Looking Through A 'Magic Window' with CCR's Doug Clifford

[Cover photo credit to Brent Clifford]


Can you imagine cleaning out your garage and finding a large cache of recordings from many years before? Well, for music enthusiasts, that's possible, but if you're Doug Clifford, those are probably high-quality recordings featuring a lot of talented friends, and they might deserve a careful reconsideration. Creedence Clearwater Revival's drummer, and Creedence Clearwater Revisited's 25 year touring veteran Doug Clifford was surprised how nearly ready the tracks were to be released if he chose to do so.

The result is Magic Window, a collection of songs originally recorded in 1985 at Clifford's Lake Tahoe home and studio (where the titular window overlooked the lake). Since Clifford has been a songwriter his whole life, and these songs featured his work as a writer as well as his skills on drums and vocals, the time seemed right to let them loose on the world. There's no mistaking the strong theme of love and relationships on the album, even when that love is problematic and questioning, and it's the human element of the album, as well as a timeless musical quality, that really strikes home right now.

Doug Clifford kindly agreed to talk with Tower's PULSE! about Magic Window, the music business right now, and what it's like to finally take a break from 25 straight years of touring.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I want to talk to you about Magic Window, this amazing remastered album. I heard that when you discovered these recordings, you actually discovered a huge number of recordings, something like 100. Is that true?

Doug Clifford: Yes, that’s pretty close. Something like 100. It’s several albums from a bunch of different artists, really. Magic Window is probably the best music project that I’ve done in my career, where I’m the artist, writer, producer, and of course the drummer. It turned out terrific, and I’m really glad I found it. There are other things with different singers and players, and I’ve got some good things in there.

The way I work is that I like to write, and I like to co-write, but I only like to cowrite with one person at a time. Once you start getting three ideas going, there can be a little push and shove. At least the other way, I pretty much have control of the direction, since I usually instigate the writing. It’s worked really well for me, and I think it worked really well on Magic Window. Yeah, it’s quite an interesting little treasure trove!

HMS: Yes. Did you have to pick and arrange the album from the recordings you found, or had you already made some of those decisions in the past?

Doug Clifford: I had, but 35 years go by, and you listen to something and think, “I think this song might do better if it’s between these two songs.” I changed the order a little bit, and also did some surgery, added some compressions, added a couple of guitar parts. You can do wonderful things with ProTools. We were able to finish up things, not a great amount of work, but I what I thought they needed to be as good as they could be. And then remastered by the great George Horn, an old friend and genius. It’s pretty exciting.

HMS: Did it feel like you were encountering your past self when you were working on these songs, or did it feel like you just recorded them yesterday, and then picked them up again?

Doug Clifford: Well, no, to tell you the truth, there are some songs that I recorded in 1978 that I listen to on occasion, some recordings that were done in California. I still like those songs. Some were co-written, but one group that I listen to a lot are ones that I wrote without a co-writer and I like to compare the differences.

The great thing about collaboration is that someone comes in with something the other person doesn’t have, and vice versa. You never know what they are going to come up with until it starts taking place. Then there are the ones I write by myself, and it’s kind of the same thing. I’ll start out fooling around, then something will pop up, and I’ll write down what the chords were, and/or what that melody might be, and work from there.

But when you get a bunch of people in there, it’s usually by committee, and then it’s “Well, I wrote this line of that song.” And it’s all about splitting things. But if I co-write with somebody, and even if I come up with 80% of the song, we don’t argue. Eventually things will work themselves out.

That is exactly what happened with Magic Window. My buddy Rob Palomsky, would play his guitar, little ditties that would spark something in me, and I’d think, “Wow, I’ve got something already.” Sometimes I’d just have a copy of something he did, and I know there’s something there, and so I’d go up to the studio. And cannabis is legal in the state of Nevada, so I’d take my medication and get busy.

It’s a wonderful process, and we hit a home run with that one. Russell DaShiell did a wonderful job on it, and I asked him to be my co-producer, since he knows it inside it. He’s also got great technical skills, far better than mine. I can tell him what I want to achieve, and he’ll find a way to do it, and it usually surpasses my expectations.

Now it’s just about letting people know about Magic Window. Back in the day we used to do a lot of radio promotion, but now there’s streaming. To tell you the truth, I don’t understand streaming that much. When there’s a new medium, the thumb screws on artists get a little tighter. With streaming, you can get a million hits and only get three grand or something.

And right now, there’s not even any touring. We retired from touring with Creedence Clearwater Revisited one year ago, right before this. We made the decision that it’d been 25 years. We had a five-year plan!

HMS: [Laughs] You got stuck. You couldn’t get out.

Doug Clifford: We were never going to record anything, but we were playing for three generations of fans. People loved it and wanted to hear Creedence live. Fogerty wasn’t even singing it, but we said, “Okay, we know a couple guys who played on those songs who would love to play them again.” So that’s what we did.

After 25 years, my body’s beat up, and for what you have to put in to get an hour and a half on stage, it’s too hard. It’s time to move on. And the guys felt the same way, so 25 years is a good mark to go out on, a quarter of a century.

Then all this happened, and all my friends are grounded. I was talking to my friend Steve Miller, who had a fifty-city tour booked, he was excited about it, then boom!

HMS: Yes, the impact on the music industry has been huge. Though you say you don’t know much about streaming, I think your assessment is basically correct. With the rise of streaming, the financial exchange has gone down lower, so musicians have been primarily relying on the money made from touring ever since streaming started. Now, with the live shows grounded, it is a huge blow, and it is a very difficult question of how this paradigm can continue to work.

Doug Clifford: Yeah. A lot of people who didn’t necessarily have records out have been able to build fans on the internet and push their shows. And they are really screwed because they aren’t any money. We still sell records and do very well and are in the top rotation on the radio. We are the exception. Not many bands have been able to do what we’ve been able to do.

I’m talking about the guy, though, who’s put his heart and soul in and started from the ground up without records, doing something that allows him to have a stage, and now the rug’s been pulled out from under him. I feel so bad for those guys.

HMS: Yes. I’m glad I’m working for Tower Records and selling physical media right now because I do feel like people are starting to realize that they need to get back in there to support artists. We just need to make sure the musicians can get their work out there.

Doug Clifford: I knew Russ Solomon. He was a Bay area guy, and Tower was started in California. It was our heyday. We sold a lot of Licorice Pizza and Tower Records.

HMS: There was definitely a big San Francisco shop. Did you ever play in the shop or parking lot?

Doug Clifford: I don’t actually recall, but something in my brain is saying that we did something with Russ. We spent a lot of time there as customers as well and would buy a lot of music. I’ve talked with a lot of people recently about the resurgence of vinyl, but back in the day, that is all you got, and tapes kind of snuck in there.

You’d go to the record store, and you could spend hours there, and you’d look at the art. There would be art on the front of the records, and sometimes on both sides of it. In fact, on our first album cover, my wife did the art on it. She got 200 bucks for it and it was a windfall for us. She just recently got into the de Young Museum. They did a feature on album covers of that era and that record was selected. The Revisited cover was done by our middle son, who’s a computer graphics guy. We’re everywhere!

HMS: That is so cool! I do certainly think that looking at album cover art is a huge part of the music experience, I know it was for me. It’s part of the learning experience about music, too. Like walking around a record shop, maybe you buy one record, but you probably learned about 20 of them while there.

Doug Clifford: It was a great way to spend an afternoon. The internet, of course, took an album market industry into singles, too, and pulled the revenue plug on it. It used to be, “There are two songs on there which I like, but I have to buy it if I want them.” And that’s how it was. Then there’s a modern attitude, which some people have, that they think they should get their music free. I’ll never understand that.

HMS: I’m totally with you on that. During this shutdown, there’s been a lot of stuff online about, “Now do you get it? Now do you see how important the arts are to you right now? Support the artists.”

Doug Clifford: Absolutely. And the time you spend working on your craft is a lot more than you’d spend on a 40 hour a week gig. It’s tough. This is going to have a really big effect on creativity because a lot of people might have to stop their dream, and who knows what lies ahead? I certainly don’t know.

HMS: I’ve heard that you’ve said before that your music tastes are very eclectic, and that early on when you were making music, you didn’t see a lot of genre divisions in music. Are you still that way when you are creating songs?

Doug Clifford: Yeah, it’s pretty much “my music”. I try to keep my music away from influences, but the focus I need to get a body of work done is also there, then. It keeps me focused on whatever I’m writing at the time. If I’m going to anything where I’m in a log jam with something, I’ll just work on another song of mine. I know that it will be finished but forcing things doesn’t help. So I’ll work on something else to keep me in a writing mode where I’ll come out with something.

HMS: Keeping things moving, even in small ways?

Doug Clifford: Yes, getting some results from the work. Otherwise, if you get away from it, without grabbing onto a life ring, you’re going down!

HMS: Have there been periods in your life when you were more focused on songwriting, and some where you were less focused on it? I know that with the extreme live performance schedule for 25 years, it must have been hard to find time to do that.

Doug Clifford: Yes, I a little writing with one of the guys in the band. We had a couple of things, but it wasn’t working out for me. It’s hard work traveling, and that’s the hardest part of being out on the road, then there’s the other part about missing your family.

Yesterday was my wife’s birthday, and I was home for the first time in 5 years, and it was the second time I was here. Pretty nice! I’ve got a lot of grandkids, and I’ve missed their birthdays. Those are the kind of things you forfeit when you go on the road. For 25 years, we toured every year, every quarter. We’d take a couple months off during Christmastime, but things would come up. It is show business, after all.

HMS: Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a musician who toured in the way you’ve just described. That seems like an incredible commitment, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to be on the road that much.

Doug Clifford: Well, yes, you have to make that commitment. And it’s a very serious commitment to come out and have to be the life of the party. You have to make the audience have the best night of their lives listening to music. That’s what we would try to do.

But to get to that point, you have business meetings, and you have to wear different hats. The key to it really is, you can’t go out and play shows if the business isn’t right. It’s like building a house. If the foundation is weak, the house is doomed. So the idea is that if you get the business right, that allows you to be free to go out on stage. It’s an interesting thing. It’s the art and science, if you will. There’s so much more to it than going out and playing.

Playing your best every night requires a lot of love and commitment, also from the team. We travel with our crew, one of the few that does, and we’re like a family when we’re out there working. If something goes wrong, on the bus ride to the next venue, we can work it out. You get stuff handled so you have a clear road ahead. The real payoff for us is that we get to go out and play these great songs for the people who love them. We love what we do and we’re making a difference in their lives.

HMS: Yes, you are.

Doug Clifford: Even for people all over the world. People who don’t even speak English still love Creedence. That’s a responsibility. We have all these fans, and we gotta bring more onto the boat, too. And that’s the result of hard work. We have to make sure that all the parts are functioning correctly, so that everyone, including ourselves, has a good experience.

It is a dream job. Everyone in the world wants to be a rock star. I don’t refer to myself as a rock star. It even sounds funny to me, but at times I’m reminded that that’s how I’m perceived because of what I do. And it is a dream we had when we were kids. When we started at age 13, the dream was to have our records played on the radio. To have them played was a dream come true, and then the dream went on.

We had guys saying, “You got me through Vietnam”. I always told them, “No, we didn’t get you through, you got you through, but you might have helped a little bit.”

It’s a terrific career, and now that I’m back to the creative side, I’m really excited about Magic Window. I think there are at least three hits on the record, though that’s my opinion only. “Don’t Leave Me Alone Tonight” is timely for what’s going on now. Also, “Just Another Girl”.  “Born on the South Side” has a Creedence sound and feel to me, especially with what’s happening in the rhythm section. That’s the idea, even the storyline.

HMS: I agree with you on all those songs. I wanted to ask you about “Born on the South Side” and how much of that feels like your own story to you. Is it autobiographical, or just a little bit biographical?

Doug Clifford: Just a little bit. Being a poor boy from the Southside. Having a brother that teaches them the guitar. Having a lot of records and missing school was definitely all of us, but especially John missed school. I was too chicken to do that. It hints at things, but I changed the names to protect the guilty!

HMS: This album has a very high proportion of love songs, and if that was a choice, I think it’s a smart choice, because people can relate to that. But also, it’s a time right now when people probably need that more than ever.

Doug Clifford: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I put the record out. I thought about not putting it out because of what’s going on, but music has always been a medicine to me. To your point about love songs, Creedence never did one.

HMS: Oh yeah! That hadn’t occurred to me.

Doug Clifford: I have some catching up to do. And then, as a writer, that happens to people all the time, whether it’s love at first sight, or heartache and pain, or good times. It’s open-ended and essential matter. If you look in the history of Pop music, and even opera, that’s the most popular or most used subject matter. It’s the one thing that we truly need. As Dion Warwick says, “Love is what there is just too little of.”

That’s another reason why I wanted to get the record out, because there’s a positiveness there. Though not in all of them. Even in “You Mean So Much to Me”, you have to tell that person how you feel. You can’t just not let them know.

HMS: There’s a requirement for you to take action. It’s an active thing.

Doug Clifford: Yes.

Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Doug Clifford!

Leave a comment