Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Sad, Strange Case of John Fogerty v Neil Young

So I’m watching Hard Rock Calling 2012 and I’m hit all over again, as I am not infrequently, with the thought: how great is John Fogerty?

I mean, pretty much any way you slice it, the guy was the real deal, the complete package: phenomenal writer, great guitarist, distinctive and effective singer, rock-solid producer, and prolific as few others have ever been. How great was John Fogerty? So great that this boy from the Bay Area made most folks really and truly believe, without even trying, that he was from the deep south. How great was John Fogerty? This great: he not only wrote a song with the word “chooglin’” in the title, he then went on to sing the word in the song nearly seventeen thousand times—and he almost made it work, even. Oh, and in his spare time, he casually invented the grunge look 20+ years ahead of schedule.

Creedence Clearwater Revival released a stunning seven albums in under four years—but even that’s deceptive, as the final album was a thrown together mess released after what was, for them, a crazy long quiet period of nearly a year and a half. In other words, just looking at what could be considered their middle period, CCR released great five albums in two years. That is, to quote the great Luke Skywalker, highly unlikely. And yet.

From CCR’s first (of three!) 1969 album, Bayou Country, with “Proud Mary” and “Born on the Bayou” to their second 1970 album, Pendulum, with “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” Creedence’s run is virtually unsurpassed. And with Fogerty writing and singing the overwhelming majority of the band’s output—as well as producing, playing the guitar solos, the keyboards and even the damn horns—this was very clearly his band.

And then it was over. CCR broke up acrimoniously in 1972. John Fogerty released a pair of solo albums that were pleasant enough and then he disappeared, reemerging with a new album in the 80s, a record that at the time seemed like a glorious return to form but which hasn’t aged terribly well. He’s released a few things since then, but nothing that can even approach his glory days.

And it’s an incredible shame. A shame of almost unparalleled proportions in rock and roll.

Is that overstating the situation a bit? Well, let’s put it like this: consider another rocker, almost exactly the same age and who came up at very nearly the same time.

In a bit over five years, from very late 1966 to early 1972, Neil Young released seven albums: three with Buffalo Springfield, ranging from okay to great—and on which he wrote only about a third of the songs—and then four solo records, ranging from good to great. Like Fogerty, Young wrote, sang, played and produced. Unlike Fogerty, Young was in not one, but two bands, and left both because he was too strong a presence and too determined to do his own thing to fit comfortably within the confines of a band, an organization which by design requires a certain amount of compromise.

Think about the solo career Neil Young has had. From the commercial success of Harvest to the dark night of the soul that is Tonight’s the Night. From the apocalyptic scenarios of On the Beach to the gentle country-rock of Comes a Time. From the gutbusting crunch of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to the more subtle explorations of After the Gold Rush. From the I’ll-see-your-punk-and-raise-you blistering of Rust Never Sleeps to the live exploration of his back catalog with the same focus of Live Rust. And that’s just his output of the 70s.

Since then he’s gone on to release records which, improbably yet really do, equal his best work, albums such as Freedom and Ragged Glory. He’s had more than his fair share of failures, but to be sure, but most of those came from a surfeit of ambition, and if you’re reading Reason to Believe, there’s a better than even chance you’re as big a fan of the noble failure as we are.

So. Two guys with similar musical background come up at the same time with the same skill set and find roughly equal commercial and critical and artistic success. One of them goes on to hit even higher heights while the other just sorta…fades away. Sure, he still tours and he still sounds pretty darn good and from time to time he'll even release a new album. But compared to his initial four year burst of supernova-like power, well, to misquote the great Stevie Wonder, he hasn’t done nothin’.

That’s harsh but it’s also unfortunately true. And don’t get me wrong: anyone who created “Green River,” “Fortunate Son,” “Bad Moon Risin'” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” can rest with complete and total comfort on any laurels they want—that’s an oeuvre right there of which anyone could and should be insanely proud, the kind of catalog most very good artists would sell their souls to be able to claim after a lifetime of hard work. That Fogerty did that at all means he’s earned every right to consider his work here done. That he’s got twice that many again that could easily have been named is just mind-boggling.

And yet clearly he himself doesn’t feel that way, otherwise he wouldn’t have released as many solo albums as he has over the years. He’s tried to equal or top his best work, and good on 'im for doing so. And the result is that he hasn’t even made it out of base camp, much less summited again the very peaks he used to scale so effortlessly.

Why not? Who can say? People are complex and people are a mystery. Some just burn incredibly brightly and then are done, like (to switch to sports) Bo Jackson. Some artists are good but have one truly monumental work in them, like Roger Maris in 1961. (Hello Matthew Sweet!) Sometimes artists just get on a hot streak and, as they say, the baseball looks like it’s the size of a basketball. Fogerty has said that the legal issues around CCR, both with the label and his former bandmates, caused enormous problems for him, emotionally, and surely that’s much, maybe even most, of it. It also seems as though Fogerty had a sort of hip-hop like immediacy to his stuff, reacting to and commenting on his times, and once he hopped off that merry-go-round, he found it hard, if not impossible, to get back in the groove—another thing he has in common with even the greatest of athletes and coaches.

But what I think it comes down to is this: the auteur theory started to gain traction in the late 60s with the rock press. And it certainly does seem to make more sense in rock and roll than in film, at least to me. Someone like John Fogerty or Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen or Paul Westerberg writes, sings, plays and produces their own music and at least two of those three artists have produced full band recordings all on their own, playing all the instruments themselves, with some terrific results.

But judged in the context of their careers, those recordings can be seen for what they are: wonderful anomalies. Because rock and roll is about many things—for a pleasant diversion, google “rock and roll is about” and see just how many things it’s apparently about—but two of those things come down to the seemingly mutually exclusive but actually inherently intertwined individualism and community. It’s about finding a community where you can be yourself, and finding people who can help you find yourself and your own voice, and who care what you have to say.

If a great artist like Fogerty or Young writes a song and brings it to ten different bands, it’s going to sound recognizably the same yet very different, depending upon whether the drummer is Al Jackson or Ringo Starr or Keith Moon or Stewart Copeland or Manu Katché. And if that great artist has been writing songs for that same drummer for ten years, well, that drummer is going to be part of the song the artist hears in his head as he’s first writing, before he ever brings it to the studio. John Lennon may not—couldn’t possibly—have known what Ringo was going to play on “Come Together,” but the sound of Ringo’s drums, the feel he was going to bring, if not the exact pattern, was already in John’s mind, already ingrained in his DNA.

That’s what the rest of Creedence Clearwater Revival did for John Fogerty. They gave him a sounding board, a launching pad from which he could and did for a brief while go almost anywhere: blues, country, R&B, pure rock and roll. And without them, it turns out, he was lost.

Neil Young was never part of a band anywhere near as long as CCR was together—Fogerty met Stu Cook and Doug Clifford when they were all in high school, nine years before their debut album finally came out—bouncing from group to group as a kid. And Buffalo Springfield was only together for just over two years, and even then the band was less a reality than a creatively fruitful business arrangement. Instead, Young has always been a solo artist, albeit one who sometimes finds it interesting to be part of a theoretical group dynamic.

Yet even Neil Young, classic solo artist, has found himself drawn back, again and again, to the somewhat ham-handed ragged glory that is Crazy Horse. Why? Because while there’s never the slightest doubt who the creative shot caller is, Young understands that there are certain times you need the magic brought about by the bone deep familiarity playing with certain musicians over a long period of time will generate, and that for the most part there’s no equal for that spark when it comes to creating the very greatest rock and roll. No one is ever going to confuse Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot with the late, great Donald "Duck" Dunn, with whom Young also worked, or Jack Bruce or Stanley Clarke or Paul McCartney. And Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina is almost certainly the least good drummer Neil Young ever chose to record with, by a very, very long shot. And yet ol' Neil just can't quit them—time and again he goes back to them, to these less than technically stunning musicians, clearly recognizing that they give him something no one else can or does, and that he at least sometimes needs in order to create the very best music he can, to bring out the best he has to offer and make it sound just the way he hears it in his head.

Creedence Clearwater Revival was a great band. Stu Cook, Doug Clifford and Tom Fogerty were a great rhythm section—an unusual rhythm section, but a great one. But more than that, they were the right rhythm section, the right band, the perfect foundation for Fogerty to build his masterpieces upon, and the spark that helped Fogerty conceive those masterpieces in the first place. That’s why John Fogerty created a remarkably large, diverse and powerful body of work in the brief period Creedence Clearwater Revival was a recording band, and why in the thirty years since Fogerty's done nothing that even approaches it, not even close. Because clichéd though it may be, it's nonetheless true: sometimes the whole is ever so much greater than the sum of the parts and because, as Pete Townshend wrote but didn’t sing, sometimes it really is the singer and not the song—and that applies to the band as well.


  1. I agree with a lot of your opinions, but I have a few rebuttals. First off Fogerty's solo album "Revival" is very very good and rivals anything neil has done in the past 20 years. One you got to different guys here. Fogerty was more quality over quantity with his releases. I love Neil but he had a lot of mediocre releases. You can't say the same for Fogerty in my opinion. Just some things to think about both great song writers.

  2. I came across this while pondering the mystery of John Fogerty. Thought-provoking.