Memory is a funny thing. It stashes names and events selectively in our data banks and, because we can’t remember everything that happens to us, it attaches flags to indicate how important we thought each event is in our lives. If the flag says “not important” we have a problem recalling it later.
This came to me the other day when I received an unusual phone call. “Hello, is this Don?” In this case, it was the shy, muted voice of Steve Angelucci, a voice I hadn’t heard in 20 years.
Steve and I had worked together on a weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania. Steve had been the circulation manger; I was chief cook and bottle washer. Steve had become a loyal friend who had bounced around like most of us on various jobs. Now he was calling to ask for assistance in landing a new job he was interested in.
As we talked I was reminded of Steve’s late cousin, a composer-songwriter of some renown. I can still remember the day 25 or so years ago when Steve came to tell me that his cousin was appearing at a local coffeehouse and asked would I want to join him in attending the performance.
But I was too busy trying to hold the newspaper together to take the time.
Later, Steve told me he was excited about a new album his cousin was cutting. I remember expressing best wishes for the project.
It was sometime over the next several months, as I was driving home from work one night, listening to the song “Operator” (then quickly moving up the charts) that I realized the singer was the cousin I had heard to much about, Jim Croce.
In fact, the impact of the entire incident didn’t hit home until the day Steve walked solemnly into the newspaper’s office to say that his family had gotten word that Jim had been killed in a plane crash. The tragedy had cost the world a talented performer, and Steve a close friend and relation.
Too late, I realized the import of what he had been trying to tell me for those many months. Since the time of his death more than 25 years ago, Croce’s songs — in particular, “Big, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Time in a Bottle,” “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” “Operator,” “Down the Highway,” and “I Got a Name” — have continued to receive tremendous airplay. His albums continue to sell. One after the other, biographies of Croce have been televised.
And I have become an admirer of Croce for the songs he left behind.
Steve began to write a biography of Croce and I tried to help him in a very minor way to edit it. The manuscript has been rejected by at least 20 publishers who, according to Steve, say that the public no longer remembers Croce or his songs.
“I think they’re wrong,” Steve said quietly. “I still think there’s a market out there for the biography. People remember.”
Meanwhile, I told Steve how sorry I had been down through the years that I had never gone to that coffeehouse to see him perform. “To think that I had the opportunity … “ I started to say, when he interrupted me.
“But, Don, you met Jim. I brought him into the office one day and took him back to your room and you shook hands with him. I remember it distinctly. You gave him some copies of our newspaper.”
I stammered and mumbled something about, “Are you sure?”
“There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever,” said Steve.
I was speechless. When you find that you have been living with a fiction for 25 years you cannot find any words.
There are few things better than an awkward pause, but this was one of them. I remembered so many of the events of those days, so many of the things Steve had told me about Croce, but I have no memory of the most important event of them all –the day Croce had come to my ramshackle office to meet me!.
This could have been one of the watershed events of my life to that point and I couldn’t remember it! Where was my little memory flag, the one that we se to tell ourselves how important an event is?
All I could think of was, if the music-loving public’s collective memory is no better than mine, then maybe those book publishers are right. I’m hoping they’re not. I’m betting that Jim Croce’s music will continue to be a part of our musical landscape for years to come, as they so richly deserve to be.