Creedence Clearwater Revisited – Keep On Chooglin’
Most people remember John Fogerty, front man for Creedence Clearwater Revival–the group that racked up sixteen Top 40 singles (most of those in the top ten) in the space of less than four years. But what happened to their rhythm section? Stu Cook and Doug “Cosmo” Clifford are one of the most celebrated bass-and-drum duos of the rock era. And they’re still at it, playing the classics to enthusiastic audiences across the nation. Bill Kopp sits down with Stu Cook for this exclusive feature.
The Cook-Clifford approach was–and remains–a textbook example of “less is more.” I ask Stu if their straight-ahead vibe was modeled on anything in particular. “Honestly, our heroes were Booker T & the MGs. They were just an instrumental quartet; they were featured on many, many great records. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett…the Stax/Volt stuff; they did all of those recordings. They were of that school: the music is notes and rests. Every one of them has a value. The spaces between the notes may be more important, because they help focus where the notes are. And that’s the cool thing. If there’s just a steady stream of notes, everything is all one color. But when you start to mix it up, let it ‘breathe,’ that’s when the magic comes into it. So Doug and I tried to sort of pattern our playing after Al Jackson, Jr. and Duck Dunn: just find a good part that supports the songs, and play it. Don’t wander off, don’t try to get into the limelight; it’s not your role. We didn’t see it as our role in the kind of music that we were playing, in the kind of music that we loved. From the beginning, our plan was to underplay whenever possible.”
CCR was never a jam band. “It was a guitar quartet, and [John] Fogerty was the soloist. We were supposed to be the rhythm, the foundation for that. It has its limitations, but we tried to serve it well. Each album had a longish track on it, but they were never jams, per se. ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ had a little jammy character to it, but they were all pretty structured. There was no space to noodle. Live, there was a little bit of noodling, but in the studio we always tried to nail the arrangement.”
Even though John Fogerty wrote the music and lyrics, the group’s sound was the result of a collective effort. “We didn’t always play the parts we [were given]. John showed us lots of stuff he wanted specifically in songs; songwriters often do that. They come up with a song, they have an arrangement they want to hear. Some things are important, and other things are less important. We had a sufficient amount of latitude in writing and arranging our parts.” Cook laughs, recalling that “we would record so fast, that sometimes we’d play something different in each take. Then you’d hope that the take that was used would be the one that had all your cool ideas in it! You couldn’t go back and fix it; [in fact] we strove for live performance in the studio. We were a live-playing band, so whenever [the session for a given song] started to get tedious, we would just put it aside, and come back to it later. Most of the good tracks were recorded in a half-dozen or less takes. Some of them–quite a lot, actually–were first or second takes.”
None of those alternate takes exist, so don’t look for a Creedence Anthology on the shelves. “Creedence didn’t leave anything in the vault, really. We recorded only what we went after, and those are the master reels. There aren’t any outtakes, session tapes, ‘basement tapes,’ none of that.”
There is one unreleased item of note, however, and it paired the CCR guys with their heroes. “We were doing a [TV] program called In Concert, and Booker T & the MGs [were] our featured guests. It was a concert at the Oakland Coliseum. One night during the shooting of all this–the hullabaloo of the whole week of getting ready for all this–we invited Booker T & the MGs to come down to Cosmo’s Factory [CCR’s rehearsal/recording studio/HQ] to hang out and jam. [Drummer] Al Jackson didn’t make it, but [organist] Booker, Duck [Dunn, bass] and Steve Cropper [guitar] all came down. So we jammed. I still have the original tapes; they’re the tapes from the Nagra tape recorder.” In those days, when motion picture cameras rolled, filmmakers often recorded audio onto Nagras, Stu explains. “So they had the ‘sync’ beep on them. I think I have all three reels; certainly I have two of them. We played some Creedence stuff, we played some jams. It was fairly unstructured. But it was a lot of fun. There’s a little bit of it in the In Concert film. I suppose there are some copies of that film circulating; I have a 16mm copy of it somewhere; I can’t remember where…nobody really cared about that stuff then, and I can’t imagine they care about it now!”
Well, this fan does. I present Stu with a CCR bootleg called Midnight on the Bay; it’s a soundboard recording of the January 1970 In Concert show. “Not available in stores,” I laugh as I hand it to him. He seems pleased to have the artifact. “I think it’s good that this stuff is out there circulating; to make a big legal thing out of it is silly. [Collecting bootlegs] is only for the people who really love these artists; they already have everything that’s legitimately available in the catalog.”
Many years ago Rolling Stone called Creedence Clearwater Revival “probably the greatest American singles band.” While the songs tapped into–and represented–the zeitgeist of the 60s, they’ve also aged remarkably well. There’s probably never been a rock and roll cover band that hasn’t knocked out at least a few CCR tunes. Cook offers, “I think that’s part of why the music has had such great ‘legs,’ because there are still bands out there playing it every night.”
Arguably the Rolling Stone quote is still true today. I ask Stu what he thinks it is that makes those songs so perfect, so timeless. “From a writer’s point of view,” he speculates, “I think it’s because they’re not specific. They’re songs that have an attitude or a mood, but they don’t get into detail, where you start to lose people because of, let’s say, their politics. Or their religion. Or even their socioeconomic situation. The songs have a universality to them that helped them find a really wide audience from the beginning. And this continued, and has gotten bigger.”
“And younger,” he continues. “There are more and more Creedence fans now, because you’re not really able to say, ‘well, that’s a Vietnam War song,’ or ‘that’s a song about Richard Nixon.’ They could be fresh, new songs now in a lot of ways. Because of the way humankind is, and because of the way our society is, these issues still need to be talked about. The work holds up because it has a universal, a general approach. The music slides through the years.” Even now–after everything that’s happened–Cook’s appreciation of John Fogerty’s songwriting ability is palpable.
CCR’s string of hits ended in 1971. John Fogerty’s brother, rhythm guitarist Tom had left by this time. But the band soldiered on, releasing 1972’s Mardi Gras. I ask Cook about the thinking behind that album, the first on which all three remaining members wrote and sang. It’s a sensitive subject, but he’s willing to discuss it nonetheless. “Frankly, the album should have never been recorded. It was John’s parting shot to Doug and myself. It was John’s idea, number one, to have us each write and sing a third of the album. It was sort of a bombshell when he laid that on us.” But weren’t he and Clifford anxious by that point to get in on the songwriting action? “We had all these hits. We had a great lead singer and songwriter [in Fogerty]. You’d have to be crazy,” he laughed, looking back in wonderment at the folly of the Mardi Gras concept. “And believe me: we were a lot of things, but we weren’t crazy!”
“It was John’s idea,” Stu maintains. “Tom had left; there had been some creative differences between the brothers. Tom had stepped aside as lead singer some years before. He had let John do his thing, which was a smart move. But it wasn’t an easy move for Tom; he had led the band for many years. So after a certain point, we had reached a certain kind of success. At least to me, it would’ve made sense if John had said to Tom, ‘Do you want to sing a couple tracks?’ Tom had quit the band a half dozen times, and Doug and I would talk him back in. Finally, John said, ‘We’ll change how we’re doing the records.’ Tom said, ‘bullshit! You’re not changing. I know you well enough to know that’s not gonna happen.’ So he quit. And that left the three of us.”
“Doug and I had been advocating for business change. I have a degree in business. You know, our company was just not being…” Stu interrupts himself. “We had a manager: John was our manager. There was a fair amount of chaos, of amateurishness.” I mention that some of this is explored in Hank Bordowitz’s book Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revivial. Stu agrees but asserts that he and Clifford “don’t have the ear of the press like Fogerty does, so we don’t get our story out there as well. But the fact is that John was a lousy manager. He kept us out of the Woodstock movie…all of these brilliant moves–I say that sarcastically. So anyway, we wanted some changes. I wanted some changes in, particularly, how we toured. So we could make some money at it. Instead of flying all our gear across America on weekends, let’s have a tour. Anyway, John turned that around and said, ‘well, I’m gonna quit the band if you guys don’t do it this way.’ And we said, ‘wait a minute. That’s not what we’re asking. And on top of that, you’re still leading, aren’t you? We’re still doing it your way–you’re just changing the way we’re doing it.’ We weren’t quitting, so we had to try it that way. But to expect that Doug and I would write and sing at the level John did…that’s absurd. We said, ‘what are you doing, John? Our fans don’t want this.’ [On Mardi Gras] John didn’t help much in the studio; I was playing lead guitar on my tracks. The album came out, and it sank. It just wasn’t very good by our high standards. It wasn’t a Creedence album. So it got what it deserved. And John has never had the balls to admit that he brought that all on.”
By that point, the band had other problems as well. “They had John in a headlock over at the record company. The deal that they promised us, we never got. He got into a fight with them, and the rest of us paid the price.” The band finally split, soon finding themselves embroiled in various legal matters, often with Fogerty on one side, and the Cook-Clifford rhythm section on the other. Cook and Clifford no longer speak to Fogerty (see Bordowitz’s book for more on the sad story).
Stu and Doug had been friends since early childhood, and saw no reason not to continue working together. Meanwhile, after a spotty series of albums [see “Bootleg Bin” for a summary) Fogerty released Centerfield, a solo effort that all but duplicated the sound and feel of classic Creedence albums. So why shouldn’t the rhythm section get in on the action? In 1995 Creedence Clearwater Revisited debuted. The lineup was Cook and Clifford plus a few other musicians, and the arrangements were pure CCR. Fogerty sued to stop them, but ultimately lost. What began as little more than a creative outlet has turned into a regular gig. Their website (www.creedence-revisited.com) calls the group a “reincarnation project.”
There’s no denying that the spirit of the original band is alive, Fogerty or no. They perform about 100 shows a year; the day I met with Stu Cook, Revisited was performing at Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee NC. Most of their dates are at casinos or resorts, and as such their audiences are filled with fans of a certain age, but the crowd reaction is uniformly positive. The group even released a live album culled from live dates. Before the show, Stu tells me, “we’re just finishing our fifteenth year now.” That’s longer than the original Creedence stayed together. In fact, 2008 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stu Cook and Doug “Cosmo” Clifford playing together. So, the inevitable question: to what does Cook attribute the longevity of their musical kinship? “We’re good friends. And friends give each other slack. Everything’s not a crisis. If we have a disagreement, we’re smart enough–and love each other enough–that we don’t ruin our relationship over the small stuff. We keep the prize–which is staying buddies–always in sight. We’ve had our tough times throughout the years, but it’s still important to remember what you really value in the whole thing. We love each other, so we have to take care of that.” Before he leaves for sound check, Cook takes a moment to autograph the cover of my well-worn vinyl copy of 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory. While he signs his name “right down here by my feet,” he muses, “I can’t imagine life without Doug.”
As we shake hands, I mention that this evening’s concert is actually slated as a private show, a casino “high rollers” event. Stu smiles at me and says, “tell ’em you’re with the band.” I will.