Southern Sounds

John Fogerty has taken his “turn at bat” in some of the world’s best-known concert venues. Fillmore West. The Fox Theatre. Madison Square Garden. The Royal Albert Hall. But it’s likely the performance that meant the most to him was the one he gave last July in Cooperstown, New York, at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. All at once John Fogerty played slugger and guitar hero.

John Fogerty
(Photo by robotbrainz)

With his baseball bat-shaped guitar, Fogerty took center stage at Cooperstown to perform “Centerfield,” the title track from his 1985 comeback album. Taking in Fogerty’s performance were a couple of great centerfielders, Willie Mays, name-checked in Fogerty’s baseball anthem, and Andre Dawson, that day officially inducted as a Baseball Hall of Famer. A fan of the game since boyhood, Fogerty seemed genuinely moved to be celebrated in the presence of his longtime heroes and the people in the audience, many who seemed as excited to see him as they were the greats of the game.

After his performance, Fogerty gave a short speech, similar in spirit to those often given by Hall inductees. Remembering his childhood days, Fogerty said “Centerfield” was “an eight year-old boy saying ‘thank you’ to baseball for all the joy and inspiration it has given me.” Thrilled to sing at Cooperstown and donate his guitar, “Slugger,” to the Hall, Fogerty declared, “that eight year-old boy is saying right now, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

“Centerfield” is a rarity: a rock and roll song about sports that actually works (Bob Dylan’s “Catfish” and Warren Zevon’s “Boom Boom Mancini”  and “Hit Somebody” are among the others). Fogerty’s lyrics reflect the baseball history he’s absorbed, as well as the aura and symbolism the game evokes. “We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field” imparts the optimism participants and followers of the game possess as each spring a new season begins. Every year, on opening day, all big league teams begin with the same won-loss records, 0-0. For a brief but hopeful time, the also-rans from the previous season believe they can turn it around, and in the fall be World Champions.

John Fogerty, especially when he was with Creedence Clearwater Revival (7 studio albums, ’68-’72), composed a large number of songs that beautifully captured the clear-eyed determination of people working hard to make it, often with the odds stacked against them. In particular, “Proud Mary,” “Lodi,” “Down On The Corner,” “Fortunate Son,” and “Who’ll Stop The Rain” make for vivid American stories, some imbued with hope, others smacking of resignation. Fogerty’s songs, and the leading role he played as singer and versatile musician, helped make him and his bandmates omnipresent on radio stations, jukeboxes, turntables and tape decks during some turbulent years in our country, as people of various political views listened in and recognized certain truths in his songs. It’s difficult to hear “Commotion,” for example, and not connect with the internal conflict America experienced in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was evident during those years that Fogerty’s observations informed his music.

The Sun Came Out Today . . . While “Centerfield” doesn’t  reflect the America of the mid ’80s, it does provide an image of the country that Americans have long preferred: a pastoral environment, where things aren’t so crowded and hurried, and most importantly, a country with a sense of fair play; a place where one had a chance to do better tomorrow, or even the next at-bat. In his song, Fogerty envisions a players’s desire to “hit the ball and touch’em all” and have “a moment in the sun.” “Centerfield” gives us a front-row view of such individual triumphs that teams and  communites celebrate.

Already a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Fogerty experienced his “moment in the sun” that afternoon last July in Cooperstown. On the internet, fim clips of him exchanging autographs with Willie Mays and Don Sutton put an exclamation point on what he had to be feeling that day. And he’ll be reminded of that feeling most any time he goes to a major league or minor league game, for it’s likely the sound system will be blasting out “Centerfield.”

Penthouse Paupers, Basement Dwellers . . . Winter gets tiresome, especially for baseball fans. Blue skies and new grass on the field were weeks away, but the February 27 edition of the New York Times sports section included five articles on baseball. Three of them were particularly interesting, not because of what was reported on the game itself, but what the articles revealed about society at large.

The most significant article of the day for New York baseball fans concerned the financial shape of the New York Mets. The team’s profit and loss report is far worse than its won-loss record on the field over the last two seasons, as if that wasn’t bad enough. And the news doesn’t get any better. Team owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz are not only dealing with the team’s financial struggles but also a $1 billion lawsuit filed by the trustee representing investors victimized by Bernie Madoff’s fraud. With all the potential complications, the Mets ownership may not be able to move money from their other ventures, such as real estate and cable televison to prop up the team, already carrying one of the game’s highest payrolls and dealing with a serious drop in attendance (over 35%) since 2008. The attendance swoon is even more significant when considering the Mets moved into their new $600,000,000 Citi Field in 2009.

The Mets lost 83 games last season, not the game’s worst (The Pittsburgh Pirates lost 105 games; their 18th consecutive losing season). Even more disturbing was the $50,000,000 the team lost last year. And it gets even more disturbing; losses are projected to be at least that much this season as the team is in a rebuilding stage. Many baseball writers, including Tyler Kepner at The New York Times predict the Mets will finish last in the National League East.

As the Mets rebuild, they can only hope to do better in the courts than on the field. The trustee for the Madoff victims has asserted in a lawsuit that team owners Wilpon (a Madoff friend) and Katz had profited from their Madoff investments, enabling them to sustain and promote their various interests, including the Mets. A more recent Times story reported the trustee claims Wilpon and Katz “turned a blind eye to warnings of Madoff’s fraud.” The story went on to report the Mets owners have stated, in a recent court filing, that the trustee, Irving H. Picard, “has withheld or distorted critical evidence in the case.”

Lookin’ Out My Back Door . . . The second article about baseball that really wasn’t about baseball in the February 27 New York Times reported on the 30,875 square foot mansion built for New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. The Tampa residence is reportedly the largest home in Hillsborough County, with no doubt a stunning view when looking out Jeter’s back door. Joe Madden, a reader of Camus and manager of The Tampa Bay Rays, joked that if Jeter were to sell the property, The Rays could build a stadium on the site. Maybe so; it would surely be an improvement over Tropicana Field.

Nearly 18oo miles away, in Phoenix, Arizona, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw gave thought to the wonders of excess among the ultra- wealthy in America, people who now take in the kind of money he likely will in a few years as his mound work improves. In the February 27 New York Times, Kershaw offered a mature worldview when describing the people he and his wife, Ellen met on a recent trip to Zambia, “The people, as long as their basic needs are met –they’re not starving and they have shelter — are such a joyful culture,” Clayton said. Then he pondered his fellow Americans, saying, “You come home and you see people striving to get more money, bigger houses and more possessions, thinking that will make them happier. You go to Zambia, it helps put things in perspective. You realize where happiness comes from, and that’s not from material goods.”

His Back To The Plough. . . It was Ellen Kershaw, long committed to helping Zambian children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, who convinced her husband, the ace of the Dodgers’ pitching staff, that he needed to see and feel Zambia for himself. So, late last December, just days after getting married, they were on an African bound plane. Not the honeymoon a couple might expect, but a positive life-changing experience. Ellen Kershaw put it succinctly, “We see the house we live in. It is hard to swallow. Why did we get all of this? Why were we born here and not there?”

Ellen Kershaw contemplates what can’t be explained, but she’s mindful of the things we naturally take for granted. John Fogerty revealed a similar perspective on his “Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You Or Me),” one of several discerning songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 album, Willy And The Poorboys. In the song, Fogerty considers those around him- and us- who are given short shrift: the laborers who come in, do the dirty work and then leave.

“Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You or Me)” is a smart and breezy rockabilly number featuring a style that Fogerty, still early in his career, had  made his own.  The thoughtful lyrics were also indicative of Fogerty’s mindset, quite seasoned for a 24 year-old, even in those days. In Rolling Stone, record reviewer Alec Dubro wrote the song was the most beautiful on Willy And The Poor Boys, acknowledging that Fogerty’s questions and moralizing were part and parcel of a broad vision.

Who will take the coal from the mine?

Who will take the salt from the earth?

Who’ll take a leaf and grow it to a tree?

Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me

Who will work the field with his hands?

Who will put his back to the plough?

Who’ll take the mountain and give it to the sea?

Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me.

Fogerty declares that “someone’s done your starving” and that “someone’s done your prayin’ too,” just as surely as someone will provide your clothing, shoes and keep your promises. Asked why such things mattered, Fogerty answered with the very same question, then elaborating in Dubro’s Rolling Stone review, Why does that matter? That’s exactly why I wrote the song. We’re all so ethnic now, with our hair and shit. But, when it comes to doing the real crap civilization needs to keep it going . . . who’s going to be the garbage collector? None of us will. Most of us will say, ‘That’s beneath me, I ain’t gonna do that job'”

Fogerty later said more about the song. Creedence Clearwater Revival biographer Hank Bordowitz, in Bad Moon Rising, reveals Fogerty as being dismayed with his own generation, not just older authority figures.

“There were things going on in the country that upset me, ” John says, “but having grown up in the hippie generation, there were a lot of things that upset me about my own generation as well. The song ‘Don’t Look Now’ was trying to address that. It wasn’t that I was a fence rider, it was just that some stuff was getting out of hand.”

It could’ve come down to something as simple as what was observed at the “Woodstock Festival.” Fogerty and his bandmates performed at Woodstock. At the conclusion of the festival, the crowds picked up their valuables, and headed home, leaving behind piles of litter and debris. Who cleaned up Mr. Yasgur’s property? Don’t look now…..

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.