Swamp and Circumstance
For more than a decade, John Fogerty has not been heard from much, since 1986's Eye of the Zombie (which, in rare form, came merely a year after he released his double-platinum comeback Centerfield). During those eleven years he surfaced with the infrequency afforded rock and roll legends and shut-ins, popping up at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame functions and various benefit concerts. Most of the time he was disowning his Creedence Clearwater Revival past, refusing to take the antique finery from the china cabinet. Sometimes, when feeling generous or forgiving, he'd indulge the fans desperate to hear "Born on the Bayou" or "Proud Mary."
Fogerty, in other words, pulled one of rock and roll's great vanishing acts. And if he was missed, it was by John Fogerty most of all.
In 1997 the idea of a new John Fogerty record seems almost anticlimactic; his true legacy lies in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when he was among rock's greatest freak brothers -- a Northern California boy who lived inside Southern country dreams, who nurtured a band in a suburban garage, then turned it into one of the world's baddest groups. CCR's Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys, and Cosmo's Factory rank up there with the first two Band albums, Randy Newman's 12 Songs, and Elvis Presley's Sun sides as perfect distillations of American music -- not merely rock and roll records, but statements that transcend generic limitations.
Even today, CCR's best records sound like a thousand Southern AM radio stations heard all at once; if you need to give that sound a name, it might as well be bluescountrygospelsoulR&Brockabilly. Songs like "It Came Out of the Sky," "Lookin' Out My Back Door," or Fogerty's rearrangement of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" exist now as classic rock fantasias, perfect Top 10 miniature arias created by a man who found in rock and roll a perfect world -- one ugly enough to write about every day, but pretty enough to live in forever.
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Fogerty has taken so long between releasing Eye of the Zombie -- a rather bleak, bitter album born of nasty lawsuits over "self-plagiarism" and selfish squabbles -- and finishing Blue Moon Swamp (released this past spring) because, as he is now wont to explain, he didn't want to rush perfection. He wanted to create, as he recently explained to Addicted to Noise editor Michael Goldberg, "a rock and roll record ... [not] some guy's impression of a rock and roll record."
He struggled to learn dobro because that's what he heard on the song "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade" as he wrote it in his head -- not acoustic slide, not pedal steel, but dobro -- and far be it from him to hire out for help. He auditioned dozens of studio musicians, hiring and firing as his muse dictated; he wrote and rewrote, arranged and rearranged, created and destroyed till all that remained was perfection. Such are the obsessions that drive not legends but the few real rock and roll greats: They must live up to their legacies, or disappear trying.
In the end, Blue Moon Swamp may well be too perfect, too much a product and not enough an accident. After all, great rock and roll is born of failures and mishaps and acts of providence; the best music is what falls on the floor during the operation, not what remains on the table after. Blue Moon Swamp -- created by a man who sounds as though he has spent decades in a vacuum, listening to nothing more than the echoes of his own greatness -- is indeed a capital-P perfect John Fogerty record. It reverberates with eerie "Born on the Bayou" echoes and throbs with wide-grinned "Centerfield" joy; it sweats Mississippi mud and gulps Kentucky whiskey. But in the end, it doesn't achieve greatness; it merely recalls greatness. Blue Moon Swamp is a rock and roll record made behind museum glass.
Perhaps to play Blue Moon Swamp with the expectations brought on by eleven years of waiting is to be set up for disappointment; when "Southern Streamline" kicks off with the insistent "Bad Moon Rising" riff, you're thrilled by the familiarity. Then saddened. You traveled down this road long ago, before they built shiny high-rises on top of the swampland.
Fogerty has become so much a part of history he can't see the cliches for the hype, and so, to the melody of "California Sun," he writes of driving on "wheels on fire" as he blazes down the desert road in a convertible at midnight; he sings of men sweating in the cotton patch, where it's "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade"; he rides down "Rattlesnake Highway" on a worn-out blues riff and a half-empty tank of gas. Fronting a Farfisa organ and slide gee-tar, he even advises you to "take it to the river" down in the "honey-dripping" South, where the legendary jellyroll will ease your suffering. And to top it off, Fogerty's voice has itself become a memento, a tattered and yellowing relic bolstered by weird echoes and other inappropriate effects, so much so that you barely recognize him through the fog.
To borrow Chuck Eddy's terminology, Fogerty has become "art rock," meaning that "his muse can't be separated from his ego; he's too palpably concerned with how he'll be remembered in the history books." Fogerty has become the history book itself, and history books don't make for perfect rock and roll records.
John Fogerty performs at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 2, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale; 954-523-3309. Tickets cost $27.75 and $35.75.
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