John Fogerty on Songwriting
John Fogerty is one of the most respected performers in music. As the frontman for Creedence Clearwater Revival, John’s roots rock sound produced giant hits including “Proud Mary” “Born on the Bayou” and “Bad Moon Rising.” He’s also had an amazing solo career. This week he stopped by the SiriusXM studios to talk about his new album, “Wrote a Song for Everyone.” Excerpts of the interview appear below.
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Ron Bennington: You’ve written some new songs, of course you’re kind of going back over some old songs. And it always gets me thinking – what is it about a song? How do some of them hang along and become that thing that stays with us for the rest of our lives?
John Fogerty: Boy, I wish I could be arrogant enough to say that I know the answer. I really don’t. I know the ones I like. I think it’s just a matter of – if all of it seems true. If it rings true. For me, as a writer or creator, I know you’ve got to keep things moving. I try to do that. In other words, when a song just kind of stays in one place – I call those sort of sideways songs, those are the ones that aren’t that good that become filler somewhere. But the ones that really just move along and don’t seem boring at any point, they seem to hang around.
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John Fogerty Talks About His Songwriting Process
Ron Bennington: Are you able to tell while you’re writing it or sometimes, do years go by before you know how you feel about that song?
John Fogerty: Well, I know when I’m…especially if I’m on my game, which isn’t all the time. (laughs) But when you’re really on it, a lot of times I’ll start songs and I can tell after awhile. I might even be excited for a day or two and then…or maybe it’s more like minutes. And then you go – oh God, no. This is a dead end. I better just close the book and start on something else.
Ron Bennington: But do any of those little pieces of any of those songs, could they come up again somewhere else for you or are they just gone?
John Fogerty: That’s a really good question. I think a lot of times, little pieces come back. Especially if it’s a good little piece. (squeaky high voice) “Play me. Play me”. It comes back, yeah.
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John Fogerty Talks About His Musical Influences as a Kid
Ron Bennington: And was that the stuff that turned you on first when you were a kid? Was it the rock and roll songs? Was it country? Was it traditional?
John Fogerty: I got started early. I remember being aware and it was everything. I know I heard a little bit of country from, believe it or not, television. And that would have been when I was about 3 and 4 years old. There was a show in the bay area called, or on TV there anyway, called “The Hoffman Hayride”. And kind of like that. And then, the pop music of the day, meaning “The Hit Parade” and I’m talking, I don’t know, Doris Day and Tony Bennett and Patti Page. I knew it was music. I liked it. I would kind of innocently hum that going to school. Then my older brothers, they got there first, they started listening to R&B. It was the Doo-Wop phase or a lot of sounds like “Gee” by The Crows and “Sh-Boom” and “Earth Angel”. On and on, I started hearing Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, stuff like that. And that…I could tell that was dangerous. It was kind of threatening. I mean I liked that. At some point, The Robins, that became The Coasters, that sort of thing. I really stood up for that. There was something there that wasn’t in the other music. And I also knew, I was reacting to that. My mom got real nervous. She would try and change the channel or – no, no, no! That was pretty early on. And of course, the country thing was right along with that, but I wasn’t aware that you called that “country”. It was kind of “cowboy”, some of it.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, it was way more Western, wasn’t it, than Country? Country and Western leaned on Western in those years. Where it was like cowboy music, gunslinger music.
John Fogerty: I remember even seeing…they would show old serials on TV. And I would see people like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and I liked that. But then, the thing we now call rock and roll was born. Basically, probably a little bit before Elvis, but he certainly took the baton and ran. Probably the year before Elvis, there was Bill Haley, some of the other bands that were making this new wild music. And then, Elvis…because of all the controversy, going to be on Ed Sullivan and all that – I do remember finding my…it was right after Elvis was on TV and I found myself in front of a mirror with a broom and just kind of…I was 10 years old. I didn’t know what to do, but I sure thought it was cool what that guy was doing. Yeah. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: And it came from all that kind of music at the same time and then – boom, rock and roll comes out of it. And you guys started immediately as kids playing that music. And when you think now, you’re still on that path. It’s one of the strangest things, isn’t it? It’s almost like you had been anointed at an early age and still following it after all these years.
John Fogerty: I consider myself really lucky. I mean I knew I wanted to make music probably by the time I was 4 years old. Other people were noticing it. That’s for sure. I know when I…I think when I was 4, I got a drum for Christmas. A snare drum. (laughs) Maybe nowadays, that’s not so weird, but when I was 4 – I mean it was off the wall. I think my mom and dad got together and got me a little snare drum, thinking – well, he’s musical. He’ll play the drum. We had an old Stella guitar lying around the house that we sometimes used to play baseball. It was a well built thing. But yeah, I felt that I almost had no choice. It chose me.
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John Fogerty Talks About Writing “Proud Mary”
Ron Bennington: How long before you knew, not only could you play music, but you could write these kind of songs that would stay with us for so long?
John Fogerty: I didn’t know that until I wrote “Proud Mary”.
Ron Bennington: “Proud Mary” was it?
John Fogerty: Yeah, yeah. I started playing at writing songs somewhere between 4 and 8 years old. I know at 8, I did write a song walking to school and making all the noises in my head or with my mouth. Like the drum noises and you know…(makes drum beat sounds) (laughs). So that was actually a real song and I was trying to rhyme some words, that sort of thing. And then all through my teenage years, I wrote a whole bunch of just…(singing) “I love you Betty Lou, why do you treat me so bad?” You know, all that stuff. But it was really after the success of “Susie Q”. It was after Creedence was a band and we had made an album. One day, I was still in the Army Reserve, I was still in the Army and trying to get out. And one day, I found this package on the steps to my apartment which was my honorable discharge. It was something I had been seeking and working on. And because really, the military thing was way getting in the way of the musical career. (laughs) And so, I was so happy, I actually….there was a little patch of grass and I literally went and did a cartwheel just because I could. It was like – I’ve got to do a cartwheel! And I went right in the house, grabbed my guitar and started writing a song. I felt so good, right? And so, I’m playing with the guitar and I’m doing these little chords. And I had this little rift thing that sounded kind of like Beethoven’s 5th (hums the rift) and when I would play that, it kind of sounded like paddle wheel to me. And that meant – wow, I already had a theme. I was like – what is that about? And as I got going, because I’m so happy about my discharge. Left a good job in the city, right? Anybody could relate to that. Working for the man. Every night and day. Okay. So as it went along, I needed a name for this thing. I didn’t really know what it was about. And I had just started, for really a couple of months, keeping a little notebook. And I opened the notebook and the very first entry was the words “Proud Mary”. And suddenly, that made sense. That sounded like the name of a boat to me. Because it had made no other sense to me in that book. So, I named it. I was pretty excited. When I got to the part where it goes (singing) “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’ on the river. I just thought – wow, that’s really cool. This whole process, I’ve got to tell you, was about an hour.
Ron Bennington: Wow.
John Fogerty: Right? And so, when I was all done, I was – wow. I was looking at it. I actually…I think I was shaking, a little bit of that kind of…because to me, I had just created…this is a standard. This is a classic song. I mean I really felt it was way up there. And compared to what I had ever done before in my life, it was like miles above. I mean I recognized for the first in time in my life, I had really done something truly good.
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John Fogerty Talks About Authenticity
Ron Bennington: And some of these songs, when they show up…well, the one that you’ve redone with the Foo Fighters – which is one of my favorite things about this album. So familiar, but also so new. Playing with these other guys, but I think of how many other people that that is a great rock and roll song and is anthem to people’s lives that in many ways, I think, even leaves you out of it. It becomes about their life. That song means so much to so many people.
John Fogerty: What you’re saying, that’s actually how I felt then and probably still do writing a song. When you write a song that you know there’s a real point to it, I in a way, kind of remove myself from it. I try to make it more universal. Kind of a general out there, rather than specific to me. It just seemed like it would apply to more people and therefore be understood by more people if I thought about it that way. So, many of my songs like “Who’ll Stop The Rain” – I was talking about how I felt, but I was trying to lay it out there in a universal way because I thought perhaps other people feel this way too.
Ron Bennington: And it is true that so many of these songs, they’re like little films or little novels. It becomes about something that means something that can travel on. And you can’t do that, I guess, too consciously, can you? How can you sit down and go – oh, I want to write a universal song that everyone can identify with?
John Fogerty: Boy, you’re absolutely on it there. The worst thing you can do is – I know that guy in the newspaper always likes such and such artists, right? Because that guy or gal, she always writes these sort of songs that are this way and go ahead and name a genre. I’m going to write a song that that guy will like. I’m going to be the songwriter that he likes because he liked those kind of songs. What I’m trying to tell you – you get yourself in a world of trouble doing that. You’re not yourself anymore. You’re out in quicksand somewhere and that usually is horrible. And trust me, I’ve written some where I was trying to transfer myself into some other whatever. What I just described. And some of them have probably been released and probably more of them, I realized I’m not being me. I’m trying…I’m pretending. In rock and roll, that’s probably the mantra there. Don’t be a pretender. Sorry about that, for the band. But don’t be one who is a poser, let’s say. Because everybody will bust you immediately. Rock and roll is really cool about that. They welcome everything. All influences. All styles. The only thing they ask is that you be real. And the instant you show yourself to be kind of faking it, you sort of are condemned.
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John Fogerty on Having Principles
Ron Bennington: Yeah, it’s amazing to have seen that night and the great people that surrounded him. But you have that thing that to me is the most precious thing in any business that you could have – is the respect of your peers.
John Fogerty: Oh, you…wow. You’re so right about that. I’ve been blessed that way. I’ve had a lot of…what’s the word? I’ve had a lot of confrontations or turbulent relationships, let’s say. Because I, at some point, take a stand. Most of the time, I’m pretty glad that I did. We’re not all perfect. There’s times when you find yourself doing…getting involved in something and later, you can’t get out. (laughs) And so, you go forward with it, but you kind of wish you could get out, that kind of thing. There’s tacky things that we get asked to do and sometimes you end up doing it. But most of the time at least, I’ve tried to just stick up to what I feel, what resonates with me, who I am. And again, that’s not always popular. You find yourself…what’s the word? Crossing swords with somebody, but I think later in life, you’re really happy that you were that way. Because you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror.
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John Fogerty Talks About Finding Happiness
Ron Bennington: Well, a lot of times I think when you give it away and you don’t respect it, you’ll see some of those guys that have a 3 or 4 year career. But we’re looking at your songs holding up after 4 decades and there’s no reason at all to think that it won’t go on like that for as long as people are listening to music. That these songs literally are classics. And I’m glad that you fought the good fight. I know that’s never the easiest thing to do.
John Fogerty: Well, you’re right about that. It usually…it costs you emotionally. It also costs money. And sometimes, you even get sort of…what’s the word? You’re sort of an outcast. I’ve got a whole bunch of lost years in the middle of my career. It wasn’t pleasant at the time, but I’m a very happy guy now. You know that I met a beautiful girl named Julie and were married and raised a wonderful family and I live with that in my mind every day and in my soul. So, I’m able to talk about unpleasant stuff that it really doesn’t touch me anymore. It’s something that happened, but it hasn’t grabbed me by the shorts if you know what I mean.
Ron Bennington: But you were able to raise that family with the music too, right? I mean the music is in your family.
John Fogerty: Absolutely. Well first of all, when I started touring again, I told my wife – honey, I’m not going to do it unless you’re with me. If you’re not with me, then I’m not going to do this. Why would I want to do that? Why would I want to be away from her? So as our family grew, we just brought the family with us and all the touring that we were doing. And so, silly me. I thought I was raising a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief, an insurance salesman, all kinds of legit things. But lo and behold when things got to where they could think for themselves – “Daddy, I want to be a rock and roller”. Well, how the heck did that happen honey? Why does he feel that way? Well, he’s seen about 10,000 shows, honey. That’s why. (laughs)
Ron Bennington: Yeah. So that was always there. It becomes a family business after awhile.
John Fogerty: I guess, yeah.
Ron Bennington: Which, I can’t think of any thing any better. I think no matter what you do, you would want to share it with your family, but to be able to sit down and share music, that’s a whole other thing. That’s another level.
John Fogerty: I’m going to open up a storefront. I guess I won’t be Cake Boss. I think somebody took that. But I could probably be…
Ron Bennington: Let’s go for “Song Boss”.
John Fogerty: Yeah. “Song Boss…and Sons…and Daughters”.
Ron Bennington: I think it’s just fantastic. And thank you so much for stopping in here.
John Fogerty: Thank you man.
Ron Bennington: And congratulations on the album too. It’s just stunning. It’s “Wrote a Song For Everyone”. Comes out in stores everywhere and online, Tuesday, May 28th. And go to johnfogerty.com. Let’s go out with something that you did with Keith Urban. We’ll go out with “Almost Saturday Night”. Thank you so much my friend. Thank you so much for all the great music over the years. It’s just been tremendous.
John Fogerty: Thank you.
You Can Buy “Wrote a Song for Everyone” at Amazon.com and follow John Fogerty on twitter @john_fogerty
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews at RonBenningtonInterviews.com.