John Fogerty on Running, Pete Seeger, and Writing His Autobiography

“In 1968, I always used to say that I wanted to make records they would still play on the radio in 10 years,” John Fogerty, former leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, said on the eve of the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In retrospect, Fogerty got all he wished for and more. Four decades later, Creedence’s songs – including “Proud Mary,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising” and “Green River” – endure as timeless rock and roll classics. Under Fogerty’s tutelage, Creedence Clearwater Revival defined the spirit and sound of rock and roll as authentically as any American group ever has. In this interview, he sounds, and feels, alive – a wonderful feeling being on the other end of the call from a man who is the standard bearer and foremost celebrant of homegrown American music.

Eric: How are you?
John: I’m doing great. Thank you! How are you?
Eric: Good, I can’t believe John Fogerty just asked me how I am. Nobody cares! Congratulations on the tour. I saw it last week and I hope I’m not going to spoil the surprise but you start the show with a fifteen minute documentary narrated by you, which I thought was very cool. You go through all the major happenings of the year 1969.
John: It was a remarkable year, certainly for me. I wrote a lot of songs [laughs] that year and it all turned out well. So, at least for me it was a high water mark. Something to be proud of.
Eric: Out of all the things that the documentary touches on, the Joe Namath-led Super Bowl victory, The New York Mets, Vietnam, Anti-War demonstrations. Which one touches you more than most?
John: Wow. I suppose I remember the first time we played at the Fillmore. We were playing four nights, consecutively. Everything had just started to break. This was very early in 1969 and we ended up doing, over the course of those four days, we did sixteen encores. How it happened, was literally, we were done with the show whatever the last song was and ran back to the dressing room and the place was going crazy so we ran out and played one song and said thank you very much, ran back and the place was still going crazy so we ran back out again. We did that four times each night [laughs]. I didn’t really know about encores or how to handle that, so I suppose you’re supposed to come out and play three songs in a row then leave or something. I didn’t know about that yet.
Eric: You could have kept going all night.
John: I think so, but Bill Graham is – he’s sort of ‘that’s enough fellas.’
Eric: Ha! He didn’t like to hear the band’s side. Not surprisingly, you are in such good shape compared to people who are your age and have toured for a long time. What do you do off the road that keeps you going?
John: When I was younger, I sort of did all those things that wasn’t good for me. Then about 1974, I took up running. I saw a picture of myself and I had a typical gut and I was just surprised. I hadn’t seen a picture of myself, and I looked like a bowler, let’s say [laughs]. I hunted around for different ways I should get in shape or stay in shape and I went with running and I’ve been running ever since.
Eric: How much do you run now?
John: I try to run about 5 days a week. It’s usually 6 miles each time.
Eric: That’s great. Have you ever done a marathon before?
John: I’ve done 13 miles once and then there was an event when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, they have a thing called Bay to Breakers and I was in that every year for about 15 years. When I started there were about 5,000 people running, and the last time I did it there were over 100,000 people doing it. Your pace is pretty slow at that rate.
Eric: I used to hate the idea of running, but now I love it. It’s a great chance for me to be alone and listen to music.
John: I like it a lot, actually. You meet another runner and you’re off talking about stuff…
Eric: Mostly to get your mind off the idea that this just sucks. What are we doing this for?
John: Ha! Exactly! I was 29, I think, when I started. I was surprised that I couldn’t run three straight blocks as fast as I wanted to when I was a kid. When you’re a kid, you’re running around everywhere. I was so shocked. That was the moment when I became a running. I hated that prospect. But the thing I didn’t know about is the wonderful feeling you have – endorphins. I sometimes hear it as “in dolphins”, ha! You feel good and a lot of times I actually work out stress or things that are bothering me, you come back and then you’re more tired than you are angry or stressed. There’s a good therapeutic value in it.

Eric: It’s served you well. One other thing that must make you feel good on this tour is you’ve brought your son, Shane with you.
John: Yeah, he’s been getting up on stage with me and usually played one song with me over the years. Even had Shane out on a tour somewhere in the last couple of years, he stayed for maybe two weeks or so. But this is the first time he’s really – he’s just a regular member of the band. Before, he was always in school. He just last June graduated from USC and taking all of that college learning, I’ve snagged him out of that world to be in a rock and roll band. I have no doubt that he will probably move on and do other things. He has a band with his brother, that might be his calling. But as long as I’ve got him, he’s a great guitar player and I think what you’re getting at, the feeling in me, the emotion in me to be his dad and stand in there and sort of egging him on to play a great solo, just standing there and enjoying him doing that. It’s really hard to put that in words, but I’m certainly a proud parent.
Eric: Sting’s son, Joe, was in a band called Fiction Plane and they opened up for The Police on their reunion world tour. The thought out there was The Police went on tour in the first place was so that Sting could spend more time with him on the road. I thought that was cool. There’s something about a father and son being in a rock and roll band, having those kinds of experiences that you don’t have in your average family – especially since in some cases, the dad wasn’t around for years – he was on the road or in the studio somewhere.
John: You’re absolutely right. You’re with your kids from birth all the way up to somewhere in the middle teen years. You’re watching them 24/7, they look up to you and listen to what you say, they think you’re really wise and smart. At some point the facade falls off and they bust you for being what you really are. Then they get a girlfriend, or their buddies and they’re not around that much anymore. So, this is great. I’m kind of getting Shane back for a while.

Eric: I’m not going to say you’re underrated because it’s hard to call a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member underrated. You’re certainly not. But, in reading about you for all of these years people don’t tend to touch on the fact that you produced some of the greatest rock and roll albums while CCR was having all of those hits. People tend to take it for granted, but 6 albums released in 2 years, and 18 singles in that time period. Holy smokes!
John: Thank you for that. The best way to say it is, the producer is the person that’s making all those decisions. What the song is going to be, what the arrangement is going to be and then finally what the thing is going to sound like, which is all very important. It just doesn’t happen. A producer in music is kind of like director for movies. That same thing. You’re looking at the whole pallet of stuff and then getting it organized into some sort of system, I guess. Then you have the last say and also the decision is on your neck. Whether it’s right or wrong.
Eric: When you think of the year 1969, it’s astounding to me along with the fact that you produced the records but that the albums that you put out. They’re greatest hits albums, in effect. In today’s era where you can’t put out an album for 3-4 years – people just can’t really wrap their heads around the fact that you managed to put out such great material in one year. Were you writing that quick? Or did you stockpile them?
John: No, I’d say what really happened I took stock of the situation right somewhere in the middle of Susie Q being on the radio. I realized, here you’ve been struggling your whole life, you think you’re working on a career but what it really boils down to, you’re working to be noticed. Suddenly you have this hit song, it’s almost like you’ve waited your whole life for this hit song and then what seems to happen so often is, then there’s no more. You become a one hit wonder. That was exactly what I was – that was my motivation. I didnt want to be a one hit wonder. So I took stock of the situation, we’re on the smallest label in the whole world. It’s a jazz label at that, these people don’t know anything about rock and roll. Didn’t have a producer, didn’t have a manager, publicist and so I said to myself. Well, I guess you’re just going to have to do it with music. So, basically with The Beatles as my role model, if you just make a whole lot of great music everything else will follow. It’ll all turn out OK. So I forced myself to just stay busy, writing all the time, thinking about writing, being as organized about it as I could. Always having, even though there was a new song on the radio, having – working on the next song or even the song after that. I will say, by the way, I was very quality driven. I wrote a whole lot of songs, or at least started them that you never heard. I used to say ‘for every song you did hear, I wrote ten other ones that weren’t very good.’ There was a lot of self-editing and compressing, distilling things down to be as good as I could possibly make it. Then, you asked about was it just flowing? I would say yes. Because of that great activity of what was happening within me, just really going at it all the time. It seemed to really be flowing at a very high level, a very high quality level. That’s the part, I have to admit, I sometimes think you better not take credit for that. It’s almost like tuning into a radio station. Once you’ve got it really clearly tuned in, it just seemed to come out of me. Things were just occurring to me. It was kind of easy, right then.
Eric: It seems that you had a very keen sense of what was going on around you. Another artist that we both know, Pete Seeger, had the keen sense, too. I remember talking to him about you and he said you were one of the very few that tuned in to what was going on, which gave you a lot of ideas but you had to have something in you in order to take those ideas and create them in a hummable song.
John: You’ve just given me such a wonderful gift. I really had no idea that Pete knew about me. I was aware that he knew Proud Mary, because he had sent a letter at one point. I did not realize he knew of my career, that is so wonderful of you to tell me that. Pete was a huge inspiration to me. I actually met him when I was about 12 years old, shook his hand. It was a folk festival in Berkeley. My mom took me with her to all these folk music happenings and so I became a folky. Of course, Pete was kind of the father figure of everyone even though in those days he was pretty young to have such a mantel on him. Gosh, Pete was kind of my God. He was writing about very important things. He had such a clear point of view about them. I’d certainly took it to heart. Pete was basically the one who told me about Leadbelly. Part of the folk festival process, besides the concerts at night, during the day they’d have these workshops. You could go to those if you had such a mind, and my mom took me to all of them. There’s Pete Seeger in front of a hall, I think it was Sproul Hall, one of those places on the UC Berkeley campus, and he’s talking about Leadbelly and he’s got film and he’s showing Leadbelly singing ‘Cotton Fields’ on the back of an old truck and explaining what Leadbelly meant to music. I was just fascinated, I became a huge Leadbelly fan too. I can’t even say enough about how much Pete influenced me and I dare say so many of the other musicians in the 60s, especially.

Eric: And even now to this day with people like Wilco using his lyrics and recording, making something new about it. Your childhood and early beginnings in a band aren’t really that well known, but the stuff about you being sued by CCR members, or your record label is fairly out there. Today, when every musician seems to be writing their memoirs, or a book, how come you haven’t?
John: Oh, but [laughs] wait! It’ll be ready next year. It’s basically done now. Years and years ago, unfortunately when someone would ask a question about something that let’s say was unhappy for me, it was usually like pushing a button and out would come this rant. One day around 1999 or 2000 I actually read one of those in a magazine and went, ewww. That doesn’t look so good in print. From that point I said, you know what? Just save it, John. Tell people some day you’ll talk about that and it’ll be in the book.
Eric: Now that’s your answer for everything, you gotta read the book.
John: Well, life goes on and very fortunate for me I met a wonderful girl, Julie, who became my wife and certainly the love of my life and we have wonderful children and our family is truly the main thing in my life. All of that anger and stuff just kind of dissipated. Certainly I remember things happening, but it doesn’t come up in me with all of the venom that it used to. The main thing, thank God, I don’t walk around obsessing on some event or confrontation or unfairness that happened. Those things really can make you bitter. I was so afraid i was going to end up like, and I won’t name any people, but people I had met certainly or read about in music that had a rough go. Then rightfully were angry about it but ended up only thinking about that. I was very lucky to finally escape that whole trap.

EA: That’s interesting to me only because musicians specifically who harbor so much emotion inside of them, and it’s not an easy job. Not only do you have to have the right team, but a lot of luck and the right people involved and a lot of things to go well. It’s kind of ironic sometimes when you meet a musician and they go through those really bad times but meanwhile they’re performing to hundreds of thousands of people making them all feel really good but at the same time, sometimes those songs can bring up a lot of bad memories. It seems like you’ve crossed over to the other side of good.
John: What happened, there was quite a period of time when I didn’t play the songs. Literally, during that 25 year period, I may have played the songs on three different occasions. Once was a concert for the veterans in 1987 in Washington D.C. – There were a couple of other moments but I had not made up my mind yet to start performing the songs again and I was so angry about the whole thing where the ownership had gone to the owner of the record company rather to me. The whole messy business of not being paid correctly. I was so bitter inside, I was afraid I’d stand in front of people and really not be able to sing “Proud Mary,” it’s be more like screaming it because I was so angry. It seems to me that what happens eventually is you just start to abuse yourself trying to anesthetize yourself against the pain of having to sing the song yet being so ticked off inside. I chose instead to not be in that situation, I could see myself if you were writing a movie I could see the character on stage just flipping out, completely going crazy and smashing all of the guitars then turning to the audience – is that what you want!? Ha Ha! Some crazy Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing. So I sure didn’t want to end up that way.
Eric: You’re far from it. Let’s go running one day and get it all out.
John: You got it!