is rounding third and heading for home. But this time he’ll make it standing up.

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