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Way Beyond Center Field

Once upon a time after Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty wouldn't sing any of his old band's songs. Now he's resurfaced a new man (one who's on tour) and that's changed.

May 04, 1997|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

When John Fogerty steps onto the stage of the Fillmore in San Francisco two weeks from tonight for his first full-scale concert in more than a decade, it will be both a homecoming and a small act of penance.

It was a dream come true in 1968 when the Berkeley native first played the famed ballroom with his old band, Creedence Clearwater Revival. The quartet already had one hit, a searing remake of "Suzie Q," and was on a creative roll that would take it to first-ballot induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, thanks to such landmark hits as "Proud Mary" and "Who'll Stop the Rain?"

But nostalgia isn't the only reason Fogerty wants to open the tour at the 1,250-capacity Fillmore and then play the sold-out House of Blues club in Los Angeles on May 21, 23 and 24, rather than the larger venues that his fan base would certainly support. It's not lost on Fogerty that a stand-in vocalist will sing Fogerty's songs with a band built around the other two surviving Creedence members, drummer Doug Clifford and bassist Stu Cook, at the 6,000-seat Greek Theatre on Saturday. (The band's fourth member, Tom Fogerty, died in 1990.)

Fogerty is starting out with small venues because he wants to reestablish himself as a live performer before stepping up--and he believes it's a way to pay back some of the fans who were disappointed by the absence of Creedence songs the last time around, in 1986.

He avoided Creedence songs on that tour because of a bitterness growing out of one of the most celebrated and unlikeliest show-biz legal squabbles in years--one involving charges of plagiarism and defamation pitting Fogerty against Saul Zaentz, the Oscar-winning film producer and owner of Fantasy Records.

Fogerty, 51, now calls the decision not to do Creedence songs a mistake.

"Bless those fans who were so eager to see me on the tour that they would go to the shows under any circumstances, even when they knew I wasn't going to do Creedence songs," Fogerty says. "When I look back, it was wrong. But it was the only thing I could do. I was so consumed by anger."

It was that anger that contributed to Fogerty's second lost decade.


So, what took so long, John?

It's late in the afternoon on an outdoor patio at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank and a playful Fogerty opens an interview with the inescapable question that everyone asks him now that he's about to release his first album in more than a decade.

It's a good line, but it's incomplete.

The real question should be, "What took so long again, John?"

When Fogerty returned from a nine-year career hiatus in 1984 with the hit single "Old Man Down the Road," who would have figured that he would soon take an even longer break?

Well, it really only took five years to make the new album, "Blue Moon Swamp," which is due in stores May 20. He didn't start on it until the spring of 1992. Still, five years is almost unheard of--even with time out for the Northridge earthquake, which forced Fogerty and his family to move out of their Mulholland Drive home for about nine months.

It's especially long for a man who once released three hit albums in the same calendar year: Creedence's "Bayou Country," "Green River" and "Willy and the Poorboys." He and the band were so efficient in the studio that the albums were typically recorded in less than a week and cost under $2,000.

By contrast, it took Fogerty 18 months to get even one usable track for the new album because he was so insistent on capturing the precise rhythm and sound that he had in his head. By the time the album was finished in January, Fogerty had brought in nearly 50 musicians and watched the budget soar well into seven figures.

"I always knew there was a finish line, and I never doubted myself and my ability to get there," he says, looking as lean as he was in his Creedence days. "But it must have looked strange from the outside . . . me going to the studio every day for years. I mean, if I saw someone doing that, I'd be the first one to ask, 'Are you sure you're OK?' "

Fogerty was in a jubilant mood when he resurfaced in the mid-'80s, and the "Centerfield" album had a spirit to match. But the good times didn't last. The comeback turned sour by the time he finished the 1986 solo tour. He felt bad about not doing the Creedence songs and he looked on "Eye of the Zombie," the 1986 follow-up to "Centerfield," as a disappointment.

One reason for that album's dark and depressing tone, he believes now, is that he recorded it while facing two legal battles with Fantasy. Zaentz and Oakland-based Fantasy, which released Creedence's albums, still own the Creedence recordings and the copyrights to Creedence's songs.

After Creedence broke up in 1972, Fogerty made one solo album under the name Blue Ridge Rangers before going on strike against Fantasy, protesting, among other things, a contract under which he says he owed the label more than a dozen albums.

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