PLAYING JIM CROCE’S greatest hits album, Photographs and Memories (1974), the other day conjured up some potent memories for me. Jim Croce stands out for a few reasons, not the least of which is that he tragically died in a plane crash at the height of his popularity 40 years ago.
His death the month I started high school was the first such loss that had a real effect on me. I cried. I’d been around and dimly aware when Jimi, Janis, and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27 a few years before, but those were the icons of a generation just slightly older than me. Jim Croce was my own.
His first hit, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” had come out the summer before. His last posthumous hit exited the charts almost exactly 2 years later. In all, he had 8 top-40 hits–including the #1s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” a ripoff of his own first (and better) hit song; and “Time in a Bottle,” featured in the TV movie She Lives and released as a single from his first album soon after his death–and just 3 albums in his short career. I liked his music.
My favorite Jim Croce song, “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” also moved me to tears. (I was a very sensitive child.) It tells the sad story of a guy trying to contact an old girlfriend who had moved to LA with his best old ex-friend. Somehow I could relate to the lyrics–I only wish my words could just convince myself that it just wasn’t real, but that’s not the way it feels–despite the fact that I had not yet lived anything even remotely resembling such heartbreak.
Which just goes to show, I think, what a good songwriter Jim was. He was able to telegraph to me what it would feel like decades later to experience something pretty similar. We’ve all had that feeling, haven’t we? Missing, wondering about, and trying to make sense of the love that we were sure had been there, that we were convinced was real, despite how it looks now. It felt real.
And guess what? That love was real. Things change. People get scared. They find other people. They shut down. Relationships end. But the love you felt? That was real. I think Jim Croce would agree.