Even at the height of their influence, Creedence Clearwater Revival resisted the worst temptations of their age. They dressed plainly in working man’s flannels, sipped Pepsis before shows, and steered clear of the smack that killed Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. But nothing could save John and Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford from each other.
In A Song for Everyone, John Lingan chronicles what’s been called "the saddest story in rock and roll," following Creedence from their school days, to their meteoric rise in the late 1960s, to their acrimonious split in the early ’70s. The book, however, is mostly superfluous after the 2015 release of frontman John Fogerty’s memoir Fortunate Son, which recounted everything a fan or fellow songwriter would want to know. What’s worse, as is common among biographers today, Lingan spills much ink moralizing. He measures Creedence’s success by its political effects, judging the band against currently fashionable beliefs about the environment, sex, and race. What begins as historical context ends in a kind of reproach. The music happens in the margins.
Lingan breathlessly recounts how the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act passed Congress in 1968, the same year CCR happened to record "Green River." He reproduces the feminist writer Ellen Willis’s pablum about abortion rights the following year, then notes how the band released "Bad Moon Rising." Whereas Creedence wanted you to hear echoes of black artists like Little Richard in their work, Lingan wants you to know: The band stole that sound. He speaks of them being "awkwardly in thrall to Black culture" alongside other white musicians who would "appropriate" black art, citing composer Steve Reich’s early success "It’s Gonna Rain." And as for the breakup, John Fogerty was stubborn, terribly stubborn, and couldn’t share responsibility with his brother or friends—never mind their lesser skill.
Telling the story in this way not only drains the band of its artistry, it deflates the personal drama. It avoids the real reason the players quit: resentment.
Beginning the book with the band’s 1970 concert at Royal Albert Hall, Lingan puts himself firmly on one side of that split. (He did not interview John Fogerty, speaking instead with Clifford and Cook. Tom Fogerty died in 1990.) Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton were apparently in the audience, but earlier in the tour Fogerty had told the band they would no longer perform encores. Lingan places the reader backstage, hearing the chants of those in attendance and seeing Fogerty unmoved while his bandmates plead to go back out. To Lingan, the episode shows the tight leash Fogerty kept everyone on: He wrote all the songs, produced all the records, and recorded all the background vocals because he believed his bandmates couldn’t sing. Now, he was snubbing his idols. And he didn’t seem to care.
Except Fogerty did care—about the music. He occasionally belittled his bandmates in their studio (fittingly named the Factory), but his knowledge truly dwarfed theirs. He was exacting. When recording their cover of the Lead Belly song "Cotton Fields," Fogerty became so upset with Clifford not being able to keep time on the drums that he kicked everyone out of the studio. He proceeded to cut out all the late beats from the tape recording, then drove to the drummer’s house in a rage and threw the snippets in his face. Fogerty relates the episode in his memoir, saying he can still hear the drums are slow on the final track. Lingan doesn’t mention it.
The rest of the band knew they were riding on coattails. Fogerty’s quality control and businesslike approach to crafting hit singles yielded three platinum albums in one year. And because their songs weren’t overdetermined by political events, they enjoyed a broad fanbase: a "remarkable range of high school students, truck stoppers, heads, and miscellaneous," as Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote. Bob Dylan and Elvis both picked "Proud Mary" as their favorite song of 1969. Even Joplin stumbles in midway through the book. "I love y'all," she sputters, dead drunk. "You’re never playing that stupid psychedelic shit." Hippies liked Creedence, but soldiers loved them. One squadron in Vietnam blared their music into the jungles at night when they launched attacks on Charlie, Fogerty shares in his memoir. "I’m not trying to polarize hippies against their parents," Fogerty said. Music "should unite, as corny as that is. You know everyone should be able to sit and tap their foot, or say, ‘Wow! That’s the right thing!’"
Creedence fed off the youthful energy of the counterculture, but they were never a protest band. It’s strange, then, that Lingan describes their most popular song, "Fortunate Son," as a "turning away from middle-class values, whether leaving a good job or decrying the military." In other passages, he contradicts this reading. Unlike their rock ’n’ roll peers, all four men were married by the time the band hit paydirt in the late ’60s. Fogerty even took to aspects of military life when he served in the Army Reserves. During an interview with a left-wing journal, he worried openly about the loss of "gender differences" in the workforce between men and women, admitted that he was "a capitalist too," and spoke of songwriting as an expression of "what I see from the middle."
As he writes about the breakup, Lingan reveals the bandmates' jealousy toward their frontman. Things began to fall apart when Tom made a power grab. He pushed for a paperback writer to profile the group. The embarrassing product, littered with garish descriptions, only further undermined Tom’s role, presenting him as the older brother of a far more talented sibling. The realization stung. "Even in his own vanity project," Lingan writes, "Tom’s value was being called into question." Months later, he tried another "lavish publicity stunt": a journalist’s junket that made Clifford and Cook look equally silly, according to Lingan. After their next-to-last album Pendulum broke, Tom exited the band.
In the decades since their last album, the commercial failure Mardi Gras, Clifford and Cook have claimed Fogerty set them up for a fall. He had them write their own music without any help. Lingan leans into this account: "He could pull a rug out when it suited him. He could throw up new regulations that didn’t make the band better, didn’t make him better, just changed the rules of the game." But Fogerty remembers things differently. He was exhausted, having been pressured by the label’s contract to come up with an impossible number of songs. In his memoir, he writes the pair only discovered how bad their songs were on tour. The crowds found these songs laughable. When the band returned home, they parted for good.
For Lingan, Creedence failed because Fogerty couldn't collaborate. His book is a kind of riposte to Fortunate Son, which blamed the other bandmates for their egotism. The reader may take one further lesson: Even artists learn their limits.
A Song for Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival
by John Lingan
Hachette Books, 384 pp., $32
Published under: Book reviews