I heard that song again this morning. The one that burned into me years ago at a time when my life was in flux and I was looking for any guidepost signs from the Universe. You have one too. Everybody does.
Smell and sound are two of the markers that burn memory onto our brain like a tattoo we can see only when it’s reactivated by the right trigger. This morning, I was searching for a song that one of my characters could sing in a bar scene I was writing. Not really sure how I ended up at that particular YouTube video, I found myself staring at a link for a Jim Croce song.
Unless you’re as old as I am, he might not be a household name to you. Maybe your parents were fans and dragged their 8 tracks out, forcing you to listen to his Greatest Hits and though you are loath to admit it, you do know every word to his cheesiest radio hit, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. Your memory trigger, hearing that particular tune again, might be a bucket of soapy water and washing the family car with your dad on a summer afternoon with the radio blaring from the open garage.
My memory, breaching the depths of my subconscious like a killer whale in Hawaiian waters, was from the night he died. I was on a cross-country drive when I heard that news. I remember exactly where I was.
Jim Croce wasn’t even on my A list of musicians that I would fork over my small cash stash to see live. I liked his “B” side music and his masterful guitar playing. He was subtle and sure. Unlike other artists of the era who looked good in limousines and custom-made stage clothing, Croce always looked like he just punched out from a 3 to 11 shift down at the factory and someone dragged his ass on stage after he’d had a couple of beers and loosened up. He wasn’t a particularly beautiful man. In fact, I’d guess he had his fair share of fist fights judging from his nose bridge; and his ethnic look didn’t evoke dreamy explicit encounter fantasies the way contemporaries, like Cat Stevens, did from young, impressionable fans. OK. Maybe that was just me.
My point is, he was a regular guy and his songs were spare, his guitar work, lush and gorgeous, and his lyrics were so true that they would enter your ear and lodge in the center of your gut. If all you’ve heard of his music is the Leroy Brown radio schmaltz, I urge you to spend a little time on YouTube or a music site and just listen to some of his other songs.
It was September 20, 1973. I had been eighteen years old for exactly four weeks and one day. My life was moving in a slow motion bubble with a crappy job. I had a few friends I’d made in the new state where I’d moved to the year prior; no love interest on the horizon and an undefined sense of self-worth that I seemed to take out and weigh on a daily basis. Was my life going anywhere? Was my life even in Arizona? Should I head back to Illinois where I had grown up and see if I still fit in there?
Something happens to you after you leave high school. No longer a part of an easily defined pack of friends or teammates you are flung out into the world to sink or swim on your talents and your dreams. Some take the college route, where they can extend the catapult launch date a few more precious years.
Not choosing the college route at that tender age means you’re still flung out into the world, just earlier than your college bound friends. Each day for the first few years is an existential enema that leaves you feeling less than at the very same time it makes you feel like more. There’s a heroes journey there, if you dare to take it, for those who define their own paths; and it’s not an easy ride.
Along that ride, I dated a guy briefly. Very briefly, in fact, because he decided, after four dates that I should be doing his laundry and cooking his meals. I decided he should leave and not come back; and suggested he hire a maid. What I kept from him, were a few of his bizarrely profound insights on life. He had arrived at these, I assume, after inhaling mass quantities of fragrant smoke, followed by three bags of Fritos and a box of Hostess Ding Dongs. He said that real power was standing on a corner, naked, waiting for no one.
That bears repeating. Real power, is standing on a corner, naked, waiting for no one.
When I was sure he wasn’t going to test that theory out right at that particular moment, I let it sink in. It was kind of brilliant. It became more so as my life went on and I met people with lots of money, advanced degrees and impressive titles on business cards. I found myself wondering who they would be if they were stripped of their credentials and had to face the world in only their birthday suits. Would they still be “powerful” if they had to leave those titles behind and just show up as themselves?
Back to Jim Croce… In late September, 1973, I was driving back from Chicago to Phoenix. In a first time show of amazing trust in my maturity and responsible character, (she says with a wry chuckle), my father handed me a wad of cash and a plane ticket a few days earlier, to send me back to Chicago. My task: retrieve a relative who had over stayed her welcome by free-loading, going house to house from relatives to friends parent’s homes and they hit saturation point and wanted her out. I was sent, like the Transporter, to get her and drive her back. I had road maps, enough cash to stop at motels and I’d promised to call in as we made our way across country.
The ride was partly a good dream; like when my passenger fell asleep and I could exercise my lead foot on the empty highways west of Amarillo. It was also part nightmare; like when everything that was different about us was rising up like two krakens in the confines of the small, but very cool, Camaro. My mission made me more of a junior bounty hunter, bringing her in to save the victims of her house-guest from hell visits. Her disdain that it was me, an entire year younger, (gasp!) who had been assigned this job made the atmosphere in the car predictably sub-arctic. The fact was, we were both just drifting through life and though I’d been sent to bring her back home, I was just as lost and unfocused as she was.
During a “good dream” portion of the drive she’d fallen soundly asleep just outside of Winslow. She didn’t wake when I saw the turn off to 17 South was blocked due to an accident. Traffic was diverted on to 89A, locally known as the Switchbacks. The road winds its way down through a heavy stand of Ponderosa pine trees starting at Flagstaff, Arizona, in a spectacularly curvy fashion. If you open your windows as you drive, it smells like butterscotch for miles. 89A continues down through Sedona and eventually re-connects to 17, south of Oak Creek Canyon. I love that bit of road and still relish the chance to drive it again.
It was 2:00 AM, and it was raining; which is probably how the accident happened on 17 south. I’m not sure. Not wanting to spend another day on the road with this particular kraken, and being the night owl I was born to be, I decided to push on the last three hours to Phoenix and be done with this adventure.
Listening to the Flagstaff radio announcer, I heard his emotional voice. “Folks, we’ve just gotten word that we lost a great musician today. Jim Croce has died in a small plane crash in Louisiana. Let’s spend a little more time with Jim, tonight.” He then played all of Croce’s catalog while I drove the switch back’s. The shock of another musicians death, and there were far too many in the 70’s, slapped whatever road weariness I had right out of me. He started his Croce marathon with the song, I’ve Got A Name. “Like the pine trees lining the winding road, I’ve got a name…” The back of my hand was working just as hard to wipe tears from my face as the windshield wipers clearing the 2 am rain.
Like I said, Croce wasn’t even my favorite musician, so the sudden emotion surprised even me. I’m guessing that the revelation that there would be no more music from him made me listen closer, and then, I really heard the heart of the music. He ended the marathon with Operator, a stark and beautiful piece that I wish someone would re-record, even if the “…you can keep the dime”, line is now irrelevant.
His lyrics combined with the smoke and honey tone of his voice had depicted, so perfectly, the places in our lives when the only thing we are sure of is the hope that life gets better and the very real presence of any stored kindness we can carry in our own hearts from place to place and relationship to relationship. If we get tattoos on our insides at moments that impact us, I think I have a Croce tattoo somewhere inside me. I probably have another one for the icy green-eyed guy who defined “real power”.
Figuratively, standing on a corner, naked, waiting for no one, became in that moment, a good place to start what would become my life. The heady ingredients, of Croce’s song lyrics, naked-on-the- corner-guy’s words and my flotsam and jetsam of a life that hadn’t yet settled into a recognizable pattern all combined to make the perfect recipe for Epiphany Soup.
It hit home, right then, on that road, with a kraken sleeping in the bucket seat beside me, that we can begin…anywhere. That middle of the night revelation has served me well all these years in everything I do.
Thanks Jim, for riding along that night and for setting down the poetry of your music in such simple perfection. Thanks, naked street corner guy for the brief but memorable dance and thanks kraken, for showing me how not to live your life. There are teachers everywhere you look.
I do have a name, and that name is, me. “If it gets me nowhere, I’ll get there proud. Moving me down the highway. Moving fast so life won’t pass me by…”