Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music by John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough (Little, Brown, and Co, 2015)
“Bad Moon Rising.” “Suzie Q.” “Green River.” “Lookin' Out My Back Door.” “Who'll Stop the Rain.” “Down on the Corner.” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” “Proud Mary.” If you are a Baby Boomer, or even if you are a little younger, immediately upon reading these titles, the rock and roll music written by John Fogerty is playing on the record player in your brain. You can hear the bass line of “Proud Mary,” you can hear the gutsy guitar solo in the Creedence version of “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The music of Creedence Clearwater Revival is imprinted in our heads as we “listen to the happy noise” and “stamp our feet.” Creedence played a form of contemporary music known as “swamp rock,” created by the genius of John Fogerty, who lived and breathed music from the time he was a little boy until present day. And, although the band, Creedence Clearwater Revival existed for only five short years, many of their distinctive songs outsold the Beatles during their reign as rock and roll heroes.
Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music by John Fogerty with Jimmy McDonough is a better than average autobiography of a rock star because it is so sincerely and humbly written by a guy who can still perform better than any young star out there today. I have been lucky enough to see John Fogerty perform twice over the last few years, both concerts being held at the PNC Arts Center in Holmdel, and at one of them a guest appearance by Fogerty's good pal Bruce Springsteen occurred, bringing down an already overwhelmed, rocking out audience represented by all age groups.
Completely awed by Fogerty's command of the stage, his energy, his presence, I have said to my husband on more than one occasion, “He had to have sold his soul to the devil to look this good and sound this good at his age.” Born in 1945, Fogerty is now 71 years old, but you would never know it when he lights up a stage with his energy and passion for performing. It is obvious that it is of the utmost importance to John Fogerty to give his all to every performance; he never leaves the audience wanting for one of his songs. He plays them all, but for a long, long time John Fogerty wasn't allowed to play his songs and was conspicuously absent from the music world.
Fogerty's long career as a master musician/song writer has been far from easy. Fogerty claims that he learned how to be a performer from greats like James Brown and Jackie Wilson when as a youngster, he spent many happy days at concerts performed at the Oakland Auditorium. He describes a James Brown performance in this way, “He'd sing one song---'Please, Please, Please—-' and then suddenly, pow! James goes down on the ground with the split. Then he's up on his feet and into another song. Bam! He might've been on for twenty minutes, but he and the band did twelve songs. The idea was to explode in a very short period of time. Energy! At the end, everybody's mouths hung open---'Whaaa happened?' I loved them!” (p. 78)
By enduring betrayals from his band mates in Creedence (including his own brother, Tom), the Fantasy record label, and its president Saul Zaentz, who controlled the publishing rights to all of the wonderful songs Fogerty had written while on the Fantasy label, Fogerty has managed to endure and rise above it all. However, the pain of more than twenty years in litigation and alienation from the music community took a deep toll on a good guy, who found himself lost in booze and despair for a long time. The difference, though, between John Fogerty and so many other rock stars, is that Fogerty overcame his troubles and fought his way back to record single albums and continue performing for audiences all over the globe.
In describing his childhood years, Fogerty presents a compact version of the history of rock and roll, one that music lovers can relish and explore. The first recording that Fogerty remembers getting from his Mom was of “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races,” which he loved. His mother explained to young John whom Stephen Foster was, and his importance as a songwriter, and even at the tender age of five, Fogerty recognized that telling a story through music would be a cool thing to do for a living.
Fogerty recalls seeing Elvis for the first time on the Dorsey Brothers' TV show in 1956, and being greatly influenced by the snarling and dangerous young man who took the young art of rock and roll to new heights. Fogerty recalls, “I saw Elvis at the Oakland Coliseum in 1970, when he was just speeding through the songs---the whole Vegas thing with the karate moves. Elvis had recorded 'Proud Mary,' which, of course, was a tribute and an honor, but it seemed like he hurried through it. I guess if I were more tactful I wouldn't say that. Yes, it was great to have your idol do your song, but you just wished that he had killed it. I never got to meet Elvis, and I really wish I had. Elvis got crazy, but he just lost his way. And we have all done that, whether a little or a lot.” (p.41)
But Fogerty reveals that it wasn't Elvis who was the best he ever saw. “Pete Seeger is the greatest entertainer I have ever seen. An incredible musician. He'd be talking, telling a story, that skinny body of his rocking and his head would go back and out would come 'Michael, row the boat ashore . . .' You were there in the boat with Pete. Then he'd get everybody in the whole audience to sing along in three parts. It's like,'Damn. How did we all just do that for an hour?' I've never seen anybody else do that---” (p. 58)
Above all, Fogerty, who is ranked as number 40 of Rolling Stone Magazine's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists and number 72 in their list of 100 Greatest Singers, emphasizes throughout the autobiography the amount of time, even today, that he studies how to become an even better musician. At one point in his life after the break-up of Creedence, he cut an album where he played all of the instruments. The struggle to play every instrument, including the drums, opened his eyes to the fact that he needed to concentrate on becoming a significant force on the guitar. Fogerty's humility regarding his ability to play is one of the main reasons Fortunate Son is so interesting. John Fogerty's work ethic and motivation to achieve and become better are a constant theme that explains to the reader why he is such an icon in the musical world.
Fortunate Son is about the history of rock and roll, the dark side of the music business, and the tragedies and triumphs of a man who will always be remembered for “swamp rock,” although he grew up far from our Southern states. His recognizable voice and rhythms still make music that is impossible to listen to sitting down. Put this verse in your head as I close today's review and ask yourself, “Is my foot tapping? Do I have to get up and dance?”
Early in the evenin', just about supper time
Over by the courthouse, they're startin' to unwind
Four kids on the corner, trying to bring you up,
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp.
Down on the corner
Out in the street
Willy and the Poor Boys are playin'
Bring a nickel, tap your feet.