Graded on a Curve: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Green River

1969–here in America, it was the best of years, it was the worst of years. On one hand, Woodstock marked the high-water mark of hippie utopianism. On the other hand, the Vietnam War, Altamont, and the dark specter of the Manson Family made clear that far from harkening the beginning of the Age of Aquarius, Woodstock was but an idealistic hiccup–three days of peace and music were nice, but they didn’t change the ugly and immutable basics of bestial human nature.

The soul of America was at stake in 1969, and musicians reacted to this struggle in different ways. Some sang topical protest songs. Others–Bob Dylan being the most notable example–simply exempted themselves from struggle altogether.

Two bands exemplify yet another approach. Both the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival mythologized America, creating timeless songs filled with archetypes and imagery. The bands had much in common; they weren’t hippies, they didn’t perform free-form jams or go in for the dayglo trappings of psychedelia–for both groups, LSD, Sgt. Pepper, and the Summer of Love might as well have never happened.

But the two bands approached America in very different ways. On their eponymous 1969 release, the Band looked fondly backwards towards an idealized past–with the exception of the dire “Look Out Cleveland,” they eschewed the dark currents of 1969 altogether. As for Creedence, they occasionally addressed the issues of the day; “Fortunate Son” addressed the Vietnam war, and “Run Through the Jungle” gun proliferation in the U.S.A. But for the most part they dealt with the dark undercurrents of American history more obliquely. John Fogerty’s is an apocalyptic vision of America; if there’s one word that sums up the mood of his archetypal songs, it’s dread.

Certainly there are exceptions–“Proud Mary,” “Willy and the Poor Boys,” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” all leap to mind–but Fogerty’s more doomsayer than American optimist. At the same time his contemporaries were ushering in the New Age, all he could see were ominous omens of judgment day. In this respect at least, his closest contemporary was Jim Morrison. One wore leather, the other flannel shirts, but both were prophets of doom in the hippie wilderness, uttering dire pronouncements of The End.

Green River was the second of the three great LPs Creedence Clearwater Revival released in 1969–one of the most incredible outpourings in the history of rock music. Like its fellows, Green River adheres to a simple but brilliant formula–short and catchy county-rock tinged songs, many of them set to a rockabilly beat, colored by Fogerty’s foghorn vocals and stinging guitar work.

Oddly, Fogerty’s songs of dread don’t sound particularly fear-inducing; if anything, they’re bouncy. “Bad Moon Rising,” the most chilling tune he would ever write, isn’t ominous in the musical sense; it’s a real toe-tapper. But those lyrics! Fogerty hopes you’re quite prepared to die, and as for stepping out your door after the sun goes down forget about it–some really scary shit is going down out there.

“Tombstone Shadow,” with its wiry riff and stabbing guitar solo, strikes a slightly more threatening note, but it’s hardly the stuff of which nightmares are made. Only the words give the you shivers: the shadow of a tombstone crosses Fogarty’s path, he’s had 13 months of bad luck, and if the powder a voodoo man gave him doesn’t help, maybe a 13-month vacation will.

“Sinister Purpose,” on the other hand, lives up to its title musically: as for the lyrics, John–who may or may not be the devil–is knocking at your door with the promise of eternal life, but I wouldn’t take him up on it if I were you. And if the bluesy and chug-a-lugging “Cross-Tie Walker” sounds like your average train song, it ends on a note of quiet menace: “If you see me acumin’,” sings John, “don’t you waste my time.” As for the slow, sad “Wrote a Song for You,” it strikes a note of futility–how’s he supposed to write a song for everyone if he can’t “even talk to you”?

What else have we got? The title track is a note perfect rocker and a nostalgic look backwards that contains nary a hint of existential dread. On “Commotion”–with its barbed wire guitar and hepped-up rockabilly beat–everybody’s favorite swamp denizen makes clear he’s no city slicker. “Lodi” is as great a song about the disappointments of a failed musician as Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” And the band mixes things up with a very happening cover (love those backing vocals!) of Ray Charles’ R&B classic “The Night Time Is the Right Time.”

As the sixties came to an inglorious end, America was a place of contradictions; acid visionaries predicting the birth of a new, more peaceful mankind rubbed elbows with bomb-making Weathermen fed up with the futility of trying to end the Vietnam War by peaceful means, and disgusted with the racial inequality they saw all around them.

America was both a petri dish for believers in the peaceful advent of an age of eternal harmony and the battlefield for those who believed that only the violent overthrow of capitalism would cure the ills that beleaguered American society, and in a sense, both the long-hairs and the student radicals were optimists. John Fogerty was no such creature. Like the hippies and the incendiaries, he too saw visions–but they were visions of rage and ruin. His America was under a voodoo spell, and a terrible storm was bearing down.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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