You remember the scene in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. The Dude keeps getting hit by a group of nihilists. First, they take his rug, then they come back for his not very enviable car. To add insult to injury, he had left a Creedence Clearwater Revival tape in the deck.
The Dude: Do you find them much, these stolen cars?
Younger cop: Sometimes. Wouldn’t hold out much hope for the tape deck, though.
Older cop: Or the Creedence.
Ouch. The Dude is a Creedence guy, all the way. It’s as crucial to his ethos as a White Russian. He wears bathrobes during the day, cashes his unemployment checks, has a 60s-radical past, and is now trying to bowl and chill. In the Creedence catalogue, “Run Through the Jungle” and “Fortunate Son” stared bleakly in the face of Vietnam, but much of their canon wants you to feel like the Dude. “Born on the Bayou” has a hypnotic riff and vocal that sounds possessed. There’s a bad moon rising, but Creedence had a way of making you feel O.K.
As we learn in John Lingan’s compelling A Song for Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival, the members were not, by any stretch, born on the bayou. They all hailed from working-class Northern California, not Berkeley, not San Francisco. They were fake southerners, and John Fogerty’s fake dialect sometimes became a bizarre hybrid. “I hoid it through the grapevine,” he sang, which must have been weird for Marvin Gaye to hear, though there was nothing weird about the royalties. It sounded like a Cajun acid trip, though they didn’t do drugs.
When they were kids, John, his older brother Tom, and neighborhood pals Stu Cook and Doug Clifford were listening hard to 50s R&B and 60s Stax and Motown, and they wanted in. They dressed in ridiculous costumes and were called the Blue Velvets and, against their will, the Golliwogs, before kid brother John had a vision. They would be C.C.R., and he would gradually take over every aspect of everything—writing, singing, vocals, production.
Once “Suzie Q,” a Dale Hawkins cover, came out, they were off to a dizzying, meteoric rise. How many Creedence songs can you think of? It takes a while, because they had nine Top 10 hits in less than three years. They also impressed the rock critics and were the first band since the Beatles to outsell the Beatles.
Fogerty, short and fey in flannel shirts, ruthlessly diminished his bandmates to sidemen. Every solo? Him. One band meeting established that he would record all background vocals. Another instituted a no-encores policy. London’s Royal Albert Hall, where they played a sold-out show, had a longstanding tradition of them. The other members had to suck it up. Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton were in the audience and couldn’t get backstage.
By 1971, older brother Tom couldn’t take it anymore and left. By the time Ike and Tina covered “Proud Mary,” C.C.R. were ashes.
If there is a villain in this story, John Fogerty is a minor despot compared to Saul Zaentz, the Fantasy Records boss, who gained their trust and robbed them blind. When Fogerty released a solo album in 1985, Zaentz sued him for plagiarizing his own song. Fogerty won that case, but it was undeniable that he had only so many blues riffs. He was even sued, justifiably, for plagiarizing Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” in “Traveling Band.” Zaentz’s solution was to buy Little Richard’s publishing company.
Things keep getting worse. Tom Fogerty dies of AIDS, and C.C.R. are inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but John avoids a reunion. Instead, he plays Creedence tunes with Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson while his former bandmates look on.
Way later, in a world that had gone wrong many times over, Fogerty went on social media demanding that Donald Trump stop playing “Fortunate Son” at his rallies. “Fortunate Son” is from the point of view of working-class young men who didn’t have the connections to avoid Vietnam, not a rich kid with bone spurs. Fogerty tried to explain, but Trump just kept paying the fines and blaring the song. Music that lasts can stray far away from its maker.
“I want to know, have you ever seen the rain?” asks Fogerty on the Creedence track that can always break my heart. This song is a beatitude, with a soaring melody and a haunting image. The rain can be healing; it can be romantic; it can be the pathetic fallacy. It could have been about Vietnam then, and it could be about the sorrows of today and beyond. There’s always another bad moon rising. That’s why we need music.
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here