THE LISTENING EXPERIENCE: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down On The Corner”

Creedence Clearwater Revival is one of the first songs I remember in my early years, and a song that showed me what the power of music and sound was. My parents had the Willie And The Poor Boys album, so when the album on the blue Fantasy played, I’d look at the cover. Perhaps the photo of John Fogerty & Friends playing music outside with local kids made an indirect influence on my subtle love of corner stores. Or if not that, it represented a “down home” quality of sorts, the idea that you can be a kid, go to a store and if you see grown-ups playing music with a harmonica, guitar, and washboard, it’s okay. Or if not that, I think it was one of the first instances of me associating an image with music, and becoming timelines for me to remember moments in my life. The song and the album cover are a part of some of my earliest memories.

I am not sure what I liked about the song, but I am sure the reason I liked it was because my parents loved it. It was the first song on the album, so when I saw my dad pull the record out of the cover, I knew “Down On The Corner” was going to be played, it was a ritual. My dad had some of the other CCR albums too, and what I thought was cool too was that Fogerty and the rest of CCR wore flannel shirts, not unlike my dad. At that age I don’t think I even thought of the word “cool”, but in a way, CCR looked like my dad and vice versa so again: image association. As for image association, I clearly remember Bayou Country, Green River, and Cosmo’s Factory being at the house. Bayou Country looked trippy, I had never seen a picture like that. Green River was simple but it reminded me of some of the scenery I had seen as a child, it seemed “very California” to me. But it was Willy And the Poor Boys that represented a small bit of my life before we would move to Honolulu.

To this day, when I hear the hi-hat and the cowbell comes in, I’m 3 or 4 years old all over again. Then the band kicks in and plays a little funky groove. Fogerty then begins his tale about being Willie and his group, The Poor Boys, are jamming for the neighborhood:

Early in the evenin’ just about supper time
Over by the courthouse they’re starting to unwind
Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp

That’s the album cover right there, and their mission is explaiend in the chorus:

Down on the corner, out in the street
Willy and the Poorboys are playin’
Bring a nickel; tap your feet

The album cover comes to life, in sound and in your mind. Then “Willie” introduces his group:

Rooster hits the washboard and people just got to smile
Blinky thumps the gut bass and solos for a while
Poorboy twangs the rhythm out on his kalamazoo
Willy goes into a dance and doubles on kazo

The band get into a nice little groove, and the song ends with his hopes of what the group hope to accomplish:

You don’t need a penny just to hang around
But if you’ve got a nickel, won’t you lay your money down?
Over on the corner there’s a happy noise
People come from all around to watch the magic boy

(“Down On The Corner” written by John Fogerty, published ©1969 by Jondora Music, BMI.)

That’s what CCR and “Down On The Corner” represented to me, and what I continue to seek throughout my life: “a happy noise”. Granted, I didn’t know the lyrics at first, I think the last line of the chorus was interpreted as “playing nickle, happy feet”. The rest of the lines were just sung in the unique way Fogerty vocalized, so with the album not having a lyric sheet, I knew most of the chorus but would just groove along and dance to its catchy rhythm. Once I found the proper lyrics, I realized how the cover photograph was made to represent the lyrics in the song, and thus the name of the album was the name of their fictitious group, a more down home version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The song has always been on oldies and classic rock radio, so it has never been out of mind. When the Beastie Boys‘ released Licensed To Ill in 1986, I immediately recognized one of the last samples in “Time To Get Ill”, and that gave me the biggest smile. Sampling was not a word used to describe the production technique Rick Rubin was doing, but as I was a devotee of rap music, I became fascinated with the Beastie’s combination of rap, soul, funk, and rock. When the “Down On The Corner” sample came on, followed by Led Zeppelin‘s “Custard Pie”, it felt like the group and Rubin had listened to the exact music I listened to as a kid. It wasn’t just the rock aspects in their music I loved, but that this new rap music felt like just going into my record collection and making the kind of sounds I’d hear and have in my head. The use of “Down On The Corner” in “Time To Get Ill” would never ruin my initial appreciation for the song, in fact it made me love it even more.

As for the Duck Kee Market that is seen on the album cover, it had been an unofficial landmark in Oakland for years and remained there very close to a freeway, where thousands of Creedence Clearwater Revival would visit to get a glimpse of an iconic image. In truth, it had been said that the band and their label, Fantasy Records, was not too far from a corner store that was suggested as a possible site for a cover photo. Photographer Basul Parik drove them to the corner of Peralta Street and Hollis Street, which was only a few blocks from where they were at, and spent a few minutes there playing as some neighborhood kids watched. It was perfect, but not wanting to cause a ruckus by being a bunch of white guys posing in front of a Chinese market in a black neighborhood, they simply returned back to the studio with the hopes the photos taken would suit them. It did. Over the years, when the location of the photo shoot was discovered, fans would make it a regular practice to steal the Duck Kee Market sign as a souvenir, until the market was eventually closed down in the early 00’s.

Music, image, emotion, feeling. It all brings me back “Down On The Corner”.

(For years, I have always wanted to see other images of this photo shoot, other than what is on the front and the photo of the group and the kids dancing in the back. Some of the outtakes have been used in various CD reissues over the years, and here are those that have been published online:

If one is to look at these and create some kind of sequence, these photos eventually lead us to the back cover.)

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