Wondering What We Missed

Originally posted May 14, 2007

In one of the last Baker’s Dozens I posted here, the final song was “Rock & Roll Heaven” by the Righteous Brothers, the 1974 hit cataloging at least some of those rock and pop performers who died untimely deaths. Even when it came out, I noted that a few names were missing. At the time, simply because her death had been recent, I pondered the absence of Mama Cass Elliot: Didn’t such a stellar band at least need a back-up singer? I wondered at the time whether she’d been blackballed from the heavenly band due to her ignominious end: choking on a ham sandwich. (Turns out that the sandwich story was false; she simply had a heart attack.)

Another name that was missing, of course, was Buddy Holly. Perhaps songwriters Alan O’Day (he of the 1977 hit “Undercover Angel,” I assume) and John Stevenson thought that Buddy had already gotten enough ink from Don McLean’s “American Pie” about three years earlier. Or did they just forget about him? Dunno. Same question comes to mind about Duane Allman and King Curtis.

Anyway, it’s kind of fun, if pointless, to look at the performers whom O’Day and Stevenson did mention in their song and think about what might have been, or at least consider how much we lost: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Otis Redding, Jim Croce and Bobby Darin.

And I know this is heresy in many quarters, but it seems to me – as I look at that list and think about the music those unfortunates recorded before they crossed over – that the greatest loss among them to popular culture was Jim Croce, whose first album from 1972 is linked below. I can hear the screams already. But in terms of overall songwriting and performing craft, I think that Croce would have continued to thrive for decades, not always on the top of the charts, of course, but as long-lived troubadour-type presence. Part of my thinking might stem from the fact that Croce’s end came to him in a plane crash, something utterly out of his control, while Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison fell almost entirely through their own follies.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not unsympathetic to the burden of dependencies, nor am I unaware of the pressures that came with stardom during that era (pressures that have only increased, I would guess). But the demons that felled those three – Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison – were so much a part of their times and their personal choices that I wonder how anyone could have been surprised when they died. (The same goes, a few years later, for Elvis. Was anyone truly startled when the King left the building?)

And while I believe that Croce still had a lot to say and to sing about, there’s a sense in me – from reading, from listening and from my gut – that Jim Morrison, certainly, didn’t have a lot left to say to us. I’m not so certain that was the case with Hendrix and Joplin, but the shifting landscape of popular music would have – in a very few years – made it more and more difficult for the latter two performers to have their voices heard and their visions attended to.

(I’m not dealing all that much here with the losses of Redding and Darin. Off the top of my head, I think the loss of Redding in his place crash was the second-most grievous. He’d evidently found a new voice, as evidenced by the posthumous success of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” and I imagine that as R&B evolved as it did over the next ten years, Redding would have been changing right along with it. Darin was a chameleon, shifting from traditional pop to swing to novelty to crooning to – finally, a few years before the heart problems that took him – country rock and pop. I love “Mack the Knife,” but, despite Kevin Spacey’s adoring biopic, Darin is a lesser light here.)

I have no doubt that had he survived, Jimi Hendrix would have continued to do extraordinary and revolutionary things on guitar. I’d place him at the top of any list of guitarists in the rock era. But his audience would have splintered: some to R&B, then funk, and on down the road to hip-hop, others toward what critic Dave Marsh called “the long cold winter of arena rock” and to heavy metal. And I think the same splintering, although in other directions, would have happened to Janis’ audience, too, as the Seventies rolled on.

But Jim Croce remains intriguing. A singer-songwriter with some grit and swagger, he would have evolved and adapted, I think – as would have Redding – and remained vital. Maybe Croce would have ended up embracing country music. After all, some of his story songs were only a few production elements away from it. And I can see him in today’s splintered and digitized music world, playing a role not so different from the one Bob Dylan plays today: that of the grizzled elder, reminding those around him that it wasn’t always so simple back then. But then again, it doesn’t have to be so complicated, either.

Damn, I wish we could have seen it.

Jim Croce – You Don’t Mess Around With Jim [1972]

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