Jim Croce, “I Got a Name”
One Christmas morning my mom gave my dad a copy of Photographs and Memories: His Greatest Hits, by Jim Croce. My parents seldom listened to music, so this gift was enough of a rarity to make me look up from the ten thousand shiny new toys and books that surrounded me and take notice. Dad got a record! If my dad liked something, then I liked it, or at least I tried my best to like it. We must have listened to the record that morning, on the long stereo console in the dining room. (I listened to music sitting upright in a chair at the dining table.) Jim Croce’s lyrics were easy to remember, and some of the songs told little stories of the kind that might especially appeal to kids—“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” were both about tough city guys who get their comeuppance from unassuming looking rivals, each in a violent way (fisticuffs in the first instance, knife and gun in the second). These songs brought an air of street menace into our safe suburban home—they seemed akin to the gritty cop shows my dad watched on television, which I avoided—so that Jim Croce was a step outside of my comfort zone. Also, he looked and sang like … sex. Not sexy, but with an overwhelming air of confident, masculine sexuality. I was at that time taking piano lessons from a nun at a nearby convent. What must she have thought when I brought in a book of sheet music of these songs for her to teach me? On the inside front cover was a photo of the singer, with his homely, satisfied, smiling face, leaning back on a park bench with his shirt mostly unbuttoned. Sister Mary Gerald’s disdain was palpable. I presented her with the book, and she waited until the last five minutes of our lesson before she got around to it. “Alright,” she said with a sigh, “let’s take a look at your sight reading.” I fumbled my way through a number, and she clucked as though my failure with the song was predestined.
By the time I learned about him, Jim Croce was already dead—he was killed in a plane crash in 1973, at the age of 30 and at the height of his fame. One evening not long after that Christmas, while Photographs and Memories was still new to our home, I was playing alone in my room when my dad walked in holding the inside sleeve. He sat down on my bed. “Listen to this,” he said. There was a memorial essay about Jim Croce on the sleeve, and he read it aloud. I half-listened. My father’s tone was mournful, and it made me uncomfortable—he must have read the essay before, while listening to the record out in the dining room, and thought it was sad, and wanted to share this sadness with me. When he finished, he shook his head and looked up. “Isn’t that sad?” he asked. “What a loss.” I fidgeted. I wanted to get back to playing.
I can’t figure out now if I like Jim Croce’s songs or not—I can’t sort out my memories from my present critical feelings. When I hear these songs I think about how maudlin they are; I reject them. And yet they do their work—they make me want to break into tears.