A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 7
by Jake Rohrer, June 16, 2011
“Get me to the hotel, baggage gone, oh well, c'mon, c'mon won't you get me to my room, I gotta move, I'm playin' in a Travelin' Band” — John Fogerty, ‘Travelin’ Band’
Hana, Maui: I could hardly believe my good fortune. The first time I traveled with the band to play a concert date it was in Honolulu. Following the show we would spend two weeks on the island to which my mother had moved the prior year. But that was just openers. Everyone's family was invited, too, everybody connected with Creedence — the entire road crew, everyone; even girlfriends were invited, for a generous stay at the world class Hotel Hana Maui. And the band picked up the tab. I had never been to Hawaii before this visit and longed to see Mom, as well as this paradise called Hawaii. I had to pinch myself. What a fabulous introduction to my future life in Hawaii.
Hana was known as “Heavenly Hana” and also as “the last Hawaiian place,” and not without good reason. Hana is a special place, and in 1969 it was especially so. Like many of the special places in this world, they become and remain so by their remoteness and the difficulty in getting there. Hana has no airport that will accommodate jet aircraft and the road to Hana is a world famous, slow-going, winding trek through scenic jungle and rainforest, dotted with waterfalls and crystal pools. Drenched in authentic Hawaiian “aloha,” Hana was like a Hollywood movie set, only the real deal. When you inhaled, you breathed in warm, moist tropical air imbued with the fragrance of exotic flowers. Plumeria, especially, permeated the hotel grounds and even today when I catch the wondrous and intoxicating scent of plumeria, I am transported back to Hana. When it rained, it rained big warm fluid drops, sometimes hard and heavy for only a few minutes before giving way to tropical sun and blue skies. The people lived the way their ancestors had lived, and kept alive the traditions of their cherished homeland. The Hawaiians who worked at the hotel were all natives of Hana and in the Hawaiian way they all seemed to be dancers and singers and musicians. They provided the nightly entertainment at the hotel after their regular duties, authentic and real. Some of those who were there in 1969 are today legendary in Hawaiian culture. The bartender was a huge Hawaiian man named Tiny (Malaikini) who became Hana's ambassador of aloha. Some bartenders keep a weapon under the bar, but when Tiny reached under the bar he came out with his ukulele and sang for me the first, true traditional Hawaiian music I'd ever heard. Clara Tolentino, a revered Hana “kupuna,” provided song and taught hula. Her daughter, “G-girl” married Hawaiian Noble, Robert Keli`iho`omalu of Kaimu on the Big Island, and together raised a legendary musical family. No person I ever met radiated love and aloha so overwhelmingly as G-girl. Her smile and manner invited me into her heart and stunned me into an immediate humbleness. Some 30 years later it would be my honor to record her nephew's first album of Hawaiian music; Kaiolohia learned music and aloha as a child at the feet of his auntie G-girl.
The people of Hana knew Creedence and their music and they greeted us warmly, many lining the roadside as we arrived at the hotel. Everyone was taken with the magic of Hana and a year or so later, we would do a “hana hou,” meaning in Hawaiian we would do it again, coming back for another stay after another concert in Honolulu.
Europe: The Lear Jet was a model designated 24-B. Cap'n John called it a “baby rocket.” It could carry up to six passengers and regulations required a co-pilot in addition to the pilot. The interior dimensions reminded me of a passenger van. It had a range of only about 1,900 miles which meant we had to set down about every three hours to refuel. Good thing, too, because there was no toilet on board. There was, though, an emergency bedpan under one of the seats. This plane could not cross the Pacific, but via Goose Bay, Labrador, Reykjavik, Iceland, and then into Manchester, England, we could cross the Atlantic and use it throughout a European tour we called “Mondo Bizarro II,” announced as such on the wing tanks of the Lear. Also stenciled on the tanks was “Powered by Gort” together with an image of Gort himself, the adopted Creedence mascot from the 1951 anti-war and science fiction film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” This leg of the trip started out in Boston. Prior to Boston, we flew from Oakland to Wichita, where the factory was so we could get the plane's heating system fixed. We froze our asses off getting to Wichita.
John W. Chadick, Maj. (ret.) USAF, was our trusted pilot and confidant. Time and again, his skills at flying jet aircraft thrilled and amazed us. The co-pilot was Don Buchanan, younger with far less experience than Cap'n John, but he was nonetheless part of the team and a capable pilot and navigator. On a later tour, our co-pilot was John Lear, son of the inventor. He would have been the captain, but we insisted the plane's owner hire Cap'n John. We did all the bad shit we weren't supposed to do, barrel rolls, loops, fighter maneuvers and so forth. Each of us took a turn in the pilot's seat. Cap'n John, of course, in next seat, keeping anything from going haywire. John Fogerty once piloted a take-off, scaring me half to death as we snaked down the runway; not as easy as it may look. Cap'n John landed the plane like a skilled artisan at his work. He would hit the end of the runway with the nose slightly up, the rear wheels hitting the pavement with the slightest bump. He kept the nose up all the way down the runway, using the fuselage as an air foil to help slow us down, the nose wheel coming to ground with the lightest touch. Whenever Don or John Lear landed the plane, we hit the runway with a harsh ka-whump! The plane immediately leveled out and there was no air foil to aid in slowing the craft.
Cap'n John spent 20 years in the USAF and was an experienced fighter pilot as well as a B-52 captain . He told us of secret Cambodian bombing raids where a wing of 16 B-52's would take off from Saigon, heading out to bomb Haiphong in the North. Halfway there, half of the wing would peel off to bomb Cambodia, rejoining the returning planes at the same point. The “spotters” would count 16 planes out and 16 planes in, none the wiser. That's when John said it was time to quit, which he did. Cap'n John and I established a relationship that far outlasted Creedence. When he found out I was to be sentenced for my role in the cocaine trade, he flew to San Francisco and tried to get a private audience with the Judge, but had to settle for writing a character reference letter. A resident of Florida, he tried his hand at commercial fishing for a while, but it was backbreaking work for very little reward. Then fortune arrived in the form of a new company that called itself Federal Express. John was among the first half-dozen or so pilots to work for them.
* * *
We were doing about .93 mach, 50,000 feet over the North Atlantic. The ghostly atmospheric phenomenon known as the northern lights was all around us, appearing like shimmering phantoms, then melting away to be replaced by another. Cosmo (Doug Clifford) had majestic Strauss waltzes on the stereo system and we were all smoking marijuana, even John Fogerty who would seldom partake of doobage. We were all kicked-back, listening to the music, reading now and then, and taking in the majesty and wonderment of the night sky with its falling curtains of ghostly light. Don Buchanan, in radio contact with a weather ship on duty in the North Atlantic, mentioned his passengers. Some CCR fans on board the weather ship wanted to send their regards and good wishes to the band and the headset was passed around among the band members who said their hellos and expressed their thanks.
On the ground in Iceland, we all headed for the nearest bathroom, anxious to drain our bladders. We were about two hours flying time from Manchester where we would go through British customs. I gathered the guys around and suggested we inventory what marijuana we still had left. It amounted to over 20 pre-rolled joints. We were already reasonably stoned and there were only four of us. I suggested we flush it all on the spot. “…no way,” says Cosmo, “we're smokin' 'em.” “…damn right,” says Stu. Even John was in agreement. Soundly defeated, I could only join the opposition.
On our way into Manchester the Lear cabin was a thick fog of marijuana smoke and I noticed Cap'n John was wearing an oxygen mask which I thought was a smart move. Pretty soon it became apparent we couldn't smoke all of those joints, so we started tearing them open and sprinkling sandwiches with marijuana, eating what we couldn't smoke. I was stoned to a point of being numb and I wasn't too anxious about dealing with customs on arrival. Customs would turn out to be the easy part. A cloud of smoke rolled out of the Lear when the door hatch was opened and the interior was saturated with the smell of marijuana. I got out of the plane onto the tarmac and spotted a throng of British press and photographers awaiting our arrival. No way were we prepared to meet the press. It was early morning and the bitter cold was intensified by the marijuana. No one had had any sleep at all. I began to shiver, almost uncontrollably, and wondered how in hell I was going to deal with the press in my current state. Salvation was found in a restroom where I bathed my hands, arms and face with warm water, bringing the shakes under control and forcing my mind into a reasonable sobriety as best I could. Our time with the press was brief, begging off with explanations of lack of sleep and travel weariness. Customs went through the plane with a fine-toothed comb, but we were thorough in our consumption.
Manchester: I don't remember the name of the hotel we stayed at, only that it resembled something out of a Gothic ghost story, a fitting scene for a seance, or maybe Dracula on holiday. It was dark, and walls were hung with rugs and tapestries. Hallways changed elevations, connecting with more hallways and hidden rooms. It was hard to remember where everyone was or how to get back to where you had started. It was here we would meet up with the rest of our party and entourage.
Bruce Young was the capable and responsible road manager, and a good friend to all of us. Bruce was a wonderfully smart, warm and endearing man whose integrity and steadfast support of the band served as a centerpiece for the rest of us. The equipment and lighting guys were Ray Francois, Bruce Koutz and John Flores, all on the payroll and each a part of the CCR family. John's younger brother, Bob, was the staff photographer, and filled in wherever needed. Bob would in later years become John's right hand, fulfilling most managerial roles. Performances on this tour were to be recorded live for a planned album release. Russ Gary, the recording engineer for most of the Creedence albums, was along to see to the recording and also was considered a family member. On this tour we brought along Tony Joe White as the opening act, and he brought with him a fine band consisting of Duck Dunn on bass, “Sundance” on drums and Mike Utley on keyboards. We had toured with this group earlier and all of them were considered comrades and friends. And then there was Jim Marshall, a fine and famed photographer, along to capture events with his cameras. No other photographer documented the San Francisco music scene of the sixties as exquisitely and thoroughly as Jim. Though he could be pleasant and cordial, he could also be a pain in the ass. In an instant he could become a whiny, spoiled rock star, demanding and needy, nothing quite coming up to what he considered his deserved station. Many were the times I had to smooth his feathers, or those of hotel management, when his fervent bitching about his room, service or meal would come close to having him tossed. This one annoying trait aside, he too was a valued member of the tour.
With the whole crew now on hand in this creepy hotel, our first night was a wild celebration of arrival, fueled by alcohol and hashish. A little out of control, there is little doubt that we became the pain in the ass to other guests. Music, laughter and revelry lasted far into the night. I was awakened, slightly hungover, with a couple of phone calls from the local press who wondered if I could give give them the particulars about the goings-on that had occurred in the night. No, 'fraid not, ol' chap. Don't know what you are referring to. Thanks for your interest, but I'm going back to sleep. I guess the police had been called, but I don't recall encountering them. The Manchester concert wasn't Creedence at their best, but they could shine even when warming up and getting the bugs out. We next headed to London where record companies and promoters hosted a press reception for which the band and I arrived on bicycles, singing a round of “…there's no business like show business.” The final concerts would be held at the Albert Hall at the end of the tour. Though invited to travel with us, Tony Joe wouldn't get near the Lear Jet; he'd heard about our acrobatic antics from Duck who'd lost his dinner during a barrel roll on the way to New Orleans from Memphis during an earlier tour. Duck wasn't anxious to join us again, either.
Berlin: These were days when the Berlin wall was still standing, and West Berlin was like a country within a country, surrounded by hostility. We had to fly a restricted corridor and maintain a precise elevation in order to get there without being shot at by military fighters. Cap'n John was concerned about the Lear showing up on radar as a fighter plane, which it originally was. He spent a great deal of time making sure that the Soviet and GDR MiGs that patrolled the corridor understood that we were rock & roll stars, even though our plane would show up on their radar with a fighter profile. Cap'n John said that we may have been the first such private aircraft ever to fly the Berlin corridor. We had been through Check Point Charlie and East Berlin the year before; this year we stayed in the West and checked out the music and club scene. Creedence had exceptional popularity in Germany and they were well served by their German record label, Bellaphon. We also took in a soccer game in the same stadium where Jesse Owens triumphed in the 1936 Olympics. Also a medalist was the brother of the great Jackie Robinson. Together with Joe Louis and others, pesky black people kept derailing Hitler's propaganda machine.
Copenhagen: We cut out a whole week, maybe more, to spend in Copenhagen, both because we enjoyed the city and because John had a romantic interest there. The rest of us were just loose on the town. Russ Gary joined us in Copenhagen while Tony Joe, his band and the road crew would meet us at the next venue. We discovered various clubs where hashish was openly smoked and shared among patrons with a “chillum,” a ceramic bowl that was cupped in the hands so that you could draw the smoke without contaminating a mouthpiece while passing it around. The hashish was often packed into the bowl with a strong Turkish tobacco and once in a while Cosmo, a staunch anti-smoker, would get a hit of the tobacco rather than the hash and gag. One night we got Cap'n John stoned, the first time ever. He didn't like it one bit, although he did concede that it made him see better. But all of a sudden, he thought he was outside looking in. I remember poor Cap'n John trying to explain to a lady that he had been given a drug that was making him act other than what he really was, although he was the only one who thought something might be amiss. We spent several evenings at the enchanting Tivoli Gardens where on closing they would end the evening with a fireworks display. On this night a rocket was somehow knocked over when launched and it took off horizontally through the crowd. I can still see them dancing and jumping in a haze of smoke while the berserk rocket sped in crazy circles all around them, like a deflating balloon spewing a fiery propellant rather than air. No one was hurt that I knew about.
Our European tour manager took us to a live sex show and I don't think any of us knew quite what to expect. We were seated in a small theater-like room with a bed for a stage in the center. We filed in and took our seats behind a dozen or so British bankers on holiday, a stogy appearing group if ever there was one. The warm-up act was a few naked girls who came out and relentlessly teased the bankers, providing for us high comedy at its best. The eye-opening main event was an experienced and hardworking couple who were very good at what they did. Were there an Olympic category for fornacastic gymnastics, then I would guess they were potential medalists. A couple of the warm-up girls were snagged by a couple of our guys and they would hang out with us for a few days.
Europe: Wilbert “Mr. Kansas City” Harrison came along as the opening act on the first European tour. A warm and soulful individual, he became a beloved member of our touring group. He had an eager smile and an easy going way about him, and it was clear that he enjoyed life and his profession. Wilbert was an ideal touring partner, performing as a one-man band and damn good at it, too. He had a bass-drum and a hi-hat cymbal with a tambourine attached, and a harmonica in a holder around his neck, Bob Dylan style. He played guitar and sang, accompanied by his array of instruments, all at the same time. Bluesman Jesse Fuller performed with a similar set up. Wilbert's single claim to fame was the fifties super-hit, “Kansas City,” a classic that no doubt sold in the millions and was recorded by countless other musicians, including Paul McCartney, but Wilbert's version is the standard. He told us he wrote the song, but officially it's credited to the superb writing team, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Wilbert enjoyed drinking and he probably did more of it than may have been advisable.
The tour opened in Rotterdam, Holland, with two shows the same night. I took in the first show with Fantasy Records head, Saul Zaentz, who was there for part of the tour prior to hostilities between the band and label. The midnight audience, well-oiled and anxious for Creedence, gave Wilbert a less than warm reception. The following show in Essen, Germany, was about to start when Wilbert grabbed me backstage, pleading, “...brothuh, you got a taste?” A taste of what? “…whiskey, anything. I can't go out there without a taste.” Shit. I could see he was really scared. The hostile crowd in Rotterdam had destroyed his confidence. I grabbed a German fellow who worked at the hall and gave him 100 Deutschmarks, telling him to run out and buy some booze, “schnell! The show won't start without it.” “Schnapps?” wondered the German. “No. Bourbon, brandy, something brown.” He was back in a few minutes with a bottle of brandy that Wilbert upended, doing about a quarter of it in one swallow. Now he was ready. The arena crowd loved him and he responded with a superb show, his confidence back and fully intact for the rest of the tour. Bless the Germans for their love and recognition of American bluesmen.
The Royal Albert Hall concerts were legendary performances with screaming crowds and stomping ovation demands that went on and on. Creedence had adopted a “no ovations” policy because it was thought that ovations had lost meaning; they would be demanded again and again, even when the band thought they had played lousy. They always closed their shows with a 10-minute version of “Keep on Chooglin',” high energy, high velocity rock & roll that served as the evening's musical orgasm. When finished they were spent. There was nothing left to do but bask in the afterglow. Some audiences, of course, didn't understand this and Creedence, I think, ignored the adoration aspect of the demand. They could have come out, bowed to the audience and whistled Dixie, and the crowds would have been happy.
Some of my fondest memories of the European tours were times I spent with Stu when we had a some days off, cruising around Paris in a limousine, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower for lunch, visiting the Louvre, Versailles, and drinking some damn good wine. Low-key, touristy stuff, but it felt like we were royalty. Stu had been my earliest and closest connection with the band and he taught me cool piano stuff in keys then foreign to my playing. Wilbert, a little numb from the night before, but looking very cool in dark glasses and a trench coat, managed to set himself on fire lighting a cigarette at the airport when we were leaving Paris. He was oblivious to flames billowing from a nylon scarf he carried over his arm when Bob Fogerty, standing nearby, rushed over and beat out the fire. “Damn!” said Wilbert, incredulous. “Where'd dat fire come from, brothuh Bob?” Arriving home and coming through customs, we noticed Wilbert was having a hard time with his suitcase, dragging it along as though too heavy to lift. “What's in there, Wilbert?” Once across the customs line, he opened the suitcase, “…looky here, brothuh.” It was packed with sterling dinner ware and table accoutrements, lifted from some of the finest hotels in Europe. Bon apetite, Wilbert.