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  • Max Stearns

"Time in a Bottle": My Tribute to Jim Croce

(Before reading this, I hope you will consider one request; please stop, at least once, at one of the italicized musical hyperlinks, and listen.)

"But there never seems to be enough time

To do the things you want to do

Once you find them"

Time in a Bottle

Over the past few months, thanks to the Satellite Radio station, The Bridge, I’ve reconnected with some dear old friends: James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carole King, Cat Stevens, and others. I love them all. At the top of that list is Jim Croce, a man who at 30 years old, on September 20, 1973, died in a plane crash, just at the point in his career in which he was being fully recognized for his musical genius and talent (for general biographical information, see, I was almost 13 when died, and if memory serves, I became a fan of Jim Croce sometime the following year, at about the same age as my son, and youngest child, now 14.

In listening to his music 42 years later, aided also by Alexa’s willingness to shuffle my favorite artists's songs, I feel an even stronger connection with this remarkable singer, although for different reasons and with different sensibilities. When I was 14, Jim Croce was the first musician whose songs I simply loved. I could listen over and over for hours. I still have those dusty LPs (shown above). At the time, I was taking guitar lessons, and perhaps I thought through osmosis that I would learn how to make the instrument sound so magical. That was not going to happen. I was never afflicted with talent.

At 14, I admired his lyrical depth and his unique capacity, joined by the gifted Maury Muehleisen, to combine rich guitar riffs beneath simple yet poignant lines, painting characters and stories that seem as real now as they did then. Perhaps most of all, I appreciated Croce’s remarkable ability to exude inner strength while genuinely acknowledging vulnerability. Jim Croce taught that acknowledging vulnerability didn’t make you weak, and that if doing what’s right leaves you bruised, it is a price worth paying. Jim Croce seemed impossibly cool and his music evoked something masculine yet personal. In Bad Bad Leroy Brown, see, and despite the name, You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,, this listener always understood the singer as David, fighting on the righteous side, against whoever the Goliath he confronted might have been.

Croce was strong, yet sensitive. He sings of the pain of loss, a lover and best friend, and his futile attempt at reconciling despite cuts that seem permanent and deep, Operator, Although he tries, he can’t pull it off, convincing himself “there’s no one there, I really wanted to talk to.” In a final flourish, the man who has lost so much tells listener, “And you can keep the dime.” He left all his listeners with far greater gifts. Croce was not afraid to sing about personal loss, left only with Photographs and Memories,, yet we still have his wonderful songs. He was a simple, yet brilliant writer, who nonetheless thought his own words somehow failed him, I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,

His most prescient song, Time in a Bottle,, still brings a tear to my eye, especially having learned it was written for his then two-year old son, A.J. Today, A.J. Croce, who suffered a childhood ailment that nearly left him visionless,, and who now is a successful musician of his own (see Alas, the lesson of Jim Croce’s life is the impossibility of saving time.

Jim Croce, an Italian raised Catholic, met Ingid Jacobson, a Jewish girl, at a hootenanny in 1963, They married in 1966, and initially recorded music together, releasing their first album in 1969 simply as Jim & Ingrid Croce, Before they married, Jim became Jewish, and the two joined in a Jewish wedding. During his remarkably short career, Jim experienced considerable frustrations. Indeed, during his final six-month tour, away from his loving Ingrid, and their son, A.J., he decided he had had enough, sending a letter that tragically arrived after the plane crash that killed him and his wonderful group, saying he planned to call his musical career quits,

At 56, the temporal roles seem reversed. I’m a middle-aged man, and I’ve taught students older than Jim Croce at the time that he died. From this vantage point, I somehow know that Jim Croce would not have quit music. He might have tried, for a while, but he would have failed by being forced to succeed. That kind of talent can perhaps be controlled, but it can’t be contained. His wife tells of Jim playing the guitar and singing for 20 hours in a single day, until complete exhaustion set in, only to wake up and do it again. He would have to sing and write music, and we hope in doing so, find a way to balance his life, and to enjoy his family.

Some years ago, my wife and I were in the Gaslamp section of San Diego. I looked across the street and saw Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar. I crossed the street in disbelief, discovering a restaurant that Ingrid had dedicated to Jim. She wasn’t there that evening, and although I had a lovely chat with the maître d', it wasn’t the same. We were not able to dine there that evening, and now that the restaurant closed, we never will. Ingrid set up another venue with her second husband, Jimmy Rock, after losing a 30-year lease, and that too has since closed (see Time goes on. It cannot be saved. Not in a bottle.

At 14, finding a vulnerable tough guy to admire was a wonderful gift. At 56, I’m moved by something deeper. I love all the artists listed above, and Alexa has indulged me many times. With Jim Croce, I have the sense that each song reveals a facet of who this man actually was, his weaknesses (“Like the fool I am and I'll always be”), his past loves and losses (Operator,, Photographs and Memories,, and his difficult road to finding a way to do what he truly loved (Working at the Car Wash Blues, Most of all, his songs reveal, at 30, before the height of his fame, and without any of the financial success he and his family so richly deserved, a sense of self (I Got a Name, (The plane crash litigation paid out $5000, more than Jim and Ingrid Croce had together received in music royalties, Jim Croce taught me as a boy, and reminds me as a man, that we all are imperfect, and that we are all vulnerable, but that what makes us stronger is accepting who we are, and trying, however imperfectly, to do the right thing, even if it sometimes leaves us bruised.

I’ve also noticed something. When listening in the car to most of my dear friends, I usually don’t hesitate to turn the radio off when I reach my destination. With a song by Jim Croce, I hesitate. Now 42 years later, I feel compelled to hear him to the end. Sometimes you just have to live in the moment. Perhaps if you heeded my request, you understand. Thanks, Jim Croce, for this remarkable gift.

Your comments, as always, are most welcome.

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