Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Mardi Gras’ (06/72)

Halfway into the first cut on this album, I pulled out Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits and got ready to write a joint review while zoom­ing in on all the parallels with The Last Pic­ture Show. The second cut shot that down and I decided Stu Cook’s singing was forced and unsteady. In the middle of the third number, I realized Doug Clifford had written a song of rare subtlety and power and that his singing matched his writing. His next seemed to promise more than it delivered. Then I found myself in the midst of a song so overwhelming, so true and so unflinching I started to cry and would have called John Fogerty to thank him if his number was listed. I played it again and again and finally quit when I realized the song was stronger than I was. I went on to the next side into another of Clifford’s songs, digging his guitar and his three-part vocals and singing along even though I’d never heard it before. The next one featured Cook and seemed flat. Then “Hello, Mary Lou” and that irreplaceable rockabilly guitar that’s the “Clearwater” of Creedence. Then Cook’s “Door to Door”, which is about selling cleaning fluid, I realized, and also seducing house­wives, I think, and it made it. Then finally “Sweet Hitchiker” to close it out, with a disappearing act into familiarity, which struck me as a perfect ending.

It was not a great album, though there was greatness in it, and somehow that seems truer than to say it has great moments, but I was pleased with it anyway. It was a much more likable album than Pendulum, which is the coolest and most consistent Creedence has ever made. This one had more personality and more life.

Creedence had made a decision to smash the dictatorship of John Fogerty and replace Genius with Equality, which should mean, according to theorists of revolution, from de Tocqueville to Ortega y Gasset, The De­humanization of Art. Pretty scary.

But, said Clifford, Cook and Fogerty, what if elitist art is implicitly dehumanizing?

This may sound very arcane, but it’s just my version of the idea that rock and roll is that art that anyone with a guitar or an idea and will to fame, money and satisfaction can make. Stiffer rules would have spared us the Dave Clark Five and also John Lennon. I think Creedence has embodied that idea right from the start (though Fogerty’s domination worked against it and ultimately threatened the band and his use of his own talents) and that it is the fact that this idea is still visible and credible when we listen to their music—as it is not visible when we listen to the Stones—that is the essence of the band.

After Creedence reconstituted itself, their first assumption was that the music had to be shared; the question of whose songs were best could not be controlling. If things had not been put on this basis, the band would have broken up, and this brings in a question the Genius vs. Equality dichotomy. I don’t think Fogerty could survive as an artist outside of this little band. I think that working with musicians who have known him for more than ten years, who represent, in some Way, his roots and his history, keeps Fogerty in touch with himself and keeps him honest, the way your roots, when you are in touch with them, act as a sort of conscience.

I think, as I usually do, that it comes down to politics. If the politics of rock and roll are based on the idea that rock and roll is public; that what makes it political is that it is shared; then the crucial political question is, what is shared? With Creedence this is a matter of the aesthetic of their music and the moral perceptions of their songs, and the idea they embody as a band. On the most direct level, there is something implicitly small-time about Creedence, something of the commonplace and the everyday, something that cannot absorb and reflect back the images of sex and stardom that seem to come so naturally to the Stones, Grand Funk, or Sly Stone. This bothers Creedence, but I think it is what gives them their strength and what makes them unique.

Creedence’s disregard for musical trends—in fact, their seeming inability to incorporate them even if they wanted to—their insulation from other musicians and the general pop scene, their ability to make music that is like a reminder of something we already know but had almost forgotten, gives us music which is in the deepest sense commonplace, but which is less common than anything else. In the end, their music and the band itself seem obvious only after the fact and puts us in touch with a part of ourselves of which we are only dimly aware, aware of it just to the extent that we can respond to its imagery, a part of ourselves that grows to the extent that we continue to listen.

This is what connects Fogerty, “The man of vision,” to Creedence as a band, the small time small town rock and roll band that can stay together indefinitely, because they have made it commercially, and I think that they are ultimately interested in the idea of the band itself, as a partnership that defines their vocation and which they understand to be the thing that makes everything else possible.

I know John Fogerty is not as sure of himself as Mick Jagger, partly because he is more introspective. He confronts both the angels and the demons of his own heart more directly, and allows himself no critical distance. When Jagger sings “Sympathy for the Devil” he is commenting on the statements in that song and on those who respond to them. When Fogerty sings “Proud Mary” or “Up Around the Bend” or “Some Day Never Comes” there is no distance between him and the song whatsoever; he is not commenting on anything, he is not even affirming anything, he is living it out. Outside of the band, Fogerty might become so unsteady, so cut off from something I can only call a sense of being at home, that he might exhibit the same depressing naivete as John Lennon or the artistic cannibalism of feeding off your own ideas and nothing else that has affected the Band lately.

Fogerty might find that though he thought he was John Fogerty, Great Song­writer, he was in a deeper sense John Fogerty, Lead Guitarist for Creedence Clearwater and what would he do then? He might start reaching for things like “Cocteau, Van Gogh and Geronimo,” things that seem bigger than “Creedence” but in reality do not even exist.

A few more comments on the new album. Clifford has written a song, “Need Someone to Hold,” about an everyday but somehow inscrutable depression and it is familiar enough, but then he frames it with two lines that resound endlessly:

Didja hear about the war?
It comes on home.

What makes sense out of the blur of the everyday? This does. Ellen Willis wrote recently that “In rock, as in politics, there are no private worries.” Part of the function of rock and roll music is to make private worries public, or in the case of this song, to make personal worries political, and without trying to prove anything. The point of this song is not that all troops should be out of Viet Nam tomorrow. Its point is much deeper than that.

“Someday Never Comes” should be in the top ten when this is printed. The insistent drum taps that open the song and the dramatic countdown on the guitar that follows announce that this is it, this is the big one. No other song on the album makes such claims in its first notes and no other deserves to. You don’t have an opening like this too often, because few songs can live up to it. Think of the first notes of “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “The Weight” or the guitar that kicks off “Up Around the Bend.” It’s that time gain; but what is astounding is the depth of what follows.

First thing I remember
Was asking Poppa why
For there were many things
I didn’t know
And Daddy always smiled
And took me by the hand
Sayin’, Someday you’ll understand

Fogerty gives great love to that simple “you’ll,” a love that will become a terrible irony as the song builds and catches the listener. Immediately Fogerty picks up the pace and slams the song home:

Well I’m here to tell you now
Each and every mother’s son
You better learn it fast,
You better learn it young
`Cause someday never comes

The music is more like “Fortunate Son” than anything else, but nowhere near as brutal. Cook’s bass slides over the guitar lines with a deep and perfect sympathy, and Clifford’s drumming orders the song on the verses and pushes it like Charlie Watts on the choruses. The band is strong.

The song moves on. The father goes away, no reasons given. “Try to be a man” is all he has to say, “someday you’ll understand” is all the boy hears. Then the chorus is back again. It sounds no different, but there is a new bit­terness, a resentment that is beginning to grow out of the love that is still hanging there on “You’ll… understand.”

That would be enough for most songwriters. Fogerty doesn’t stop; this man is incapable of lying, he simply tells the truth, and in this song are the hardest truths he has ever dealt with.

The singer has a son of his own; in a line that can break your heart, “He wasn’t even there.” Slowly you begin to understand that the singer, the first son, is being trapped by the ghost of his own father. The chorus comes back again, harder than ever, no longer as a way out, but as a sort of blasted hope.

You better learn it fast
You better learn it young
Someday never comes

Now it is not the strength of the band that is remarkable, but its depth. And Fogerty closes the circle.

Think it was September
The year I went away
For there were many things
I didn’t know
And I still see him
standing there
Trying to be a man
I said, Someday you’ll be a man

So finally the singer is his own father, his own song, and somehow, himself. He knows what is going to happen and his knowledge somehow makes it even more inevitable that he will recreate the gloom of his own past. If he fights against that in the choruses, stepping out of the prison of his own history for a moment, telling us not to buy anyone’s lies

You better learn it fast,
You better learn it young

it’s not the answer, it’s just all there is to say. You can never really learn it. Finally, there is only so much of your own life that you can take control of. There are limits to everything, even slogans.

It is the ability to write and to perform material as difficult as this—difficult to conceive, let alone perform—that is at the core of what I’ve tried to say about roots as a conscience. Like everything else, that idea has its dark side, and this is it.

Creem, June 1972

5 thoughts on “Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Mardi Gras’ (06/72)

  1. Wow. Of all the pretentious, sycophantic drivel these over-educated, pseudo-intellectual elitist “Rock Writers” ever got away with in their day, this is the most delusional I have ever read. This is what you get when you inflate their egos with a big enough platform to spout off as an “authority on the subject”. Crap.

  2. “there is only so much of your own life that you can take control of.There are limits to everything ,even slogans .”-To say that in 1972 Berkeley was an act of supreme common sense and intellectual courage- those remarks stand the test of time -and are even more relevant today…I wonder how G.M might react and /or rewrite this essay today… There’s a sense in which all writing about rock and roll (except biography and technical musical analysis) can be considered unnecessary and pretentious… I wonder if he has retracted the judgement he makes about John Lennon in this piece…On the whole ,I think most people would agree with your reaction to this piece-at the time people who loved rock and roll were considered sub-intellectual,stupid and generally worthless,so G.M. and his compatriots in putting the previously unborn genre of rock criticism on the map were striking a blow for equality and justice -no matter how pretentious and over the top it was then -and how much exponentially more it seems so now

  3. I too like the Doug Clifford songs on Side 1… but I’m pretty sure that the lines in “Need Someone To Hold” that Greil makes so much of (“Didja hear about the war? / It comes on home”) are actually “Give out the warm / Comes back cold.”

    • Hi Charles. You’re right about the lyrics. This is the first positive article about “Mardi Gras” I’ve ever read by a writer in a pop rock magazine. It’s refreshing to see how the album affected someone when it first came out in 1972. “Mardi Gras” gets a bum rap (to put it nicely). I think it’s one of the most underrated albums in Rock ‘n’ Roll history.

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