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A Dissident Remembers Jim Croce

[1]

Jim Croce

3,062 words

Jim Croce may be one of the most overlooked and underrated singer-songwriters of the rock era. This may be because his ideas often pre-date rock-‘n’-roll, and are in some ways anti-rock for eschewing themes pertaining to youth and rebellion. A cursory look at his best songs reveals that few songwriters are as adept at chronicling experiences which are uniquely and universally masculine. A closer look, however, will reveal a relevance to the struggles of the Dissident Right and white identitarians today.

Although technically part of the urban folk-rock movement which took off with Bob Dylan in the 1960s, Jim Croce is remembered most for his two smash hits from the early 1970s: the infectiously catchy “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown [2]” and the ethereal “Time in a Bottle,” which recently appeared [3] on the soundtrack of 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. He’s also remembered alongside figures such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin as a pop star who died young (in 1973, at age 30) and at the height of his powers. Unlike many premature rock deaths from the 1960s and ’70s, however, Croce died as a perfect innocent in a plane crash rather than from drug abuse and questionable lifestyle decisions.

Croce’s work is littered with banal, treacly love songs and angsty heartache ballads, which were common for the era and haven’t aged well at all. What distinguishes them is Croce’s powerful, protean voice and outstanding guitar playing, of course. But the songwriting in many instances goes well beyond corny. Most notable among these clunkers are “Lover’s Cross,” “These Dreams,” and “I’ll Have to Say I Love You In a Song [4].” Here’s a taste of the last one, and try not to gag:

Well I know it’s kinda late
I hope I didn’t wake you
What I’ve got to say can’t wait
I know you’d understand
Every time I try to tell you the words just came out wrong
So I’ll have to say I love you in a song.

Instead of coming up with interesting twists on this already-platitudinous idea, Croce simply repeats it three times with minor tweaks and calls it a song. He doesn’t even give us a bridge. Supported by lush string arrangements and cheesy male backup singers, this half-assed piece of syrupy pap became a number-nine hit in 1974.

So at first glance, we have just another forgettable guitar bard whose music will die sometime in the next thirty years when the last of his still-kicking contemporaries finally shuffles off this mortal coil. So, why should we care?

Well, Jim Croce has about a dozen songs that ride that line of genius between original and familiar well enough to belong permanently in the American pop-song canon. Coupled with his obvious musical gifts and smart, stripped-down arrangements, these songs continue to shine beyond their genre and era. By encapsulating a common white American male experience from the mid-twentieth century – both bitter and humorous, violent and transcendent – their contrast with the rest of his lovey-dovey work couldn’t be starker.

True to their genre, these songs don’t cut loose. They’re not loud or funky, or exploding with electric guitars or dizzying solos. Yet the ones that rock, rock well enough. There’s no yearning for freedom or rebellion in these songs. And they almost always involve either violence or an unpleasant run-in with authority. The protagonists of these songs typically want, or are willing to fight for, one of three things: money, social status, or women. And they either get it or they don’t.

This might warrant comparisons with Bruce Springsteen [5], another East Coast Italian-American, who’s a few years younger than Croce but emphasizes similar themes. But where Springsteen suffered from a Marxian blind spot for the foibles of his precious working class, Croce saw it all clearly enough and treated class struggles as if they were some kind of game, with the winners coming out on top for a reason.

A great example is “Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues [6],” an upbeat pop ditty which was released posthumously in 1974. It’s about a guy who’s tired of working at a car wash and dreams of an “executive position” somewhere, even while refusing to earn the qualifications for such a job. The man thinks he can just talk his way to the top. And when that doesn’t pan out, we get this amazing song:

Well, I had just got out of the county prison
Doing ninety days for non-support
Tried to find me an executive position
But no matter how smooth I talked they wouldn’t listen
To the fact that I was a genius
The man said we got all that we can use
Now I got them steadily depressin’, low down, mind-messin’
Workin’ at the car wash blues

He goes on with his unrealistically high opinion of himself (“A man of my abilities should be smokin’ on a big cigar”) and claiming that he deserves all the perks of leadership (for instance, “talkin’ some trash to the secretaries”) while the song’s slide guitar and fiddle mock him with their high-register flights of fancy. The song’s virtuosic percussion further makes us dance to the beat of his misfortune. Such counterpoint actually builds sympathy for the protagonist for his unflinching faith in himself. He’s a loser, but he’s willing to endure the monotony of the car wash to keep his dreams alive. As it is with many men, status is everything for him, and his present circumstances will never be good enough. And the songwriting simply sparkles:

Well, all I can do is shake my head
You might not believe that it’s true
Workin’ at this indoor Niagara Falls
Is an undiscovered Howard Hughes

So don’t expect to see me
With no double martini
In any highbrow society news
‘Cos I got them steadily depressin’, low down, mind-messin’
Workin’ at the car wash blues

Croce reaches the same kind of balance with “Box #10 [7],” a gorgeous little folksong about a country kid who heads to the big city to become a studio guitarist but can’t seem to hold on to his money. Either a pretty girl robs him blind or some tough guys beat it out of him with “a pipe upside the head.” And while the sweet melody makes us want to sympathize with this character, no explanation is given for why he blundered into these situations to begin with. The song is basically a collect call to the kid’s parents asking for money:

Hello, Mama and Dad I had to call collect
‘Cos I ain’t got a cent to my name
And I’m sleeping in the hotel doorway
And tonight they said it’s gonna rain . . .

Where these two songs focus on losers, Croce gives time to winners as well. Two particular songs stand out: “Rapid Roy [8],” a rockabilly send-up about a famous stock-car racer, and “Speedball Tucker [9],” a churning rocker about a fearless truck driver who’s the “terror of the highways.” Both of these guys enjoy high status in their chosen fields, and these songs eulogize their greatness. In the absence of real misfortune, Croce delves into the very masculine details of their lives to the point of becoming what I would call the white Chuck Berry.

We learn about Rapid Roy’s tattoos, where he keeps his cigarettes, the name of his girlfriend, and the kind of car he drives. Here’s a great verse:

Rapid Roy that stock-car boy
He’s the best driver in the land
You know he say that he learned to race a stock car
By runnin’ shine outta Alabam’

Oh, the demolition derby
And the figure eight
Is easy money in the bank
Compared to runnin’ from the man
In Oklahoma City
With a five-hundred-gallon tank

And with Speedball, the details are equally vivid:

I drive a broke down rig on Maypop tires
Forty foot of overload
A lot of people say that I’m crazy
Because I don’t know how to take it slow
I got a broomstick on the throttle
I got her opened up and head right down
Non-stop back to Dallas
Poppin’ them West Coast turnarounds

This is straight-up trucker lingo, with “Maypop” being a brand of tire and “West Coast turnarounds” referring to a kind of upper truckers take to keep them awake on long hauls. In real life, only guys would care about such details, and highlighting them in a song not so much excludes women but celebrates what men must endure in order to leave their stamp on the world.

Note also how competitive these two characters are: Rapid Roy must outpace the other racers just as Speedball has to outpace the cops. Their status depends on it. Life is a game to these men, and there are winners and losers. “The Top Hat Bar and Grille [10],” a hopping, bluesy rocker, embodies this dichotomy perfectly. The song first introduces us to a “honky tonky, little bit chunky” waitress who knows how to “boogie woogie.” If you’re lucky, you’ll do the nasties with her, too. Then, however, the song introduces us to the bar’s body-building bouncer, who’ll do the boogie woogie on your face if you get out of line or try to leave without paying. Yeah, he can get pretty nasty, too.

Of Croce’s short list of great songs, exactly one deals primarily with a woman. Ironically, however, in “Roller Derby Queen [11],” a man becomes infatuated with a woman for her masculine qualities. This makes the song surreal and a kind of hilarious precursor to “Whole Lotta Rosie” by AC/DC, which celebrates a woman for being, well, too much of a woman. You’ll notice that in all of these songs so far, Croce uses numbers to help flesh out his mythos: ninety days in jail, Box #10, five-hundred-gallon tank, forty foot of overload. “Five Short Minutes” is another one. In these songs, as with most things that men care about, numbers matter. In “Roller Derby Queen,” Croce uses numbers to size a woman up – but not in the typical manner. Men usually size up women with three measurements – bust, waist, and hips – which are pretty good indicators of classic feminine beauty. (The aforementioned Rosie comes in at an astonishing 42-39-56.)

Croce, however, sizes up his roller derby queen using only two: height and weight.

She was five-foot-six
And 215
A bleach-blonde mama
With a streak of mean
She knew how to knuckle
And she knew how to scuffle and fight

It’s like he’s sizing up a heavyweight prizefighter with these numbers. Despite the amorous attention lavished on a single woman, “Roller Derby Queen” remains consistent with most of the themes found in Croce’s great songs: namely status, competition, and violence.

So far, we have a list of authentic American pop songs that will be around for as long as people have a demand for authentic American pop songs. These songs rise to the top of an extremely broad genre of music and will be able to connect with people for a long time to come.

That’s quite a feat in and of itself. However, there are two more Jim Croce songs that, I would argue, go even deeper than this – and if you are at all familiar with Croce’s work, you already know which ones they are. These songs evoke a timeless mythology of fighting men and a world in which strength, stature, prowess, and reputation serve to extend a man’s power over other men. Crucial to this narrative is the promise of the showdown. Think Achilles and Hector, Sanger Rainsford and General Zaroff, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Batman and Bane, Gary Cooper in High Noon. Of course, I am referring to Croce’s two greatest and most famous songs, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and the poundingly rhythmic “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim [12].”

Both of these songs transcend genre and can be applied anywhere and at any time: club-wielding cavemen, Japanese samurais, dueling officers, barbarian warlords, feuding Khans, it all fits – as long as you have aggressive men with insufficient resources to go around (and yes, in this case, women are a resource). In both songs, an alpha male gets a little too full of himself and has to face a challenge from a determined rival. The encounter is primal and bloody, and there is only one winner. For Leroy Brown, the dispute is over a woman. For Big Jim Walker, it’s over money. You can’t get more universal and masculine than that. While remaining true to Croce’s major themes, these songs rise to the top of the Croce heap because the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Both songs also have special meaning for the Dissident Right today.

Although Croce never makes it explicit, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” is about a black man. When studied carefully, the song reveals race realism in its main character, setting, language, and action. The story takes place in Chicago’s South Side, a notorious black neighborhood. The name itself, Leroy Brown, is stereotypically black. Leroy is a basically a thug and bully who digs pimped-out clothing, conspicuous bling, and custom-made automobiles. He’s also promiscuous as hell and armed to the teeth. Not only is Leroy Brown black, he’s blaxploitatively black.

Just as importantly, Croce sings the song almost entirely in black English. Note how he dispenses with the verb “to be” and mangles verb conjugation:

Now Leroy, he a gambler
And he like his fancy clothes
And he like to wear his diamond ring
In front of everybody’s nose

Note how he botches the indefinite article:

He got a custom Continental
He got a Eldorado too

Note how he omits auxiliary verbs:

Well, Friday, ‘bout a week ago
Leroy shootin’ dice

Note also how he blows verb tense:

Well, the two men took to fightin’
And when they pulled them from the floor
Leroy look like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone

Jim Croce basically puts on blackface for “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” It’s not ironic or condescending; it’s just the appropriate tenor to adopt when singing this kind of song. Furthermore, Croce does it well, which is yet another reason for the song’s greatness. But the fact remains that Croce’s ebonic rendition highlights the actual deficiencies and crudities of black English. The song therefore is race realist. Beyond its many superlative characteristics, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” should serve as an example for dissidents today of how to contradict the Leftist and anti-white injunctions which are currently scuttling Western Civilization. If Jim Croce could get away with being honest about black people, then so can we.[1] [13]

Then there’s “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” which hits even harder from a Dissident Right perspective. The story begins on 42nd Street in New York City, where Big Jim Walker, pool hustler extraordinaire, rules the roost. We don’t get a clear read on the man’s race; he could be black or white. Croce descends into a bit of Ebonics in this song, so you be the judge:

Yeah, he big and dumb as a man can come
But he’s stronger than a country hoss
And when the bad folks all get together at night
You know they all call big Jim “Boss”

Yeah, I’d like to think of him as black.

Then enter Willie “Slim” McCoy, whom Walker had recently hustled. McCoy says he wants his money back, but he really wants something more. What follows is one of my all-time favorite verses in pop music:

Well, outta south Alabama come a country boy
He say I’m lookin’ for a man named Jim
I am a pool-shootin’ boy
My name is Willie McCoy
But down home they call me Slim
Yeah, I’m lookin’ for the King of 42nd Street
Drivin’ a drop-top Cadillac
Last week he took all my money
And it may sound funny
But I come to get my money back
And everybody say, Jack, don’t you know

And you don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim

Two clues point to the fact that Willie McCoy is indeed white. One, he’s from south Alabama, which is about as redneck and as deep into the former Confederacy as you can get; and two, Croce calls McCoy a “country boy.” Yes, blacks do live in the Alabama countryside, but the expression “country boy,” as in “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams, Jr., typically refers to a white guy, not a black one. So when looking only at the text, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” can be seen as a fight between a white and a black. And the white wins.

What does McCoy really have on his mind when he walks into Big Jim’s pool room? Nothing less than murder. He wants to get back what’s his and leave Jim in pieces on the floor. This is essentially what happens, and I love how Croce describes it:

And when the cuttin’ was done
The only part that wasn’t bloody
Was the soles of the big man’s feet

“You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” should hold special meaning for the Dissident Right because it parallels the white experience vis-à-vis the Left and the hordes of non-whites currently invading the West. We had something great once. It got hustled from us by criminals, frauds, and liars. And now we want it back. I predict that the current culture wars will culminate in a bloody fight which will closely resemble the fight scene in this song. Whites will wake up and realize that they will have no choice but to fight in order to regain what they once had.

And when that happens, every single one of us should become Willie McCoy and arm ourselves with the words of Jim Croce:

Well, outta south Alabama come a country boy . . .

Note

[1] [14] I am sure Croce’s widow would be appalled to see her deceased husband’s work dissected like this on a White Nationalist Website. She should understand, though, that the Social Justice Warriors of the Left, once they take over the United States – or what’s left of it – will ban this song for being racist. It won’t matter that Croce was Italian, or converted to Judaism, or was a really nice guy, or voted for George McGovern, or whatever. White men are not allowed to imitate black people, and they are certainly not allowed to tell the truth about them. And that’s that.

Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You [15].