Rolling Stone‘s interview series King for a Day features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and singers who had the difficult job of fronting major rock bands after the departure of an iconic vocalist. Some of them stayed in their bands for years, while others lasted just a few months. In the end, however, they all found out that replacement singers can themselves be replaced. This edition features former Creedence Clearwater Revisited singer John Tristao.
John Tristao caught so many Creedence Clearwater Revival shows in the band’s early days that he can’t even remember the first time he saw them. “Before they got huge, they played in San Jose every week,” he says. “You could see them anywhere. I remember when ‘Susie Q’ came out in 1968. I was like, ‘Oh, great. Now they’ve got a hit.’”
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It was the beginning of one of the most impressive bursts of hits in rock history, but the band imploded just four years later in spectacular fashion. And when bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford tried to put some of the pieces back together in 1995 as Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Tristao found himself taking on the John Fogerty role as their new frontman.
“The public was thinking, ‘You’re replacing John Fogerty?’” Tristao recalls. “No, no, no, no. You don’t replace John Fogerty. I’m representing John Fogerty. He doesn’t want to do it. I’m representing his vocal parts. Nobody is taking anybody’s place. That is strictly, for lack of a better term, a great cover band.”
Tristao spent 21 years fronting Creedence Clearwater Revisited, playing roughly 1,800 shows with them all across the globe. (For much of this time, Fogerty was performing the same catalog in a solo career that continues to this day.) But he clashed with Clifford the entire time, struggled many nights to hit the high notes of songs like “Up Around The Bend,” and dealt with a backlash from fans and critics that never seemed to let up.
“It was high stress all the way to the end, all 21 years,” he says. “There were times when it was OK, and and if I did a great show, I felt big relief. But the fans beat me up real bad, which I kind of expected. Fans don’t let you replace their idols. It’s that simple.”
When Tristao was a kid in San Jose, he idolized the Beatles after catching their famous 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. His first concert was Corny and the Corvettes, featuring a pre-fame Cornelius Bumpus, and not long afterwards he discovered he could sing when he auditioned for a band in high school. “I’m Portuguese,” he says. “My mother was a singer. She used to sing in Spanish and Portuguese on the radio when I was a kid. That’s where I got it from.”
He spent his early years in local bands like the Rip Tides, the Chosen Few, and Uncle Wiggly‘s Philharmonic, which featured future Pablo Cruise drummer Steve Price. But his big break didn’t come until 1969, when he was hired by a band called People! just months after they scored a worldwide hit with “I Love You,” which was penned by Zombies bassist Chris White.
It was the start of a very long and bumpy journey that brought him to the Scientology Celebrity Center, The Gong Show, and eventually the new iteration of Creedence.
I’ve read that you knew Janis Joplin. Tell me about that.
My high school band, the Chosen Few, opened for Big Brother [and the Holding Company] several times. There was a club called the Continental Ballroom in Santa Clara. And, gee, they were almost the house band, they played there so often.
It had two stages. So we played on one and they played on the other. We opened for the Grateful Dead there a few times, and New Delhi River Band, the Turtles, William Penn and his Pals, which was Gregg Rolie’s band [prior to Santana and Journey]. We got exposed to the great players and the famous guys way back then.
Anyway, Janis knew my name. She wasn’t that friendly, but they did know us because we had to share the stage, and most of the time, the dressing room. My claim to fame was that we opened for them one time at the Fairgrounds. She was so drunk, she couldn’t go up the stairs onto the stage. I was standing behind her so she wouldn’t fall, and then she turned around and threw up on me. I was covered in red wine. It was lovely.
Did she apologize?
No. She just turned around. She was kind of going back and forth like she was carsick or had motion sickness. She just heaved and that was it. Then she grabbed ahold of the rail and pulled herself back up. What a woman.
What were the Grateful Dead like back then?
They were, at that time, just regular guys, just great, great musicians. They were fun, punch-in-the-shoulder kind of guys. And they gradually, of course, slipped into the psychedelic thing. It didn’t change that much though. They were really nice guys.
I liked to sing and drum at the same time back then, so we were doing the double drummer thing. That’s truly where they got the idea to do it. It was from us.
Moving onto your time in People!, it seemed like they really struggled after having that one big hit.
We put out, Jesus, seven singles and three albums, and just never got another hit. Our producer at the time was the producer on the Chambers Brothers’ “The Time Has Come.” He really felt that he knew what a hit was. And he passed up six songs that wound up being huge hits. He said, “This is no good. This is no good…” Ugh.
Do you remember any of the songs?
One was “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll.” Long John Baldry did that. There was “I Believe in You,” which Neil Young gave to us at the time. Our producer hated it. There was “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison.” We put it out, and it got no promotion. The Four Tops did it, and it was a huge hit. “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone. We played with them one time and they gave us that song, and the producer said no. It was like, “Come on, man.”
People! have become pretty famous for their involvement in Scientology. Did your bandmates try and recruit you?
We all knew that they were Scientologists. That’s why they moved to L.A., to get closer to the organization. I told them when I joined, “I’m not going to do that.” And they said, “Fine. No problem.”
When I moved down there, we lived in this big three-story old Victorian in downtown L.A., right by MacArthur Park. They would leave at eight in the morning to do their Scientology stuff, and they’d be gone all day. They’d come home at 11 at night. I was so bored. I couldn’t take it. After three weeks, I just said, “I don’t care what it is. I’m in.” [Laughs]
So I joined up. We were all part of the Sea Org, which was their high echelon membership. They actually had a Pacific flotilla of ships. We did our able-bodied seaman check sheet on the boats, just like they do in the Navy. We became these higher-ups because, at the time, we still had the hit record. They wanted us out disseminating Scientology to bring in the young people.
How did that go?
I was the first person in history to be drummed out of the Sea Org. I was found unfit.
They kept catching me smoking pot. [Laughs] So they kicked me out of the Sea Org. When you’re a Sea Org member, you get everything free. All the courses, all the auditing, all that nonsense. Well, they said, “You owe us $300,000 for all the stuff you did!” I said, “Let me know how that turns out!” [Big laugh.]
How long were you a member of the church?
Close to three years.
Did you see any of the nefarious sides to the church that have been alleged in recent years?
Not a ton of it, because we were on the road most of the time. They had this this building down there called the Celebrity Center. It’s where all the celebrities that were in Scientology could go and do their courses and not be bothered by the public. I met some great people, including Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. During our lunch breaks, they’d get on the little stage and they’d jam. It was the greatest, just the greatest. I met [Ben Hur actor] Stephen Boyd.
Did you believe in what you were being taught at the time?
You know, there’s two parts to that whole thing. The first is Dianetics. That’s what they start you on. It deals primarily with the body. That actually does work. I got some good out of that. I had some little success healing issues I had with my body. I thought, “This is pretty good.”
But when I slipped into the Scientology side of it, it was like, “What?” I mean, what a bunch of shit. I’m sorry. It’s nonsense! [Laughs]
Did they tell you about Xenu and the aliens and everything?
I didn’t get that specific. But they used to tell us that we came here, and that Earth was a prison planet. We come here from other planets because we are bad people. And that the whole point of Scientology is to clear all that out of your reactive mind so that you can become pure and whole. What a bunch of crap. I just didn’t get it from the start.
They told us when we die here, you go to this planet that is operated by bears. They have this carnival, and they put you on these rides and shock you and implant these terrible thoughts in your reactive mind. You come back to Earth to get rid of that. I know that I’m out there, but this is even too far for me.
Al Ribisi was in the band with you. A lot of people don’t know that Giovanni’s dad was a musician.
Yeah. He was a brilliant guy. He was one of the nicest people I’d ever met. His family was wonderful, all of them.
Why did you leave People!?
The band basically started falling apart. Geoff Levin and his brother Robb were the ones that started People!, and they were at constantly at odds with each other. One day at the band house, they actually got into a fistfight, and Geoff quit and left.
We replaced him with Tommy Tucker, another guitar player. That went on for about a year or so, and then Denny Fridkin, the other drummer, quit. He was really my ally in the band. Robb was so deep into Scientology that you almost couldn’t even talk to him. He was that that far separated from us. It just got to be where it was no fun anymore. I said, “I’m done with this.”
So I quit the band, and Denny Fridkin and I started another band with three drummers. We called ourselves Drum. That lasted a year, and one tour. That was it. At 22 years old, I was fed up with music.
When did your Fifties throwback band Daddy-O start?
Daddy-O started in 1971. I got married the previous year, and my wife and I moved back to San Jose, where we’re both from. I was working. I started out making tire treads, and then slipped into janitorial work. I thought, “It would be fun to do something musically.” I didn’t want to go back to playing full time.
A guy named Gary Wineroth owned a business called Guitar Showcase, which at the time was the biggest music store in California. He was in a locally famous band called the Jaguars. I said to him. “Why don’t we start a little band just as something to do? Let’s play Fifties music because it’s easy.”
And so we just started goofing around. We had a couple of terrible players. But we did have Jim Armstrong, who later on was playing with Papa Doo Run Run. They were a great surf band. And gradually with Daddy-O, people started enjoying what we did. So I started writing skits. We got into doing full-blown theatrics and costume changes and that kind of thing. It was really, really fun.
It was roughly the same time as American Graffiti and Sha Na Na and Grease. That period was having a major nostalgic moment.
Yeah. At the time we were doing Daddy-O, Sha Na Na was really the only one doing it. There wasn’t a ton of competition. And since they were in New York, and we were on the other coast, it was wide open. We could work anywhere. We got a lot of the opening-act spots for all the big acts that would come to town in San Jose. A place called the Saddle Rack is where they all used to play. Alabama, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, Ray Charles. It was just countless great bands.
Tell me about your appearance on The Gong Show.
That was really fun. I mean, obviously, TV exposure is great. But it was a setup. We knew we were going to win before we went. We were playing at Disneyland at the time. It was two weeks on, two weeks off. Chuck Barris’ secretary called us. She went, “Chuck wants you to do The Gong Show.”
We said, “We don’t want to sound snobby or anything, but we don’t do auditions. We’re kind of beyond that. We’re working in Reno at good showrooms.” We told her, “No.” She called back and said, “Chuck really, really wants you guys on this show. Come on down. You don’t have to audition.”
And I said, “You know, I’m just not really interested. Talent shows are kind of a drag, especially if you lose.” So finally, she called back a third time. “Chuck said, ‘Come and do the show. We guarantee you won’t regret it.'” That made me think we were gonna win. And we did.
We knew it ahead of time. Paul Reubens was on that show. There were a lot of famous people involved in the show at that time. It was really exciting to be part of that.
This is pre-cable. Millions of people were probably watching.
Oh, yeah. We got a lot of work from that particular show. When we were down there doing The Gong Show, we played at the Palomino opening up for Tanya Tucker and Willie Nelson and Sawyer Brown.
Why did the band fade away in the Eighties?
That was another one of those things. I’ve never been in a band that, all of a sudden, didn’t start some sort of infighting. You get to where you resent certain players that aren’t doing as much. A few guys are doing all the work, and getting equal pay. It’s just typical band stuff.
And so eventually, one at a time, guys start quitting. You start replacing key figures in the band, and it’s not the same. It changes everything. We went on and on and on and actually had great local success, but just couldn’t grab anything out of that.
How did you support yourself in the Eighties and early Nineties?
I was part of an advertising agency. We had also formed another version of Daddy-O. I got remarried, and my wife was a local singer, just an awesome singer. I made the horrible mistake of getting her in the band. And then we had the the advertising agency together, so we were together 24/7. It was horrible. That’s definitely a relationship-ender, which is what happened.
After that, I moved to where we live now on an island up north of Seattle. I bought a deli/gift shop combination. It turns out that was a bad move for me. I’m not that great with the public, on that level. I have a very short fuse. I had an abusive childhood, so I was carrying a lot of baggage. That’s not good in a public situation, so that didn’t work out.
I went back to doing janitorial work, stripping and waxing floors at a couple of oil refineries. That was mainly because I wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to work around people. I didn’t want to answer to people, so it was something I could do by myself. I was good at it. I worked nights so my wife could work during the day, and I was raising our son. That worked out great.
Eventually I got a job here in our little town at the local high school as a custodian. And I was their weightlifting coach. That’s when [Creedence bassist] Stu Cook got a hold of me.
How did that happen?
One of my bass players from Daddy-O, Michael Connolly, used to run Dean Markley Strings. Stu, at the time, had a long-scale bass, which they didn’t make strings for. So Dean Markley and Michael Connelly, who ran the business, custom-made Stu’s strings.
Stu was talking to him one day. He said that him and Doug were going to put the band back together, and they couldn’t find a singer. Michael said, “Hey, I got the guy.” And that’s how it happened.
Did he know you could sing like John Fogerty?
When I was doing the Fifties thing, people said I had the gift of mimic. I have a Fogerty-ish voice, mainly because I know how he got his tone. That was partially thanks to Michael McDonald. He taught me how to do that. I met Michael when he was on retainer with the Doobie Brothers. He would come into my house because he couldn’t roll a joint. He’d come to my house, and I’d roll them for him. [Laughs.]
I said, “How the hell do you get up there with that amazing tone?” And he said, “That’s just it. It’s not a note. It’s a head tone. It’s the way that Bob Seger does it. It’s the way John Fogerty does it. You close your palate and put your air in your sinuses, and you sing with that. You can actually make a sound that the mind perceives as a note.”
That was basically how I got close to that one. But the problem was John Fogerty was a true tenor, and I’m not, so I fought for every note. [Laughs.]
Was Elliott Easton of the Cars involved with Creedence Clearwater Revisited from the very beginning?
He was. And for me, that was the biggest deal of it all. I was like, “Oh my god. Elliot Easton? Are you kidding.”
What were the auditions like?
Normally they’d get a guy in there and do three or four songs with him before going, “Thank you. We’ll give you a call.” But they kept me there the whole day, for eight hours. On a break, Elliot came out to have a cigarette. He said to me, “I don’t know how much my vote counts, but you got it as far as I’m concerned.” That was quite a quite a vote of confidence coming from him.
They still didn’t tell me I had the gig. They took me to the airport. We had dinner. Put me on a plane. “Dammit. They didn’t say it.” I got a call when I got home that night. I walked in, there was a message on my machine. “You got the job.”
It must have been a mixture of euphoria and anxiety, since you now had to fill the shoes of one of the great singers of the rock era.
Oh my god, the fear! I obviously had anxiety and a little bit of panic. I thought, “How the hell are you supposed to stand in for John Fogerty? He’s the most recognizable singer, on top of being great. People are going to expect me to sound like him. And I don’t. I sound similar. But I’m not an impersonator.”
I sat with Doug and Stu. They said, “Look, you do it as close as you can, but don’t copy him.” So at least I had that relief. But it was still so intimidating. I’ve never done anything on that level.
How were the first couple of gigs?
Just stress beyond. Stu is a very high-pressure guy. He’s a moody guy, so I never knew what Stu I was gonna get at rehearsal. It was really rough. I knew right there in the rehearsals, before we did any gig, that I was in for a rough ride.
I had to decide, “Am I going to do this? Or am I going to bow out now before I get committed?” I decided, “I’ll take whatever they throw at me, and I’ll do it for the good of my family.” That was the goal.
You really were in an impossible situation. To many fans, it was sacrilegious that this group even existed without John Fogerty.
Yeah. They were like, “Who do you think you are?” I was like, “I’m nobody. I’m just a guy.” What guy in his right mind would turn that gig down?
John wasn’t singing Creedence songs when the group started. Doug and Stu were two-thirds of the surviving band. To me, it’s pretty easy to justify this group coming together and taking gigs.
Yeah. They had every right to do it. They were on the records. That was their music. We had the opportunity to call it Creedence Clearwater Revival, because they owned three of the four shares. [Tom Fogerty’s widow] Trish Fogerty was in Tom’s place, and she joined their corporation. So when John sued us for the name, which he did, I begged them. I said, “Please don’t call it Creedence Clearwater Revival. I can’t live up to that. Don’t make me try. I’d get hung up on the cross.”
I thought Creedence Clearwater Revisited was perfect. That’s really what it was. We were just covering the music, revisiting that great era, and those great songs.
When John sued you guys, you were briefly forced to call it Cosmo’s Factory.
Yeah. We briefly lost the name. In fact, I had to go to court in L.A. to prove my name was John. He was saying that I called myself John to further confuse the public. Oh my god! So I had to bring my birth certificate down there. I got to on the stand, and I showed it to the judge. I said, “No, see, this was my mom’s idea. Do you think if I was going to call myself something, it would be John? I’d be fuckin’ Spike or Nails. John?”
Was Fogerty in the courtroom?
Oh yeah. Of course, I’m not his favorite guy, and understandably. We didn’t talk or anything. But I had met him before, so he knew who I was, in passing. It was just an uncomfortable thing to be in the middle of that war between those guys. I’m not at war with John Fogerty. They are.
How awkward was it in the courtroom?
Well, it’s awkward, because those guys aren’t just rock stars. They’re legends. And here I am, just got through being a janitor. It’s very intimidating. Elliot wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t go to the court sessions, because he was friends with John. He said, “I can’t be in that position. It’s bad enough I’m doing this.”
Elliot was invited to John’s Christmas party that year. He always had a huge one. And he just said, “Hey, man. What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m just playing the music. There’s nothing more to it than that. Don’t make it more than it is. It’s just covering the music. Nobody’s claiming credit for your work. Nobody is replacing you.”
Did the pressure dissipate after a few years on the road?
A little bit, because the more familiar I got with the music, it was easier to do. But there was still the problem that there were some songs I just plain couldn’t sing. They were too high.
Which songs were those?
“Up Around The Bend” was the worst. It was the last song of the show. After screaming my head off for two hours, I had to do that last. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my voice failed. I’d do the first two verses and I’d be okay. The last verse, I just couldn’t do it. I physically couldn’t hit the notes. It’s horrible to do a great show, and then suck on the last song. [Laughs.]
Would they ever chew you out after a rough show?
Stu wasn’t real happy with me. Doug is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Truly. He’s a wonderful guy. But Stu is business. And I get it. It was business. But I tried to explain to him. “Stu, I physically can’t do it. I am not a tenor, a true tenor. I can fake my way through a lot of stuff. It’s easier to hit those notes when you’re screaming and really belting it out on ‘Travelin’ Man.’ But when you’re trying to sing in an audible voice, it’s really hard to hit notes you can’t hit.”
At first they dropped the key to “Up Around the Bend,” but they weren’t happy about it. He said, “It just doesn’t sound right.” I said, “Stu, trust me. The audience doesn’t know we’re dropped down a step. But the point is, I’m able to get through it. I think that’s more important than actually being in the correct key.”
But it’s just one of those things. He wouldn’t let up. Eventually, they put it back in the original key. And I went back to struggling. The more you sing, the easier your voice gets, and the farther your range will stretch. And so instead of being off 99 percent, it became 50/50 when I could hit it. But 50 percent of the time is not good enough in my book.
Did you get close to Doug and Stu at all offstage, or did you always feel like they were your bosses?
Stu was my boss. Doug was a very close friend. I know his family intimately. We were extremely close. And, sadly, we’re not anymore, because I made the mistake of writing a book and sending it to him. [Laughs.] He read the book and totally misunderstood it. So he’s not happy with me anymore. And no matter how much I said, “Doug, you misinterpreted it. That’s not what I said.”… When somebody gets that in their head, it’s in their head.
I feel horrible losing that relationship. I love the man. I care about him deeply. He’s having a lot of physical stuff right now, and health issues. I just feel horrible, but it is what it is.
How did you group dynamic change when Elliot left in 2004?
It was real tough when Elliot left, because it’s very hard to get these amazing guitar players to come down to the level that the Creedence music was on at the time. The guy we got after Elliot was named Tal Morris. He’s an absolutely amazing guitar player, he played with Sons of Champlin and Huey Lewis and the News. But he couldn’t come down to that level. He wanted to modernize the music, and you can’t. You have to keep it the way it was or the integrity of the music goes away.
There was constant friction between him and Doug and Stu. They wanted him to not do what he was doing and simplify it. They’d butt heads. It was bad. And when there’s pressure on one guy, there’s pressure on all guys.
And it is their legacy. I’d say, “Tal, you have to do it the way they want to do it. This is their ass on the line. They’ve got enough trouble doing this without you coming out and trying to play Larry Carlton while we’re trying to play Creedence. It doesn’t work.”
Kurt Griffey, the guy that replaced Tal, is the same thing. He’s an amazing guitar player. He could duplicate and do a lot of what Elliot did, but he’s a shredder. That does eventually leak in. And because he’s a younger guy, he wasn’t really there in the original Creedence days. I think it’s tough to identify with it when you don’t grow up with it, as Elliot did. I think what Elliot did was nothing short of genius.
You guys played a lot of casinos and fairs. What were some of the strangest places you played?
Well, the casinos always had the potential of being strange. The first three or four rows isn’t fans. It’s the people that the casinos give tickets to. They’re not there to see a show. They’re there because it was free, and so they’re not enjoying it, but the people that are going nuts are behind them. That was always hard.
With the lights in your face, I couldn’t see past those few rows. I’d be looking at these people, and some of them were sleeping. Some were yawning. Some of them were just obviously not enjoying it. I was like, “Man, you’re sucking the life out of me here.” That was hard.
But we did quite a few country music festivals because Creedence was a perfect crossover for that stuff. And when you got 30,000 or 40,000 people going nuts, it brings out the best in you. It brings up the adrenaline, and really brings the drive to the forefront. That’s hard to do in casinos when people are bored.
Did you ever play weird private gigs or corporate shows?
Oh yeah. And in my book, those are always the worst. Those are just paydays. Again, nobody is at a corporate event or a party to see the band. They’re there for a different reason. You have to go in knowing that so you’re not offended. You’d get to the song and there’d be no applause. “Whoa. What’s this? Surely you people know that music. You’d have to be born under a rock not to know these songs.”
I’ve been to private gigs where people are mingling with each other, having drinks, and not even looking at the stage. I saw Cheap Trick once where I was the only person actually engaged with it.
We played a party one time at the Four Seasons south of L.A. It was for Toyota. There were only about 160 people there, and nobody was in the room we were playing in. Not one. They were all out at the buffet table. We played to our crew. And I come from the school where you do the same show whether there’s anybody there or not. I’m not paid to interpret the crowd. I’m paid to work. I always gave it my best, just out of the fact that there might be that one person there that matters. But that was strange. Not one person in the room. [Laughs.]
You did over 100 shows a year some years. Did spending that much time on the road take a toll on your psyche?
Well, it did because I was stuck in this thought that there was nothing I could do that was good enough to knock Stu out of the park. When I did what I considered to be a damn near-perfect show, the response I got was, “Hey, good job.”
Man, I need a little bit more than that. I could use a stroke here. I’m killing myself. No matter what happened, I still had to go out there and fill that guy’s shoes. I could never make anybody understand how hard that was. It was pure torture.
What would Stu say to you after a show he didn’t like?
He wouldn’t point me out. But he would say, “That was one of the worst shows we’ve ever done.” Well, if a show was great, and went over great, it was them. If it sucked, it was me. And that’s how it felt. He never accused me, but that’s how it felt. I’d be like, “Man, I did the best I could, man. I’m struggling.”
You were in the group for 21 yeas. That’s a long time to feel that way.
It is. It was the pressure of, “God, what the hell does it take to please these guys?” Doug was the opposite. Doug would sing me high praise. There would be pats on the back and hugs. “Man, I love you. You’re doing great. You’re the best singer I’ve ever worked with.” It was great. And then to not get that from Stu was extra hard. I tried not to take it personal. It’s kind of how he is.
Did you ever get tired of singing the same Creedence songs night after night, year after year?
There is a boredom that tries to set in, but I always did it with the thought of, “These people have never seen it before, so I have to do it in a new unit of time. I have to do it like it’s the first time.”
I really pat myself on the back that I was able to do that. I kept the life and the energy. I didn’t go out there, “Oh Jesus Christ. ‘Proud Mary’ again?”
It’s great music. How can you not enjoy it, even though I’ve done it 1,800 times? I did almost 1,800 shows with them. We did the Recollection live album, which to date has sold almost two million. I thought it was quite an achievement, having to stand up to that legacy and still be able to do that. It was a big deal.
This whole time, John and the guys are always bashing each other in the press. Meanwhile, you’re just caught in the crossfire again and again.
Yeah, it was horrible. I thought, “I hate this. Why can’t you just come to an agreement and let it go?” I mean, the biggest argument was being able to use the word Creedence in the advertising. My argument was, “I’m sorry, I’m one of the people that thinks Creedence without John Fogerty is ridiculous.” But I wasn’t about to say that. [Laughs.]
But I do get it. We are a cross between a cover band and a tribute band, even though Doug and Stu were part of the original. Just by definition, we were covering the music of another band. There’s no getting around that. It’s what it was. Don’t try to include me in a war that I’m not part of. I’m not too sure what Fogerty thought of me, but I’m fairly positive it wasn’t a good thing. [Laughs.]
There was so much negative energy towards John, and yet they’re playing his songs every night, really celebrating him in a way.
Yeah. I understand their position as well. It must have been tough for them, because we were never going to do any more music. It was never going to be an original band. So, it is what it is, guys. You’re gonna have to come to terms with that. And I am what I am. I’m not John Fogerty. Please don’t make me live up to that.
It was hard. I have nothing but respect and admiration for John Fogerty. I’m not at war with him, never was.
Why did you leave the group in 2016?
I suffered what’s called a dissection [type] B. My aortic valve exploded. I had two aneurysms that popped. And I’m one of only three people in the world that’s ever lived through it.
Yeah. That’s why they call it the Widowmaker. You know, it’s astounding how common aneurysms are. Doctors don’t even worry about them until they reach 5.9 centimeters. Mine was 5.2, but it’s still burst.
I had the first attack, went to the hospital. They did a bunch of tests, and sent me home saying I had gas. “Gas? Hey, guys, this was more than a fart, trust me.”
I was home for three days, and the other one burst. I went back to the hospital. They had to helicopter me into the University of Washington Harbor View because it was the only facility that could handle the procedure I needed. I was out for three days when I got there. I don’t know if I was in a coma or not. I could still hear even though I was out, and I did hear more than one person say, “He’s not gonna make it.” “Hey, I can hear you.”
Did you resign from the group?
No. There’s no nice way to say it. They kicked me out.
Because you were sick?
Well, to be really fair, I’ve got really severe arthritis in my ankles. During the last year of touring, I was finding it harder and harder to walk these hundreds of miles through airports. Then it was even getting tough for me to go up the stairs to get on stages. My feet hurt so bad. I think they saw the writing on the wall. It’s arthritis. It doesn’t get better.
At this time, I’m 65 years old. When they saw the opportunity to replace me, the guy that I had as a backup guy, Dan McGuinness, was 30 years old. He was half my age. I think they saw the opportunity, which I really don’t blame them for. But how they did it was just a kick in the teeth.
How did they do it?
They called me up one day and Stu said, “Well, John, we’re gonna move on.” I said, “Move on? I just had surgery. My heart exploded. Give me a minute. It’s only been five months.” And they said, “We’re gonna move on and put Dan in the seat.”
And like I say, I understand it. I really don’t fault him for that. But they just kicked me to the curb. The hard part for me was when I was in the hospital, my room alone was $150,000 a day. I was in there almost a month. So when I came out, I had a bill of $2.4 million. My insurance wouldn’t pay any of it. So needless to say, that broke me.
At 66 with a damaged heart, I can’t start over. They just kicked me to the curb is how I felt. Wow. Stu just said, “Hey, thanks.” “Thanks? That’s it?”
How are you doing now financially?
Not so good. Thank God, we own our home, so at least I don’t have that problem. My wife is a painting contractor, so she’s got a thriving business. But she’s had cancer three times. She’s had a massive, double radical mastectomy. Her health is not that great, either. So when that ends, I just don’t know. I’m taking it at a day at a time.
It’s so unfair in this country that if your heart explodes and you wind up in a hospital for a month, they charge you $2 million you don’t have, even if you have insurance. It’s infuriating.
Yeah, it is. It happened to me on January 13. My insurance stopped networking with that hospital January 1. So I said, “You’re telling me I missed it by two fuckin’ weeks? Are you kidding me?” I had that insurance for 30 years! I paid the premiums. It was $1,700 a month.
That said, I’m really fortunate it happened when it did. We were in South America shortly before that. If it had happened there, I’d be in the ground.
Creedence Clearwater Revisited hasn’t played a show in over two years. Do you think they’re done?
Oh, they are done. They retired. They retired in February , and Covid hit in March. That was just what I call the real stroke of luck. But they were heading that way. Toward the end, when I was with them, they were already talking retirement. I don’t know what drove them. In my eyes, the guy who replaced me, Dan, is a good singer. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. But there’s a presentation that I think I did better. It’s not that I’m a better singer. I just presented what the music was, I felt, in a better light.
I think if I were Doug and Stu, I would have quit on a whim and just stopped there. Doug was starting to go through a horrible time. It’s not my position to talk about his health, but he’s having a harder time. When his health was failing, they should have let the guy stop. Don’t be remembered like John Sebastian or Stephen Stills — “Oh, the poor guy. It was horrible when I saw him.”
I had a local band here the whole time that I was in Creedence called Johnny Bulldog. I retired that same year in the Covid year. My ankles were failing. I’m not gonna be remembered as, “Oh, the poor guy. He couldn’t stand up. He had to sit.” So my last show was great, and I decided to quit on a whim. I want to remember it that way. Like I said, I don’t know what their motivation was has to keep going, but they did.
Tell me about the book you wrote.
It’s just basically about my life. It’s called Creedence Clearwater Revisitor. I didn’t do any bad-mouthing. I don’t shit-talk anybody. That’s not my style. I don’t like people doing it to me, and I don’t do it to other people. There’s none of that in there. And I don’t give up anybody’s personal life, sex habits, drug habits.
That wasn’t the point. The point was to explain my life. People would constantly ask me, “Why do you come off as such a tough guy?” Well, I had an abusive childhood. My whole biker presentation was, “Leave me alone.”
Why was Doug upset, then?
When I was trying to talk about the way I was treated by him and Stu… You can’t single one guy out. They were both my bosses. I thought, “If I say the wrong thing, I couldn’t survive a Creedence lawsuit,” which they’re famous for. “I’m not gonna piss somebody off and say the wrong thing.”
So I was so careful. I was walking on eggshells. And he misinterpreted a lot of the things that I said because I couldn’t say, “Oh, well, Stu did this and Doug did that.” So I would say “my bosses” to spare myself from crossing over into slander unknowingly.
But I don’t say bad shit about people. That’s not OK. I wasn’t judgmental about anything. All I said, “This is what happened. This is the story of what happened, how I was treated. I was not in a band. I worked for them. I was an employee. It wasn’t a band.”
They didn’t even refer to it as a band. It was referred to as a project. And the book was basically about my struggle to do it. How hard it was for me, the obstacles I had to get over. When I talked about anything that you would perceive as negative, I said “my bosses,” which included him, and it shouldn’t. But I couldn’t single Stu out. That’s picking on somebody.
When’s the last time you talked to either of them?
I haven’t talked to Doug in two years. I haven’t talked to Stu since he fired me, because we never were friends. He was my boss. We never were at odds, but we weren’t friends. There was no dissension. It’s just that there’s no reason to talk to him. I don’t work for him anymore.
Tell me how your work at the hospital started.
Well, just out of boredom, I wanted to do something, because retirement is not what it’s cracked up to be. I live on an island. There’s not much to do here at all. I don’t want to play [live], but I still record. I have four albums out that I’ve recorded with different projects. But I don’t want to perform anymore. It’s too hard with my ankles. And with the arthritis, hanging a guitar on my neck hurts. I always told myself when there’s more pain than pleasure, it’s time. That’s when you know it’s time to stop doing it.
I felt, “I have to do something with my time. I’m driving my wife nuts. I’ll volunteer at the hospital. I’ve got a small case of emphysema, so I don’t smoke pot anymore, so I don’t have to worry about being drug tested. I’ll sign on as a replacement courier.”
It’s gradually led to more and more work since there’s a lot of retired guys doing that. They really don’t want to do it as much as I do, so I wind up filling quite a bit. I really enjoy it. I feel like I’m doing something that’s beneficial, that’s helping people.
Is this still volunteer work, or are they paying you?
They pay me now. Before it was just, “Hey, I’ll help out.” But they’ve actually hired me so that they don’t feel guilty about, “Hey, we need somebody Saturday.”
Are you chipping away at that medical debt?
Well, this is a great story. My wife was painting this guy’s house who happened to be a heart surgeon. And he said, “Hey, I know about your husband. I know what he went through. Can I ask you what happened?”
She told him the story, and she then told him that we were in a spot because my insurance wouldn’t pay for any of it. We had been paying it down, but I still owed close to $700,000. They took everything, including my retirement and my savings. They just cleaned us out.
She tells the guy that and he goes, “Huh.” He gets on his phone right there and calls this guy up and told him the story. When he hangs up, he said, “That was my best friend since I was six years old. He’s the insurance commissioner of Washington State.”
I never got another bill. There was some kind of divine intervention there in my favor. I can’t help but think that was it. My God, I don’t have a job anymore. I lost my job. I lost my savings. I don’t have any money. I’m not ashamed to say that. “I don’t have anything else to give you. You took it all.” So that was life saving for us.
If you’re driving in your car now and “Fortunate Son” or “Proud Mary” comes on the radio, do you change the station, or are you still able to appreciate it?
I gotta be honest. I turn the station. There’s a lot of harsh memories that go along with the great memories. And I’m not gonna say there weren’t any good times, because there was many, many, many great times. I’ve been around the world seven times. I’ve done things that you’d never hope to achieve as…I call myself a second-tier player. I’m not a rock star in my own right.
I’ve met most of my idols. We played with Paul McCartney at the Super Bowl. Ringo invited me to a show. Some of the best bands in the world opened for us, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Doobie Brothers, Deep Purple. I mean, Paul Rodgers! It’s indescribable.
To take a step back, you spent 21 years singing some of the greatest rock songs ever written with two people that played on all the original recordings. You brought joy to people all over the world doing that. It’s a nice legacy.
Yeah, I feel great about that. And I feel that I helped them restart their careers. Had they started out with Dan instead of me, I don’t think it would have happened. I gave my heart and soul. I truly did.
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