A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 8
by Jake Rohrer, June 23, 2011
Memphis: We were fishing in a Mississippi river backwater with Tony Joe, Duck and the band. Jim Marshall was along to document the day with his cameras. We had rented several aluminum skiffs, about 12 feet in length with flat front ends that swept up as a whole, “bull-nosed” rather than coming to a point. Jim was alone in his skiff and at one point he moved too far forward, standing in the up-swept bow to get a particular shot and view. We watched, first with alarm, and then with laughter, as the rear of the skiff slowly lifted from the water, coming completely upright and dumping Jim and all his cameras into the swamp. He shinnied up the nearest tree stump, terrified by the thought of water moccasins. Then the thought of his cameras at the bottom of the swamp brought on crushing grief. Cosmo was the hero that day, diving again and again to the bottom of the murky water, eventually retrieving all of Jim's cameras, not at all bothered by the thought of water moccasins.
We cooked our fish in Tony Joe's backyard, playing music, trading stories and passing a bottle while fireflies dotted the landscape on a warm summer's evening. While in Memphis, we would go out evenings and visit the music club circuit, now joined by Billy Swan who came up from Nashville. Billy is a remarkably friendly and open person, and somewhat of a musical legend as well, writing a song for Clyde McPhatter while still in his teens, producing Tony Joe's “Polk Salad Annie” and having his own mega-hit, “I Can Help.” Sometimes the whole entourage would end up on stage together. In one club we happened upon a then relatively unknown Ronnie Milsap, whose superb R&B version of John's “Run Through the Jungle” blew us away. He was musically gifted in the manner of other blind musicians whose lack of vision translates into heightened musical ability. He would become a major country music star, but I think he could have fit into a variety of genres.
Madison Square Garden, NYC: I often posted myself outside the dressing room door when the band was tuning up and getting ready to go on stage, making sure they weren't disturbed by the uninvited and keeping track of the stage call. Tuning of their instruments was then by ear, the electronic and digital tuners used today not yet invented. It was especially difficult when they found themselves housed in a concrete bunker, the hard surfaces causing harsh reverberations and acoustic nightmares. Standing at my post by the door, I didn't notice it happening, but suddenly all of the people who had been bustling up and down the corridor where the dressing room was seemed to disappear. Stage hands, security, lighting people — everyone was gone. Then, appearing like shadowy apparitions, three large and rough looking men in Hell's Angels garb made their way up the corridor to the dressing room as though they owned the entire building. “We want to see Fogerty,” announced the lead Angel. A little nervous, I explained to them that they couldn't see him right now, he was getting ready to go on stage. I noticed the handle of a revolver sticking out of the lead Angel's waistband, just under his leather vest. “That's cool, man. We'll see him after the show.” He said it as though it was fact; he wasn't asking for an appointment. I asked what they wanted to see John about and they rolled out their plan for me.
The lead Angel was the president of the New York chapter of Hell's Angels and this was a diplomatic, even patriotic, visit to introduce a plan that would make America a better place, and they wanted to invite Creedence Clearwater Revival to be a central part of their vision. They had opined that the youth of America was going down a wrong road, becoming, “...pussies, queers and druggies,” embracing shitty-sounding rock music that delivered the wrong message, essentially missing the boat to what America was all about. Allowed to go on unchecked, America was in danger of going down the tubes like the Roman empire. To the Angels, Creedence represented the real America, who played real rock & roll music the way it was supposed to be played, and whose songs and images provided a message of strength and the heart of America the way it was supposed to be. Amazing, I thought: these guys worshiped my guys. They wanted Creedence to join with the Hell's Angels in supporting a nationwide program aimed at straightening out the youth of America. There would be radio and billboards, huge rallies and concerts, Creedence and the Angels leading the way, shinning examples of what America stood for. This, at least, seemed to be the general idea and was my interpretation of what they had to say.
I knew that Creedence was not going to join forces with the Hell's Angels. Hadn't these guys heard of Altamont? But I was nonetheless pleased at their adoration of the band and their reading of what CCR's music conveyed. But how was I going to be diplomatic and keep them away from the band? I did note that these East Coast Angels, even though scary looking, seemed to have a certain sophistication and sense of dignity. They seemed to lack the utter ferocity that I had seen first hand in West Coast Angels. Stu and I were together near the front of the stage at Altamont when berserk Angels terrified and panicked the crowd. I was at my wits end on how to handle this situation when I was saved by a near-impossible circumstance that I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams. As my conversation with the Angels was concluding, up strolled Don Buchanan, our co-pilot on the Lear Jet, and he and the Angel President looked at one another with disbelief, then greeted each other as though a long lost brother had suddenly appeared.
I don't recall what Don's relationship to the deceased woman was, although it was other than romantic. The woman had been the Angel's one true love when she succumbed to life ending disease. Don had been her closest personal friend, maybe somehow related. Years earlier, together with the now President of the New York Hell's Angels, Don had nursed the stricken woman through her final episode of life, establishing a bond that would last a lifetime, each a comfort to the other during this significant loss to both of them. They seemed to forget all about a meeting with Creedence. The Angels scooped up Don and took him with them to Angel headquarters somewhere in the city. We spent the next two or three days in New York, Don the whole time with the Angels. He later regaled us with stories about his royal treatment at Angel headquarters. I don't know what happened to their grand plan, but they never again showed up at our door.
Australia: It started out with marijuana cookies, a bon voyage present from a friend, that turned out to be much too potent, something we weren't aware of until it was too late. One cookie would have been enough for all of us, but we each ate a whole one. I had to strap myself into my seat, so stoned I was afraid I was going to be sick. Stu was in the bathroom so long that the stewardess became alarmed and knocked on the door until he opened it. It made for an uncomfortable first leg of the journey that ended in Fiji. But we were okay the next day, a little wiser now about our cookies. We played a single date in New Zealand, then moved on to Sydney. The first Australian date was in Brisbane where we were treated to a cyclone that shut down the airport and flooded the city streets. At one point during the concert a beer bottle came flying up onto the stage, and we were ready to shut things down if more were to come, but they didn't. It was as rowdy a crowd as I'd ever seen at a Creedence concert. We had to make a run for the airport the next day, the weather allowing a brief window through which we could take off for our concert in Sydney the next day. A circuitous route to get to the airport, many of the streets were being navigated by boat rather than car. The band played to a crowd of twenty-five thousand in Sydney the next day.
* * *
In Melbourne a request to visit a stricken fan in the hospital couldn't be denied. I went with John to visit the fan, a young and lovely woman who had little time left. Her boyfriend was there with her, and they were both very pleased and grateful for John's visit. She truly loved the music of CCR but wasn't strong enough to attend the concert. John was gracious, sincere and friendly, but a little lost for meaningful words; what do you say to someone, a stranger, who is about to die, tragically, way before her time? The concert was broadcast live on radio the next evening and John dedicated “Up Around the Bend,” to the young woman, a fitting choice.
“There's a place up ahead and I'm goin', just as fast as my feet can fly, Come away, come away if you're goin', leave the sinkin' ship behind, Come on the risin' wind, we're goin' up around the bend.” — John Fogerty, “Up Around the Bend”
John made it a habit to put new strings on his guitars for every performance. He rarely, if ever, broke a guitar string on stage. But on this night, just into the song's clarion-like introduction, a string snapped. He was nonetheless able to finish, but the expression and message on his face when he looked at me while replacing the string said it all: the song was for her and the guitar string symbolized her tenuous grasp to a lifeline which broke during the dedicated performance, releasing her into the hereafter. We both felt there was something very Twilight Zone about the broken string.
* * *
The great Led Zeppelin started out in Perth when the mighty Creedence Clearwater Revival was at the opposite end of the country in Sydney. Our twain would meet in Adelaide, more or less in the center of the continent, the steamship Proud Mary meeting the Zeppelin airship as they passed one another on tour. Both groups stayed at the same hotel. Creedence would play concerts Thursday and Saturday, while Zeppelin played their date on Friday at a different venue. As was my habit at a new hotel, I checked with the dinning room to see if there was a dress code that had to be observed. If so, we'd usually do room service or find a restaurant. Jackets and ties weren't a part of our wardrobe, but there was no requirement other than shirts and shoes. The Zeppelin road crew arrived while we were having lunch, looking ragged and unkempt, shirts hanging open, barely if at all meeting dress requirements. They sauntered in and ordered up their lunch while I wondered about the necessity of my cautionary habit.
Out in front of the hotel, a gaggle of Zeppelin fans lined the sidewalk, looking like the road crew, ragged and scruffy. They also appeared to be very young and it suddenly hit home for me: a new generation was making itself known. Zeppelin was a great rock band and Creedence was a great rock & roll band. One genre blending into the next, the same way soul music seemed to replace early rhythm & blues. Rock & roll will never die if you believe the songs, but you could write volumes on the deviations. Zeppelin could play rock & roll and Creedence could play rock, but to me, each band represented a different genre. In coming years there would be more outgrowths of what was originally rock & roll, even musical nerds becoming cool. The music we had grown up with was changing direction. A new generation was establishing its own exclusivity and demanded distance from the prior generation. More than any other, Led Zeppelin would be the band that represented the newest generation, also picking up its share of fans from prior generations. Not yet 30, but our age was showing. Creedence still had a youthful following and packed in the over-30 fans, all the way to the over-60 set, but it looked to me like our grasp of the youth market was starting to slip.
We partied with Zeppelin and their road guys, along with our road guys and whoever else happened to be invited. There seemed to be an exclusive floor for each band in the hotel. Nothing got out of control or over the top and it felt like there was a mutual camaraderie and respect. It was especially intriguing to see John Fogerty sitting there on the floor next to Jimmy Page, two giants in the arena of rock & roll, trading stories and laughing while Cosmo established a bond with Zeppelin drummer, John Bonham. Some of the Zeppelin guys got a little carried away, taking out a wall when they wanted a connecting room. Creedence guys didn't do that shit.
Japan: Getting to Tokyo was a hard day's travel from Australia's west coast, non-stop for 24-hours. From Perth, across the Australian continent to Sydney, a brief stop in Hong Kong, then onto Tokyo where we first learned to bow with our overly polite hosts. At the hotel I had to count out millions in Japanese yen, spending money for the band, a dizzying task in my weary condition. We were all exhausted when the Japanese promoter treated us to massage, sauna and steam bath at an exclusive traditional Japanese bathhouse. We walked out refreshed and feeling like kings. The entire concert schedule sold out in hours, a month ahead of our arrival.
The next day I met Sachiko, head of the CCR fan club in Japan. She was a pretty, polite and proper Japanese businesswoman in her mid-20s. She dressed in formal business attire, a skirt and jacket, had a good command of the English language, and was so well-mannered and courteous you wanted to puke. We sat together at a press reception, having tea, and talking about the upcoming performances in several cities throughout the country. She had taken a leave of absence from her job and, paying her own way, would join us at all of the venues, wanting to stay in the same hotels. I guess it was the way she asked about the hotels...I had to ask her. I meant no disrespect. I simply wanted to know her intentions...do you expect to stay with me? Never in my life had I seen such a combination of shock, revulsion, and embarrassment come over someone. I might as well have asked if she doubled as a hooker when she was done at the office. She got up to leave the table as the enormity of my faux pas became clear to me. Summoning all of the honesty I possessed, along with the most sincere apology I could muster, I persuaded her to please sit down and let me explain. I told her that anywhere else in the world I had been with Creedence, if someone had said to me what you had asked, it would be interpreted in the way my question implied. I am new to your culture and I need to learn. Please accept my apologies; I meant no disrespect. I am just a dummy. She was a single woman from a traditional Japanese family, still living with her parents. I did have a lot to learn and so did she. We became very close friends, maybe more than that.
John's girlfriend from Copenhagen, Lucy, was along on the tour with John. She was a sweetheart of a woman whose company I enjoyed very much. It was a time when John was learning more and more traditional and country music. He brought along a single-neck, pedal steel guitar on tour with him and was teaching himself how to play it. In Tokyo we found a club that featured bluegrass music played by very skilled Japanese musicians and we went there several times to hear them. I invited Sachiko to join me, John and Lucy for our evenings of dinner and music. We had a driver and limousine, a grossly huge Cadillac that stood out like sore thumb. The Japanese paparazzi followed us everywhere we went. Cruising down a boulevard there would suddenly be a photographer on the back of a motorcycle, right outside the limousine window, snapping away. We thought it was fun and didn't really give a damn. Sachiko's eyes were wide with excitement over these thrilling episodes of life as a rock star. Every night we didn't have a concert, the four of us visited the clubs and restaurants, finding the Japanese people, their culture and food, delicious and welcoming.
One night in Tokyo, I offered our extra room to Sachiko so she wouldn't have to drive to the outskirts of the city to get home, and it was going to be a late night. We always had an extra room at the hotels, either as the party room or, should we say, a spare room for emergencies. I usually shared a room with Bob Fogerty. This night, however, Bob apparently had an emergency and when we got back to the hotel, the spare room was occupied. Sachiko had informed her parents she would be staying at the hotel that evening. It was near 3 o'clock in the morning when we discovered our plan had been undermined. But, since it was Bob who was occupying the spare room, that meant there was a spare bed in my room. What the hell. You can stay with me tonight, Sachiko. It will be okay. You will have your own bed. Again, she registered a look of shock. If her parents ever found out she spent a night, unmarried, in a hotel room with a man, she would be disowned. It was truly a frightening prospect for her. I convinced her it would be okay; no one will know but us. It was a comical scene, getting her into bed. If modesty came in crates, then she was a truckload. I had to proceed her getting into my own bed, and then turn out the lights while she came from the bathroom to her bed, thanking me for my understanding and hospitality. Little by little, she was learning the ways of the West, understanding that, really, it was okay. Her respect, along with her hymen, would remain intact.
Perhaps a harbinger of what was to come, a 7.5 earthquake somewhere off the coast occurred while I was in the hotel lobby getting ready to leave for the Tokyo concert. People cried out and elevators banged and rattled in their shafts. A ripple like a small wave rolled across the lobby floor, lifting me up, then setting me down, as it passed beneath me. After the concert there was a riot. Cars were set on fire and raging Japanese youth squared off with police in revolt against the old ways. The world was changing here, too. We had to be hustled out of the arena through underground tunnels. If a band as docile in their message as Creedence, who nonetheless could deliver an exciting performance, set off a riot, just wait until Zeppelin gets here. You folks will have your hands full.
Sachiko rode down in the elevator with me to the limousine that would take us to the airport and home. A tear rolled down her cheek as she turned her face up to mine. It was a gentle embrace and kiss, on the mouth, probably her first ever. “I have but one wish,” she said. “That you will one day return to Japan.” I never did.
* * *
We arrived home only to finish the recording of Mardi Gras and go back on the road for one final tour before it all came tumbling down. Even after they agreed to disband and John and I, with Bob and Bruce Koutz, had moved out of the Factory, the band members were at least cordial and open with one another over the next few years. Maybe because there were mutually beneficial wars to be fought and maybe because no one had yet so thoroughly pissed off one of the others. I'm glad I wasn't around when the wars became between each other, animosity growing like a cancer. I truly regarded these guys as brothers. Though I can certainly fault individual actions, I never want to have to take sides in battles not of my own making, having to choose one brother over another.