You Don’t Mess Around With Jim

Jeffrey Cohen

People ask writers what music they’re listening to while writing. To me, it’s kind of a silly question, equivalent to asking Picasso what he had for lunch before painting Guernica, but it seems to be a popular question. Personally, I prefer the Sound of Silence, and I don’t mean the Simon and Garfunkel song. I don’t play music while writing, most of the time. I find it distracting, much as my dog finds a shoe distracting.

I think the more interesting question is: What music do you think you are while you’re writing?

Some authors aspire to be Beethoven or Mozart; their every note is calculated and perfect. Some writers are more aiming for the Sex Pistols or The Ramones–they try to upend the conventions by which writers have been plying their trade for decades (or in some cases, centuries, even millennia). But that’s not what I mean when I ask the question, What music do you think you are? I’d love to be the Beatles, but I’m not the Beatles. I don’t push the envelope of the form; I don’t innovate so much as I take what came before and put my own personal spin on it.

What music do you think you are? That requires a sober, unsentimental vision of your place in the literary pantheon, a clear-eyed view of your own strengths and weaknesses and where they fall in with the rest of the authors out there. I’m not talking about the artist, or the artist’s life; writers who think they’re Jimi Hendrix need not string themselves out on heroin or learn to write left-handed; Dylan Schaeffer is a devotee of Barry Manilow (I don’t know if he thinks his writing is Manilow-esque), but he doesn’t have to get a hip replaced after winning an Emmy Award.

No, it’s more a question of style, attitude and perceived status (not real status, which is not easily quantified while you’re alive; perceived status, which is best manifested in the fact that everyone agrees the Rolling Stones are a bigger deal than The Who, even though both are highly respected). When you’re writing–or more to the point, when you’ve written–have you been Rachmaninoff or Dr. John? Carlos Santana (incomparable technique, needs others to do the singing) or Eric Clapton (can do both)? Phoebe Snow (amazing talent that never really found a wide audience) or Paris Hilton (no discernible talent, very large audience)?

Me? I’ve given this minutes of thought, and I have to say, when I’m writing, I think I’m Jim Croce.

Croce, who unfortunately is best known for having been killed in a 1973 plane crash at the age of 30, was an entertainer with a little edge. He wrote short songs, often with a strong sense of humor, that told stories (“Rapid Roy the Stock Car Boy,” “Roller Derby Queen,” “Five Short Minutes”), and did not aspire to be Important, so therefore was not terribly well respected until after he died.

He was a master of the three-minute pop song, having absorbed folk music, blues, rock and umpteen musical genres over an eventful but short life. He had worked with emotionally disturbed children, driven a truck, worked construction, been in the Army National Guard and toured the Middle East and Africa at the behest of the State Department. He could play over a thousand songs, from sex-obsessed ballads with lyrics by Robert Burns to “Okie From Muskogee.”

In the year that he finally became well known, he recorded and released three albums, and included some gems on each. The two major Croce hits were more or less variations on a theme: “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” followed after his death by “I Got A Name,” a song he did not write. But on those albums are such treasures as “Operator,” “These Dreams,” “Photographs and Memories,” “I’ll Have to Say I Love You In a Song” and “Time in a Bottle.”

Do I think I’m that accomplished? Of course not. Jim Croce should have long ago been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a major injustice), and I’ve written three nice little books (four, if you count the one on its way next year). But his attitude and his mission are things I can emulate. I write things meant to entertain people. They don’t try to unlock the Secret of Life, nor to complain about how terrible life is, particularly when compared with its alternative. I’m here to give you a smile and a ride, and then move on to the next thing.

I’ve had some difficulty–not a lot, but some–writing more than 70,000 words in a novel. Croce once said in an interview that he wrote three-minute songs because “that’s all I have to say.” Which wasn’t entirely true; by one account, “Don’t Mess Around With Jim” once had upwards of 30 verses, but he knew how to make his point and wasn’t interested in embellishment.

I tend to write in a quick style–I write short chapters, a good deal of dialogue, and almost no description when I can get away with it. Croce knew how to encapsulate a person into a quick phrase: “ooh, that girl looked nice,” “a dancin’, prancin’, hard-romancin’ divorcee” or, in one case, “a refrigerator with a head.” That’s something I try to do. I have the advantage of not needing to make my descriptions rhyme.

Croce had a very strong sense of humor, writing about the people he met along the way. In describing the “Roller Derby Queen,” Croce wrote, “She might be nasty; she might be fat. But I never met a person who would tell her that.” And Rapid Roy, who drove stock cars on the weekend, could “do 130 miles an hour, smilin’ at the camera with a toothpick in his mouth.” In my own writing, I tend to think humor is the point, and don’t expect to be considered a Major Novelist, even by myself.

I have already outlived Jim Croce by 19 years, and hope to continue to do so for a good number more. But I admire his work greatly, and even though I don’t think about it when I’m writing, I think we have a good deal in common.

When I said before that I don’t listen to music while writing, I was being technically accurate. But sometimes, when I’m stuck on a phrase or a plot point, I’ll clear my mind by picking up the 12-string Yamaha I’ve had for upwards of 30 years now and I will, quite often, play a Jim Croce song not terribly well. So maybe I do think I’m Jim Croce, or at least, someone who continues in spirit what he did in song.

So… who do you think YOU are?

11 thoughts on “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim

  1. Patricia Harrington

    Wow, Jeffrey. I slipped over to Murderati to read an interview from the “Editor from Hell,” as blurbed on EMWA and found your great blog. You are a writer after my own heart and tendencies. And you like Jim Croce!! Great stuff and insight that you put here and had a little smile, a lot of head nodding in agreement and a good feeling when I finished your “essay.”

    Great Going!

    Reply
  2. B.G. Ritts

    Don’t believe I’ve found myself thinking I might be anyone else, but then I don’t have a vocation that requires a creative base, so no need for similarity comparisons. There doesn’t seem to be any wishing I were someone else either, as that would invariably bring on a different set of problems than the ones I’m already familiar with. However, had you asked what I fantasize about, that would open an extremely fertile area, and one probably best left where it is as otherwise they’d be coming to take me away …

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  3. Eric Mayer

    That’s an easy one. I’m the Kinks. Heck, a lot of my early writing was trying to write concise little stories about odd, everyday characters, inspired by their sixties songs.

    The Kinks are in the Hall of Fame but still, somehow, underappreciated, never quite mega-stars. That’s because they invariably refused to catch the newest wave, almost purposefully avoided doing whatever was hot and could’ve got them a huge audience. If they were mystery writers today they’d refuse to write a thriller, or anything noir. They’d do an Agatha Christie style book instead. That’s me, as a writer.

    Reply
  4. Deni Dietz

    What a wonderful blog, Jeff! And it made me think. I used to sing professionally, so I suppose I could be Denise Dietz. But I like to think of myself as the Dixie Chicks πŸ™‚

    I don’t listen to music when I write, or edit, but I do when I reply to email. Then it’s Streisand…or vintage, pre-1990 Broadway.

    Hugs,Deni, whose voice was once compared to Judy Garland’s, but it would take me boucoup paragraphs to explain the similarities when it comes to writing.

    Reply
  5. pari noskin taichert

    Me? I’m Kirsty MacColl. What? You haven’t heard of her? Not many people have but, those who have, adore her. They’re passionate about her work.

    She was a marvelous musician and lycist who experimented with several styles and sounds. Her lyrics (when not whiny — and she wasn’t whiny very often) are filled with wit and insights. Independent, brilliant and talented — boy, I’d like to think I’m like her.

    Alas, Kirsty died in a freak diving accident off the coast of Mexico. You can find more info on her at http://www.kirstymaccoll.com/

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  6. John S

    Kirsty MacColl was the daughter of Scottish music scholar, songwriter, and performer Ewan MacColl, who is best remembered today for having written “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. She also wrote a great pop song called “They Don’t Know” which was a hit record for Tracey Ullman. If you know the record, Kirsty reportedly sang that killer solo “Bay-bee!” right after the instrumental break.

    Who do I think I am? Chet Atkins. Just played. Barely talked and hardly ever sang, but he could make anything that came into his head come out his fingers on the guitar. And one of the few times he wrote and sang a song with words, it was the charming, witty, and perceptive “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex On His Television Show?”

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  7. JT Ellison

    I have to go with Rachmaninoff. Especially the 3rd Piano Concerto. And toss in a little AC/DC and Cure. At times lyrical and beautiful, other times banging my head agaisnt the wall. That’s pretty damn fitting.

    Reply
  8. JDRhoades

    Well, as the title of my first book would indicate, I guess I’m moving towards Steve Earle. A guy who tells some tough stories, sometimes from the perspective of characters who aren’t always meant to be role models.I wouldn’t mind being Warren Zevon, though.

    Reply
  9. Charles Cohen

    I know I’m the brother of a funny, talented writer. And I wish I were Frank Sinatra too (alive, of course).

    Reply

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