By Jeb Wright
What do you do when your incredibly successful band breaks up? Well, if you’re drummer Doug “Cosmo” Clifford of Creedence Clearwater Revival, you bounce around on other gigs for a while, form a production company with the other half of your former rhythm section (in this case, bass player Stu Cook), and eventually, you form a cover band of, well, yourself. Which is how Creedence Clearwater Revisited came to be.
GM: I went to see Creedence Clearwater Revisited, and I have to say, the band is kicking ass.
Doug Clifford: We are kicking ass, and I am looking at ass, as that is all I have to look at [laughter]. There is a girl who is doing a documentary on drummers called “The Best Seat in the House,” and I think that’s debatable. If it was the Dixie Chicks in front of me, then it would be different. But with us, it ain’t pretty back there. In seriousness, it is a great spot to be in. I will be 68 soon, and I still love it.
GM: Creedence Clearwater Revisited was not supposed to be a full-time gig. Tell me how it all came to be.
DC: Stu (Cook) was living in L.A., and I lived in Lake Tahoe. He was going to move to a different part of California, and I live on the Nevada side, where there is no state income tax, and it is a beautiful environment. I told him to come up and bring his family and check out this place. He ended up buying a house, and we were neighbors.
We were having a few beers and jamming in my studio, and, to be honest, it was kind of boring with just the two of us. He said, “We need to get a band.” We knew that people wanted to hear the music live, and (John) Fogerty wasn’t even playing these songs at that time. We decided to do a private party and to get out and play a little bit.
The first few dates were what are called retail dates, which are dates for the public, and our singer’s old boss decided that he wanted to be a promoter. We tried to talk him out of it, but he did it anyway. He booked a few shows and people went nuts. We now do about, on average, seven private shows and 75 public shows a year. In the first two years, we were doing over 100 shows a year, and I didn’t want to be gone that much. We cut it back, and that is what we do now. We play worldwide and are still loving it.
GM: John Tristao, your singer, is amazing. How did you find him?
DC: We were just going to quietly go about our business so we didn’t take any ads out for a singer. We told some people who we knew what we were looking for. One of our friends, who worked for Ernie Ball strings, e-mailed Stu and told him about this guy. We ended up with 10 candidates. We asked them to come in with an acoustic guitar and to sing these songs. We wanted their voice to be kind of naked and not have any echo or anything on it. Four out of the 10 passed the first test, and we went out to L.A. Johnny was the last of the four, and when we heard him we knew we had our man.
GM: You must have been amazed when you heard Tristao. John Fogerty had such a unique vocal delivery.
DC: John does not have what he used to have, and that is just the way it goes and is the truth. Johnny is a trained singer. The guy is an iron man. He is a rough-and-tumble looking guy; he has that tough guy personality on stage and it is all part of the act. He is the first guy headed back to the hotel after the gig to get his rest.
GM: Kurt Griffey is amazing. He can flat play guitar.
DC: Kurt is a monster. You see what he does on stage. When he’s off stage he does not think he is a rock star. He doesn’t prance around and cause trouble. I know Kurt is around whenever I hear silence. The last couple of years with him has been really, really fun.
GM: You had to know that Fogerty would go ballistic when he heard you were putting the band together. Was there apprehension to doing this?
DC: We said we were going to do it, but we were going to do it quietly. We just wanted to play. I had been out of the music business for 25 years, for all intents and purposes. One of the things that we decided to do was not to call the band Creedence Clearwater Revival because we knew we would take sh*t for that. A promoter who is a good friend of mine came up with the name. We were over at his house and he said, “I have the perfect name for you guys. You are going to be revisiting Creedence music every night so you should be called Creedence Clearwater Revisited.” Stu and I said, “Well, we don’t know about that.” We thought it over for a day or two and realized it was kind of brilliant. We had the right to call it that.
GM: In “Recollection,” you were ahead of your time releasing your own album.
DC: The original plan went out the window. We had no thoughts of recording anything and putting anything out. What drove us to do it was that fans would talk to us after the show and say we should record a show so they could take a CD home with them. We recorded a show, or two, and we never thought that it would end up in the record stores; it was the last thing on our mind. We just wanted to make people happy who were coming to our shows.
Our manager ran into a fellow who had an independent record company at SXSW. He gave him a copy of the record and asked him if he would be interested in putting it out. He put it out and it went Gold. It was the most money he had made. He took the money that we brought in and tried to resurrect the career of Julianne Lennon when he was spaced out. It was not a good investment. When our checks started bouncing we said, “Hey, wait a minute, you can’t bounce our royalty checks, buddy.” The final blow was when he sent a check that said, “Do not cash for 30 days.” That was it. We told him to get his stuff together, and we went to Universal Music, and they took it Platinum. The rest, as they say, is history.
GM: Are you tempted to make new music?
DC: Not really, because our name defines us. We revisit the music of Creedence Clearwater. We’ve worked up some covers during sound check, and, one of these days, we will cut some of those and mix them up with some of the hits and put them out as a separate record. It is not something that is really pressing.
GM: It has been 50 years since you met. Do you still remember how you all decided to put a band together?
DC: Oh, absolutely, I have a vivid memory of it like it was a movie, or a TV show. I remember meeting Stu for the first time. I remember when I met John. The first time I saw him, I said, “Hey, you want to start a band?” I had listened to him play piano — he was playing Little Richard and Fats Domino and I had all of those records and I knew every note. I was never shy, and he was. He said, “I play guitar and I am looking for a piano player.” I said, “I know just the guy, his name is Stu Cook. His dad is a rich lawyer and he has a rumpus room with a piano that’s in tune. That is where we can practice.” I did not even ask Stu if we could come into his parents’ house and pound on the piano, but that is what we did, and that is how it started. Tom was a singer in another band, and he was four years older than us. He had the vision of going to L.A. and recording and trying to get a record deal. He asked us if we wanted to back him up. Without Tom, there would be no band.
GM: Tom was the visionary.
DC: He was the one. We were Tommy Fogerty and the Blue Velvets. The record company changed our name to the Golliwogs, and they put us in these ridiculous uniforms, and it was awful.
We had a regional hit when Stu and I were going to San Jose State, and it increased our revenue stream by four times, at least. It gave us a little bit of a taste, but it was embarrassing. Our manager, who also owned the label, was a jazz guy who was an old beatnik. He thought he knew what rock and roll was all about. We made enough money that we were able to invest in ourselves. Nobody bought a new car; we all bought new instruments. We were a part-time band, and that is why we had a part-time hit. We knew the only way to make it was to do it full time. It was at that time that we started starving.
GM: How did Olympia beer figure into CCR’s name?
DC: They had a commercial that said, “Cool, clear water.” It wasn’t because it was a beer. It has that out of the way, down by a stream kind of vibe to it. I was also into ecology. I was an insect collector, and I got into nature quite heavily. I was concerned about the condition of the earth and the lack of respect that people had for it. That sort of was a part of it, too. It was more of a visual, though.
GM: Creedence really was different than the rest of the musical scene, for instance, in San Francisco. Do you know what I mean?
DC: Do I? Our peers laughed at us and called us the Boy Scouts of rock and roll. They said we would never make it, because we didn’t smoke reefer and we were not jamming. We went to see the Grateful Dead one night. They were at the Fillmore, and we were really poor then, and it was a lot of money for us to buy a ticket. We went to see the local bands, and they were so stoned they weren’t even in tune, and they were really terrible.
This was our competition. They were whacked out, yet when they came off the stage they were giving each other high fives because they thought they sounded so great. We made a pact on the floor of the Fillmore, right then, where we would do no drugs or alcohol. We decided to get high on the music, or get out of the business. If anyone wanted to do anything, then they would do it away from the band and away from work.
GM: In 1969 you put out three albums.
DC: That was a bit of overkill, and I never did understand that. Fogerty told us that if we were ever off the charts, then we would be forgotten. We never were until we broke up. It was a horrendous pace. To make it worse, it might sound funny, but we had double-sided hits, and that was kind of a curse, as we were burning through material twice as fast. If we would have spread it out, then we would not have had to put out three albums in one year. We were the roman candle of rock and roll. We had this huge body of work that we came out with in less than four years of work.
GM: John says that he wrote the singles and that he showed the band exactly what to play.
DC: That’s not true. There were songs where he told us what he wanted. It was more of the feel of the song. The reason we were able to execute the songs the way we did is because we were learning to play our instruments as we were learning to be a band. We were interwoven, and it was almost unconscious.
For example, “Susie Q” was a rockability song that sounded like all of the other rockability songs. I came up with a quarter note idea and it made it harder edged and it gave it space and a totally different feel; that was me.
It was a stretch song. We were playing five sets a night, and you had to stretch the material, so we made it a longer song, which was going on a lot at the time.
John did tell us, on certain songs, how he wanted it, but I put my own ideas forward, and I would say I came up with over 90 percent of the actual fills. We worked and worked on these things. A lot of things started as jams.
“Born on the Bayou” was the same idea. We had success with “Susie Q,” and we thought “Born on the Bayou” was going to be our first hit original single, but radio went with “Proud Mary,” which was on the B side.
I know what I came up with, and it was ours. Everybody shared the music, and everyone brought what they had to the table. Each guy gave 110 percent. Maybe we weren’t virtuosos, but as a unit, we were pretty hard to beat. There were better musicians all over the Bay Area but, as a band, we were pretty much unstoppable.
Let me sum it up this way, in four years, we had 20 hits. In 44 years as a solo artist, John has had two hit singles. I rest my case. Once he got rid of us, the guys who were holding him back, his career really took off.
GM: Do you have a favorite album from the original days?
DC: Of course: “Cosmo’s Factory.” It was fun, because John was more of an introvert, and I was an extrovert. I was the guy in school that could make the teachers laugh. When the others tried, they got sent to the dean. John knew the press would be all over us for the album, so he said that he would name the album after me, and that I would have to deal with it. He wanted the pressure off of him. It was our biggest album ever, and I tell people that they named it after me so it had to be a hit [laughter]. That’s a joke!
GM: ‘Bayou Country’ and ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ are both classics.
DC: That is pretty much where I am at. The favorite song that we ever did, for me, was “Born on the Bayou.” Still, when I hear that song I go, “That’s me playing on that.” It is a weird thing. It was greasy, and we were right out of the clubs. That song had so much soul in it. That is really who we were coming off of our first album. We were able to play original songs by John, and the band was hitting on all cylinders.
GM: There are many classics, but “Graveyard Train” and “Keep on Chooglin’” were the beginning of jam band music.
DC: I don’t know about “Graveyard Train” as a jam song, as it was painfully slow. I couldn’t wait till it was over; I never got it. I am just being honest. I love Howlin’ Wolf, but it would have been nice if that song had been a little shorter. “Chooglin’” was fun. We ended our shows with that; and it was a jam song.
GM: At what point did John change?
DC: Pretty much when we had success … Tom was the one that brought us along. We were terrible. I have a copy of our first recording ever … it’s an acetate. He was 18, and he was very patient with us, and he stuck with us. We were an instrumental trio before he joined the band. We would play frat parties and we would get 20 bucks apiece, which was big money for kids. Nobody was singing. Tom said, “Doesn’t anybody sing?” John said, “I can try.” He started out without a microphone and that might be where he got his gravelly voice. Tom was a tenor, not like John, but more like Ritchie Valens. He had a high tenor voice. He and John would write together, and he treated us with respect.
He had a wife, two kids, a house, a mortgage and a job when he threw it all in when we decided to be a full-time band. He had a lot of fortitude, and his wife went crazy over what he was doing. When John started to sing, he gave up the vocals and had no ego about it. He didn’t think that he would never ever sing a song again with the band, which was wrong.
We did several covers, and he could have done one of those. He could have done “La Bamba,” and it might have been a hit. I think maybe John thought that might happen, too, and he didn’t want to give any of it up. I think he thought that if Tom had a hit single, then that would somehow threaten him. I never did get it.
Stu and I always stuck up for Tom, and that put us in the doghouse with John. I read all of this stuff where John says that he had forgiven Tom. For what? He should be thanking the guy. That is something that really does get to me.
GM: In the early 1970s, John turned it around and said that you guys had to write the songs.
DC: That was an ultimatum. That is how he managed — he was the manager, and that is why he didn’t own his songs. That is why we still have an entry level recording contract. It is one thing to be a musician and be very talented — he was brilliant — but it is another ball game being a manager.
We wanted to be more involved, it wasn’t so much in the music side of it; we wanted a real manager and a mentor. We needed a mentor to work the problem out between the brothers; that is what we wanted. He took it like we were attacking him.
Those are the things that the public doesn’t know about because John gets more press than we do. We were trying to save the band. We were trying to keep Tom in the band, and it was a struggle. We were a sandwich; we were the meat in the middle, and we had the brothers on either side of us. We were stuck in the crossfire.
If we had a real mentor, who could have helped us with the business problems and been there to be between the brothers, then we might still be around today.
We had the ultimatum, and in retrospect, I should have seen it coming. When the record came out, it was terrible, and he said, “Those guys made me do it.” It was the exact opposite. He said, “You do a third, you do a third and I’ll do a third. I won’t sing on your songs, because I have a unique voice.” I will never forget that. I said, “John, that is not what the fans want; that’s not Creedence.” He said, “You will do it that way or we break up right now. You don’t want to lose the band.” That is what happened.
GM: You all would have to be fools not to want John to write the songs for the band. He wrote amazing songs.
DC: Of course; there is no doubt about it. What was going on between Tom and John wasn’t right, and he finally left. It was the end of the story.
GM: Do Stu and you love the music of CCR?
DC: We absolutely love it. When I stop getting a giant adrenaline rush, then I am done. I will start working on a golf game that is in dire need of help. I look forward to playing every night. It doesn’t matter if I am tired and going on little sleep. When I get up and there and play with the boys, there is nothing like it. It is real; we’re not faking it.
GM: When I went to see you, there were multiple generations singing along with the songs you were playing.
DC: It is pretty cool. I can’t describe it, but that is why I’m in it. We are able to bridge the gap between multiple generations with great songs.
Hats off to John on that, as he is really one of the best songwriters of his time, and I have total respect for that side of him. I love him. I just don’t like him, and that is how it is. For all we went through, it is a shame it is the way it is, but it is the way it is. We were all brothers in that sense, because we started so young, but that is life. The good news is that we have an important legacy. Just about everyone knows that we have problems with each other but, that said, we have this wonderful legacy that spans generations.
GM: Did you ever get over what happened at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony?
DC: I did. At the time it was humiliating and horrible. We had our families there and our children were there. It was a pretty disgusting thing to do, and it was wrong. It was the Hall of Fame’s fault for going along with it, and it was John’s fault for doing it. That being said, unbeknownst to Stu and I at the time, something came out of it that was pretty positive. In the long term, once the dust had settled, we moved forward, and it has been great for Stu and me. We were able to make something positive out of it, and that is the band that we are in today. The seeds of Creedence Clearwater Revisited were sown that night.
GM: Describe what happened at the ceremony.
DC: I went down to see where all of the instruments were, as I wanted to find a kit that would work for me. There were a lot of people down there. I walked in, and it was like I had the plague. People were standing away from me and walking away from me. They all knew what I didn’t know.
I finally stopped this young kid, and I told him who I was. I said, “I’m trying to figure out what’s going on here. I am trying to figure out who’s going on when. I want to pick out a kit to play.” He said, “Don’t you know?” I said, “Know what?” He said, “Fogerty is not playing with you. He’s playing with [Bruce] Springsteen, Robbie Robertson and the house band.” I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. It was like I was hit with a sledgehammer right in the chest.
I went upstairs where my wife was, and I told her we were going home. She said, “What’s wrong?” I told her the story, and she said, “You’re not going anywhere.” We went to the ceremony, and when they introduced John, then we all stood up in unison and walked out and got really drunk.
GM: Did you play your high school’s class reunion?
DC: We did play, and so did John. I forget when it was … it was a long time ago, as our 50th is this year. He was there, and we were there. I think it was our 20th reunion.
He came up to us and asked us if we wanted to play three songs. He named the first two songs and said by the time we were ready he would name the third song. We played for an hour and a half. You couldn’t get us off the stage; he was loving it, you could tell.
We called him afterwards and said, “Do you want to go out to dinner?” He said, “Go to dinner with you guys? No. I just did what was expected of me.” That’s John. He was having fun, though. For that brief moment it was like the old days; we were back in high school.
It is just not meant to be, and I’m not going waste a lot of energy thinking about why it is the way it is. It would just eat me alive. I’ve got Stu and the boys, and we really have fun. We love each other as brothers and we have a good time.
GM: Was that the last time you played with John?
DC: Yeah … that or Tom’s wedding, but that really was just John doing what was expected of him. It is what it is. Everyone has dysfunctions in their family, and we certainly do in ours, but we did make some pretty good records. GM