It took place at the home of a friend of John’s in Encino while his own place was being renovated. It was a hot day, September 2004, and I came straight from a tough swim workout. I guess the shower didn’t take, and 10 minutes into the interview I started breaking out in a sweat. I tried to wipe it away, subtly, while John graciously pretended not to notice. I quickly realized I was fighting a losing battle and called for a time-out so that I could keep mopping until some equilibrium returned.
With wife Julie at his side, as usual, Fogerty talked about his first new studio album in seven years, Deja Vu All Over Again (no accents over the Deja). I thought it was a great record, although it was weird that someone who sounded like a ragged old bluesman when he was in his 20s with Creedence Clearwater Revival now sounded so mellifluous in his late 50s. With war raging in Iraq, there was a strong political angle to the record, but not in an overbearing way, and the title track was incredibly radio-friendly. To me, it had “smash” and “Grammy” written all over it. But that was not to be. As he explained to me two years later:
“I probably sound like the old codger with sour grapes, but I don’t think the label I was on at the time (Geffen Records) really cared. The fact that there wasn’t even one nomination, I feel they probably didn’t submit any. I’m not Eminem, and they kinda feature that music over there. It’s all the whole rap, Snoop Dogg-whatever thing, and I probably was perceived as classic rock, as a four-letter word.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s an edited transcript of John in 2004, discussing the album, his songwriting technique, politics, the blues, jogging, the highs and lows of Creedence, his battles with anger and frustration, domestic bliss …
YOUR VOICE ON THIS RECORD SOUNDS VERY CLEAR AND CRYSTAL-LIKE, NOT THE GRITTY SOUND THAT WE EXPECT FROM JOHN FOGERTY?
That’s probably true, but it’s me applying myself to the song. Take for instance the song I wrote for my daughter, Kelsy, called “I Will Walk With You.” It would make no sense at all to sing that song like “Born on the Bayou.” It would be silly. It would be dumb.
FOR A PROTEST SONG, “DEJA VU ALL OVER” AGAIN SOUNDS VERY RESTRAINED
It’s coming from a different place, certainly, than “Fortunate Son.” The motivation for that song is really about the devastation, personally, to families, that war brings. The song “Deja Vu” is really not talking about the issue — is a particular war right or wrong? It’s talking about the sad result of war. I really chose specifically to be there …
This song actually just came to me as if somebody was whispering in my ear. I had gone to my little writing shed. I had a little bit of time — I was in the middle of tracking in the studio — I had an afternoon, and I went to write what I thought was a swamp rock song, loosely like “Green River” or whatever, that style — and this thing kinda whispered in my ear. I had a discipline. I was trying to push it, shoo it away, because I had a job to do, and not much time. It sort of whispered again. It was the first line of the song. I stood up, I closed my eyes and got real quiet, and I could hear exactly what you hear. I could hear the acoustic guitar and that voice singing the words, “Did you hear him talk about it on the radio?” And it was in a plaintive voice, almost resigned. There’s a slight bit of anger in there, because that’s how I feel, but it’s more remorse. But I didn’t know what the song was about.
But I had the good sense to, instead of turning on all the tape machines and spending 15 minutes doing set-up, in which time you usually lose, I ran straight over and grabbed my acoustic guitar and just sorta listened real carefully — what’s going on here? And I didn’t have a clue what it was about until I got to the “Deja Vu,” and then it was “Deja Vu All Over Again.” It made the most sense to me at that moment in time.
I have been asked, “Well do you realize that’s Yogi (Berra, the originator of the phrase)? Did that bother you?” Yeah, for a microsecond. When I went “All over again” I kinda just for a second went, “You can’t do that” — not that you can’t quote somebody else, but I thought maybe it wouldn’t be serious enough. I went right past that and said, “This is OK.” At that moment, I realized what the song was about, because up till then I really didn’t know what this thing was.”
WAS IT DELIBERATE NOT TO GET TOO POLITICAL?
Yes, yes, because I’m sure that would ruin it. Well yeah, I could write “Fortunate Son.” I can get political, and be all angry. That’s fine. I’ve done that already. This is more than a year ago I was writing this song, and I knew more people would be writing songs about the current situation. In fact I had chosen kinda deliberately not to do that.
WOULD YOU BE ANNOYED IF “DEJA VU” WERE HIJACKED AS A PROTEST SONG?
No. I think the idea of anything that’s thought-provoking — I’m gonna be like Yogi — is to make people think! If you’re shown the horrors of war and made to think about the horrors of war, instead of it just being an expedient foreign policy, you’ve sure got to back up what you’re doing. This is true of any idea or any concept. I’m forever saying things like, ‘Well take the idea and shine a lot of light on it. Get both sides to argue it. Argue about it down to their very toes. If the concept stands up under the light of day, then it’s probably an all right concept, but if everybody’s trying to keep the concept a secret because it will never stand the light of day, then it’s probably not a good idea.’
I know I’m being long-winded here (!!), but I thought that talking about the war and the emotion about what the war does to people was enough in this case. That’s my protest. If others tend to use that as an anti-war cannon, I think that would be a good thing, I just think people need to really stop and think about how serious dying and sacrificing young men and women to an idea really is. I don’t think a lot of that had been done before. It’s called “Deja Vu” because my generation did do this before. That’s why this time around it’s eerily similar.
BUT YOUR PARENTS’ GENERATION DID IT TOO, IN WORLD WAR II. AT SOME STAGE, SOMEONE HAS TO STEP UP TO THE PLATE AND SAY TYRANNY IS NOT RIGHT.
I agree with that. I certainly agree with that. I’m also a history buff. Many, many wars throughout history have been rallied around some single moment, like Remember the Alamo, Remember Pearl Harbor, Remember the Maine. But in Vietnam it was, Remember the Gulf of Tonkin, which may or may not have ever happened. It was sort of concocted and made as an excuse. I don’t really want to get off on 9/11 and all that, because I think certainly that morning within seconds all Americans were united in a way unlike in my lifetime, ever in my lifetime, for sure. But is what we doing now the correct response to that feeling? I’m not so sure about that.
The morning of 9/11, if my president had told me to go jump in that hole because it’ll be better for America, I would have. That’s absolutely how I felt even though we are certainly on different sides of the political spectrum, because I really felt that we needed to rally our country, circle our wagons, follow our leader for sure, and not have a lot of arguing about petty things, and just — as you say — step up to the plate, and what do we gotta do? But as time has passed I’m not so sure, we may have been led down an ill-chosen path, and led rather easily because we all felt that way on the morning of 9/11.
WHERE DID “NOBODY’S HERE ANYMORE” (AND ITS THEME OF SOCIETAL DISCONNECT + A STANZA ABOUT HIM JOGGING WHILE A DRIVER USES HER CELLPHONE) COME FROM?
Well, I did tell you that I’m a runner, and I would run all the time up in the hills over Los Angeles or Hollywood. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come around a corner, or I’ve been running and an SUV comes around the corner. I do run against the traffic. Actually for the first 4 to 5 years that I ran in that location — it’s a funny connection — I used to run up there for a long time before this event, and I ran with the traffic, and it seemed OK. For years, I kinda noticed a little bit of screeching noises sometimes behind me.
It was actually the morning that I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 (pictured below), it was very rainy and foggy here in Los Angeles. I went for my run as normal. I started out running the same side as the traffic, and I realized as I ran along that nobody can see me and I was still hearing those screeches. So I crossed the street and for the first time really started running against the traffic. Now I could see them. I was armed. Maybe they couldn’t see me, but at least I could jump out of the way, and I have continued to run against the traffic ever since.
DO YOU USE REFLECTIVE STRIPS? YOU GUYS ARE INVISIBLE OUT THERE!
No. I used to run at night. My wife finally put a damper on that. Yeah, running at night in the rain on Mulholland, that’s pretty smart. I would run when I could, schedule permitting. What am I trying to say? Yeah, it has happened to me many times where the person in the SUV is on the phone and coming straight at me, and maybe they have their hands on the wheel. That’s kind of a pet peeve, the cell phone itself, basically, for me, is a pet peeve, I’m slowly catching up to the new millennium. I usually don’t run around with my cell phone on. I’m slowly beginning to realize that millions and millions of people find it a convenience, but I still have this one nagging side of me that tends to think that being reachable 24/7 … is abused a lot. But that’s just the way I live my life. For other people, they do it a different way.
There are other little vignettes in the song about what I see as the same disconnection of our modern life. I can’t tell you how many situations I’ve come into where the person I’ve arrived to see, be it a sales clerk in a department store, or maybe the guy that’s gonna work on my car, but the moment you arrive, even though you may have an appointment, they’re looking into a computer screen. Maybe they’re on the Internet. Maybe they’re on eBay! I don’t know. But they’re not with me. They’re someplace else. It just seems like it’s a proliferation of that sort of thing. Everyone takes it for granted. They don’t think it’s rude. I do.
THERE’S A REFERENCE TO ROBERT JOHNSON IN “RHUBARB PIE.” DOES THAT STEM FROM THE ROAD TRIP YOU WENT ON A FEW YEARS AGO TO RETRACE THE STEPS OF YOUR BLUES HEROES? YOU’D SAID YOU WEREN’T THAT FAMILIAR WITH PEOPLE LIKE CHARLEY PATTON
Well, he’s certainly one I wasn’t (unfamiliar with).
AND EVERYONE KNOWS ROBERT JOHNSON
Right. And the others guys are actually way more famous. Your Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. The people I actually grew up with. John Lee Hooker. Bo Diddley. Willie Dixon. Jimmy Reed. An incredibly huge list of people all came from Mississippi. That was another one of those things that something whispered in my ear. Or at least it was a very strong urge. Really, the reason I went was just to fill in all the blanks. I’ve lived with a smattering of the knowledge all my life, but I knew that I was just sort of a tourist. I was not a tourist when it came to the music, I was a fanatic. But I didn’t know anything about John Lee Hooker. I didn’t know what it looked like where Muddy Waters came from. That was amazingly informing for me. I took a lot of pictures, read a lot of books during that time, listened to a lot of music. I gave myself the ultimate blues tour. Since then they sorta joke about the Japanese tourists all coming to Robert Johnson’s grave, or something. It’s become a thing. When I did it, I was this lone runner. I had no clue, really, why I did it even, what I was doing.
Years later, when Blue Moon Swamp came out, I was talking to a person very much like you (!!), and I started to talk about being at Robert Johnson’s grave, and wondering about who owned Robert Johnson’s songs. After at first saying to myself cynically, “Oh it’s probably some wiseguy lawyer in New York,” I made a little pep talk, a little encouragement, and I said, “That doesn’t matter. Those are Robert’s songs.” It was like pride. But the instant that I formed that thought — I’m telling the writer this — I realized I was in the same boat. “Those are your songs, no matter what happened in the tall building.”
In that instant, I realized for myself it was OK to sing my songs again, because they are my songs, right? Well, I’m telling the man this, and I had one of those — whatever those are where your mind just explodes — I looked at him, and I said, ‘Wow! That’s what all those trips were for. That’s what it was for. It was for me to learn that.’ That was way more informing than learning how many guitars Jimmy Reed had. The real ultimate purpose was so I would come back and reclaim my songs. It took me seven more years to realize that’s what had happened.
YOU REALIZE ROBERT JOHNSON HAS AT LEAST TWO GRAVES?
Yes, I’ve since — I was at the one at the Mt. Zion Church.
Correct. That’s true.
YOU MUST STILL GET SOME PRETTY HEFTY CHECKS?
Yes. I’m a very lucky guy. We earn a good living. I certainly support my family and live very well. If your question is could I retire and never work again, yeah I could do that. But as I was saying before, I’m about the music, and when I go to make music I’m totally driven by the music, not about the commercial aspect. You could really go off the deep end and be silly … I myself have made a lot of mistakes in the past, some of which were maybe unavoidable just because of youth, and some were because I was way too generous with whomever happened to be near at the time.
DIDN’T YOU ALSO MANAGE CCR?
Yeah. It was never called that, but that’s what I was doing. It would have been a lot better had we had a really knowledgeable manager and a good lawyer before we had ever signed anything.
DO YOU MAKE ENOUGH FROM CCR ROYALTIES NOT TO HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT TOURING ALL THE TIME?
We live within our means. I could live off what the songs do and the prior records do. Frankly, I’m driven by music. I really am disconnected from money. Now, my wife isn’t … she’s got a good head on her shoulders. I can’t just be walking around out in the daisy field looking at the sky all the time … She is basically managing what would otherwise be a dreamer … When I get too involved in all the business and stuff it just kills the creative force. When I was a kid, I dreamed I’d grow up and be like Gene Autry and own baseball teams — be a star, but own baseball teams and have a car with six-shooters on the side, be well-known as a businessman besides. But it hasn’t worked out for me. I can’t do that. It absolutely screws me up from what it is that I’m supposed to do, as far as I’m concerned.
DO YOU THINK YOU’LL EVER REACH A CIVIL RELATIONSHIP WITH SAUL ZAENTZ (THE OWNER OF CCR’S COPYRIGHTS)?
I hope that happens. What I would say is my mental state is I don’t worry about it. I have such a great life, I really do, a beautiful wife and a beautiful family, and we just had a new baby — well, she’s almost three now. But I truly looked at my life, and spent time, I guess, counting my blessings. I know that really might sound corny. But the more I reviewed how lucky I am without being cynical, the more I allowed myself to really feel grateful, because I am truly the luckiest guy in the world, I’m lucky. I really am truly lucky. Even though probably 25 years ago some shrink could have told me, ‘John, just let go of it. You’ll be better off.’ It’s a lot easier to say that to somebody than actually have that person do it. I’m living testament to that. But that is what happened. I just stopped thinking about it, because I had much better stuff to think about.
YOU DON’T WAKE UP ANGRY AT 3 O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING?
No, not at all. And I used to, trust me. I was that guy. You kill yourself with that.
THAT’S WHAT I WAS GETTING AT. YOU’RE ALMOST DIGGING YOURSELF AN EARLY GRAVE
The thing I can say now that I’m way on the other side of it is unfortunately what happens is your enemy ends up owning you. The very person you wanna defeat is winning while you carry around all that baggage.
HE PROBABLY DOESN’T EVEN THINK ABOUT YOU
No, he’s rich! … But the thing that is way more precious than money in our world is time, and I probably have a lot more time than he does (Zaentz turned 92 in February 2013). Taking into account whatever time I have left for my life would be really ill-spent running around being angry, bitter, consumed when I have such wonderful gifts standing right in front of me. So I choose to be happy. I am happy.
HAVE YOU BEEN IN THERAPY?
Years ago I did. Julie actually invited me to go see a shrink, probably in the early 90s. By the way, I recommend that, although at this moment sitting here I can’t remember what specific things happened. But I used to tell a couple of my friends, ‘Yeah, I went to this shrink, and the curve went straight up.’ I think what it is, is it just felt good to be able to tell somebody about it who, if you convinced them then they could go do something about your problem, because that’s not what’s gonna happen. The only thing you do with a shrink is you tell your story, and then he certainly listens, and then helps you to help yourself to understand. The job isn’t for him to be won over by your argument … As I got busier and busier, I stopped doing that. I haven’t done that in a long time.
But I have the best therapy of all, which is love. I have a great family, and my focus is on that. It’s not that I don’t have understanding — I do have great understanding — for other people in turmoil, especially in depression. Particularly the people you see on the entertainment shows on television. You see some hot, young, rich actor with 5 years’ running of a great career, and yet they’re picking him up in a motel, all freaked out of his mind on cocaine, for the fourth time! You go, ‘Wow! That guy should be so happy, and he’s miserable. He’s obviously miserable.’ I feel sorry for those people, not in a condescending way. I kinda know where he’s at, and you need to make a mental adjustment to what’s important and what isn’t.
DURING THE CREEDENCE DAYS, YOU WERE AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD, BUT WERE YOU ALSO MISERABLE?
During the Creedence time, it got to where I was miserable, because I knew we had a horrible contract, and also as the other guys in Creedence began to sorta mutiny and wanna grab control of — if you wanna think in terms of the way everyone else thinks — an enormous business that they were lucky enough to be partners in, they got to where they wanted to grab control of it. Of course, what had gotten it there was great songs and great arrangements and great records (laughs). We had a great product, and if you wanna couch it again in Wall Street terms, and they wanted to come out with the cheap version, and sell it at the discount house. That was ruination as far as I was concerned. I believe I was right.
YOU INCLUDE YOUR BROTHER (TOM, WHO DIED IN 1990) AMONG THE MUTINEERS?
Oh the three of them, yeah. Everybody wanted to sing and play and write the songs, and I knew this would be catastrophic. But at some point, I sorta caved in and went, ‘What’s the point? If everybody’s poking holes in the canoe, it’s gonna sink anyway.’ And it certainly sank.
IF I WAS THE DRUMMER, I’D JUST SHUT UP AND LET YOU DO THE WORK
Well, you’re older. These are people in their early-mid 20s. We’d all grown up together. Everyone looks around suddenly and we’re world famous and having top-10 records. ‘Hey, this is easy. I can do this.’ You can really easily be hypnotized. I’m much older too. If I had a good gig like that, I’d shut up too.
YOU PAVED THE WAY FOR PEOPLE LIKE PETTY AND SPRINGSTEEN AND MELLENCAMP-
-Is that why I like those guys so much?!
I WAS KINDA HOPING YOU’D COME OUT AND SAY YOU HATE THOSE GUYS!
No, no. Not at all.
BECAUSE YOU HAVEN’T BEEN AS PROLIFIC, THESE GUYS HAVE STEPPED INTO THE BREACH, TAKEN ON THE MANTEL, BECOME THE FLAGBEARERS FOR YOUR GENRE OF BLUE-COLLAR ROCK?
Well number one, the first answer is no, because anything I did to myself is my own fault. I’ve always felt, from long before I ever became famous, I’ve always felt that my own ability and my own work would be the reason I would succeed, as opposed to there are other ways, like who do you know who can help you, phone calls, I’m the brother of, I’m the son of… Heck, if that were the case I’d be in the Texas Air National Guard! No, excuse me. So the fact that I slowed down and some other people sped up is not their fault, because I would have done the same thing. I truly look at it that way. Even if it’s a genre, as you say, I don’t feel it’s a genre that I get to own, because if you go way back it’s Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie was a little before my time, but Pete Seeger was a huge icon to me, still is actually. As is Bob Dylan. So I think that whole kinda rootsy thing is certainly not anything I invented.
But a little segment of your question that I could answer is I sure didn’t help my own career by being away so much, by not having new music out, and not touring and not being visible. Frankly I died, except that I’m not in a coffin somewhere. My career’s just so weird in a lot of ways. I’m not unlike Jim Morrison in some ways, except that I’m still here. I’m not trying to be morbid, or even hip or slick, but it’s kinda true. A lot of people, if they didn’t think I was dead, probably thought I was in a mental ward, certainly incapacitated somewhere, and never coming back. So that didn’t help me. I realize even now some of that being overshadowed is because of that, but that’s again my own fault. It’s somebody’s fault in my life at least.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO TO FIX THAT? CAN WE PUT OUT SOME RECORDS A BIT MORE FREQUENTLY?
There you go! Absolutely … I don’t know what it will be (with regard to touring). I really don’t know what it will be. Happily we have a very stable and supportive family, and hopefully I believe at least, a very normal family. I take my kids to school every morning. I’m kind of a schoolyard dad. I’m very visible. I think that’s a very good base from which to be creating music and having a career, even a touring career.
I THOUGHT YOU NEEDED TO BE MISERABLE TO WRITE GOOD SONGS?
No, I don’t believe that. I’ve been really miserable. That’s where Eye of the Zombie came out of, and some ill-gotten, or hopefully forgotten records in the ‘70s. I was so unhappy that maybe from the whole time from ‘72 until ‘84, I might have written two good songs, “Rockin’ All Over the World” and “Almost Saturday Night.” But there was a whole lot of other stuff that’s just, it’s unfinished. You might see a little snippet of brilliance, like ‘Oh yeah, that’s the old John!’ and then you have 3 more minutes of crap. I still do that. I do that at home, and you don’t get to hear it.
That’s another part of the writing process. I write a lot of stuff, and it’s not all great. In fact, a huge percentage of it is terrible. But I do have the sense myself even, most of the time, I feel, to kind of know the difference. Whereas those periods when things were really rough for me, not only did I not know the difference, if I did, I was too tired to make the effort. I was too lost. Just getting a song together was such an effort that ‘Maybe it’s not so good, but it’s all I can do right now!’
DO YOU FEEL FRUSTRATED THAT YOU HAD THIS GREAT CREEDENCE ERA, BUT THAT WAS A LONG TIME AGO, AND YOU SAY YOU HAVEN’T DONE MUCH BETWEEN THEN AND BLUE MOON SWAMP. TIME IS MARCHING ON. DO YOU STILL FEEL YOU HAVE A LOT TO PROVE IN A LIMITED PERIOD OF TIME?
Yeah. Number one, I don’t feel satisfied at all, like “I’ve made my mark and I can coast on it now.” I feel the opposite actually because I’ve reawakened my own promise to myself when I was very young. I promised myself I was going to be one of the greats, one of the really good guitar players, like Chet Atkins, when I was a kid. That was who I thought of at that time, still do. It was far beyond anything I could understand even, and I kinda looked at that and went, “Yeah, I wanna grow up and be one of those kinda guys.” When I was about 48 years old, this was somewhere in the early ‘90s, I realized I wasn’t. That was the first time I actually faced … it’s because of listening to Jerry Douglas the dobro player, and all that wonderful, just exceedingly high level of music that he and his friends make. After hearing that, the revelation to myself was, “John, you were supposed to be really good, and you’re not.” That was a shock to actually face it down and admit it. You can say, “Oh yeah, but I’m famous!”
But wherever that little molecule, that brain cell was hiding got the little searchlight shown on it. It lit up, the one that said “You promised to be really good,” and I couldn’t ignore it. Now that you’ve discovered that, how do you handle that truth? What are you going to do with it? Well, I got busy. I was slightly angry. I was mad that “Jeez, you wasted a bunch of time. You could have been working.” But, as you say, there’s no time to lose. I got busy and I’ve been working on being the very best thing I can imagine. It’s a very high level, and it’s taken a long, long time, and I’m just about getting into the same room — I’m not sitting in the chair yet — but I’m getting into the same room with some of the people I really admire. And it’s taken over 10 years. It’s mindboggling how long that takes.
DO YOU FEEL YOU SABOTAGED YOURSELF, SQUANDERED YOUR EARLY PROMISE? MAYBE YOU HAVE A SELF-DESTRUCTIVE MOLECULE INSIDE YOU?
Without going to the outside influences, and you know what all those were, I think my reaction … I don’t know. There’s a lot of different ways to save yourself. I knew I wanted to survive, and how we do that is a mystery. That’s why there are so many shrinks’ offices filled, and also why there are so many suicides. I’m not a shrink, I’m not an expert. But for some reason the way I survived was to kinda detach myself. I think it was a form of survival. Number one, I don’t recommend it. I’m not necessarily proud of it, and all I can do from here is just say, ‘It is what it is, and I’ve got a great life now, and my thoughts are to go forward.’ Yes, I would change a whole bunch of things if I could.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TARGETS, DESIRES TO COLLABORATE WITH CERTAIN PEOPLE?
Especially musically. The songwriting, two years ago, three years ago, I was thinking about that, but I didn’t have any songs. And as my stuff got stronger, I started going, ‘Well gee, if I go over there, I’m going to write 90 percent of it anyway.’
YOU DON’T REALLY COLLABORATE. IT’S NOT AS IF YOU AND MARK KNOPFLER ARE WRITING SONGS TOGETHER. OR YOU AND SPRINGSTEEN
That would be great. Musically, especially. Even more than writing and even more than singing together, but that would be a blast too, playing music together with the people that I really admire — some of which are famous and some of which are not so famous. A guy like Mark Knopfler is both, somebody at that level who can play so great and what he does is so great. On the drawing board, some things sound good and then when you do them in the real world they sometimes don’t turn out that way. But if you can get it to fruition, get it to be really great, usually that means you’ve got to take more time than an afternoon.
Copyright © 2004, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING