I don’t really know how well Jim Croce is remembered; my barometer for his level of fame is sort of broken. Croce is one of those artists that has always been a favorite in my family, so I grew up knowing who he was and listening to his music. The second single I ever owned was “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Croce had a music hall sensibility. His songs often told stories, sometimes sounding like something from the 1940s. But then he could turn around and pen the template for the quintessential 70s love song (“Time In a Bottle”). He wore a lot of musical hats for someone who died at 30.
“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” is one of his story songs, full of the same kind of unsavory characters that made “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” such a success about a year later. The plot is that a “pool shootin’ son of a gun” named Big Jim Walker has cheated an Alabama man named Willie McCoy, “Last week he took all my money, and it may sound funny, but I come to get my money back.” Everyone warns him that Big Jim is not someone to tangle with. “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask of that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim.” When Jim arrives, he is beaten, stabbed, and shot by Willie, who importantly goes by Slim. Because at the end of the song, “you don’t mess around with Slim.”
These days, a tune with this subject matter and level of violence would be a rap song (and probably be more graphic and explicit). It would probably raise the ire of some conservative parents group who would claim that children would be psychologically damaged if they heard this song. The album would surely be labelled with a warning sticker. It certainly wouldn’t get played on the radio. In 1972, this made the Top Ten of the mainstream singles chart. Times have indeed changed.
Looking back, there’s a lot of songs I knew all the words to when I was still in single digits that media watchdogs would be shocked about. I mean, I remember sitting in the back of my aunt’s 1969 Duster (on top of the lowered back seat, no child safety restraints of any sort) singing “The Gambler” at the top of my lungs. I had “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” memorized when I was four. Of course, I had precious little comprehension of any of these lyrics. “Afternoon Delight”? That was just a fun song about fireworks as far as I was concerned. I thought the razor kept in Leroy’s shoe was like the plastic kind my daddy shaved with. I’m sure I asked the occasional uncomfortable question about the things I heard, but for the most part I was kind of oblivious.
I think most kids are kind of oblivious to things like that. If they don’t understand it, they ask questions or they automatically translate it into something they understand. Which makes me even more annoyed at the level of censorship I hear on broadcast radio these days. A few years ago, around the time of the famous Wardrobe Malfunction, everyone became deathly afraid of the FCC and groups like Focus on the Family. Radio especially began self-censoring to avoid even the slightest hint of something that might be offensive. Suddenly, songs began getting cuss words stripped out. Other songs, such as “Walk on the Wild Side,” which used to be relegated to the early morning hours got banned altogether. (Funny story: Long before any of this, I heard “Walk on the Wild Side” on K-Earth 101, and to keep their wholesome image intact, they edited out the verse about Candy. Never mind the transvestite, the overdosing junkie, or the male prostitute. Just get rid of the girl performing oral sex.) It’s one of the reasons I’m really starting to like satellite radio. I can hear Roger Daltry ask “Who the fuck are you?” I can hear about all the degeneracy of Lou Reed’s New York nightlife. And I can hear about how Big Jim Walker got murdered by some guy named Slim. And I don’t have to worry about anyone imposing their morality on me.
And once again, a song has taken me somewhere I didn’t expect to go. And that’s just another reason why I love music so much.