John Fogerty Won’t Back Down

From Pete Seeger and Tom Petty to the romance of the Sixties

Between 1968-1971, Creedence Clearwater Revival landed 13 songs in the Top 40, all but one penned by bandleader John Fogerty. You’ll hear a few Sunday on Auditorium Shores when the Berkeley-born singer headlines the All ATX fundraiser titled “Back to the Armadillo,” starring a who’s who of local talent. Fogerty proved jovial over the phone on Monday.

Austin Chronicle: You’re playing an Austin fundraiser this weekend called “Back to the Armadillo,” so I’m wondering if Creedence ever played the Armadillo World Headquarters.

John Fogerty: Umm, [chuckles], I have to plead fuzzy memory. I don’t remember that, but it’s possible.

AC: Do you have memories of playing in Austin with CCR?

JF: Mmm... no. I’ve come to Austin in the years since then. Austin’s a wonderful music town and a wonderful town. I think I was at the first South by Southwest, because I remember it pretty quaint, walking up and down Sixth Street. It was 10 or 11 at night and there was nobody around, so we stopped in a few clubs and saw a few bands. It was one of the first dates with the woman who is now my wife. She brought eight pair of shoes [laughs].

AC: Municipally, we’re known as the live music capital. Given the length and breadth of your career, what cities are the best musically?

JF: [Austin’s] hard to gauge, because I don’t know what the reality is there. Austin’s certainly way up there as far as a place that stirs the imagination through the years in the same kind of way that, say, New Orleans does. It’s all a bit of a romantic notion, I guess.

I imagine there’s always music going on in Los Angeles, but that’s more in terms of the music industry. I mean if I was to go way back, people talked about Kansas City in the days of early jazz. Seattle became a place there for a while. San Francisco, of course, right at the beginning of my famous career, rather than the part before, when I was infamous, I suppose [chuckles].

Then there’s cities throughout the world, like London and Paris. In Paris, you picture some soprano saxophonist walking up and down the banks of the river.

AC: What was it like to come to Texas that first time? Just how primitive was it?

JF: Well, I didn’t think of it that way [laughs]. I was really excited because Texas was the capital of Western swing, or some call it Texas swing – you know, Bob Wills and all that. I’d grown up listening to a lot of music that came from Texas. There was also Lightnin’ Hopkins. There was a very rich musical heritage across the board. Even though the Leadbelly song “About a Mile from Texarkana” wasn’t geographically correct, it was a cool verse.

AC: You mention your period of fame and I wonder how you view that era now. Of course the Sixties retain great import for the cultural revolution, but there were obviously a lot of sociopolitical goings-on that were definitely primitive.

JF: [Laughs] When I think of the Sixties, the first way I look back at things is without much filtering. It’s not reality, it’s romantic. After all, that was my coming of age, so I remember all the cultural things that any young person would think about. I mean the music was just incredible. There was quite a crossroads. Growing up through the birth of rock & roll as a fan, and then as the music began to branch out and FM [radio] began, without too much analytic consideration or, again, reality, I recall it as a time when music really exploded and so did the culture. So at first blush, I tend to think of things that way.

Besides Jimi Hendrix and all the counter-culture music that I was taking part of, there was also the concept of wide open vistas. I don’t want to call them borders, because the whole idea was that you could see beyond the borders [chuckles]. It just seemed that everything was really exploding outwardly, to where almost everything was possible. I’m sure young people all felt like we were going to save the world, or at least be a part of the wave that was saving the world. It became very vocal, I suppose. I think young people of any era tend to feel that way anyhow, but it got kinda of dogma-tized at the time. You know, that thing of, “Don’t trust anybody over 30.”

Did it all come true? Well, probably not, but I haven’t gone back to filter it. I grew up, got married, and had children and bills and car payments, and stuff, so I tend to leave all the stuff of my early life unfettered with reality [laughs]. It’s all mixed up in Patchouli and rainbow, tie-dye shirts and long hair. The landscape itself is a genre, kind of like our wild West. Maybe it’s not quite as big, but it’s more recent. You know, the cowboy and the whole era from the second half of the 1800s, which is more romantic than reality, but it’s something that’s traveled all over the world, and I tend to look at the Sixties kind of like that.

AC: For the past 50 years or so, people have equated you with a somewhat politicized point of view based on your song “Fortunate Son” alone. Were you, in fact, politically minded back then?

JF: I thought I was! I was not in any inner circles. It was more my personal belief system. I’d grown up in a house that honored Pete Seeger. I’m making this simple rather than broader or vague, but my mom really loved folk music. I dare say both of my parents did, but more so I remember my mom really loving the whole folk thing. Her best friend at the time was somebody I would now call a beatnik [laughs]. She was pretty cool. My mom ended up becoming a teacher after divorcing my dad, so she fell right into the whole liberal mindset. Or maybe she became a teacher because she was liberal, I don’t know.

A lot of that certainly was passed on to me, then. I idolized Pete Seeger, so along with this wonderful music, you were also getting a mindset, because so many of the songs dealt with the plight of the other fellow. You didn’t just think about yourself. You thought about other people and class struggles. I’m being a bit obvious and nerdy here, but I expected all that as part of who I am. I still feel that it’s the right way, because it’s the way I know. We all tend to do that with our belief system. So I became a Democratic and I usually voted for Democrats, and sometimes even members of the Green Party.

[Laughs] I sometimes wonder if there’s a folk tradition that I missed where Republicans sit around a campfire and sing about downtrodden millionaires from Wall Street. Where they all go [singing], “Lord, lord, lord” and lament their portfolios. Obviously there’s a lot fewer of those people than there are downtrodden, unwashed masses.

I still feel those things that Pete Seeger stood up for, basically that you don’t keep quiet about things. You look around and see a lot of folks less fortunate than you, and you do something about it. You don’t just look at it like a dead redwood tree. You speak up. You try to change it. That was part of the legacy of Pete and folk music in general, which just runs through me so deep that’s it’s hard to analyze it, but you can start there.

So all of that, obviously, happened before the middle and late Sixties, so by the time I started actually having a brain that was developed enough to see Senators keeping their kids out of the war and getting trust funds and all that, I started to get pissed off. And I still am. It’s still who I am. So at any given time in America, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into and write about, or at least talk about.

AC: Besides “Fortunate Son,” are there songs you’d point to in your oeuvre to illustrate a sort of, “If you want politics from John Fogerty, check out this song”?

JF: Well, I try not to be so obvious or organized about it. Obviously “Fortunate Son” had a very strong point of view. You know what’s amazing about that song? One of its main causes is that I was drafted and served in the Army Reserves in the Sixties, so I was well aware of the military. I was alive during a very unpopular war, meaning our police action in Vietnam – he said with not just a small dose of sarcasm [laughs].

And how our G.I.’s were treated when they got out, if they managed to survive; the way American has treated our veterans is also not a very happy chapter. On the civilian side of it, we say, “This is your duty. You gotta go do this. You’re defending our rights, and if you want to have those rights, you have to be will to serve,” blah, blah, blah. Then after you come home, they ignore you.

Over the years, I’ve paid a lot more attention to that than some people just because I’ve been in the military. Yes, yes, I was very lucky to have a very successful rock & roll career, so I wasn’t treated like other veterans. I wasn’t treated at all, but neither were most other veterans.

But what’s funny, because “Fortunate Son” is so class-oriented – its mantra is “It ain’t me,” and rather loudly – I’ve been in situations when I’ve played it in for military personnel. Now I’ve learned it’s okay, but I remember the first few times, one of which was on a Veteran’s Day special at the White House in the Obama administration, and there were a lot of military in the audience. I really had no idea whether they would look at “Fortunate Son” as anti-military or anti-soldier or somehow pointing accusing fingers at them. I didn’t know if I’d be booed off the stage, but I really thought this was a provocative song and I needed to do it.

And what happened was really wonderful.

All these men and women, who were in uniform, stood up and started pointing at the sky and at me, singing, “It ain’t me.” It was like a big frat party, because they were all of an age when that song was popular and they related to it that way. Which is, ha, one of those wonderful things that can happen to you in this country, where you go, “Man, we really are strong. We know what we’re doing.”

Instead of having a knee jerk reaction, people were way more in touch. I thought it was great. Right now I’m thinking about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee and how that made a lot of people uncomfortable, but that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do in this country.

AC: So, along the lines of Pete Seeger and “Fortunate Son,” and an anthem like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” can songs–

JF: Yeah, you see, I was about to mention that when you were talking about my songs. The other side of my brain was saying, “Just say ’Blowin’ in the Wind,’ because that’s one of the best [laughs].

AC: So can songs really affect social change?

JF: Yes. I totally believe they can. What is it, “God works in mysterious ways”? A lot of times, perhaps, a song isn’t receiving the immediate credit. Maybe it takes 40 years for that generation to grow up. Look at all the people who grew up first hearing Peter, Paul & Mary singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and then coming slowly to realize here’s this young guy from the Village who wrote this song and a whole bunch of other really great ones.

Peter, Paul & Mary got to it through pop music channels, so we were sucker punched [laughs]. We all became aware later, when we grew up, but it probably had to happen that way. I mean you look at all those people that sat around talking about the war between 1965 and 1975, and that song had a lot to do with it.

AC: Along those same lines – the import of a song – I always liked someone asking Keith Richards what would be the last song he’d want to play. He replied that if he were facing a firing squad, his final request would be to play “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” one final time. What would yours be?

JF: I’m going to say [Tom Petty’s] “I Won’t Back Down.”

AC: Do you play that song in your set?

JF: Well, for years I’ve been playing Tom’s recording of it just before I come out onstage, so I knew the song, but I hadn’t really considered performing it. You know, Tom’s record is great and it’s certainly a sentiment I identify with. Recently I began playing it because of the passing of Tom Petty, sadly. It’s a song that really resonates with me and currently with a lot of people. At least right now, that would be the song I would pick.

AC: How well did you know Tom?

JF: We had met. He was somebody I really admired. We didn’t hang out. That tends to be a lot rarer than you think, but whenever I saw Tom at events, he was always really gracious. Pretty cool guy. I never got the sense that he was taking celebrity all that seriously and thinking he was some sort of royalty. I think he viewed it as, “Look what I get to do for a job,” which is exactly how I feel.

AC: You’ve had a very successful Las Vegas residency that restarts in January. What are your thoughts on returning there after the shooting?

JF: Part of my residency was right after the terrible shooting in Las Vegas. It’s so horrible and so big. And I did sing “I Won’t Back Down” those final three shows of that particular run. That Wednesday after the Sunday [of the shooting], I sang the song, but I barely remember it. On that Friday, we had another show, so we were rehearsing the song again and I said, “Well, gosh, the other day I was a deer in the headlights.” I’m not sure how much I really was thinking and how much I was just existing and reacting.

You can look at [the shooting] with historical perspective, but then again, the other day I heard of somebody who had been there and died, and she had three small children. And you just go, “Oh my goodness.” There’s so many of those stories and they all make it brand new again and horrible. When someone gets ill from a terminal disease, you have time to deal with it, but something like this is so off the chart and insane, it’s just hard to figure out how you feel about it.

AC: And in light of an event like that, do people need your help in feeling better?

JF: In my small way, I try to do that. Certainly the first thing I did on that Wednesday was thank the people for coming, for being there. Through my words, I was basically including myself that we’re all in this together. That was the only way I could deal with it. Certainly I wasn’t going to act like some civic leader, or be in any way removed from my audience.

We’re all part of this. Not that I understood it or had much wisdom at the time. All I could think to do was identify my feelings the best I could and realize that they must be feeling the same way.

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John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, All ATX, Back to the Armadillo, Pete Seeger, Bob Wills, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Leadbelly

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