John Fogerty – Blue Moon Rising
Conspicuously absent during these recent years of country-rock renewal — and all the debt it owes to the renegade blending of Southern R&B and hillbilly music — has been the one man who virtually originated and defined that melding of musical styles. But with the release of Blue Moon Swamp, John Fogerty has suddenly reappeared with his artistic vitality and relevance firmly inact.
It has been more than 10 years since Fogerty released Eye of the Zombie, the follow-up to his masterful 1985 solo comeback Centerfield. That album, in turn, had arrived a full decade after his previous solo album, one of two he released shortly after Creedence Clearwater Revival disbanded in the early ’70s, leaving a considerable musical legacy in their wake.
Yet from the first moments of “Southern Streamline,” the train-rolling opener to Blue Moon Swamp, it’s readily apparent that not only has this seemingly ageless rock ‘n’ roller never sounded better vocally, but musically, this song is in a league with Creedence’s 1969 smash “Bad Moon Rising” — which the opening notes, and in particular, the rhythm, instantly recall.
“You know, with Creedence, we really only had a couple beats, a couple musical feels,” Fogerty said over lunch in a studio lot on the Warner Bros. compound in Burbank recently. “There was the beat to ‘Proud Mary’ or ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’; and ‘Bad Moon Rising’ was the other. We couldn’t do a shuffle to save our lives — but most white guys can’t, anyway!”
Fogerty laughs as he says this; at 51, he somehow still has the same boyish appearance he had nearly three decades ago during Creedence’s heyday. He sparkles when he speaks of his music — but his memories of the Creedence period, as is well-documented, are anything but happy.
A quick recap: The quartet came together as junior high school buddies in the San Francisco Bay Area, with Fogerty joined by his late brother Tom on rhythm guitar, Stu Cook on bass, and Doug Clifford on drums. First known as Tommy Fogerty & the Blue Velvets, they signed with the Berkeley-based Fantasy Records jazz label and released singles starting in 1965 under the name the Golliwogs. It was after they changed their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1967 that their so-called “swamp rock” blend of Southern R&B, Bayou-flavored rock and backwoods country found full flower, commencing with CCR’s 1968 cover of Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q” — the first of of a string of more than a dozen Top-20 singles over a four-year period that was one of the most consistent stretches of rapid-fire hitmaking ever registered by an American band.
Creedence disbanded bitterly in 1972, and to compound the negativity, Fogerty soon became embroiled in interminable legal wrangling with Saul Zaentz, Fantasy’s owner and recent Oscar-winning producer of The English Patient, among other films. Things go so bad for Fogerty, whose Creedence copyrights were owned by Zaentz, that he stopped performing his career-building Creedence material, and castigated Zaentz on the Centerfield album with the thinly disguised diatribe “Zanz Kant Danz” (eventually changed on future pressings to “Vanz Kant Danz”). Although Fogerty eventually won a landmark plagiarism case — Zaentz had sued him for allegedly ripping off the chord progression of the Zaentz-owned Creedence hit “Run Through The Jungle” and using it in the Centerfield hit “Old Man Down The Road” — other Fogerty-Zaentz issues remained unsettled, spiraling Fogerty deeper into despair.
“By the time we went to court [in 1988], it was such a perversion of the spirit of what music should be about,” Fogerty said, no longer laughing. “I had prepared from the time I was eight until when you heard of me to be a musician: I read Teen and Hit Parader and even Sixteen in the pre-Beatles days. Elvis was obviously the blueprint, but I liked Rick Nelson, who semed to be a nice guy as opposed to being mean. It sounds naive now, but I was totally unprepared for all the negative things that happened.”
Fogerty, whose songwriting and performing with Creedence seemed so effortless, had now entered an extended period of grave self-doubt. “Because of the Creedence breakup and what happened with the record company, I lost the assuredness of knowing what I’m doing,” he explained. “I got confused and fucked up and disjointed, and started on a quest without knowing why.”
That quest, he later discovered, brought him back to his roots in the blues and eventually helped fulfill a promise he’d made to himself many years earlier.
“My first huge influence was the blues, or R&B as it was known when I was a kid back in ’53-’54 — before rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “So I decided I would feel more grounded if I went back and got it all straight, and I went down to New Orleans with a bunch of notepads, bought some books, and got in a rental car and drove throughout the Mississippi Delta.”
Surprisingly, for a guy whose music is so steeped in the blues, Fogerty had never even been to Mississippi, let alone listened to many of his music’s ancestors besides the giants such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and especially Howlin’ Wolf.
“Talk about black guys from Mississippi, and here’s some snot-nosed white guy from the suburbs strapping on a guitar who’s now going to play the shuffle blues, and what a joke!” Fogerty exclaimed. “I couldn’t handle that about the ’60s, because white guys playing the blues couldn’t hold a candle to Elmore James, let alone Chuck Berry — but white audiences didn’t know that. Here we were, when ‘Suzie Q’ hit in the late summer of ’68, and Howlin’ Wolf was opening for us at the Cheetah in L.A. — when we should have opened for him!
“I was probably about 30 then, and looked like a child, spending two days with Howlin’ Wolf and his guitarist Hubert Sumlin — one of my idols. Here we were, awestruck white kids with one hit, and I was absolutely in awe. Wolf smoked Kooks and so did I, and he had these huge hands playing an Epiphone guitar — and I’ve been trying to find one ever since. Obviously, I’d listened to Howlin’ Wolf, but that was as far as I knew, and now here I was in Mississippi, discovering people like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson and Gus Cannon, getting the files straight on the music I revered. I even spent my 45th birthday standing outside Parchman Farm [renowned for its blues legend and lore]. Sometime after that, I started recording the album, and it all started coming out of me.”
Indeed, Fogerty actually began recording Blue Moon Swamp nearly five years ago. He worked diligently on it, going to the studio nearly every day, taking only Christmas and the month of August off for his family. But the project was initially hampered when Fogerty decided his original backing band was unable to produce the kind of “real rock ‘n’ roll feel” that has always driven him.