A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 10
by Jake Rohrer, July 10, 2011
“Did you ever stand and shiver…just because you was lookin' at a river?”
— Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Following the breakup of CCR, John kept me employed for another four years or so. We moved out of the “Factory” and set up shop in a temporary office on San Pablo Avenue in Albany. We hadn't yet developed a game plan, but we would take things one step at a time. John, I knew, was fed up with Saul Zaentz and Fantasy Records, who in his mind had fucked up the follow-up releases to his “Blue Ridge Rangers” album, among myriad other unpleasant feelings toward Saul and the label. I found a residential property just off Solano Avenue that was also zoned for commercial use, a fluke. John bought it outright, and it became our new office and his studio. Before we moved in, I got a call from Max, setting things into motion that would, for a while anyway, have significant impact on the life of John Fogerty and create no small changes in my own.
Max explained to me that a local packer (a commercial hunting guide) named Roger Wilson was going to take a string of mules 15 or 20 miles up into the canyons of the national forest that borders Troy. Max was going with him on horseback. Their purpose was to see how Roger's hunting camps had come through the winter and do a little clean up. The area contained one of the largest elk herds in North America. “It's wild back country,” said Max. “The trail follows the Wenaha River all the way, one of the prettiest and cleanest rivers you'll ever see. We might see bear, deer, elk, big horn sheep, maybe even mountain lion. We'll catch some trout, too. Why don't you and John fly up here and come with us?”
As his song implies, John was no fortunate son, and I think that was true in more ways than those suggested in the song. We didn't talk a lot about it, but it became clear that much of his childhood suffered from a broken marriage and a father who had problems with alcohol. The idea of getting on a horse and going into country like this very much appealed to John. It would be a brand new experience for him. I, of course, was the fortunate one who had grown up experiencing a lot of the great outdoors with my father. John was enthusiastic about going and I looked forward to seeing this country and spending time with Max.
The closest commercial airport to Troy is Lewiston, Idaho. Max met us in his angular Toyota pickup that looked a little like a military vehicle. We drove the hour and a half to Troy, making our way through high country wheat fields, then down through steep and majestic mountainsides on a winding road called the Rattlesnake Grade that bottomed out at the Grand Ronde River. We followed the river's course through Washington, then into Oregon and Troy, about 20 miles on a gravel road, towering canyon walls studded with rim-rock rising all around us.
Troy sits at the confluence of the Grand Ronde and Wenaha rivers, nestled between the canyons cut by the rivers over countless eons. The only business in town was the Troy Resort, run by Roger and his family. It was old and quaint, a 2-story clapboard structure with a steeply pitched roof, western-style shutters and a hitching post out in front. The people who lived around Troy and who frequented the resort were visiting sportsmen and local country folk, cowboys, farmers, field hands, loggers and people who worked with their hands. Tough, capable and strong, they were a population who mostly by choice avoided big cities and heavily inhabited areas. Max fit right in. He was born in Anatone, Washington, at the top of the Rattlesnake Grade, and he spent his early family life farming, blacksmithing, driving trucks, operating bulldozer, tractor and other farm rigs, able to fix or repair the equipment he worked with.
Roger was a country boy, hayseed and easy going, nonetheless alert and savvy. Not what you'd call an academic, he was a muleskinner, someone who knew mules inside and out. Like a horse trader, he was a shrewd buyer and seller of mules and he knew how to train them and use them as a pack animal. True to their reputation, they were stubborn animals but possessed a sure-footed ability beyond horses, making them a valued trail animal. Roger was personable and charming, and I liked him right away. I also gathered he might be a bit allergic to hard work. Not that he wouldn't be a packer and a muleskinner, but I think he preferred tending bar and being an innkeeper.
On our first night in Troy, Max got drunk, something I'd never seen before or since. Why he saved it for John's arrival was beyond my reckoning. Even so, we had a fun evening, strumming guitars, Max playing his harmonica, John and I drinking within reason while Max got sloppy and staggering, even managing to fall over a dinning room table, sprawling out on the floor. Maybe John's celebrity overcame him; Troy had never seen the likes of someone as famous as John. Max loved John's music and music in general. He once told me he had heard a new song that had captured him right away and wanted to bring it to my attention; it had a line in it about “…standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” corners that he himself had stood on. “I think the group that did it was called, the 'Hawks,' or something like that,” said Max. Maybe they were “Eagles,” huh Max?
We got a late start on the trail, Max nursing a head-splitting hangover, getting underway without enough coffee or beer to sustain us through the trip. We were probably short on food rations as well, but coffee and beer were important items. This may have been John's first time on horseback and he struggled a little with his mount. Roger gave him his personal riding mule, John remarking that suddenly it was as though he were now driving a luxury sedan after wrestling with a jalopy. Bringing up the rear with his hangover, Max called out, “…first one sees an elk gets an extra beer!” Then, typical of his subtle humor and desperately wanting a beer to soothe his pounding head, almost under his breath and directed to no one in particular, “…think I just seen one.”
John and I were dazzled by the natural beauty and ruggedness of the terrain. The trail took us high over the river along rocky bluffs, an eagle soaring beneath us. Then we would descend to the river, crossing a waist deep tributary on horseback, wending our way farther upstream through wooded flats that gave way to rising trail before again falling to the next flat. We didn't encounter another soul the entire journey. Around a blazing campfire we traded stories far into the night, the bitter cold closing in on us the moment we ventured from the fire. The scream of a mountain lion sent a chill and shattered the darkness around us. Then we shivered the whole night through in lousy sleeping bags.
Arriving back in Troy, the Grand Ronde Social Club, headed by local rancher Lester Kiesecker, a lifetime resident who farmed some acreage on the Grand Ronde a few miles out of Troy, called for an evening of food, music and dance at his ample backyard patio. Word had spread up and down the rivers and through the valleys, John Fogerty was in Troy! These country people were fond of their music and most knew America's traditional roots music; many played acoustic instruments. John, of course, knew and enjoyed the same kind of music and true to CCR's demographic, most knew John's music, too. If John had been from, say, Jefferson Airplane, few would have known who he was. Lester himself was a live wire, playing fiddle, musical saw, spoons, guitar and probably other instruments as well. His sons also played various instruments and his wife played piano.
Over a hundred people attended that night, country folk, men with pints of bourbon in brown paper bags, women in gingham dresses piling the tables with food. Respectful of John's celebrity, people would come up to me and ask, “…is that really who they say it is? Doggone!” John got up and sang a few songs with Lester's son's band, and I chunked along with Max's 12-string guitar. People danced and laughed and had a hell of a good time in this festive country setting, a wild river running between high canyon walls, echoing a time and place long gone in the America John and I had come from. As we were dazzled by the terrain, we were charmed and welcomed by the people, their social life and the role music played in it, a natural existence that relied on the seasons and each other. We'd seen this life before only in movies.
Roger was a charmer nonpareil and instantly likable. He was also a rodeo cowboy, capable of rough and tough western crafts that took skills and daring beyond what either John or I possessed. He was in his late twenties at the time and had never seen a large city. He wasn't an aggressive person. Rather you were struck by the warmth of his smile and outright friendliness, but he could use his fists, too. One night I saw him leap over the bar at the resort, moving so fast I missed the fact there was a problem. He grabbed the troublemaker and knocked him through the front door and out into the street with a right cross. Real wildwest stuff. Nonetheless, he was shrewd in his own country ways and, like Max, he could probably sell ice to Eskimos.
Troy was in Wallowa County, the far northeast corner of Oregon where elk season was a paramount event. As many as fifty thousand hunters would descend upon Wallowa County for elk season, chasing a herd of elk estimated at about fourteen thousand head, maybe three or four thousand of those legal-to-hunt bulls. Of economic importance to the state and the county, the hunters would each buy a hunting license and an elk permit, and they would inhabit local motels and eat at the diners, buy groceries and gasoline and sporting equipment, and so forth. In Troy, they would retain Roger as a guide and a packer, using his tents, mules and horses, and they would eat and drink at the Troy Resort. In this period of a few short weeks, Roger would bring in the vast majority of his annual income.
As it turned out, there was another business in Troy, not as visible as Roger and the Troy Resort. There was a rival packer whose operation consisted of a barn and some modest cabins and a few lots at the backside of town. Roger worked his magic on John, who at the time was wide-eyed and intoxicated by all that we had seen and done in Troy. Without consulting me or Max, John announced that he had entered into a partnership with Roger. For some fifty thousand dollars he would buy out Roger's competition, expanding the packing business that John would now share in, and have some property on which to build his own cabin. Except for Roger's benefit, it probably wasn't a great idea.
* * *
“Where the river flows, where the water goes, I'll be over there, waiting over there, Where the river flows…”
— John Fogerty, “Where the River Flows”
Troy would become for a while a part of our lives. The partnership never worked quite the way Roger had described it to John, and John eventually extricated himself from the business and the real estate. In the meantime, David Geffen had come to town, courting John for his own label, Asylum Records, and put a deal together buying up John's remaining obligations to Fantasy Records. John busied himself producing his first solo album for Asylum which never quite measured up to anyone's expectations, except maybe my own. I still hear in it the heart and soul of John Fogerty, even though some of it may not have been up to earlier efforts. John seemed every bit as interested in establishing himself in Troy and becoming a hunter as he was in his musical career.
We returned to Troy for elk season, bringing along John's younger brother, Bob, and Harvey Graham, a carpenter and builder of exceptional skills, equally adept as a hunter and backwoodsman.
Harvey had originally done some remodeling work for Doug Clifford and was eventually passed around to the other CCR members. Personally appealing as he was skilled, Harvey was a man of great honesty and individual character, and he would find in Troy his personal Shangri-La, a place that offered the all things he most valued in life. My family, too, came to hold Troy in high regard, especially my daughter, Tracy, who, like Harvey, found there her own very special place while growing up that she would return to, again and again, over a lifetime, sometimes with her dad.
I was not too keen on taking up hunting again, my father having died while hunting from an accidental rifle discharge that tore through his upper leg, losing too much blood to recover by the time he got to a hospital. But I would enjoy the camaraderie of bivouacking in the back country with all the guys,
passing a bottle around a campfire and bullshitting while the sky filled with stars unblemished by light pollution and night surrounded us in a primal darkness. Max and Harvey would make it especially worthwhile. With any luck I wouldn't encounter anything to shoot at and maybe it wouldn't snow on us, both wishes coming true.
Back in Troy, informal music sessions were a part of many evenings at the Resort, playing traditional and country music. John of course was the leader, but sometimes there would be other skilled musicians who would join in and the music would soar. The cafe would fill beyond capacity and Roger would sell a lot of beer. John found a 400-acre parcel just across the river, and plans were made to build a house fronting the Grand Ronde river, a country retreat for John and his family.
John was a great one for experiencing life, reaching for things that had been only dreams in his youth, learning things on his own. He once learned how to fly an airplane, getting his pilot's license and doing a solo flight, then, to my knowledge, never flying again. His musical skills were exceptional, and throughout the Creedence years and beyond he would teach himself to play whatever instrument might be needed to make the record he had in mind. For better or worse, he was for years adamant about making records by himself, playing all the instruments. He was a hard worker, capable and bright, and he would undertake whatever was necessary to make his visions a reality. In Troy he would learn to hunt and fish. And now, he would learn how to build a house. Not quite on his own, but with Harvey in the lead and the guys who worked for him, me, brother Bob, equipment handler Bruce Koutz and John himself, we would build from scratch his country retreat on the Grand Ronde. A water witch (“dowser”) came with a willow branch to locate the well. It was a great eye-opener and learning process for me as well.
Max was also on the team and had started his own business in Troy with Charlie Allen, a local hired hand and roustabout. They had a tractor and an old dump truck and called their enterprise “Ho-Hum Construction.” Max, always on the money with a slogan, came up with “Don't Call Us—We'll Call You.” Whenever I'd run into Charlie in later years and ask what he was up to, the answer was always the same, “…you know, man, just ho-hummin' it.” Charlie also joined us in elk camp. During one cold spell at camp, Max and I moved into the cook tent where we could light a fire and warm things up. But come three or four in the morning, we were freezing again: “…pssst, Halsey. Hey Max… Why don't you get up and build us a fire?” “Why don't you, brother?” It was too cold for either of us to get out of our sleeping bags.
Now we would travel from our Bay Area headquarters on a regular basis, coming to Troy for weeks at a time to work on John's house. Harvey would stay for extended periods, getting things done on his own. It wasn't an easy journey. Troy is some 900 miles from the Bay Area, no matter the route, and there are several. I know each by heart. That, of course, was a big part of Troy's appeal; it was so remote and hard to get to that it remained mostly in its natural state.
As John's presence in Troy became part of the scenery, word would spread to the outlying communities of Lewiston, Idaho, Clarkston, Washington, and into Enterprise, Oregon: John Fogerty was playing at a street party in Troy. The once informal cafe sessions turned into rock and roll barn dances held in the old tack room, an outbuilding and part of the Troy Resort. Two hundred people could squeeze in there, and the ancient, wooden structure would creak, bounce and sway in time with the music and gyrating bodies of the weekend party folk. There would be a pick-up drummer and a pick-up bass player, me on acoustic rhythm guitar, sometimes the CCR recording engineer, Russ Gary, was there on guitar, and John, of course, kicking major ass, looser and having more fun than I'd ever seen him have on the professional stage. I have a hand-held cassette recording of us doing “Mule Skinner Blues” in the old tack room. What it lacks in sonic detail is made up for by the energy and vibe, recalling the best of old time rock & roll. Roger prospered, John's celebrity swelling the population of Troy beyond capacity and bringing him more customers than he'd ever seen.
* * *
Roger was no dummy and every time a party was imminent, he would get the word out to the outlying communities. The parties in Troy became legendary, sometimes even scary as people would overdo the party spirit, alcohol and testosterone overcoming common sense. The village bad boy, Slim, a rangy logger whose fame was limited to his ability to savagely beat an opponent into a pulpy mass, would lead a charge into any arena, looking for a fight. Sometimes he carried a gun, but as far as I know the only time he ever used it was to kill his pet dog whose corpse he drunkenly threw out of a cabin door and into the street. I wondered where Darwin would have Slim stand while charting the “descent of man.”
Back at headquarters in Albany, John, by himself, went to work on a second album, “Hoodoo,” an ill-fated venture into synthesizers and disco rhythms. An admiring and humble Rick Nelson came to see John about producing an album for him. I guess John felt he had too much on his plate at the time and declined but was honored by the thought. I was hoping John would undertake the project—I knew he could do a good job of it. John and I both admired the music of Rick's teen idol days. Someone had the good sense to put together a hot band for Rick, led by the superb guitarist James Burton, elevating Rick's music well beyond the likes of the Frankies and Fabians. But it wasn't to be, and Rick was lost to everyone in a plane crash a few years later.
Soon we'd be back in Troy. Asylum Records had arranged for a story about John to appear in Rolling Stone magazine. The interviewer/writer, the “Almost Famous” Cameron Crowe, would come to Troy together with a photographer to do the piece on John. It fell to me to see that they had somewhere to stay when they arrived. I called Roger from our office and reserved two of the little cabins. “We'll need them for a couple of nights. Some guys from Rolling Stone are coming to Troy to see John,” was roughly how I put it to Roger. I didn't consider that Roger wouldn't know that Rolling Stone was (and is) the preeminent journal of rock and popular music. Here's what Roger heard: “…the Rolling Stones are coming to Troy to see John!” and word went out on the Roger wireless.
I was driving to Troy in my Peugeot 404, choosing the central Oregon route. Forty miles out of Bend, I noticed the temperature gauge starting to climb and pulled over to have a look. Shit. A stream of coolant was coming out of the water pump, a seal had ruptured. I spent my teen years working in the service department of my father's auto business and I knew exactly what this meant: call a tow truck to get the car into Bend, overnight in a motel, find a garage capable of replacing the water pump (which I knew would have to come from California), and rent a car to get me to Troy. All was accomplished and I pulled into Troy in the early evening of the following day.
Max told me at one time, early in the century, Troy was known as “Outlaw's Roost,” a natural and secluded hideout for an outlaw on the run. There were two main roads in, but also two lesser-known roads made four roads out. When the outlaw got word that arrival of the sheriff was eminent, he could choose among the several exits, getting away clean. Troy was still known for its outlaws, but the thought of the drug-addled international bad boys, the Rolling Stones, was too much for local law enforcement, who had obviously picked up on Roger's announcement. I was coming into Troy from Enterprise on the Flora Grade, about 10 miles of steep gravel road with multiple switchbacks, driving a rented Ford sedan. When I reached bottom, coming into town on level road, I saw flashing lights up ahead and found that the road was barricaded. There were several patrol cars and when I pulled up about a dozen cops surrounded my car with flashlights, searching everywhere their beams would penetrate. I presented myself matter of fact as a part time resident, owning a cabin of my own in Troy, and answered all their questions, noting that they seemed disappointed in both my sobriety and legitimacy. A similar roadblock was set up on the road in from Washington and Idaho. The cops were waiting for the Rolling Stones.
John wouldn't even arrive until the following week. Nonetheless, there were a couple of dozen early arrivals who made it through the roadblocks and had come to party. For a band they got me, Charlie Allen on mandolin and a bass player whose name was Rex. Not quite John, let alone the Rolling Stones, but at least Rex could sing. As it dawned on me what had happened, I could only laugh and explain the reality of what was going on to Roger who, I assume, corrected the accuracy of his press release. I later took Cameron and the photographer up on “Fogerty Mountain,” a part of John's 400 acres, and with Max's .22-magnum Ruger Single-Six, we laid waste to empty pop bottles.
* * *
As we came close to completing the house in Troy, a call came in from John's lawyer who had been in touch with Joe Smith, the head of Asylum Records. John got in touch with Smith who told him he didn't think they should release the “Hoodoo” album because they thought it wasn't up to what John could do, no better than the prior album which had not done well by CCR standards. At the time, I thought it was a crushing blow, but John, after dealing with the initial shock, remembers thinking they had made the right decision. Nonetheless, I am sure he had some expectations when he turned it in. In any event, John would begin in earnest to wrestle with his inner demons, none of which included alcohol or substance abuse. Adding to the stress and problems, John and the other the CCR members had discovered that the offshore trust that held their millions, Castle Bank & Trust, was a scam, some said a CIA front. When their attorney, Barrie Engel, arrived in Nassau for meetings with bank officials, he found an empty building with chains across the door, only scattered furniture and shredders remained. Even 60 Minutes did segments on Castle Bank & Trust.
In the months that followed, I could sense the tension and strain building in John. I had nothing to do but audit royalty statements and push papers around. I knew it was coming. In May of 1977 John came into the office and didn't say good morning. “Jake, there's no easy way to do this. You're fired. Write yourself a check for $5,000 and good luck.” Thus ended a relationship that had lasted nearly eight years and contained within it a lot of trust, mutual support and marvelous times, marked by life experience beyond anything I could have imagined.
I still visit Troy, the town still sleepy but changed from the old Troy we first discovered. The old Troy Resort was lost to a fire, and Roger and his family moved on. The backcountry remains pristine and I relive our experiences each time I hike into it, knowing exactly where the best pools are hiding the biggest trout. John sold all of his property there, the end of a chapter. I will always be grateful to John as a generous employer and a trusted friend. My gratefulness extends to Stu and Doug, Tom, too…all of them, for their friendship and the opportunity to come along as they conquered the world.