When Good Albums Happen to Bad People: John Fogerty, “Centerfield”

John Fogerty is on very many levels the American version of Robbie Robertson. Or maybe Robertson is the Canadian Fogerty. Either way, they have quite a lot of things in common: both were the lead songwriters for Hall of Fame bands from the late ’60s and early ’70s known for merging rock and roll to other forms of “American” music. Both are underrated guitarists. After their bands broke up, both spent long periods of time in the ’70s and ’80s away from the studio before returning with critically acclaimed solo albums. And, both are well known as jerks who may have manipulated their band’s contracts for their own financial benefit, held lifelong grudges against their bandmates, and have put out a stunning lack of good music in the last 35 years, likely in part due to their inability to get over themselves and their own legacies.

Robertson’s story has already been detailed in an earlier entry in this series. As with Fogerty, most of the crap that can be be laid at his feet arose from him acting as default manager and voting bloc of one for Credence Clearwater Revival (or CCR for short). With no business background, Fogerty negotiated what bandmate Stu Cook (who had a degree in business) called “the worst record deal of any major American recording artist” with their label Fantasy Records, run by Saul Zaentz. It was this contract that became a touchstone for a band feud that caused John’s brother Tom to quit CCR in 1971 and become estranged from his brother pretty much for the rest of his life (Tom died of AIDS in 1990 after contracting HIV via a blood transfusion).

The band also lost a great deal of future income when John used his solo veto power to have themselves removed from the Woodstock film and soundtrack. While Creedence was one of the headliners of the three-day festival, John was unhappy with the sound of their set, the early time they went on, and the underwhelming response from a sleepy crowd who had been further lulled by a long set from the previous band, the Grateful Dead. CCR’s Woodstock set has become a footnote in time, as evidence of their appearance didn’t make it to the general public until a deluxe set of the movie and soundtrack were released for its 25th anniversary in 1994.

The year after Tom Fogerty left CCR, Creedence put out their final album, Mardi Gras, which in itself was greatly hampered by Fogerty’s dissatisfaction with the Fantasy Records contract. After being asked over the years by his bandmates to be allowed more voice in the band’s music decisions, he went from one extreme to another, and flat out told them that they would each have to write and sing a third of the next album themselves, with no creative input from him, and Fogerty only playing rhythm guitar. If they didn’t accept that all or nothing offer, he would quit the band. In a way, Fogerty was breaking up the band in forcing them to make a record that really wasn’t a true CCR album; but by framing the decision as his bandmates’, he seemingly was able to avoid blame and responsibility when the resulting album and tour stiffed, tensions continued to escalate, and the band officially called it quits at the end of 1972.

Due to the horrible Fantasy contract that Fogerty signed off on, though, John still owed the label eight more albums after the band dissolved. Fogerty was able to stomach making one more, but refused to create the other seven. Eventually, Asylum Records bought out Fogerty’s contract for one million dollars. By separating from Fantasy Records, though, which was assigned publishing rights for the songs Fogerty wrote while recording for them, Fogerty voided his own publishing rights to the songs. This became a crucial sticking point–not just in Fogerty’s craw, but in his career. Due to his ongoing hatred for Saul Zaentz and Fantasy Records, Fogerty refused to play any Creedence songs during his 1985 and 1986 tours, much to the dismay and sometimes anger of the crowd.

As an aside, it should be noted that as a “reward” to Asylum records and their founder, David Geffen, for spending seven figures to get him away from Zaentz, Fogerty gave them the grand total of one album before declaring that he had writer’s block over the financial hassles of the CCR breakup and his Fantasy hassles, and took the next nine years off. Mind you, Fogerty said this in 1976, four years after the CCR breakup, and more than a year after joining Asylum. Additionally, regardless of the publishing rights, as the sole writer of the CCR hits, Fogerty obviously was able to still get paid enough to (let me repeat) take nine years off from the music industry.

Finally, Fogerty’s pettiness towards his former bandmates continues to this day. Seeing the rest of CCR as siding with Fantasy and Zaentz by not actively trying to help him out of his contract problems (the contract that he made them sign), Fogerty remained estranged from his brother Tom until the latter’s passing, meeting with him on his deathbed, but apparently not willing to reconcile with him because of Tom’s friendship with Zaentz. Then, three years later, when CCR was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Fogerty refused to play with Doug Clifford and Stu Cook at the ceremony, instead using session musicians to back him (much like, to bring this full circle, Robbie Robertson not playing with Levon Helm at The Band’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony).

Fogerty has spent much of his post CCR musical life distancing himself from that band for various reasons. But while most of that work is usually received (at the time) by many rock critics as “a return to greatness,” upon further reflection, much of it seems quite passionless and middling; more the work of someone influenced by Fogerty rather than the man himself. Ironically (or perhaps not so much), his greatest true critical and commercial success as a solo artist came with the album Centerfield, which played nostalgically upon the sounds and memories of Creedence. So much so, in fact, that the first single (and top ten hit) “The Old Man Down the Road” led to a lawsuit from Fantasy Records that claimed Fogerty had simply put new words over the CCR song “Run Through the Jungle.”¬† Fantasy vs. Fogerty eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which¬† ruled that Fogerty did not plagiarize himself.

Of course, Fogerty could have probably avoided the legal trouble had he not decided to antagonize Saul Zaentz directly in the songs “Mr. Greed” and “Zanz Can’t Danz,” the latter of which portrays the Fantasy Records chief as a pickpocketing pig. “Zanz” was changed to “Vanz” in later copies of the record after Zaentz threatened yet another lawsuit, most likely this time for slander.

While “The Old Man Down the Road” was originally the biggest hit off the record, it is the title track that remains in the public consciousness a quarter century later, due to it being played at numerous major and minor league baseball stadiums throughout the years. Starting off with a pile of overdubbed synth claps (obviously trying to mimic the noise of the crowd), followed by the familiar twang of Fogerty’s guitar lines, the song is a light, breezy ode to the “national pasttime,” from the perspective of what appears to be Fogerty singing as his younger self (“put me in, Coach”), as the most recent player mentioned in the lyrics is Willie Mays, whose peak playing days came when Fogerty would have been between the ages of nine and 15. The sense of nostalgia extends even deeper, as the song’s first verse cribs two lines from Chuck Berry’s 1956 hit “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”

Perhaps the high point of the album, though, (at least for me) is one of the other singles, “Rock & Roll Girls,” another slice of “instant nostalgia” that you swear sounds like a dozen other songs that you can’t quite remember but are on the tip of your tongue. With a sing-along chorus, searing sax solo, and a rawness to Fogerty’s vocal that has rarely been heard since, it may be the great “lost” song in his canon.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, the problems that have befallen Robbie Robertson as a solo artist parallel Fogerty’s. Fogerty, due to a combination of anger and a need to distance himself from his past, has spent most of his time since Creedence putting out records that do not play to his main strength as a writer and musician who combined the blues and roots sounds and feel associated with New Orleans with the pop sensibilities and folk influences of late ’60s San Francisco. As Fogerty moved away from this niche, incorporating more straight ahead rock, more country, more what have you, he became no different from a number of other lesser-level retro-rockers, like Dave Edmunds or The Blasters, to name two. Centerfield, on the other hand, shows Fogerty (albeit with a slick ’80s production over everything) returning to the sounds and styles that fit him best, and pulling it off well.

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Matthew Bolin
Matthew Bolin discovered popular music could be a good thing at age 13. During a field trip to the local college library, he found Rolling Stone's "100 Best Albums, 1967-1987" issue, and a great and glorious world far beyond the lands of Lionel Richie and Huey Lewis opened up. In the years since, Rolling Stone has gone downhill, but Matthew has moved up in the world, and will eventually claim his title as "America's Librarian" sometime before 2020. Book it.