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Lightning in a Bottle
The tragedy of Jim Croce
Singer-songwriter Jim Croce died fifty years ago this past week. He was killed in a small chartered plane crash, along with bandmate Maury Muehleisen and their small road entourage. They were on their way to a college concert, a gig booked before he became a star overnight. After years of struggling to make it in music, he had burst onto the scene with his record You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. Audiences connected with his quick wit, earthy lyrics, and supple fingerstyle guitar-picking. It was a dream come true. Except, there was a tragic twist: He was still broke. A lousy deal, naively signed, was siphoning away most of his royalties before he ever saw a penny.
Burned out, estranged from his wife, and robbed of his livelihood, Croce had made a decision. He would leave it all behind, all the heartache, the broken promises, the infidelity. He would become the husband and father his family deserved. He wasn’t sure exactly what would come next, but he would figure something out. A few more gigs, and it would all be over. A few more gigs, and he would be home.
He was just 30 years old, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from his face, with its deep creases, weary eyes, and thick Groucho Marx moustache. His wife would always remember the moment when one of his own promo pictures stopped him in his tracks. “God!” he exclaimed, “Look how old I look!”
Perhaps this was on his mind when he wrote his most enduring classic, “Time in a Bottle.” Dedicated to his then-unborn son, A. J., it wouldn’t be released as a single in his lifetime. After his death, it soared to the top of the charts.
Before his solo career took off, Jim and his wife were a musical duo, with an ethereal folk blend comparable to artists like Simon & Garfunkel or Peter, Paul & Mary. Their small Pennsylvania farmhouse was a haven for drifters, hippies and other struggling musicians. Some of these young artists were destined to become much more famous than Jim Croce—Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Randy Newman, and many more. But in those days of dandelion wine and roses, they were all equals around the dinner table, swapping songs, swapping stories, getting high.
Croce’s first solo record, Facets, was funded with a $500 wedding gift from his father. The old man hoped it would be a flop so his son could abandon music and pursue a sensible career. To his disappointment, every copy sold. (Father and son were divided in more ways than one, as Croce drifted away from his Italian-Catholic roots into a restless agnosticism.) The record is little-remembered today but is full of hidden gems, like this setting of Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din.” At just 23, Croce sings the haunting ballad like a seasoned veteran, with the uncanny crystal clarity that would become his vocal trademark.
As Croce pieced together blue-collar jobs and waited for his big break, he immersed himself in the world of the men he worked with, tucking away song ideas all the while. It was here that he would find his own voice as a songwriter. His stage shows felt like a blend of music and comedy, as he spun out the stories behind the songs with a raconteur’s timing. One gets the sense that he could just as easily have turned his pen to short fiction (in fact, it was one of the things he wanted to try once he shook the dust of the music business off his feet). His lyrics are sometimes hard-boiled, sometimes tender, always incurably fascinated with human beings at their best, worst, and funniest. “Roller Derby Queen” was dedicated to a stocky Texas woman he met at a country-western bar gig. “Every time I watched her clap,” he recalled puckishly, “I could see the fat under her arm, jiggling back and forth. It was a beautiful sight. I knew I had to write a tune about her.” “Rapid Roy” was dedicated to the sort of “dirt track demon” he watched at stock-car races, toothpick in mouth, extra pack of cigarettes rolled up in a T-shirt sleeve. Honky-tonk hit “Bad, Bad LeRoy Brown” created a larger-than-life villain out of the meanest characters he knew. (This was a rare Croce tune featuring piano rather than guitar. I still fondly remember stealing the intro for a hymn while playing piano at a nice Baptist church. I don’t think anyone knew.) And one of my favorites, “Working at the Car-Wash Blues,” feels like a sideways self-portrait, its disgruntled deadbeat narrator not quite Croce, but not quite not Croce either.
Croce slipped easily from tongue-in-cheek tunes to understated sad gems like “Operator,” a one-sided conversation about loneliness and lost love. It’s somehow timeless, despite being full of now outdated imagery about dime fees, phone booths, or even the whole concept of an “operator.” I’ve recently been enjoying Rick Beato and Mary Spender’s breakdown of it here, which also honors Maury Muehleisen’s intricate backup guitar work. Muehleisen, a shy young man content to play the supporting role to Croce’s stardom, was a true prodigy. Professional guitarists still closely study the complex tapestries he and Croce wove together. There’s a sad poetry in the fact that they died as they lived—on the road, inseparable, best buddies.
But Croce’s very best work was his most personal. Lyrics like “New York’s Not My Home,” “Age,” or “The Hard Way Every Time” feel freighted with a lifetime’s worth of sad experience. They’re the songs of a true artist, so purely devoted to the integrity of his craft that he didn’t understand how to protect himself from those who wanted to exploit it. This deep pain was shared with his wife, Ingrid. The tender “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” reflects their struggles to communicate through any medium except music. But there’s an irony in the fact that his darkest song, “Lover’s Cross,” is written from the perspective of a man on the edge of breaking up with an unfaithful woman, when Croce was the perpetrator of his own marriage’s near-collapse. His last letter to Ingrid reads like a last confession, tender and raw and full of passionate promises to make everything right. “I know that you see me for what I am,” he writes, “or should I say, as who I are. ’Cause I’ve been lots of people. If Medusa had personalities or attitudes instead of snakes for her features, her name would have been Jim Croce.” But he wants to be a different man now. “The oldest man around, a man with a face full of wrinkles and lots of wisdom.”
Adrian, or A. J., was the only surviving child Jim and Ingrid would have together (Ingrid also miscarried another son). He was just a toddler when Croce died. Now a gifted musician in his own right, he has spent his life trying to understand and honor the legacy of a man he never knew, a man who somehow wrote enough songs in one year to fill a greatest hits record, including the one dedicated to him. It was a long time before he would muster the courage to learn and sing it himself. Whenever he performs it, he has to focus on it as if it’s just one more song, one more piece of music. Except, for him, it’s not just one more song. It never was. It never will be.