A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 4
by Jake Rohrer, May 20, 2011
“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.” – Hunter Thompson
On Christmas eve, 1967, John announced to the others, “Creedence Clearwater Revival.” It was to be their new name after coming through high school as the Blue Velvets, then christened the “Golliwogs” by their record company a couple of years earlier. Three short years after John's announcement, Billboard Magazine, the bible of the record business, would place them at the head of the class, 1970's number one album selling group in the world, ahead of the Beatles, the Stones and whoever else happened to be around at the time. At summer's end in 1969, my old friends from high school would invite me to come work for them, even though I knew less than jack shit about the music business.
It was a magic time for them and everyone around them. Their new name opened new doors as they threw off the tired schtick of trying to promote the Golliwogs, playing to tough bar room crowds up and down California's central valley. They set their sites on San Francisco where a new era in music was beginning to emerge. John Fogerty was the bright, energetic and superbly talented leader, and he made it a habit to study the music business from every angle. He knew first that the music had to be worthy and then to look for opportunities to present it to people who could make a difference, often a result of luck and circumstance. He knew, too, that when opportunity knocked, you answered the door, and when it opened, you got your foot in there. The circumstance was a smokey little club in San Francisco where they had begun playing regularly for very little money. Luck included the opportunity to play their music in support of striking disc jockeys, just down the street at radio station KMPX.
* * *
Progressive free-form radio (“underground radio”) was brand new and largely credited to former AM pop-station disc jockey “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue, who set up shop at KMPX in San Francisco. I knew this station first as a listener and then as an advertiser when I was in the auto business. The station's sales representative, Milan Melvin, walked into my office one day, looking like a well appointed hippie. He had shoulder length air, a droopy mustache, bell-bottom pants, a leather vest and was wearing enough hand-wrought silver and jade jewelry to open his own stall at a flea market. I admired this hip and confident salesman who in the impassioned and socially divided era of the Vietnam war, made cold sales calls in a conservative business environment, leaving little doubt as to which side of the divide he favored. I bought some advertising from him, and he would later repay the favor, sending Joan Baez with her then husband, David Harris, to buy a new Peugeot from me.
I was invited to sit in on a couple of shows with Donahue and Milan. I invited my good friend Sheldon to come along. Donahue got things rolling by rolling, then passing, a cigar-sized marijuana joint around the broadcast booth, knocking me flat on my ass. I watched transfixed as Donahue ran the show with his extraordinarily cool persona, addressing the audience with his deep, radio-perfect voice. I never once heard him once lapse into the role of the forgetful, clumsy stoner. I think the joint for him was like it is for Willie Nelson; it just makes them feel normal. He never lost his place, telling interesting stories, mostly about music and the people who made it. He played the great music of the day, Beatles and Stones, and everything else from blues to Jack Elliott to Lightning Hopkins to Van Morrison and the emerging San Francisco bands, generally playing album tracks and staying away from the AM radio hit singles. This was unheard of radio at the time, a format that would soon take the country by storm.
I later ran into Milan at the San Francisco International Auto Show with a then-unknown Janis Joplin on his arm. I had heard her music from a charming and informal tape they played on KMPX, with Janice singing a blues number accompanied by Jorma Kaukonen on guitar and someone in the background on a typewriter, pecking away in time to the song. I next encountered Janice late in the summer of 1970, backstage at a gala music event held at Shea Stadium in New York where Creedence, at the pinnacle of their power and popularity, would close the show. They had to close; no one else on the program would follow them. Janice presented a much sadder picture than the vibrant, smiling lady I met with Milan. Obviously troubled, she would be dead a month later.
On a later tour, a fragile Jim Morrison spent an evening with the band and a few of us at our hotel in Miami. The band members had this ostentatious 3-bedroom penthouse suite named for Frank Sinatra, complete with a spiral staircase, pool table and grand piano. Jim played me a sloppy version of his new song, “She Wore Yellow Be-bops in Her Hair.” With each verse the color of the be-bops would change. Even in an inebriated state, he was personable and likable, but he, too, would be dead a month later. These were times of a delicate mortality in the rock & roll business.
* * *
March of 1968 found KMPX under a cloud of dissent and opposing cultural views between the station owner and the station workers and disc jockeys. Donahue had begun programing a station in Los Angeles as well, sometimes missing his San Francisco show. The station owner had had enough of this easy-going hippie “chaos” at his station and ordered a dress code for everyone working there. Donahue resigned. Most of the remaining disc jockeys and other workers went on strike, supporting Donahue. Someone got word of what was going on to Creedence, who were playing nearby at a little club called Deno & Carlo's. They were soon set up and playing for the strikers in front of the station. CCR and other San Francisco bands would play support benefits for the strikers in the weeks to come, the strike finally coming to an end in May when Donahue and other KMPX stalwarts moved themselves and their progressive free-form format to another San Francisco FM station, KSAN, where it would bloom and flourish for years to come, the flagship for underground radio.
Whether or not the band knew it at the time, the KMPX strike followed by the new KSAN amounted to their first significant and fortuitous break. In the same week that KSAN began broadcasting in their new format, the band finished their first album, self-titled “Creedence Clearwater Revival,” and they took a copy to the KSAN disc jockeys they had met during the strike. KSAN played the entire album for weeks, even before release, elevating CCR in the hierarchy of the San Francisco bands. The album's first single, “Suzy Q,” would soon catch fire across the country, and the proverbial door opened wide for them. Fantasy, the label that owned them, hosted a celebration dinner when sales of “Susie Q” reached half a million copies, presenting the band with a half-gold record, everyone's anticipations reaching celestial heights. Against the band's wishes, Fantasy released a second single from that album, “I Put a Spell on You,” which didn't fare nearly as well as the first. The band lived by the credo, “...you're only as good as your last record,” in this case meaning your last single, and that meant to them they had already peaked, in danger of becoming a one-hit wonder.
Any chance of that was put to rest at the start of the new year with the release of “Proud Mary.” CCR would become champions of the hit single, sending one brilliant hit after another to the top of the charts for the next two years, all of them written by John. In addition to being crowned the world's number one album selling group of 1970, they would also be feted as Artists of the Year by the jukebox industry, among other kudos lavished on them by various music, journalistic and broadcast entities. Their music would find extraordinary acceptance and place throughout the U.S. and the entire world, their walls covered with gold and platinum records. The first year I worked for them was for me one of the most glorious ever, and I think it was for the band, too. John was a cornucopia of great music; everything the band did was done well, every step seemed in the right direction, each plateau was scaled perfectly, and the rewards poured down like silver. The exciting times and sense of accomplishment felt like a dream come true.
* * *
Then the shit would start to happen. As fast as they had ascended to the the ultimate heights of the music world, they would plummet from their lofty peak into eventual bitterness, blame and hateful relationships among themselves. I had very little influence when it came to personal matters within the band. I was the “front man,” representing them to the press and public. Mostly, though, I was a pal, someone with youthful business experience who was a reliable confidant and could be trusted to do what was asked of me. A lot of my job consisted of promotion, press and touring duties. Later, when they could finally own their own songs, I was introduced to publishing administration as well. The band themselves, with John at the helm up to this point, made it to the very top of the mountain without managers and lawyers telling them what to do, an unheard of ascent. Suddenly, though, I could see that steps were being taken to fix something that didn't seem at all broken. As much as I found that distressing, I was also there, on board, ready to support them in any direction they wanted to go.
Beatles envy may have played a hidden role in the destruction of CCR. The world knew and embraced each Beatle individually, in addition to acknowledging the immense talent of Lennon and McCartney. We were in London in April of 1970 when the Beatles announced their disbandment. Tom excitedly exclaimed to the others at the time, “...they just handed it to us!”, “it” being the top group in the world, as though a trophy that was somehow passed around. In terms of record sales, CCR probably was the top group on the planet, at least for a while. But Creedence, too, wanted individual recognition, and it was part of my job to consciously attempt to represent them in that light. Personality and talent, however, are not concepts engineered in the media. They come to the surface all on their own or not at all, somewhat like Ken Kesey's “...cream rises, shit floats” doctrine. In spite of his enormous talent, John Fogerty's personality did not fit the mold of media hero. Creedence, together, would rise to the top of their own accord, but they would not become cultural phenomenon, as were the Beatles, in spite of their huge audience. Woe be it to any group trying to replace the Beatles; if you are going to pick a group to be envious of, you would do well to choose otherwise. Perhaps not apparent at the time, their mantle has never been passed, and probably never will be in this lifetime, U-2, Zeppelin, Stones, et al. notwithstanding.
The culture Creedence represented existed before they did and could be found, for example, in John's trademark plaid flannel shirts and the broad demographics of their audience, from grade school to grandparents. Also in the imaginative, barefoot-boy lyrics in many of John's songs. Even though their first album purposely contained some audio psychedelia, their image and music was unlike the other San Francisco bands. Lyrically, John's songs seemed closer to Stephen Foster or Cole Porter than Lennon and McCartney, and there was a curious lack of love songs. Nonetheless, they were embraced by an enormous audience, both in America and around the world. A truly fine songwriter and an acute observer, John had his finger on the pulse of America. Even though some of his songs were politically motivated, one or two even scathing, he was and is as American as apple pie, Walter Cronkite or baseball. It came as no surprise to me when John later wrote and performed a new anthem that would be adopted by Major League Baseball, the song even getting into the Hall of Fame. But other than great songs and music, Creedence didn't really bring anything new to the table. What they excelled at was reminding Americans from whence they had come, especially in the face of the revolutionary and psychedelic-tinged music of the era. Their public behavior wasn't nearly shocking enough for the press to pay any attention to. I always thought being who and what they were was good enough, a far cry better than most. Still, there was this push to become something else. Push too hard and you might break it.
As we approached the end of their most successful year, the band tried on a bit of Hollywood, retaining the powerhouse public relations firm, Rogers & Cowan, to make them into something other than what they were. It was among several questionable moves the band adopted at the time to help establish CCR at the top of the heap, somehow ignoring the fact that they had already arrived there on their own. Then there was a crappy book, “Inside Creedence” written by John Hallowell. He may have been a fine writer for articles in Life magazine and the Los Angeles Times, but the book was transparent, forced and just plain silly. This was followed by what we came to refer to as “Night of the Generals,” a gala press junket conceived by Rogers & Cowan, where we flew in all the prestigious rock journalists from all over the country. We put them up at Berkeley's Claremont Hotel, wined and dined them at the “Factory,” CCR headquarters in Berkeley. We would show them a hell of a good time along with a mini-concert-performance and the new CCR release, “Pendulum.” Though containing several fine songs, it was never my favorite Creedence record, lacking the rootsy feel of earlier releases, and the cover portrayed four individuals looking intense and sullen, neither happy nor inviting.
A few members of the elite press corps, most notably New York critic and blue-ribbon asshole, Al Aronowitz, took full advantage of all the free perks, only to write whiny, self centered articles that largely ignored the music and bitched about the slightly less than royal treatment received at the hands of these West Coast upstarts. Fuck you, Al.
* * *
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.” -- Lester Bangs, quoted in the film “Almost Famous”
Tom Donahue was on hand for the festive celebration and sometime during the evening I asked him if he would like to try some cocaine. This wasn't my usual habit or practice, but I happened to have some and figured Donahue to be a fancier. Cocaine was a relatively new drug on the scene, at least as I knew it, and people sometimes just gave it to me as a symbol their hipness and cool. For some odd and uncool reason, I felt I should explain to Donahue that we would snort the cocaine into our sinuous cavities rather than use a syringe, as though this might be his introduction to the drug. He smiled his huge, Cheshire cat smile and said, “...my man, you are talking to the original Hoover,” whereupon he produced from his pocket a miniature upright vacuum cleaner cast in metal and used it to snort up several lines of the offered blow. I sometimes wore my uncool like a badge, while Donahue's cool seemed a visible aura, emanating all around him.
* * *
At some point leading up to the “new” Creedence, there had been a meeting among band members where John's control of the music and direction was challenged by the others. I believe Tom felt a need to establish himself outside of the spotlight occupied by his younger brother and was probably leading the charge. I assume Stu and Doug went along with the idea. In light of the effort to establish individual recognition, Tom, Stu and Doug certainly had a point: how were they to establish themselves as something other than John's backup band unless they, too, were included, at least now and then, as a focal point in the band's music? But it was not an easy road to introduce other compositions in the face of the stellar track record John had established. He apparently said, okay, we'll be a democracy, but I don't believe his heart was ever into it. I think John was—might still be—bitter about this challenge to his leadership that had resulted in such remarkable success, the fruits of which were shared with all of them.
In my view therein lies the start, and eventually the heart, of the tragedy that befell Creedence Clearwater Revival, setting brother against brother, friend against friend. I was not a part of these discussions between band members and comment on what I saw happening and the result. It had been “one for all” up to that point, but the “all for one” seemed to be missing. There didn't appear to be any give and take, no attempt at genuine compromise. John's idea of democracy was each member contributing a like amount, regardless of resource or ability. It was to be this brick wall or that brick wall, like a standoff. When it came time for CCR to record again, he stubbornly held Stu and Doug to that doctrine, as though to remind them, “...this is the way you wanted it.” John wasn't greedy when it came to money, only when it came to sharing his talent. They didn't have a George Martin or Brian Epstein to guide them. John wore both of those hats during their rise to the top, but credit seemed lacking even though the result was unarguable. The venom between them would grow and get worse, much worse, in the years to come.
After getting his wishes, or at least some autonomy, and succeeding in his push for new direction, Tom announced he was leaving the band. His thinking in these regards will always be a mystery to me. Something seemed to be happening with him, an inwardly drawn unhappiness and moodiness that sometimes came to the surface and exploded in a quivering rage. It was once directed at me over something so trivial and out of the blue, I can't even remember what it was. It was hard for me to believe that this stream of anger was coming from someone with whom I had been so closely aligned. I was dumbfounded. I knew it didn't have anything to do with my loyalty or personal efforts on behalf of the band. Possibly, though, it had something to do with my unwavering support of John, who I regarded as musically brilliant and, up to then, an adept visionary when it came to making the right decisions for the band.
When Tom left, everyone had sugar coated comments and statements for the press, we're all still friends and other such bullshit, but there was a lot left unsaid that would fester in them and come to the surface in later years. I thought at the time the band might invite Duck Dunn of Booker T. & the MGs fame, to be Tom's replacement, someone we all knew and liked, and one of the best bassists in the business. It would be an easy transition for Stu, a fine musician and multi-instrumentalist, to move to rhythm guitar. To my surprise they elected to go on as a trio, again becoming the Blue Velvets from their high school years, now disguised as CCR. As good as they were as a trio, tight and together as any band, I felt their live performance suffered from the loss of the rhythm guitar and Tom's vocal support, becoming just a little thinner than it had been.
The band members themselves have opposing views on what happened around “Mardi Gras,” the democratically produced album by CCR as a trio. I do not believe either Stu or Doug welcomed their roles in this project. John, though, claims that when he would have objections about a track, democracy would be turned against him, two to one. The finger pointing goes on decades later. There were cracks in the facade before Mardi Gras, but after touring as a trio I thought they had mostly mended, and for a while I again recognized the close, personal camaraderie the three of them had shared in earlier years. I was again dumbfounded when John's democracy agenda seemed to be enforced on Stu and Doug, who would claim later that John was intentionally seeking an end to the band. Mardi Gras would become the seminal event resulting in the once proud brotherhood who became the mighty Creedence Clearwater Revival to go down in bitter flames. Critics crucified them. “You're only as good as your last record,” would haunt their memory. The bitterness would get worse as the years rolled by, fueled by business disputes and lawsuits. John would spend nearly two decades literally at war with Saul Zaentz and Fantasy, the others often siding against him when it came to band matters. Tom passed away, tragically, before his 50th birthday. John's refusal to perform with Stu and Doug at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction poured kerosene on the flames and spread their legacy with a sullied film of blame and discontent. The unofficial CCR biographer, Hank Bordowitz, was moved to title his well researched history of the band after one of John's more ominous songs, “Bad Moon Rising.”
It is the great and unnecessary sadness of the aftermath that stays with me. Victim-hood is an ugly mistress. It should have been otherwise. Whatever the truths may have been, they could have walked a dignified road without leaving broken bodies lying in anyone's wake. Jon Carroll (S.F. Chronicle) once wrote, “holding on to resentment is like letting someone live rent-free in your head.” Residential head rent, I believe, should be collected in embraceable memories, anything else evicted. I think back to the bright, fun-loving and talented young guys who came into my world when I was a senior in high school, bringing with them an innocence and a genuine musical ability. They were bursting at the seams with the energy and spirit of the music that made me want to stand up and shout out loud, or as John once said, “...music that made me want to beat a dent into the dashboard of mom's car when it came on the radio.” In their quest to capture the great spirit of rock & roll they became masters of the discipline, only to fall from the sky when they ventured too close to the sun.
No matter how skilled the musicians John would later come to surround himself with, they would never capture the true feeling of what had been when he played with his best friends from junior high school. Stu and Doug founded “Creedence Clearwater Revisited,” a truly fine group of musicians playing and emulating with superb finesse the songs of their former band, and likewise, never completely capture the magic that was created when they played with their old pal, John Fogerty. As John would say years later, “Creedence had style.” Lawyers would grow fat feasting on the leftovers.
Prior to the bitter end, having emerged from the stress and trauma of Tom's departure and all the events leading up to it, it became party time! It had been the band's practice in prior years to go out and play on weekends. They'd schedule concerts in, say, Boston and New York for Friday and Saturday, and fly home Sunday. Then they'd do Chicago and Detroit the same way. Los Angeles and San Diego. Seattle and Vancouver. And so forth, the 1970 European tour excepted. Sometimes band members would bring their wives along. Then we started putting together tours that played 20 cities in less than a month and no wives came along. They leased their own Lear Jet so there would be no concerns with airline schedules, meaning we could party harder and sleep later. It was time to kick out the jams and taste it all, a headlong rush to the waiting abyss.