As a lyricist, your songs are very evocative. Who were lyrical touchstones that could deliver that powerful imagery?
I started writing songs at a very early age, eight years old and even younger. I’d write one or two lines and try to put something together. I was very impressed with the imagery of Chuck Berry. Remember, when these things are happening at the time you just take them for granted almost. It isn’t until later that you get this sense of appreciation and a grown up view of how rare and special something is. Another guy who very much influenced me was Bo Diddley, because his imagery was so voodoo and mysterious and dark and strange. I’ve always said that there’s a room I go into sometimes and it’s filled with voodoo and mystical things. I got into that room through Bo Diddley’s doorway ‘cause he was really the guy who I went, “Wow! Listen to this!” I mean, “Who Do You Love?” [recites lyrics] “I wear a rattlesnake hide for a necktie, got a chimney made out of a human skull.” Oh my God! [Laughs]
Would you share the inspiration behind one of your most enduring songs, “Proud Mary?”
I’ve long been a fan of songwriters. As a very young boy I’d see these movies on late night TV, things about Cole Porter or Glenn Miller, who didn’t write words but it was musical. Through my mother I was a fan of Hoagy Carmichael. Of all the guys from those days he was one of the coolest and he was more rock and roll in his approach. So I loved songwriting as a craft. Years later, through the eyes and ears of my mom, Pete Seeger was a particular favorite of mine. When the folk boom happened I had no idea that Pete was writing all of these songs. I thought he’d just collected them. I mean, wow! Early on I had developed a fascination with songwriters. The first rock and roll writers I remember noticing were Leiber and Stoller. I just became an absolute addict of their work, things like “Youngblood” and “Searchin’.” They were great songwriters and it was rock and roll. How cool? And of course Chuck Berry…we started out an association with Fantasy Records when I was about 18 years old and started to write some songs with lyrics. It’s funny that you ask about “Proud Mary” because that really is the one-and I knew it. This was in ‘68 and the album with “Suzie Q” and “I Put a Spell On You.” I’d written a couple of songs on that album, most notably “Porterville,” which I had begun when I was in the Army in ‘67 marching around endlessly looking at this mysterious smudge mark on my spit-shined toe that I could never erase. I’d be marching and this smudge would be there and I’d rub it. I was hallucinating, basically. So you kind of flash forward…and I went out and bought a little booklet thinking I had to start writing some things down. I was collecting titles that seemed cool. For years I walked around with the phrase “Green River” because I had seen that on a soda fountain drink when I was probably 8 or 9 years old and I went, “Gee, I like that.” Another one was “Lodi,” which I thought sounded really cool. I got this cheap little empty plastic notebook at my local drugstore, bought a little slab of filler paper and the very first title I wrote in it was “Proud Mary.” I had no idea what that title meant. At the time I thought maybe it was a domestic maid who worked for some rich people and she’s wearing a little white uniform.