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The Weekly interview: John Fogerty

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John Fogerty
Myriam Santos
Matt Wardlaw

John Fogerty’s upcoming residency at the Venetian will give him a chance to put down roots in Vegas for a little bit—and he’s looking forward to it. “If you’re in the same place for a while, you get to concentrate on details a little more than when you’re packing up and unpacking every single day. [And] of course, it’s great to call a place home for a while too,” he says with a chuckle during a phone conversation from his Southern California home.

The residency comes on the heels of a busy 2015 for the legendary singer/songwriter. He spent part of it celebrating 1969—the year when he put out an astonishing three albums with Creedence Clearwater Revival—with his 1969 tour. And last October, he put out his memoir, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music.

“We’re calling it Fortunate Son,” he shared, in regards to what fans can expect from the upcoming Vegas dates. “In that sense, we’re not adhering to that regiment that the traveling show did. But of course, since so many of my songs came from around that time, not only will I play those songs, but some of them involve little stories that I need to tell [and] a lot of video and production content that the audience can enjoy.”

When you put together a show like this, what sort of narrative do you look to present with the way the show and the setlist structure plays out? The main directive here is entertainment. You want to keep things moving. I mean, I’m all about rock music, so you don’t want to get too far away from that, telling a story that’s too long or trying to present some idea that’s too complicated for that setting. Because it really is just about the music. A little bit of the storytelling or the visual [element] is to try and help the audience maybe understand the circumstances or the surroundings when that song happened to have been created. But it’s mostly about performance and playing great rock ’n’ roll music.

One of the stories that you’ve shared, both in your book and during your shows, is about your experience playing Woodstock—how you walked out on the stage and, as you put it, the Grateful Dead had just put a half million people to sleep. (Laughs) There was a long, legendary, mythical sense of Woodstock and also the Grateful Dead, who had not only risen out of San Francisco, but by that time, were global and quite an iconic thing. At first blush, everybody would think, well, this must have been just a happy, hippie la la la event! But that’s not what happened for me! (Laughs)

When I told that story, to Rolling Stone in about 1989, I think the fella writing it down was kind of shocked. I didn’t say it with any bitterness; it was more like, I had gone there with the intention to try and set the world on fire. But my audience was asleep! (Laughs) And that was frustrating.

Do you feel playing Woodstock did anything to elevate the profile of the band at all? Oh yeah, sure. And also, I got a good song out of it, called “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”

You’ve done full performances of some of the Creedence albums in the recent past. What was that experience like? That was a lot of fun. I had never done that before, even at the time the band was still together. Because everything was brand new, you didn’t really think of each album as an iconic thing. You know, it had just come out yesterday. But as time has gone on, I have to admit, even I look back at Bayou Country, which was the first really great one after the first album, you look at it now as this sort of mythical, complete thing, kind of like the way you think of an old movie. You know each song and where it was on the album and all of that sort of thing. Here in the present, performing that entire setlist from song to song, it puts your mind in the album. It kind of gives you that mindset.

Bayou Country is one of three albums that Creedence put out in 1969, which was a pretty incredible feat. Now I kind of marvel at that sort of intention and energy. But I was just driven. I guess what was pushing me was that I had taken stock in late 1968—“Susie Q” had been a hit and I really didn’t want to just fall back to Earth as a one-hit wonder.

But we didn’t have a manager. We were on a dinky, tiny label. We didn’t have a publicist or any of the stuff that all of the big bands like the Stones and The Beatles had. I looked at that and said, “Well, I guess I’m just going to have to do it with music.” I felt that I could control that. So I went at it as dedicated as I could to make as much good music as I could, and I think that became the directive. A simple choice like putting your two best songs on one single, side A and side B. Some people would say, “Well then, what do you do for the next single?” And I’d say, “Well, I guess I’ve got to come up with two more songs!” (Laughs)

When you were approaching that second Creedence album, and everybody’s not on the same page and there’s a little bit of band dysfunction creeping in, how did you keep that momentum? We were a brand new, young band. After years of hit and miss and doing little singles that went nowhere and still playing all over central California in little clubs and National Guard armories, I just thought, “Well, I’ll come up with a great arrangement to a great song and then it will be obvious.”

Well, for me, it was obvious. I guess, for a moment there, it was obvious to the other guys, too. But in the long run, I think they were more driven to … I think they wanted to get accolades. I know certainly in the case of my brother Tom, he was more interested in being a celebrity than he was in being a great musician. Whereas I was the other way. I just wanted to be a great musician, and thought the other stuff would kind of come along with it anyway.

Your difficulties with the other surviving members of the band, are well-documented. Is there any part of you that wishes that you could share the current experience of playing these songs and this show with them? That’s long since become difficult, I guess, even to think about, because they still have that mindset that they had way back then. The easy way to say it is that all I was interested in was making the best music I could make. And tension arose when it seemed like the other guys were more interested in getting the credit for doing that rather than actually doing it. So that caused a lot of anxiety, and for a couple of years there anyway, I kept going, “Well, I’ll just keep doing this and I’ll show them and then they’ll see.

I felt the same way about the record company, too, but it kind of never really happened. You know, when “Proud Mary” had been recorded, I could hear, “You know, that’s really good.” I’m not sure the other guys actually understood the difference between that and something by [pre-Creedence group] The Golliwogs.

Kenny Aronoff has been behind the kit with you for about 20 years now. It seems like you two are really well matched. I love Kenny, and he’s a great drummer. Now there’s a guy who cares about being a musician. So it’s real easy to communicate with each other. We critique each other every night—there’s some things that came off really well and then other times there’s parts of other songs that we could do a little bit better.”

It must be pretty cool getting to perform with your son Shane, too. You know, I don’t really have the words to describe it …

I could see it onstage when I saw the 1969 show last year. It’s tangible. Yeah, because he’s really good. And everybody can see that immediately, once he starts to play. You know, because if you just heard, “Oh yeah, John’s going to bring his son,” in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “What, he’s 9 years old, and he’s going to play some little nursery rhyme or something.” But once he starts to play, you can see why I’m so proud. The first time I heard him sound like that, he was still in high school.

Your most recent album was the Wrote a Song for Everyone record in 2013. Have you been writing since then? Absolutely. I’ve been pretty busy with the book and then getting this show ready and touring, but I’m kind of gearing up. Don’t hold your breath—it isn’t like it’s next week—but I do feel that [coming on].

To me, it’s a challenge, like, I need some songs and it’s something I know how to do and I love. It kind of happens naturally. A certain [amount of] time passes and I start to get embarrassed. “Gee, John, you haven’t done new songs here for quite a while! It’s time to get going!” So that’s sort of what’s going on here now.

You’re in a fortunate place now, but you spent years blocked from playing songs you had written with Creedence. How hard was it to be separated from a body of work like that? Oh, that was horrible, just horrible. I always likened it to being trapped in a dungeon. Because legally or technically, I was in a spot where if I made any new music, I had to give it to the same guy that had just screwed me. So the whole thing just kind of made you go crazy. You just couldn’t believe that things could be this unfair and weird in the world, but that’s what I lived through. Now having kind of cleared my way out of that, I’m just so glad that it’s all very open and free and joyful again. I’m just happy and thankful that I don’t have that bad stuff in my life anymore.

JOHN FOGERTY January 8-23, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday, 8 p.m., $60-$135. Venetian Theatre, 702-414-9000.

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