"When I don't know what to say, I just go directly into music," John Fogerty declared last night at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, ripping into the molten swamp rock of "Green River" as the classic rock icon celebrated his 68th birthday and the release of his new album, Wrote a Song for Everyone.
Fogerty spent nearly two hours onstage at the intimate venue, amid chandeliers and elegant red walls hung with blow-ups of Fogerty from his early days in Creedence Clearwater Revival. Wearing blue-and-white flannel and blue jeans, Fogerty unfurled CCR and solo hits one after another, beginning with "Fortunate Son," "Lookin' Out My Back Door," "Who'll Stop the Rain," "Born on the Bayou" and "Midnight Special."
He began "Keep On Chooglin'" with a blast of feedback, dancing the fingers of both hands along the frets of his guitar like a bayou Yngwie Malmsteen before blowing a heated harmonica solo. Joining him on guitars for "Lodi" were his sons Shane and Tyler Fogerty. None of the big names that populate Wrote A Song for Everyone, from Foo Fighters and Kid Rock to Miranda Lambert, were onstage with him last night, but Fogerty and his band were clearly energized by the celebration.
A new folk-rock tune from the album, "Mystic Highway," unfolded with a revivalist's vocal while the crowd clapped to the beat as if they'd been hearing it for years. When Fogerty's wife and young daughter brought out a birthday cake, he joked, "I'm almost there, man. I'm just about out of the awkward 60s."
Before the show, Fogerty sat up in the El Rey balcony and spoke with Rolling Stone about Wrote a Song for Everyone and revisiting the music that began his career.
What was the idea behind returning to songs from your early career on the new album?
One day my wife said, kind of out to the clouds, "Why don't you get a bunch of people you really like and sing your songs?" That was such a remarkable idea to me. Wow, I'll get to be with artists I really love, and we'll be in a studio together and we'll come up with arrangements. In other words, we'll make music.
The roaring first track of "Fortunate Son" with the Foo Fighters makes a strong statement.
We achieved on that track something that is the very highest level of rock & roll. It's really rare when you have a really great rockin' performance from the band on a really great, rockin' song, and it all comes together in one place. People like AC/DC have done this a lot. A song like "I Saw Her Standing There" by the Beatles or "Satisfaction" with the Stones, "Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce.
There's far more of the other stuff that's mid-tempo stuff that's not really rockin' hard – something like "Mystic Highway" or "Like a Rolling Stone." It's great, but the rarest of all is rock & roll that is out and out, balls-to-the-wall rocking, with a great performance by the band, great performance by the singers, and a great tune to do it to.
For any songs redone on the new album, were you unsatisfied with the original versions?
Some of these I think are better. "Someday Never Comes" I think is a lot better. Dawes is a great band. Some of that is my fault – I made some choices on the original, just how I sang. My singing is a little flat on the humming part. Ouch. Creedence had already broken up in one form, and I probably wasn't feeling real great in those times.
When the original was being recorded, I really wanted it to kick ass when it got to "Well, I'm gonna tell ya, now . . . !" and it didn't quite do that on the original. This time it does. That wasn't the reason for doing this. It was to revisit and take a fresh approach.
There was a long time when you wouldn't play these Creedence songs.
I was hurting. Since I don't feel that way now, it is a bit mysterious to try to explain that to people. There's five of you sitting at a table – four of us in the band and the owner of the record company. We're all dirt poor, the record company is this tiny little jazz label that has never had a blip on anybody's radar, except for [Vince Guaraldi's] Cast Your Fate to the Wind. And we're all talking about making it. And it's a pipe dream, because none of us have come anywhere near that stuff. Then you make it, and I evolved rather quickly. My songwriting really improved. My arranging and producing – I figured the whole thing out.
Then everybody gets weird. Everyone turned their back on me. Years later, after some therapy, I learned a new word – betrayal. But after that, and through my beautiful wife's love, I worked through that. But back when I wouldn't do the songs, it seemed that all I was doing was being manipulated. Playing the songs felt that way.
There are a lot of country artists performing with you on the new record. Do you feel a kinship with country artists?
I've always had reverence for country music, going back to Merle [Haggard] and Buck [Owens] and Hank [Williams]. These people on the album I really love. I really wanted Miranda [Lambert] on the record. Keith Urban has been a friend for many years. He may be the most gifted musician on the whole record. And anybody who can play guitar like Brad Paisley, I'm seeking an audience, and probably a lesson. Alan Jackson came along 20 years after me, but because of his stature, I didn't dare to hope that he would say yes. To me, it's like having Lincoln on your record.
You have some stature yourself.
Yeah, but I don't walk around thinking that way. I love making music. I'm liable to go onstage and go "Yahoo!" and do a cartwheel and go way off-topic, because I love that I get to do this. I'm always thinking about the next thing that is going to be musical and fun.
When you go back to the older songs, have any of the meanings changed for you over the years?
The most obvious one is "Have You Ever Seen the Rain." I wrote that as CCR was breaking up. That's what that song is about: It's a beautiful sunny day and here's the rain falling down on it. It felt like we were snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, just making up trouble. I was sad about that for a long time.
Because I have a beautiful little girl, who is now 11, I think of her when I think of that song. She's a rainbow to me, and if you listen carefully, there is some hope in it – some joy and a rainbow in the song. For some reason, I attached that to the song – that I feel good now, things are great.
Pretty early on, you had the experience of other people covering your songs.
When Solomon Burke did "Proud Mary," that floored me, because I had been following his career since I was maybe 11. Al Wilson did a version of "Lodi" that just knocked me out. These things started appearing right away. And of course, after a year and a half came Ike and Tina's version [of "Proud Mary"], and that was so startlingly new. I freaked. It became a different song.
I remember driving somewhere in the Midwest and listening to a Chicago radio station and these guys are talking about Tina Turner and that great song "Proud Mary," and these two guys didn't have a clue. They just knew Tina Turner. I wanted to stop the car and call them – hey, there was a version before that!
Putting Miranda Lambert and Tom Morello together on the title song "Wrote a Song For Everyone" is an unexpected combination.
I wanted the artists to be involved and find the place they wanted to go. I said, "How do you envision this? What musical place should we go?" And most importantly, I was there with the artist in the same room when the music was being recorded. The very first track we did was with Miranda. It was a long day of coming up with an arrangement, and Miranda sang every single take. At the end of a pretty long day, we were sitting there listening, she says, "A face-melting guitar solo!" The next few days, I worked on that solo myself a couple of different ways and I wasn't happy with what I did. Then I remembered I had been with Tom Morello and Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I really loved Tom's playing. That was along the lines of face-melting. That is a classic example of how this record was made – the people were all together bouncing off each other's ideas and influencing where it would go. The fact that Miranda said that meant it had to be killer.
What are your plans once this show is over?
I plan to show up where a lot of the artists on the record are. I can't expect 12 people to come on tour with me. But if I just pop up somewhere where Keith Urban is or where Brad is and we do our song together, I'll make it as easy for them as I can. That's the coolest thing that I want to do. I'll go to Nashville, or I'll go to the North Pole.