I’m not sure whether that song is any good, but I’m very sure it starts with a Z.
Video. No time to do a video this week. The man in the picture is my step-grandfather, Bill Cowden, who used to be a cedarhacker. Also, I just learned (accidentally) today that my program could do that scroll thing
Jim Croce. Also no time to do much of a blog this week. It’s been cold forever down here, and the spaceheater I have in the office isn’t working right. I keep having to pick it up and drop it for the fan to come back on. I’d buy a new one, but it’s supposed to warm up again today. Jim Croce has been on my mind the past few days.
I was in Best Buy looking for a little CD player for Rona’s birthday (cheap little CD players are getting rare, by the way) so maybe she’ll listen to the Jingle Cats in her room where the rest of us don’t have to hear it, and I snooped around the discount rack in the CD section. There was a specially packaged Jim Croce collection for seventeen dollars. There were two CDs and a DVD with live concert footage of him and his exquisite guitarist sideman, Maury Meuhliesen. It came in a small tin box. I bought it. I also bought a Glen Campbell CD, if you must know, and compilation of old jazz standards, the latter to atone for the former.
I’m not sure why I bought the Croce set. I first heard of Jim Croce when I was seven or eight years old when a seventeen-year-old cousin from California came with her baby to stay with us for a while and had us buy one of his eight-tracks. This would have been a year or two after his death in a plane crash in Louisiana. I wouldn’t have known anything about that. But Croce was probably the first non-country music that I ever heard other than what may have been on Sonny and Cher’s show, and even at that age I was struck by how sad his songs were. It may have something to do with the connection to my seven-year-old self (and on into my early teen years, when I also listened to Croce a lot) and to my crush on my cousin Karen, and it may also have something to do with knowing that he died young, just as his career was getting strong, but I still think there’s a unique quality to Jim Croce’s sad songs and his voice that distinguishes him from, say, James Taylor and other sad bastards of the era. “Operator,” “These Dreams” and “Long Time Ago,” not to mention “Time in a Bottle,” all have the rainiest of rainy day vibes. Meuhliesen’s guitar has a lot to do with it, too. He also died in the crash.
I hadn’t listened to Croce since I was about thirteen, except to pause when one of his songs was on the radio. When they came on the radio it always took me straight back to when I was seven, sitting in the pickup listening to “Operator” on the eight-track. I never really did a critical evaluation of Jim Croce, didn’t really wonder where he fit into anything. I figured he was just one of the seventies singer-songwriter guys and wouldn’t hold up any better than most of them, or maybe even a bit worse, since he wrote only two kinds of songs, the very sad ones and the novelty-type songs based on characters, like “Leroy Brown,” “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” “Rapid Roy,” and “Roller Derby Queen.” But as Townes Van Zandt famously said, there are only two kinds of songs: the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-da.
One of the CD’s in that box set consists of a selection of about a dozen of his songs from the three studio albums he did in his lifetime, mostly the ones you hear on the radio. It’s the other CD, however, that made me hear him in an entirely new way. That one also has about a dozen songs, but they’re mostly covers of blues and country songs done on a home recorder. What you hear is a pretty competent guitar player and a passable singer messing around with his recorder in his living room, singing songs he likes. He does “In the Jailhouse Now” and “Livin’ with the Blues.” He does a fifties novelty song by Tommy Collins called “You Ought to See Pickles Now.” There’s a cover of “Six Days on the Road” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and “Who’ll Buy the Wine.” The recordings sound scratchy and flat like old records from the twenties. There’s nothing revolutionary about them at all, unless you used to sit in your dad’s pickup in front of your house off a dirt road when you were seven years old listening to “Operator,” clicking through the next three tracks so the track with “Operator” on it would repeat.
I’ve been re-re-reading Greil Marcus’s classic 1973 work of rock criticism, Mystery Train, which attempts to show the interconnectedness of the American experience by focusing on its music and in particular on four contemporary acts: The Band, Randy Newman, Sly and the Family Stone and Elvis. (He first lays a foundation by writing about Robert Johnson and an obscure wandering musician called Harmonica Frank, which serves as a prelude to get him up to the present and allows him to designate those two musicians as not-quite-primary-but-close-enough sources for the purposes of the arguments he makes about the four featured acts.) It’s a fascinating book; Marcus’s talent is that he is able to convince you of the existence of connections that you probably never would have seen and to draw conclusions on a macro-scale about his findings. Even if I had the talent to see those connections, I wouldn’t have the intellectual stamina (or the breadth of knowledge) to make the complete case. Marcus can seemingly look through both ends of the telescope at the same time. More often than not, I get tired of the telescope altogether and just let somebody else tell me what he sees or stare into space on my own.
As of tomorrow I will have outlived Elvis. I outlived Jim Croce twelve years ago. (Marcus, Croce’s contemporary, would have outlived Croce about the time Mystery Train was written.) It’s easy to forget or never to realize that they weren’t just musicians, they were human beings (Croce’s son A.J. was a toddler when his dad died and is a musician himself), and that what most distinguished them from most human beings is not that they played music or that they were famous but that they were doing what they thought they were supposed to be doing. And it worked! They put something there that wasn’t there before; I know because I heard it when I was seven and remembered it when I was 42. So it’s a dumb and pointless question whether Jim Croce’s music still “holds up.” What does that even mean?
Careful Man. “Zydeco Jones” was originally supposed to be a joke song, I think (maybe it still is and I just don’t know it), along the lines of “Amos Moses” by the great Jerry Reed (nobody can throw the exclamation “Son!” into a song with as much gusto as he could), or maybe a parody of Dolly Parton’s “Apple Jack” (which, if I recall correctly, was about a prepubescent girl who would go down and hang out with some drunken drifter who lived in a shack in the woods and who then wrote a gleefully upbeat song about the experience when she grew up.) Jerry Reed did a whole album of Croce covers in 1980. Unfortunately, most of them have 1980 production too. This is one of the better ones, production-wise.