Posts Tagged ‘Jim Croce’

A December Tale

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

It’s a weekday evening in December 1974, and I’m hanging around in the rec room in the basement at home, waiting to head out on a coffee date that I’m afraid will be at least a little awkward.

The story started during August of 1973, when most of the St. Cloud State students who would spend the next academic year in Fredericia, Denmark, got together for a picnic at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. During that picnic, a young woman and I had a brief but intriguing conversation at the foot of the falls for which the park is named, talking about a very few people we knew in common and about our hopes for the adventure to come.

Our nascent friendship turned into something else about a month into that adventure. We traveled together a little bit, spending a weekend in the German city of Kiel. We put together a Thanksgiving dinner for my Danish family, scavenging substitutes for American dishes not available in Denmark. We hung out in bars, and in our rooms at our host families’ homes. We fell in love.

One evening, we went with her Danish host sister and that young woman’s boyfriend to visit some friends of his in the nearby city of Vejle. On the brief drive back to Fredericia, my girl and I cuddled in the Volkswagen’s back seat to the sound of the Toys’ 1965 hit, “A Lover’s Concerto.” (Was it an oldies station on the radio? A tape? I don’t remember.) My glasses got in the way, and she reached up and gently took them off.

“I won’t be able to see,” I said.

“I’ll be your eyes,” she murmured.

That’s one of the most tender moments I recall from any of the many loves of my life.

And then, over the course of a couple of months, it fell apart, leaving hard questions. Did we want the same things? Probably not. Did I move too fast, ask for too much? Probably. Were we young and not very wise? Without a doubt. By the time we got to the end of our time in Denmark in May 1974, we weren’t speaking to each other.

With some challenges and joys in my life, I healed a great deal that summer, but I knew there were some words – most of them kind and gentle – I wanted to share with her. I saw her at a party early during the new academic year, but her demeanor told me she wasn’t interested in talking. I thought she might never be. My heart went elsewhere that autumn, renewing an interest long denied. Then there was a traffic accident, and I dropped out of school for a month.

One day during that month, when I was physically strong enough to be away from home for a few hours, I went over to the campus. I filled out some paperwork to drop a chemistry course in which I’d been struggling before the accident, and I visited my friends at The Table in the student union. Then it was time to leave. I headed upstairs and turned the corner toward the door, and there she was.

“How are you?” I managed.

“I’m fine,” she said, shaking her head as if that were unimportant. “But how are you?” And I realized that she had heard about the accident, and she cared.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m okay. Getting better.” And we chatted for a few moments until my mom pulled up outside.

I looked at the young woman. “Can we get together sometime to talk?”

She nodded. “Call me in December, when the new quarter starts.”

I did so, and on a December weeknight, I got ready to see her, with the stereo in the rec room playing Jim Croce’s Life & Times album. A year earlier, when I was in Denmark, the album’s last track, “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way,” had been a very minor hit, going to No. 64 in Billboard. I’d not heard it then, but that’s what I heard just before I left home that evening:

Snowy nights and Christmas lights
Icy window panes
Make me wish that we could be
Together again
And the windy winter avenues
Just don’t seem the same
And the Christmas carols sound like blues
But the choir is not to blame

But it doesn’t have to be that way
What we had should have never have ended
I’ll be dropping by today
’Cause we could easily get it together tonight
It’s only right

Crowded stores, the corner Santa Claus
Tinseled afternoons
And the sidewalk bands play their songs
Slightly out of tune
On the windy winter avenues
There walks a lonely man
And if I told you who he is
Well, I think you’d understand

But it doesn’t have to be that way
What we had should have never have ended
I’ll be dropping by today
’Cause we could easily get it together tonight
It’s only right

But it doesn’t have to be that way
What we had should have never have ended
I’ll be dropping by today
’Cause we could easily get it together tonight
It’s only right

I headed to her dorm, Jim Croce in my head. At the restaurant, we split a piece of strawberry pie and laid some things to rest, offering apologies and soothing – or at least beginning to – some of the hurts. We laughed a little.

Maybe ninety minutes after I picked her up, I dropped her off at her dorm, and as I drove home, I realized Jim Croce was wrong: It did have to be that way.

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

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

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.