'Round the Dial
Wednesday 06 August @ 10:42:30
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: ““There are certain things I feel need to be done in terms of music and performance, and what these things amount to is that the world doesn’t need another posturing clown yammering away about his ‘baby.’”
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Many a Fine Lady”
—Townes Van Zandt
Hey, hey, boys ’n’ girls!! It’s good to be back with ‘Round The Dial after last week’s unplanned hiatus. I trust you all managed to survive a whole week without your ‘Dial fixes, and that there were no threatening e-mails or stinkbombs sent to my esteemed editors...? Ah, that’s good, ‘cuz I actually volunteered to take the week off so we could squeeze in my in-depth interview with local metal maven Earl “Root Of All Evil” Root. A thousand gracious thanks to Pulse’s new music editor, Rob van Alstyne, for going to bat for Earl and me, and putting together a top-notch tribute to one of the Twin Cities’ true musical gems. OK, that being said, I’m going to take a breather for a while from all that fire ’n’ brimstone, death ’n’ decay black metal and feed my head with a whole shitload of soft, quiet, mellow tunes like The Palace Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, Vic Chesnutt, and Jim Croce.
Jim Croce - more than a moustache
That’s right, I said Jim Croce. Betcha thought I was just kiddin’, eh? Naw, I’ve always had a soft spot for ol’ Croce, and I can actually remember the exact moment I realized that the tough lookin’, mustachioed singer/songwriter was of a different breed than the average 1972-era crooner. I’d heard his breakthrough hit, the saucy, silly novelty tune “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” a few months earlier, so I was vaguely familiar with what I thought was the man’s trademark sound. Of course, as an 8 year-old budding music fanatic, I’d thought that song was just the cat’s meow—all Lee Marvin/John Wayne-style raunch and outlaw posing—but I was about to discover that Jim had a completely different side to his writing.
My parents were friends with a couple who had two boys a few years younger than myself, and they’d taken to leaving my sister and me with them when going out for one of their rare (at that time) nights out on the town. On this particular summer evening, the husband was gone on a fishing trip and my little sister was spending the night with another family, leaving just the two boys, their mother, and I to while away the endless Alaskan dusk. Once 10 o’ clock or so rolled around, the two boys drifted off to sleep and I lay sleepless, uncomfortable in an unfamiliar bed, the dim Northern sun stabbing at my eyeballs through the too-small curtains covering the bedroom window. As I tried various methods of reaching sleep-itude, I began to hear the strangest sounds from downstairs. Loud slapping noises followed by animal-like grunts and what can only be described as short screeches.
I told myself that the sounds must be coming from the television, ‘cause I knew my little pal’s ma was home alone down there, and I sure didn’t want to think that maybe some lunatic had broken into the place and was in the process of mauling and murdering her. This night, I was more curious than afraid, though, and so I slipped off the bed and crept down the hall to take a peek over the stairway bannister. As I neared the edge of the railing, I heard the radio playing, plain as day, behind the rather gruesome (to my 8 year old ears, anyway) noises coming from the living room. The song wafting out of the old-fashioned console stereo was “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels),” the heavy-duty, emotional follow-up to Jim Croce’s summer fun single “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” I recognized the voice immediately, though I’d never heard the tune before and it was the polar opposite, in every way, from the song I did know. As the mournful, high lonesome vocals weaved and blended with precise, heart-rending lead guitar lines, the primeval moans, groans, and slapping noises took on an even more urgent rhythm, getting faster and faster, louder and louder.
I rounded the corner, knelt down by the landing, and almost gasped out loud at the sight that met my innocent young eyes. There, splayed out on the bright red, deep shag carpet, in a very unlady-like position, was the mother of my two school chums. And on top of her, doing what was surely (once again, to my 8 year-old eyes) an unnatural act of some sort, was a guy I’d seen around the place before, a fishing buddy of the woman’s husband. Now, I was no stranger to the sounds of the ol’ bump n’ grind—my old man was a pretty randy fellow, and we’d always lived in rather humble abodes, where any sounds made after the lights and TV went out were highly discernible in any part of the pad. But this—this wasn’t just what your ma and dad did after the Tonight Show, man—this was hardcore porn, unfolding like the Devil in Miss Jones right there on the living room floor in front of me. And not only that, but it was my friend’s MOM and some grungy hippie guy who couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22 years old. I was mortified, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the horrific scenario. As their unfaithful union reached a crescendo of slapping, groaning and screeching, the Croce song wound down and faded. I watched the pair collapse in a heap of sweaty flesh and long hair and turned to go back to bed.
There, on the floor behind me, were my two little buds, wide-eyed, staring in shock at what they surely thought was their mother being assaulted. That struck me as more cruel, more insensitive, and more devastating than any feelings of betrayal that the poor bastard husband was going to experience when he found out about his wife’s and friend’s infidelity. Those kids were going to be scarred for life, I thought, and I probably will be too. I herded the two off to bed, told ‘em scary stories (though none seemed quite as shocking as what we’d just witnessed), and we eventually drifted off to sleep. We never talked about that night again, and none of us ever blabbed to our parents about it, either. One smart lesson learned young, then—never get involved in a cheatin’ situation, cuz ya always end up the enemy.
Of course, adulthood has brought a certain perspective to the preceding events for me. I realize that the ma wasn’t necessarily evil, although she certainly wasn’t very responsible and she was, no doubt, a bit of a hosebag. And the friend, the “doer” of the deed, well, he wasn’t a villain either. Just a horny young guy who couldn’t resist the charms of a sexy older woman. His worst sin was betraying his friend, and he’d have to live with that for the rest of his life. And yeah, he was kind of a hosebag, too. As for the boys and myself, we went on doin’ the same shit other kids did back then—playin’ army and cowboys and Indians and basically torturing each other at every possible turn. A few years later, both of our parents would divorce acrimoniously, with infidelity being a large part of those splits.
In any case, the one good thing I did take away from that bizarre childhood experience was a deeper love for and understanding of Jim Croce’s music. He went on to churn out a slew of killer folk/pop nuggets, including the devastating “One Less Set Of Footsteps,” the goofy kinda-follow-up to “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” a modern-day Stagger Lee bouncer called “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” the powerful self-recognition film soundtrack (to the movie “The Last American Hero”) number “I Got A Name,” the steamy ballad “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song,” and the incomparable ode to love and death, “Time In A Bottle.”
But it was always “Operator” that stuck with me, and there were a few times in my life when every goddamn word of that song hit me like a ton of bricks. And though it wasn’t easy bein’ on the wrong end of the cheatin’ train, it certainly helped to have tunes like that around to ease the pain. That an’ bottles of misty liquid bliss to help pass them long nights. So I thought it might be cool to break down the lyrics to “Operator,” and examine them apart from the lame ‘70s schlock that surrounded the song on the radio when it was released. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no Mac Davis, baby. This is the real deal—kickass songwriting and vocals, stellar lead pickin’ (courtesy of Jim’s longtime axeman, Maury Muehleisen), and a soul-weary, lovelorn, crushed vibe of resignation that can only come straight from the heart.
You won’t find a lot of songs like this on the air today (apart from oldies formats); though Spin and Rolling Stone are claiming that we’re in the middle of another sensitive singer/songwriter boom the likes of which we haven’t seen since the heyday of James “Sweet Baby” Taylor and his ilk. In my humble opinion, however, the self-absorbed, insipid whining of the fashion-conscious dorks populating today’s air/video waves aren’t—and will never be—so much as a tiny fart in a gale-force wind compared to the honest, spiritually-grounded material of artists like Croce. Jim died young—as most of the good ones seem to—when he and Maury’s plane went down in September of 1973. He was 30 years old, and left behind a wife and son, A.J., who’s now a rising singer/songwriter with his own style. The hits, though, just kept coming. Croce had three top tens and one top forty chartmaker in the year following his demise, and is still revered today by those in the know who dig the good stuff.
OK, enough with the dramatic buildup, already. If you’ve got a copy of “Operator,” throw it in your deck and spin it ... you can follow along as we dissect the track and FEEL it along with Jim. If you don’t have a copy of the song, drop this paper immediately and head down to your local independent record shop, where you can easily find JIM CROCE’S GREATEST HITS, out on K-Tel in 1980. I never consciously pictured the wronged husband in this little aural scenario, but I guess hearing it did give me a deeper understanding of the consequences of a good love gone bad that most 8 year olds didn’t possess. One more thing—I can’t quite explain why I see Jim making this call from a cold, lonely phone booth on a street corner in Philadelphia after bar closing, but I guess it’s better than picturing what was goin’ down the first time I heard the song, eh? And now, without further ado, let’s drop a dime and join Mr. C. as he connects to good ole Ma Bell and pours his guts out to a complete stranger...
“Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)”
By: Jim Croce
Copyright 1972 Blendingwell Music
“Operator, well could you help me place this call?”
(the first sign of how dated this song is—who actually TALKS to a live operator now?)
“See, the number on the matchbook is old and faded”
(“old and faded” hmmm...it’s been a while, huh, Jim?)
“She’s living in L.A. with my best old ex-friend Ray”
(uh-huh. His best old EX-friend Ray. Jim never once in this song says an actual cross word towards Ray, but those two little letters—EX—say more than a volume could)
“A guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated”
(and that’s another thing—it seems the more someone carps and complains about one of their partner’s friends, the more likely they are to end up doin’ the boot-knock boogie with said person. Weird, huh?)
“Isn’t that the way they say it goes?”
(I was never really sure who Jim meant when he said “they,” but now I figure he meant all those other crooners in the past: Elvis, the Everly Brothers, the Supremes, all the kings and queens of heartbreak)
“Well, let’s forget all that, and give me the number if you can find it/So I can call just to tell ‘em I’m fine an’ to show”
(I find it telling that Jim says “tell ‘EM,” meaning THEM, not just HER, that he’s doing fine. He really, really, really wants RAY to know he’s not bothered a bit by his runnin’ off with the woman of his dreams. Typical guy shit, reminds me of George Harrison repeatedly swearing it never bothered him that Eric Clapton was fucking his wife. Gimme a break.)
“I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well”
(of course, we know this is all bullshit, or Jim wouldn’t be standing in a cold phone booth trying to establish a personal relationship with an operator)
“I only wish my words could just convince myself that it just wasn’t real/But that’s not the way it feels”
(the greatest line in the song, the hook, and totally true. He never can tell us how it really does feel, we assume it really sucks, but we only know how it DOESN’T FEEL)
“Operator, could you help me place this call?/’Cause I can’t read the number that you just gave me/There’s something in my eyes, you know it happens everytime”
(See, this was back before all those nerdy, sweater-wearin’ college indie rock dudes started playing the Mr. Sensitive role, back when seeing a great big tough guy with a mustache crying in a phone booth meant one of only three things—death, tax problems, or a broken heart. So “something in my eyes” was Jim’s way of saying he knew how ridiculous that kind of macho posturing was, and he didn’t subscribe to it. Cool!)
“I think about the love that I thought would save me”
(I don’t think I need to even go into the psychological ramifications of this line, do I?)
“But isn’t that the way they say it goes/But let’s forget all that, and give me the number if you can find it.”
(here he starts the waffling that takes this song out to its fade, exposing the incredible battle going on in his heart and head, wanting to hear her voice so bad he can taste it, but knowing what a loser they’ll think he is—as if they already didn’t—when he calls their happy little home out of the blue)
“So I can call just to tell ‘em I’m fine an’ to show/I’ve overcome the blow”
(and it was a BLOW! Not just a bummer, or a drag, or a brief moment of pain, but a BLOW! Damn.)
“I’ve learned to take it well/I only wish my words could just convince myself/ That it just wasn’t real/But that’s not the way it feels, no no no no/That’s not the way it feels/Operator, well, let’s forget about this call”
(yep, total waffling now. I always wondered if the operator was getting pissed by this point in the conversation, but then I figured Jim was probably actually PLAYING the song over the phone line, and who the hell would complain about THAT?)
“There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to”
(liar, liar, pants on fire, Jim! But the smartest move you could ever have made was to cut the call off before it happened. Don’t let ‘em know shit, man!)
“Thank you for your time, oh you’ve been so much more than kind”
(that much, at least, is true. Today’s operators—if you could possibly reach a live human being on the phone—would surely have hung up after the first verse)
You can keep the dime
(DIME? Ha. Ha. At the rate payphone charges have gone up, by the time this song is a hundred years old, it’ll be a hundred dollars to make a local call. But by that time, we’ll all be victims of Zaeger & Evans’ “2525” and won’t care about silly things like love and romance anymore. Right?)
“Isn’t that the way they say it goes, but let’s forget all that”
“And give me the number if you can find it”
(See, he’s back at it again! The last chorus doesn’t find Jim walking proudly out of the booth into the cold city air, or even shuffling off with a beaten demeanor and tears rolling down his cheeks. Nope, not Jim. He’s destined to stay in this phone booth for eternity, waiting for new generations of star-crossed lovers and spurned spouses to dig his groove, and you can bet he’s out there somewhere tonight, waitin’ for that operator to answer)
“So I can call just to tell ‘em I’m fine an’ to show/I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well/I only wish my words could just convince myself/That it just wasn’t real, but that’s not the way it feels”
Well, I doubt that that there little testimonial will cause a huge jump in Jim Croce’s record sales, but then, I don’t think he really needs my help at this point. I guess maybe it was my way of tellin’ Jim how I first discovered what a destroyed, hopeless romantic he was, and how much like him I became, and that sometimes trauma and the brutal, jolting ugliness of reality injected into a young kid’s world can actually leave behind a trace of something good—for me, it was Jim’s music. It might be for you, too. Check it out. That’s it for me this week—until next time, make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this column, or you’d just like to suggest a song for future dissection, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.