John Fogerty’s in Vegas right now, having just kicked off a six-night stand in the intimate Encore Theater of the Wynn Las Vegas, which began on April 10 and will continue on April 12-13, 17, 19-20. It’s a real-time, rock-and-roll celebration of his half-century making music, some 50 years since Woodstock and the birth of his first classic song, “Proud Mary.”
Performing always with a great band, Fogerty brings both his classic solo and Creedence songs, including the full set list from his Woodstock set. While in Vegas, he took the time to talk about this milestone, and to answer our questions about crafting rock classics. He seemed especially happy and relaxed, and opened up about his songwriting with much joy and candor, thinking back 50 years to when “Proud Mary” emerged, after years of writing lesser songs, and how it launched him on his way.
What follows is the first part of that conversation, including his remembrance of that “wonderful afternoon” when “Proud Mary” was born, and also an answer on how to get to that place where great songs live.
You’re starting your shows here at the Wynn. Compared to being on the road, how is it for you to play one venue for many nights?
I like it. It’s another way of presenting music and playing live. When we get to stay in one place and you have your stuff out, and you don’t have to leave, that is nice. And it’s within a one-hour plane ride from where I live in Southern California. So that’s all pretty easy.
There’s a lot of benefits. And then the people that come here to Vegas are coming to a place where they’re wanting to have fun anyway. And I daresay that the people who are coming to my show here, mostly, are people who are coming with intention; they didn’t just walk through a door thinking, “I wonder who it’s going to be!” And so that that’s a lot of fun.
It ends up just being like my normal rock concert. I don’t change my show to be a Vegas guy. There’s more and more rock and roll and popular music being done here in Las Vegas.
Yes. But there aren’t many like you who are still rocking, and with so many beautifully crafted, beloved classic songs.
Thank you for saying that. Some of my songs are really good. But I have my share of things that maybe I shouldn’t have allowed to be released. Luckily a lot of it was pretty good. If somebody starts focusing on the bad ones, I just say, ‘Hey! Look over here.’ Away from my weaknesses.
You have always been especially tough on your own material. In 1975 you put out an album you said you didn’t believe in. You took 10 years off and came back with one of your greatest albums, Centerfield. It took ten years, but you made another classic.
I do believe that in music, a song is the same as a story is in a movie. Spielberg showed a new generation of movie makers that even with all the technology and special effects – which for some people would be enough – that there was always a heck of a story, and that’s what carried the movie. And I think lot of good bands can play the music, but if but if you’re a little more careful, and take a little more time, you’ll wait for a great song before you record.
You’ve done that since the start. “Proud Mary” is so ingrained into the culture, it seems as if it’s always been here. You built it to last.
I’m still very taken aback, because I ponder songwriting now. Sometimes I’ll think about that moment when songwriting truly started for me, especially as it is going to be the 50-year anniversary of “Proud Mary” this year. And since I was at the event, you might say [laughs], I can remember the whole process.
But “Proud Mary” I especially remember, because I had never done it before. I had written songs, but they were always kind of ordinary. I was very used to that, starting as about an eight-year old. I’d go, “Hey! I made a song!” But I always know it was not very good.
Time went on and even as a teenager I got a little better but I always knew it didn’t measure up to people like Lennon & McCartney or Leiber & Stoller or Irving Berlin or Harold Arlen. Some of the wonderful songs throughout history. And you realize it, but you’re just a kid! I was learning. Like a young athlete.
Until that wonderful afternoon when “Proud Mary” happened. And I was just blown way. I was in shock, really. I thought, oh my God, this is really good!
I was really taking aback by it, because I hadn’t done that yet and I not enough time had passed for me even to absorb that yet. And then for quite a little streak there, for several years, I wrote several songs.
And I tried to redo that picture, that little story, I had been out riding my motorcycle, and came up with the idea of “Up Around The Bend.” I thought, what would that be about? Then the guitar lick came to me, the intro. And that’s usually when I’m off. When I got done there was that feeling in my heart, that I had before. That this was good, like “Proud Mary.”
I’m saying this with all humility. Please don’t think I’m trying to brag. It’s such a remarkable way to feel, that this just came out of me. And the process was the same. I started with nothing and it would be there. It’s kind of daunting. You’re kind of scared.
But you work on the song till you get it right, whatever you have to do. And then you take a big sigh of relief at the end, and exhale. And you think, “Oh my God, this is really good.” And, of course, you play it for yourself again, and it’s a great moment.
It was such a new thing for me, and it all started with “Proud Mary.”
It doesn’t seem like bragging to songwriters and to students of songwriting that you were surprised when you got that – it’s a classic song. Especially that it was your first. Other great songwriters have said the same thing – that they were surprised when something like that came through.
Yes. It’s great. It’s like you’re an antenna, and your antenna is perfect. But every once in a while, you just dial it in – and this thing was just pouring out of the radio to you. And it just took you a while to receive it, like it already exists. And it’s just waiting for you to collect all of the parts that are already sitting there. Right?
Yes. You once said you had the title “Proud Mary” before you even knew what it meant? Part of you sensed what was there.
Yeah. What happened played out over a period of several months. I decided to get it together and be professional and get a little more organized. So, I went through that energy of going out and buying a little binder and putting paper in it, and bringing it home and saying, “This is my songbook!”
And my first entry into it was a title. “Proud Mary.” I didn’t know what it was.
Months and months later, being on the bridge of this thing coming out of me, I went back to my book and looking at the first entry and then realizing, that’s it! It’s about a boat!
And that’s when that song came together, and it was my first really good song. I looked at that process as if it was an unseen pathway that I was on. I couldn’t know it. And then so many things fell into place; it became my first big single.
Having had that experience many times through the years, have you gained any wisdom about how best to get to that place where you can reach those songs?
You know, it’s a long and a winding road. You have to really, really, really want it. I can’t say it any other way.
It has to be your obsession. I know life takes you over. You’re an adult in the world and you have a lot of responsibilities and you get pulled here and there and all over. But at some point, it has to become your obsession again, and you have to decide that you won’t let anything get in the way of it. You want it, you desire it so much, it’s just the most nagging, angsty thing in your psyche.
Then, you can’t be lazy. Because it’s gonna come knocking on your door and there’s going to be those moments when you are out doing something else, and then something starts scratching on your temple, as it were, and says, “I got this idea for you, John!” And you have to go wherever you go, sit down with your guitar or whatever it is you need to have to help you, and your notebook, and get really quiet and only think about that.
So, there’s two parts. You have to wait it, to the point of obsession. But then you have to work for it. To the point of heartbreak. Because sometimes you do that work and you don’t get there. But then suddenly that veil is lifted, and it comes out of you. And you say, “Oh, is that how this goes?”
And from then you can start to do it as you’re driving, or as you’re walking up a hill one day, because your brain keeps working on the little bit that’s been shown to you.
And until you’ve got that, you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just floundering around in the shallow water.