Sunday, July 28, 2019

John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son"

I finally got around to John Fogerty's memoir, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music (2015). As an El Cerrito native, I found the first part especially interesting. Fogerty is adamant about his El Cerrito (not Berkeley or San Francisco!) roots, and his memories range over familiar terrain: Harding Elementary School, Indian Rock, Sunset View Cemetery, Portola Junior High School, the El Cerrito Boys Club, Ortman's Ice Cream Parlor, El Cerrito High School, Contra Costa College, etc. He even names a teacher I knew from Portola who was also a customer on my Oakland Tribune paper route. (Fogerty delivered the Berkeley Gazette, where his father was a Linotype operator.) Well after he became a star, Fogerty worked out of a studio on Key Route in Albany.

Even more unexpected was Fogerty's connection to Winters, one of my favorite small towns, about 13 miles west of Davis. His family spent many summers on Putah Creek before it was dammed to create Lake Berryesa. That creek later inspired "Green River."

As for his musical influences, Fogerty is equally specific. Most notable for me are the R&B radio stations, especially KWBR (later KDIA), which broadcast out of Oakland. The folk festivals at UC Berkeley, where Fogerty met Lightnin' Hopkins and Pete Seeger, also left their mark. At the Oakland Auditorium, he saw James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Duane Eddy, and Ray Charles from the front row.

Fogerty learned about Fantasy Records, then based in San Francisco, from a public television special hosted by Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic at the San Francisco Chronicle who also wrote for Ramparts and cofounded Rolling Stone magazine. Fogerty's longstanding beef with Fantasy (and his bandmates) takes up a good deal of the book. I found it interesting that Gleason, a vice president at Fantasy, evidently sided with Saul Zaentz, Fantasy's owner and Fogerty's nemesis. Lawyer Al Bendich, who famously defended Lenny Bruce in his San Francisco obscenity trial, also worked for Fantasy and plays one of the heavies.

Interestingly, Fogerty didn't identify with the San Francisco counterculture. He wasn't a creature of the drug culture, he avoided Dead-style jamming and improvisation, and he didn't appreciate the casual approach to live performance, especially extended tuning before the set actually started. He's a self-described control freak, and the studio has long been his domain. From the outset, he thought long and hard not only about the music, but also about the finished record.

The memoir loses shape and direction toward the end, when it becomes more of a family album. But the wealth of local detail, the deep dive into musical influences, and Fogerty's amazing run as a singer/songwriter made this a very worthwhile read for me.

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