Take these broken wings and learn to fly

On our patio in the Pacific Palisades, we have a small fountain and pond that seem to attract a wide variety of feathered friends.  I’ve never been much of a bird watcher before, but now that I’m observing them often and in close proximity, it occurred to me that it was time for me to examine a selection of classic rock songs about birds.

I came up with about four dozen songs that focus on birds in general or specific types of birds, and my job was to whittle that list down to 15 for my blog post, and another dozen or so as “honorable mention” designees.  There’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can listen as you read.

Wings up — here we go:

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“Blackbird,” The Beatles, 1968

paul acoustic shirtless 68One of McCartney’s simplest melodies and prettiest acoustic guitar playing features lyrics with a serious yet uplifting message.  He said the words were inspired by his hearing the call of a blackbird while on retreat in Rishikesh, India in early 1968 with the other Beatles and, alternatively, by the unfortunate state of race relations in the United States in the 1960s.  “It wasn’t really about a blackbird whose wings are broken.  It’s symbolic of  black people’s struggle in the southern states,” said McCartney years later.  “You were only waiting for this moment to be free, blackbird fly, black bird fly into the light of the dark black night, blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly, all your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise…”

“Canary in a Coalmine,” The Police, 1980

ob_516a8f_canari-mineurIn a primitive attempt to monitor how lethal the air quality was becoming in their working environment, coal miners routinely took a caged canary with them.  When it keeled over, they knew the time had come to exit for a while.  Police songwriter Sting found that an intriguing subject for a song, comparing the canary to a timid woman who became afraid at the first sign of trouble.  Their track appeared on their 1980 LP “Zenyatta Mondatta,” which reached #5 in the US and #1 in their native UK:  “First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect, your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect, you live your life like a canary in a coalmine, you get so dizzy even walking in a straight line…”

“White Bird,” It’s a Beautiful Day, 1969

cover_2827152752018_rIt’s a shame we never got to hear more from this San Francisco-based group, but their manager chose to squirrel them away in a Seattle apartment to write songs and play small clubs there.  By the time they’d returned, they had grown tired of each other and split up, but not before writing and recording this stunning tune, which was an FM radio favorite of the era.  “We were like caged birds in that attic — no money, no transportation, and the weather was miserable,” said singer-songwriter David LaFlamme.  “We were just barely getting by.  It was quite an experience, but it was very creative in a way.”  “White bird in a golden cage on a winter’s day in the rain, white bird in a golden cage alone, white bird dreams of the aspen trees with their dying leaves turning gold, but the white bird just sits in her cage growing old, white bird must fly or she will die…” (I can’t seem to find the original version of “White Bird” on Spotify, so my playlist has a live rendition that isn’t as good…)

“Hummingbird,” Seals and Crofts, 1972

Hummingbirds 2011

Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, in addition to being talented singers and musicians, were devoted followers of Baha’i, a monotheistic faith founded in the 19th Century that teaches the essential worth of all religions.  The hummingbird is a metaphor for the Persian named Baha’u’llah, who founded Baha’i.  The follow-up single to to Seals & Crofts’ Top Ten hit “Summer Breeze” was this inspirational ode to Baha’i’s founder, which reached #20 in 1973:  “Oh hummingbird, lend us your wings, let us soar in the atmosphere of Abha, lift us up to the heaven of holiness, oh source of our being, oh hummingbird…”

“Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974

Bad-Company4Solid hard rock was the recipe for the bulk of Bad Company’s impressive debut LP, which reached #1 in 1974.  The sleeper tune on the album was “Seagull,” which used acoustic guitars in its comparatively gentle approach.  Said songwriter/vocalist Paul Rodgers, “‘Seagull’ was written sitting on the beach.  Music is about atmosphere, and an effective way to create the atmosphere you want is to actually be there.  You don’t have to imagine it — it’s right there.  You could see the horizon.”  The lyrics, penned by Rodgers, wax philosophically about the cosmos:  “Seagull, you fly across the horizon into the misty morning sun, nobody asks you where you are going, nobody knows where you’re from, here is a man asking the question, is this really the end of the world?  Seagull, you must have known for a long time the shape of things to come…”

“Bluebird,” Buffalo Springfield, 1967

R-3921624-1349306968-1112.jpegStephen Stills was entering his most remarkable, prolific songwriting period when he came up with this amazing song on the Springfield’s best album, “Buffalo Springfield Again.”  The original version (heard on my playlist ) uses a banjo in the final moments, but on the extended rendition found on a later collection album, Stills takes off on a soaring electric guitar solo that Joe Walsh tried to emulate on the cover version he recorded with The James Gang in 1969.  “Listen to my bluebird laugh, she can’t tell you why, deep within her heart, you see, she knows only crying, just crying, there she sits, a lofty perch, strangest color blue, flying is forgotten now, thinks only of you, just you…”

“Black Crow,” Joni Mitchell, 1976

2045Joni’s 1976 LP “Hejira” is a song cycle about traveling and searching, part of the ongoing self-analysis she has done throughout her extraordinary career.  “Black Crow,” with its superb acoustic guitar rhythms and soaring vocals, offers amazing imagery that equates her relentless search with that of the crow, looking for the next important morsel:  “In search of love and music, my whole life has been illumination, corruption, and diving, diving, diving, diving, diving down to pick up on every shiny thing, just like that black crow flying in a blue sky…”

“Vulture Culture,” Alan Parsons Project, 1985

Unknown-42The phrase “Vulture culture” is about a love and appreciation of the natural world and animals, and how vultures keep an animal’s spirit alive by keeping its bones and celebrating its beauty.  The Parsons Project album of that name, and its title track, twisted that reference to describe unworldly people steeped in the arts and the ever-increasing ruthlessness of mankind in a world of stark economic reality: “Vulture culture, use it or you lose it, vulture culture, choose it or refuse it, Hollywood is calling, won’t you join the dance, moving onto Wall Street, why not take a chance, it’s a vulture culture, never lend a loser a hand, just a vulture culture, living off the fat of the land…”

“High Flyin’ Bird,” Elton John, 1973

hqdefault-14One of my favorite deep tracks from the first and best phase of John’s extraordinary career is this final tune from his 1972 LP “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player.”  Bernie Taupin wrote it about a young woman he knew who had become involved in drugs and ended up committing suicide.  “My high-flying bird has flown from out my arms, I thought myself her keeper, she thought I meant her harm, she thought I was the archer, a weatherman of words, but I could never shoot down my high-flying bird…”

“Free as a Bird,” The Beatles, 1995

THE_BEATLES_FREE+AS+A+BIRD+-+DISPLAY+FLAT-56777In 1993, when the massive CD/DVD/book project “Beatles Anthology” was underway, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr convened in a home studio with producer Jeff Lynne to record the first new Beatles music in 25 years.  As a way of involving the spirit of John Lennon in their work, they used the rough demo of a song Lennon had written and recorded in 1977, and the result was a #6 hit in the US.  The additional lyrics they added to Lennon’s framework referenced their 1969 breakup:  “Where did we lose the touch that seemed to mean so much?  It always made me feel so free as a bird, like the next best thing to be…”

“Bird on the Wire,” Leonard Cohen, 1969

lc2-750x500Cohen had been an accomplished poet and writer who began composing songs at age 30.  He suffered from occasional bouts of depression, but his ladyfriend at the time, Marianne Ihlen, helped him by urging him to pick up his guitar as they sat in their apartment on the Greek island of Hydra.  Outside the window, telephone poles and wires were being installed, and a lone bird came to rest on a wire there, inspiring Cohen to write what became one of his signature songs, later covered by the likes of Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Joe Bonamassa, Jennifer Warnes and k.d. lang:  “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free….”

“When Doves Cry,” Prince, 1984

096bfffa-5a23-41d9-b046-18c7b7656d27Prince wrote this song upon request from “Purple Rain” director Albert Magnoli, who wanted a tune to accompany a scene that intermingled parental difficulties and a love affair.  “When Doves Cry,” by the way, is almost an anagram for “When love dies”:  “How can you just leave me standing alone in a world that’s so cold, maybe I’m just too demanding, maybe I’m just like my father, too bold, maybe you’re just like my mother, she’s never satisfied, why do we scream at each other, this is what it sounds like when doves cry…”

“Three Little Birds,” Bob Marley, 1977

5df13f667a06699b49d6393b72493026Marley, like most songwriters, was inspired by the things he saw around him every day.  Outside his Jamaica home, three canaries made their nest and were regularly within earshot and eyeshot of Marley, so naturally, he wrote what became one of his trademark songs about them.  Three women who sang in concert with him claim the lyrics also refer to them, as he would ask, ‘What is my three little birds saying?”  “Rise up this mornin’, smile with the risin’ sun, three little birds pitch by my doorstep, singin’ sweet songs of melodies pure and true, sayin’, ‘This is my message to you-ou-ou,’ singin’, ‘Don’t worry ’bout a thing ’cause every little thing gonna be all right’…”

“Mockingbird,” Inez & Charlie Foxx, 1963

22900The brother-sister team of Inez and Charlie Foxx wrote and recorded this R&B track as a novelty song in 1963, playing on the nursery rhyme “Hush Little Baby,” and to their surprise, it reached #7 on the pop charts that year.  It was soon covered by Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, among others, and finally by then-husband-and-wife James Taylor and Carly Simon, appearing on Simon’s 1974 LP “Hotcakes,” where it reached #5 on the pop. charts:  “Everybody have you heard, he’s gonna buy me a mockingbird, and if that mockingbird don’t sing, he’s gonna buy me a diamond ring, and if that diamond ring won’t shine, he’s gonna surely break this heart of mine…”

“Free Bird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1973

4eece46a-0d69-44ea-a3b4-0c8053a54642_1.0e5fbc6f1c10d2547d672f8e5a6434bdLynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins came up with the chords to this iconic power ballad and was searching for the right lyrics to accompany them.  One day his girlfriend Kathy, whom he later married, asked him, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” He was struck by her words and used it as the opening line to “Free Bird.”  Singer Ronnie Van Zant, who co-wrote the lyrics, said the song is “what it means to be free, in that a bird can fly wherever he wants to go.  Everyone wants to be free.  That’s what this country’s all about.” “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?  For I must be traveling on now ’cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see, but if I stayed here with you, girl, things just couldn’t be the same, ’cause I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change…”

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Honorable mention:

Songbird,” Fleetwood Mac, 1977;  “Skyline Pigeon,” Elton John, 1969;  “Bluebird,” Paul McCartney & Wings, 1973;  “Rockin’ Robin,” Bobby Day, 1958;  “Fly Robin Fly,” Silver Convention, 1975;  “Fly Like an Eagle,” Steve Miller Band, 1976;  Sparrow,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1964;  The Vultures Fly High,” Renaissance, 1975;  “And Your Bird Can Sing,” The Beatles, 1966;  “Sweet Bird,” Joni Mitchell, 1975;  “Albatross,” Judy Collins, 1968;  “Little Bird,” Annie Lennox, 1995.

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Looks like we’re in for nasty weather

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I share the sad tale of a driven, talented musician who reached the mountaintops of rock and then found himself bottoming out, the victim of naiveté and greed:  John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

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The history of popular music is littered with hundreds of cases of rapacious managers and record labels screwing artists and songwriters out of their rightful share of profits and royalties from the music they have written and recorded.

It happened to The Beatles.  It happened to The Rolling Stones.  It happened to many bands because they were usually just kids in their teens or early 20s, with no understanding or proper advice on how to avoid the charlatans and greed heads who

creedenceclearwaterrevival_001-3

Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969:  John Fogerty, Doug Clifford, Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook

manipulate the artists’ naiveté and make off with most of the money made from the sale and airplay of their hit records.

What happened to John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival is perhaps the most heartbreaking story I’ve heard about what can and did happen in this brutal, unsavory business.

There are those who will read Fogerty’s 2016 autobiography “Fortunate Son:  My Life, My Music” and feel little sympathy.  They’ll see him as an egotist with no business sense who made some very bad decisions that haunted him for decades.  But I see him as a guy with 51y68mxuP6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_a dream, a strong work ethic, a fierce determination and, perhaps to his detriment, resolute trust that those around him would be true to their word and treat him fairly.

Fogerty grew up in El Cerrito, California, a small town north of Berkeley, where his hardscrabble childhood was marred by divorce, family alcoholism and estrangement.  In high school, he formed a band with fellow classmates Stu Cook (bass) and Doug Clifford (drums), eventually recruiting older brother Tom Fogerty (rhythm guitar) from a rival group and branded themselves The Blue Velvets.  They were just having fun, Fogerty recalls, playing school events and parties while covering the rock and roll hits of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

In 1964, The Blue Velvets signed to Fantasy Records, a small, San Francisco-based label run by Max and Sol Weiss, specializing in jazz and comedy records.  They were renamed The Golliwogs, but had no luck releasing records under that name, and by 1967, a man named Saul Zaentz took over Fantasy Records, and became the group’s manager.

Fogerty had spent a year in active military duty, and upon his discharge, he and the band decided “it was time be more serious about getting really good.  We made a regimen of practicing every day, because we figured this was going to be our last fling at the big dream.  So we were gung ho.  It was acknowledged that I seemed to have a clear idea of what we should be doing musically, because not only was I able to sing, but I understood the music enough that I could teach.  I knew how the instruments should sound.  My arrangements had become more focused.  I had the strong belief that we could actually achieve our dream.”

Zaentz gave the group a pep talk and told them he believed in them, and was eager to sign them to a new contract.  “We put faith in him because he seemed like he was our friend,” Fogerty recalls.  “At that time, Fantasy consisted pretty much of just the five of us — Stu, Doug, Tom, Saul and me.”

Fogerty said the band had always hated the name Golliwogs, and Zaentz encouraged them to select a new name.  In the spirit of other long-winded band names of the time (Quicksilver Messenger Service, Strawberry Alarm Clock), they came up with Creedence Clearwater Revival.  As Fogerty remembers it:  “Credence Nuball was a friend of Tom’s, and I liked the idea of credence, which means credibility, belief, positive vibe.  Then ‘clearwater’ came from an Olympia Beer commercial, and a public service announcement I saw about the push for clean water legislation.  And I really liked the i46126980432_4b3f5ae8a2dea of our band having a renewal, a resurgence, so ‘Revival’ fit.  It seemed like quite a mouthful, but we loved it.”

Creedence told Zaentz they wanted to record in a proper studio so they could make a more professional-sounding record, so they booked time in RCA Studios in LA.  That resulted in their first breakthrough:  “Susie-Q,” a cover version of the 1957 Del Hawkins rockabilly classic.  The album version was an eight-minute jam with Fogerty solos and vocal adornments, but the single version, at 4:30, hit #11 on the charts, giving them a foothold on the ladder to further success.

And that’s when Zaentz insisted on the new contract.  Recalls Fogerty, “We didn’t have any legal representation, but Stu’s father was an attorney, so we decided to have him

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Saul Zaentz (below left) with CCR

give it to his dad to look it over.  We were told the contract looked fine and was okay to sign.  To this day, I don’t think Stu even showed it to his father.  I take my share of the responsibility for signing it in January 1968, but at the time, I thought ‘Saul is our friend.  He isn’t going to screw us, right?’

“How innocent and naive we all were.  That contract was terrible for all of us financially — our royalty rate was 10 percent, paid out of net sales, not gross — but for me, as the sole creator of the material, there were long-reaching implications.  Saul owned the copyright on all our songs, lock, stock and barrel.  But I didn’t really discover this until two years later.”

Fantasy was now owed 180 songs over seven years ( about 25 per year) — and if not completed once that period ended, they’d still be owed.  “In our best year, 1969, we recorded three albums, or 26 songs.  Besides me, nobody wrote songs in Creedence that amounted to anything, so when we broke up, the other guys were all set free.  Not me.  Fantasy Records not only chiseled me out of a fortune, they still owned my future.  I was basically enslaved.”

Creedence_Clearwater_Revival_-_Green_RiverMeanwhile, Fogerty began one of the most remarkable songwriting streaks that rock has ever seen. Between late 1968 and early 1972, Creedence was the nation’s most prolific, most successful band, and all the hit songs (and most album tracks) were Fogerty compositions — “Proud Mary,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Lodi,” “Green River,” “Commotion,” “Down on the Corner,” “Fortunate Son,” “Travelin’ Band,” “Looking Out My Back Door,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.”

“I was very driven,” he says. “It was life and death.  We didn’t have a publicist, we didn’t have a manager, we didn’t have a producer, and we were on the tiniest label in the world, so we had to do it with music.  And that pretty much meant me.”

Fogerty perfected a simple approach, writing basic rock and roll melodies with relatable lyrics, and using recording techniques and specific types of guitars to get the sound he images-50wanted on the records.  He said he was disappointed when he discovered that the others in the group weren’t much interested in learning, preferring to party and leave the hard work to Fogerty.

“It was very frustrating, because they chose to see this as me trying to be in control of every detail about our recordings and how they sounded.  To some extent, they were right — I took over doing all the vocals, both the lead vocals and the harmonies on overdub, because they just didn’t sound as good when the others sang.  But to me, this was all about making the very best records we could, and the results prove I was right.”

Five albums — “Bayou Country,” “Green River,” “Willy and the Poor Boys,” “Cosmo’s Factory,” and “Pendulum” — were all multi-platinum, Top Five chart successes, and “Green River” and “Cosmo’s Factory” reached #1 in 1969 and 1970, respectively.  They were every bit as popular as any other band at that time.

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My first encounter with Fogerty’s music, like so many of my earliest discoveries, came at a wonderful little independent record store called, oddly enough, Fantasy Records, located in the bohemian Coventry Village section of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, about two miles from my home.  Albums cost $3.99 back then, and each day the proprietor would put a different new album on sale for only $1.99.  It was a great ploy to get customers to MI0000677925stop in regularly, and I would ride my bicycle there at least twice a week, eager to see which album was on sale.  One day, it was “Bayou Country,” and although I’d never heard of Creedence Clearwater Revival before, I liked what I heard coming out of the store’s sound system, so I plunked down my two bucks and took the album home.

I think I must’ve played that record every day for two months.  “Born on the Bayou” in particular simply mesmerized me, and the band’s version of the Little Richard classic “Good Golly Miss Molly” was a close second.  Fogerty’s growl was so distinctive and unusual, and the band played tight rock arrangements that grabbed me.  And let’s not forget the amazing groove of the album’s closer, “Keep on Chooglin’,” an infectious jam the band often saved as the finale at their live shows.  I didn’t know what “chooglin'” was, but I didn’t much care.  I sure loved the sound of it.

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By 1972, the other members of Creedence mutinied, insisting that they be able to contribute songs and record them their way.  Fogerty, against his better judgment, acquiesced, and the resulting album, “Mardi Gras,” was by all accounts a failure, with only Fogerty’s song “Sweet Hitch-hiker,” getting any airplay.  It would prove to be CCR’s final album.

Mardi-GrasOnce Fogerty learned the particulars about the implications of the onerous contract he had signed, he found it so soul-crushing that he lost the desire, and ability, to write hit songs.  The muse had left him.  Almost as soon as the band was over, he realised the songs no longer flowed like water from a tap.  He’d never known where they came from, and when they no longer came, he didn’t know where they’d gone.

What followed were decades of legal strife, bad blood and creative paralysis.  In fact, Fogerty even became estranged from his own songs.  He refused to perform them for another 25 years, even though this audiences wanted to hear them.  The associations were too painful, he said, and he couldn’t stand the thought of Zaentz making any more money from them.  Whenever one of his old hits came on the car radio – which happened often – he would turn it off.

Fogerty claims Zaentz repeated broke promises and went back on his word in their dealings together.  The fact that Zaentz used the money made off Creedence’s music to launch a hugely successful movie producer career only made things worse for Fogerty.

It took him more than a decade to mount a solo comeback.  In 1985, Fogerty managed to score a #1 LP, “Centerfield,” with a Top Ten hit, “The Old Man Down the Road,” but even 220px-John_Fogerty-Centerfield_(album_cover)that was tainted after Zaentz sued him, saying “The Old Man Down the Road” plagiarized Fogerty’s earlier hit, “Run Through the Jungle.”  He couldn’t believe it.  “How can you steal your own song?”  He took some satisfaction out of playing both songs live in a courtroom, demonstrating there was only a modicum of similarity, thus winning his case.

But the damage done to his spirit was profound.  Fogerty was shaken by the malicious, and mean-spirited way in which he had been treated by his adversaries.  He withdrew from touring, becoming isolated as he began drinking heavily, losing all sense of the drive and determination that had served him so swell in earlier years.  It wasn’t until the ’90s when he met his current wife Julie, who he credits with saving his life and turning him around.

He finally began playing his old catalog again, partly because other musicians like 250px-John_Fogerty_at_the_2011_Cisco_Ottawa_BluesfestGeorge Harrison urged him to do so. In a reference to Ike and Tina Turner’s #4 hit cover version,  Harrison said, “John, if you don’t start playing ‘Proud Mary’ again, people are going to start thinking Tina Turner wrote it!”

In 2013, Fogerty recorded “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” an album of Creedence songs done in collaboration with such artists as Bob Seger, The Foo Fighters, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, My Morning Jacket and Jennifer Hudson.  It peaked at #3 on the album charts that year.

These days, Fogerty is much more serene and matter-of-fact about his life and the music business.  “When I was coming up, I met so many rock ‘n’ roll people from the first wave who were bitter,” he says. “I was 22 and I’d think: ‘Why is he so angry?’ You’d think with lots of hit records and success that you’d be very happy.  Of course, we both know that in a lot of cases, that’s not what happens. In fact, show business seems to be unusually full of folks who things go wrong for.  They were justifiably frustrated.

“But I’ve learned that frustration is a destructive emotion, and you just have to let it go, as difficult as that often can be.  I focus on the things I’m grateful for, like Julie, and my love for music.

“I’m fortunate I was given the gift of being able to write and record all those Creedence songs that ended up in the soundtracks to millions of people’s lives.  What a blessing.”