Jim Croce is remembered as just another shooting star of the 70’s, a simple folk-flavored singer-songwriter who made his mark with hits like “Time in a Bottle” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” before flaming out as a footnote in the canon of musicians dead before their time.
But that’s not the whole story. Jim Croce was a singer-songwriter-storyteller, a born entertainer who both enraptured audiences and used music as a powerful introspective tool in his own life.
Croce’s storytelling skills and good humor made him a very engaging performer. Jim Croce Live — The Final Tour has more playtime devoted to crowd banter and storytelling than the music itself, but Croce doesn’t use it as a crutch. Many of his songs are preceded by funny and informative dialogues which make the songs more effective. Take “Speedball Tucker”, for example, a song inspired by Croce’s time as a truck driver. Croce invites the audience into the world of long-haul truckers that he discovered as a young man, and explains the use of a “West Coast Turnaround”: “You can take one in New York, as you’re leaving, drive all the way to San Diego, turn around and drive right back — all the time talking to your windshield.” The audience laughs, and they’ll laugh again when they hear Croce reference a “pocketful of West Coast Turnarounds” later in “Speedball Tucker”.
Croce’s abilities as musician-cum-comedian are best displayed on the uproarious “Ball of Kerrymuir”. It’s an old song, a bawdy Scottish tale passed down through the generations. As Croce puts it through a thick Scottish accent, it’s about “an orgy of such great magnitude that forty acres of corn were fucked completely flat.” The crowd claps and laughs along with verses like “Ms. Mary MacPherson was standin’ way up front / some posey’s in her hand and a carrot in her cun…”, tactfully trailing off. The whole song is a laugh, particularly the final verse (though I won’t give it away here!).
His sense of humor wasn’t just contained to live shows, either. “Roller Derby Queen” is a wonderfully witty faux love song about “the meanest hunk of woman that anybody’d ever seen.” The Roller Derby Queen is another memorable and lively entry to Croce’s cast of characters that Croce crafted over the years, skating over Big Jim Walker’s toes and trailing just behind Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy).
But Jim Croce could offer much more than a funny story or a witty character. Croce’s storytelling prowess allowed him to bring much more complex characters and stories to life. Consider “The Ballad of Gunga Din”, Croce’s musical interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. Croce’s plaintive tones and lonely guitar use Kipling’s lyrics to paint a vivid and sobering picture of war and the tattered Gunga Din. Like the poem, Croce’s melody is powerful while being understated and simple. Croce’s rendition understands the subtleties of the poem; listen to the perfectly wry intonation behind the line “I’ll catch a swig in hell from Gunga Din.” As a seasoned storyteller and musician, Croce was uniquely able to sing life into characters.
As a very introspective musician, the story of Jim Croce’s life can be traced through his music. Out of all his creations, Croce’s greatest character was himself. Many of his songs deal directly with his own life and experiences, and particularly with his beloved wife Ingrid. Croce’s music allows him to tell the story of his own life; sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s lovely. In any case, it’s Croce at his most bare and interesting.
Consider “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song”. The track is much more literal than one might think; the opening lines, “I know it’s kinda late / I hope I didn’t wake you” are sincere. The song was composed late at night after a fight between Jim and Ingrid. The next morning, Jim played the new song for Ingrid. How lovely! The hidden implication behind the song, however, is a bit deeper than the average love song. It deals directly and unflinchingly with Jim’s chronic inability to express his love for Ingrid in a normal fashion, forcing him to turn to music as his only outlet to express emotions. This hints at a greater theme of the role of music in Jim and Ingrid’s relationship. To begin with, the pair met at a hootenanny (the 1960’s equivalent of open mic night). The couple struck up an immediate musical connection. In 1966, far before Croce’s commercial success, they released Facets, a fun album featuring several folk covers featuring both Ingrid and Jim. Croce opens up about the beginning of their relationship in “A Long Time Ago”, lamenting about the times when “there was no one who would share my song”, and celebrating when Ingrid “started singing my song” — quite literally, in the case of Facets.
Many of Croce’s most vulnerable moments are captured in music. Croce wasn’t afraid to open up about his failures, and he had plenty. Sometimes he did so with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, like in “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues” (“But no matter how smooth I talked / They wouldn’t listen to the fact that I was a genius / The man say, we got all that we can use”), and sometimes with a melancholy introspection (“I’ve got to get out of here / I’m so alone…New York’s not my home”). “New York’s Not My Home” was particularly autobiographical. It expresses Croce’s disillusionment after unsuccessfully trying to make it big with a New York record label, while he and Ingrid were forced to work odd jobs and drive 300,000 miles in fruitless promotion of their album Jim and Ingrid Croce.
One of Croce’s most interesting songs was not released until after his death; perhaps it was too personal to release, even for Jim. Regardless, “King’s Song” is a tantalizing bit of storytelling that begs for wild interpretation. The opening is clearly about Croce himself: “He struggled so hard to be king / Working night and day / Dreaming of only one thing / Never a holiday”. The rest of the song appears to reveal some of the complexity and tension in Jim and Ingrid’s relationship: “He built a castle to harbor his queen / But the queen claimed he built her a jail”. It’s impossible to know exactly what these lines are referring to, but knowing how Croce expressed himself musically, it’s easy to see how the song might navigate the burden Jim placed upon Ingrid with his touring schedule after hitting the big time. It’s well known that Ingrid wasn’t happy being cooped up at home with their infant son AJ (whom “Time in a Bottle” is written about) while Jim toured the country; as a result, Jim agreed to quit his musical career to focus on his family, and was finishing up his last slate of shows when he was killed in a plane crash. “King’s Song”, then, comes at a peculiar period in Jim’s life, just as he’d grasped the success he’d spent half his life and all his energy achieving, only to voluntarily walk away from it all. It’s a powerful song, a sad song, and a song that probably never would have been released if Jim hadn’t died an untimely death.
Because of his apparent inability to express himself in avenues other than music, we as music listeners are privy to the hard-fought rise and bittersweet fall of an Italian kid with a big grin and a golden voice. Jim Croce’s greatest story of all was the story of his own life, and thank god he had the tools to tell it.