A single song from an artist you thought you knew – or couldn’t escape at one time because it was on the radio constantly – might sneak into your consciousness and slap you around a little bit. Years can temper the “yecch” reaction, or cause you to reorder that list of least-favorite soft-rock standbys.
Something like this happened to me with the music of Jim Croce recently. I’d always respected the late singer/songwriter, who died in a plane crash just a few years into his national career, for his rollicking yarns about tavern bullies and ballad-tempo introspections that veer perilously close to outright corniness. For a while in the early ‘70s, Croce was everywhere; if you grew up in that era, you heard “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” all the time. As a result, upon encountering them now it’s easy to ignore those tunes – until somebody says, “give this fresh ears….you might be surprised.”
For me, the song was “Operator.” I thought I knew it. Within the first verse, the tune’s quirks and its governing conceit came rushing back: Croce’s trying to reach a former lover, and because it’s the pre-mobile phone days, he’s on a payphone talking with an actual human who will patch him through. He tells the stranger all kinds of stuff about what’s happened and why he’s calling. He shares the details, and in between them slips more philosophical observations on life. It’s the kind of tune that would never reach the radio these days – it’s wordy, and rambling, and conflicted, and defined by a plainspoken honesty. It’s also just strikingly beautiful.
And there are other, equally startling gems on that album, the 1972 You Don’t Mess Around With Jim – including the poignant essay in defeat called “New York’s Not My Home,” the brazenly sentimental “Photographs and Memories,” the differently sentimental “Time in a Bottle.” Some of these were big radio hits, too, and as with “Operator,” they resonate differently now. It’s uncanny, actually. If you can get beyond all the perhaps-justified tags applied to a song like “Time in A Bottle” (as a wedding-planner’s dream, a treacle-heavy Hallmark moment, etc.) , and just listen, what emerges is a delicate pop miniature from an era when tenderness wasn’t immediately dismissed as weakness.
Click here for a short Spotify playlist of disarmingly wonderful Jim Croce songs.