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Unfortunate Son

Although John Fogerty hit many detours in his career, he didn't expect 11 years' worth on the road to his current album, Blue Moon Swamp.

Fogerty's music always sounded like it came from the heart of the South. His backwoods shout, the understated acoustic rhythm guitars, percolating rhythms and his shimmering, economical guitar leads with Creedence Clearwater Revival sounded as though they'd been recorded at Memphis' Sun Studio with producer Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley himself looking on.

Yet, as Fogerty readily admits, he had no physical connection to the South. Born in Berkeley, California, to parents who hailed from Montana, the scenarios and sounds of "Proud Mary," "Born on the Bayou" and "Down on the Corner" came from a radio-powered imagination.

"I would just imagine John Lee Hooker or Lefty Frizzell or Hank Williams or somebody, certainly Elvis," Fogerty says from Los Angeles. "I'd sit around and kind of daydream about what their lives were like and try to picture how it was for them and just kind of fill in the blanks. When I was older, when I was able to write what I felt, that's what came out. I thought everyone felt the same way. I never knew there was something odd about what I was imagining."

Fogerty wanted to go deeper into his influences with Blue Moon Swamp, and sometimes he does reach a different plane. Although the album's dozen tracks have nary a dog among them, "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade" clearly is a breakthrough for Fogerty as a songwriter and performer. A straightforward blues, the song drips with the sweat of a man "diggin' in the devil's boneyard." Earthy and elemental, the song evokes all the feeling that's been lost in America's urbanization.

Fogerty says the song "arrived in my mind" fully formed about a year after his most recent visit to Mississippi. "It was just so vivid," he says. "It's something I could've never done by just imagining it. I really had to have been there and remembered and recalled things."

Surprisingly, for a guy so steeped in Southern music, Fogerty didn't visit Mississippi until 1990, a fact he sheepishly calls a "curious cultural gap." About a year before that visit, he says, "I was getting this feeling, I didn't quite know why, that I should go to Mississippi, but I couldn't explain it to myself, so I actually put it off."

However, the compulsion became too strong to resist. Having loved the region's music for so long, he needed to make a pilgrimage. He says he told himself, "'Gee, John, you've heard about this stuff, but you don't really know anything.' It's like being a wise fool, you know? Or a well-traveled idiot. How could I not have been standing at the crossroads at least once in my life?"

Fogerty's reference to the old Robert Johnson blues song is interesting. Cream's version of "Crossroads" entered Billboard's Top 40 on February 8, 1969, the same day that Fogerty's "Proud Mary" did. "Proud Mary," about a riverboat on the Mississippi, was the first hit that Fogerty wrote for Creedence. Although "Proud Mary" has devolved over the years into wedding-reception fodder, it is to Fogerty what "Crossroads" is to Johnson.

Fogerty made his way to Mississippi thinking that he would put together a genealogy of Delta blues. "I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know who Charley Patton was before I went down there," he says. Patton, who recorded in the late '20s, is about as close as anyone can come to finding a "father of Delta blues."

"I didn't think I was working on my own music," Fogerty says. "I thought I was working on a history book like a musicologist or something."

Instead, as he haunted old blues joints, tracked down 78s and talked to people about the music and its history, he found himself inspired and refocused. After that initial trip, he went back a few more times, and began to put together Blue Moon Swamp.

Fogerty regrets the long gaps between albums: "I would have to say you would want it to be quicker than 10 years. It's too maddening for everybody. The first thing anybody's going to say is, 'Whoa! I waited 10 years for this?'"

His pace once was much faster. From 1968-72, Fogerty pumped out enough tunes to fuel six hit-filled (and one not-so-hit-filled) Creedence albums. Since 1972, he's released only five--and one of those, 1973's Blue Ridge Rangers, was full of cover songs.

He didn't take much of a break after the pressure-cooker years with Creedence, releasing a self-titled solo album just two years after Blue Ridge Rangers. However, on the eve of putting out the follow-up album, Hoodoo, in 1976, he pulled it from release and retired with his wife and kids to Oregon.

Echoing the tale of many old bluesmen who were exploited by slickers in the music business, Fogerty was disheartened by the publishing deal he signed as a youngster. It gave ownership of all his Creedence songs to the band's record label, Fantasy Records. He came to detest the label chief, Saul Zaentz, and wrangled over delayed royalty payments.

When Fogerty decided to give the music biz another try with the 1985 album Centerfield, he vented in a thinly veiled song called "Zanz Can't Dance." Zaentz threatened legal action, and Fogerty responded by changing the song title to "Vanz Can't Dance."

Centerfield was a real return to Creedence form and produced such hits as "The Old Man Down the Road." However, when Fogerty played Farm Aid later that year, he carefully avoided all Creedence material, leaning on the Centerfield material and closing with a rousing cover of the Stax classic "Knock on Wood." His synth-heavy 1986 album Eye of the Zombie was a disappointment, and when Fogerty launched a tour in support of the album, he continued to ignore his old classics.

However much he wanted to erase his painful memories of the Fantasy years, he hadn't yet stopped tangling with Zaentz. In what is surely the first instance of a performer being sued for sounding too much like himself, Fantasy brought a copyright-infringement suit against Fogerty in 1988, saying that with "The Old Man Down the Road," he had plagiarized his own song. The jury found for Fogerty.

Fogerty admits that the lawsuit drained his creative spirit, and lengthened the gap between Eye of the Zombie and Blue Moon Swamp, but he doesn't want to talk about those issues anymore. "People don't understand how things like that can hurt your heart," he says.

Another source of pain for Fogerty was a late-'80s breakup with his first wife. On this subject, Fogerty will only say that they were very young when they married. Their divorce only exacerbated his creative malaise.

Of course, he'd rather focus on other, more positive factors that contributed to his layoff. He met and married his current wife, Julie, had a couple of sons with her, and worked to improve his musicianship, taking four years to compile Blue Moon Swamp.

"In a lot of ways, my music, my own playing, my guitar playing especially, had not progressed to my satisfaction," Fogerty says.

As a youngster, he aspired to the technical virtuosity of Chet Atkins and James Burton, who was for many years the lead guitarist in Presley's band. Both had impressive skill, although "one was very rock 'n' roll and one was very country."

"At the age of 47 or so, I was just a pathetic shadow of those guys," he says. "I felt really bad. I just felt really bad. It's like, 'You've wasted your life!'"

The results of his woodshedding are audible in the crisp, country-gentleman licks of "Southern Streamline"--which is attracting some airplay on Country Music Television--and in the slinky, Creedencelike tremolo of "Blue Boy."

Touring with a five-piece "garage band" to promote Blue Moon Swamp, Fogerty is mixing in tunes that cover the full scope of his career, including Creedence numbers.

His decision to play Creedence songs again came gradually. About 10 years ago, Fogerty says, he was driving down a toll road on his way from Indiana to Chicago, listening to a radio talk show when the hosts referred to "that Tina Turner song, 'Proud Mary.'"

"That kind of pissed me off," Fogerty says.
A few months later, he got up at the Palomino in Los Angeles to join an impromptu jam with Bob Dylan and George Harrison. "I only got up there because I said to myself, 'Man, I ain't gonna miss this,'" Fogerty says. "To get up there and be a Beatle for three minutes, you know?"

Although the jam started out with such old straightahead rockers as "Twist and Shout," soon both Dylan and Harrison played their own tunes, and the spotlight eventually shifted to Fogerty. As he had done so often before, he begged off his old songs.

Dylan, looking over the top of his shades like a college professor, told him, "John, if you don't start singing 'Proud Mary' again, everyone's going to think it's a Tina Turner song."

"The logic was inescapable," Fogerty says. He gave in that night and played "Proud Mary," reclaiming his artistic--if not legal--ownership of the song and ending another major detour in his long career.

John Fogerty is scheduled to perform on Saturday, August 30, at Union Hall, with the Bottle Rockets. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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Salvatore Caputo