‘Hey Tomorrow! Where Are You Goin’ . . .’

Jim Croce popped up on the car radio as I took the short drive to the gym the other day, and I stayed in the car through the end of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I’m not sure why. Maybe I was making certain that in these strange days the ending of the story hadn’t changed. (No worries: Leroy still gets his from the jealous husband.)

Or maybe I was just surprised to hear Jim Croce on the radio that morning. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard one of the late songwriter’s tunes coming out of the speaker. But I was pretty sure whenever it was, the record had been “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” or Croce’s other tale of urban comeuppance, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” Croce’s other hits – and he had a total of ten records in the Billboard Hot 100, with eight of those reaching the Top 40 – seem to be forgotten these days.

I’m guilty, too. When I assembled the Ultimate Jukebox last year, I failed to include even one record by Jim Croce among the two-hundred and twenty-eight sides I selected. I have no idea which record or records I’d have pulled from the long list to make room, but I acknowledge that I should have included at least one by the late Philadelphia native.

Croce’s career was brief, of course, and his time near the top of his profession was even shorter: “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” entered the Hot 100 in first week of July 1972, and a year and three months later – in October 1973 – Croce died in a Louisiana plane crash. Several posthumous hits kept his name on the charts for a few years, but still, by the summer of 1976, Croce was, in chart terms, no more than a memory.

The bulk of the eleven records listed in Top Pop Singles – ten records that reached the Hot 100 or better and one that Bubbled Under – come from the three albums that Croce released on ABC: You Don’t Mess Around With Jim in 1972, and Life & Times and I Got A Name in 1973. Two of the records in Croce’s chart – the last two, from 1976 – come from Down the Highway, a posthumous release on the Saja label. But the other nine records listed in Top Pop Singles come from the three ABC albums, and if I were going to include a Croce record in my list of missed opportunities, it would come from one of those three albums.

But which record? Well, I’d start by eliminating the tales of Leroy Brown the gambler and Jim the pool shark. They were fine rollicking records by themselves and big hits – “Jim” went to No. 8 in 1972 and “Leroy” topped the chart for two weeks in 1973 – but they’re overfamiliar at this point (and they’re really the same story with just a few details changed). I think Croce did his better work on the softer stuff, anyway, although I listened a few times this week to “Workin’ At The Car Wash Blues” just to make sure.

So we turn to the ballads. There are a few to choose from that hit the chart: “Operator” went to No. 17, “One Less Set of Footsteps” went to No. 37, “I Got A Name” went to No. 10, “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way” lagged at No. 64, “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song” reached No. 9, and “Time In A Bottle” spent two weeks at No. 1.

I like all of them, some a little less than others. But a large part of what I did with the Ultimate Jukebox was find songs to which I had emotional connections, and only two one of those records have that for me. One of those is “Time In A Bottle” (We’ll get to the other one presently.) “Time In A Bottle,” however, is one of the few songs with an emotional connection to my life that I prefer not to hear on a regular basis, so we’ll pass that by, too.

Which leaves us to album tracks. There is, for me, an odd thing about Croce’s softer album tracks: There are times when those bittersweet tunes pop up on the RealPlayer – say “Photographs and Memories” or “These Dreams” or “Lover’s Cross,” to pull one from each of the three ABC albums – and they often seem more like exercises in songwriting craft than anything organic and important to the performer.

There are at least a couple of those tunes on each of the three albums. They’re very well-done, from musical structure to lyrics to production, but they ultimately feel empty. Maybe it’s just me, but it frequently feels as if Croce were thinking to himself, “Let’s do something in a minor key with a geographic reference and a melancholy weather theme,” and out comes “Alabama Rain.” Whether I’m right or wrong about that makes no major difference, but it does affect how I hear several of Croce’s softer tunes, so I have to take that into account as I seek one Croce song for my list of jukebox regrets.

Ultimately, I come down to two tracks, both sounding genuine and both playing roles in my life ca. 1974-75. They are “Hey Tomorrow” from You Don’t Mess Around With Jim and “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way” from Life & Times. The latter of those two tracks sounded like I wanted my life to be in late 1974 as I arranged a coffee and talk date with a young woman with whom I’d shared some pleasant and not-so-pleasant times in Denmark the previous academic year. The record provided a few moments of hope as I prepared for the get-together, although I really didn’t think it likely that Croce’s song about reconciliation would be the tune I would be singing afterwards. I was right, but we parted on good terms, leaving “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way” to play a minor musical role in my life.

“Hey Tomorrow,” on the other hand, mattered. And I’d forgotten about it until Jim Croce came to mind the other day. That may seem odd, but when one considers the vast number of records that have provided me with solace, reinforcement and courage over the years, having one or two of them languishing on the back shelves for a while is not all that surprising. I told the tale some time ago of my trip to Finland and of the Quixotic long-distance relationship that ensued. During the months when I was deciding to propose by mail to a young woman I hardly knew, I heard “Hey Tomorrow” and really listened to it for the first time. And from then on, until I got the young lady’s regretful letter turning me down, “Hey Tomorrow” was my anthem, and I listened to it frequently as I spent evenings in our rec room waiting for news from Finland.

Beyond the emotional attachment, “Hey Tomorrow” is a good track with a strong melody, good lyrics and solid production. Unlike many of Croce’s other ballads, it feels real to me. So, for all those reasons, I likely should have found a place for “Hey Tomorrow” in the Ultimate Jukebox.

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4 Responses to “‘Hey Tomorrow! Where Are You Goin’ . . .’”

  1. Charlie says:

    I’m glad you considered “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way.” I have all of the ABC LPs and this is my favorite Croce song and it is one of the 20 songs I burned to CD on my Ultimate Christmas Collection disc.

  2. WZJN says:

    Oh man, I have to put up my hand for Photographs and Memories. In a deep depression of the post-breakup blues what else do you have?

    Each and every time I hear that (when the heck do I really hear it though?) I think of Maura and the way that breakup rerouted my aorta.

    Enjoyed this post in a great way!

  3. David M. says:

    Wow! You got me crying with that one. I was 15 years old in 1973 and Jim Croce’s death hit me like a freight-train. My circle of friends at the time decided to form themselves into an even tighter clique that for reasons long forgotten did not include me. Exiled to my own bedroom after school, I discovered in Jim Croce’s music all those thoughts, feelings, and emotions I was feeling but was unable to express. Strangely enough, I had the parting shot of that video as an over-sized postcard framed in my bedroom for years.
    Also, whatever singing I’ve done in subsequent years I owe entirely to Jim Croce. Thanks (seriously) for bringing those memories back.

  4. David Lenander says:

    “Hey Tomorrow” was probably my favorite of his songs, too. And, somehow I’d lost track of it. Thanks for reminding me. Was “Lover’s Cross” the same song that Melanie covered on MADRUGADA? I don’t remember his recording (but I must have heard it) but I certainly remember hers. I almost think I understand what you’re saying about some of these songs as exercises in songcraft, even if I’m not sure I agree specifically about these songs. I remember “I’ll Have to Say…” better in Mary Travers’ cover, but I liked his o.k. He certainly got a LOT of airplay for a few years, and I think people are still covering him on YouTube, maybe “Operator” particularly. I’ve also met a few people who were totally nuts about him, especially after he died tragically at the height of popularity. Obviously he got a lot of covers.

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