In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The moment you first find out you’re about to become a father, your brain just spins. All these previously unimagined future possibilities start to open up. You realize that you’re staring at your life’s one great inflection point. You suddenly have a ticking clock in front of you. You don’t really know how your entire life is about to change; you just know that it is. And while you might be excited, part of you is also going to miss this life that you’re already living. You start mourning that earlier part of your life before it’s even over. That’s how it was with me, anyway. And it seems like that’s how it was for Jim Croce, too. Croce wrote “Time In A Bottle” the night that he found out that Ingrid, his wife, was pregnant with their son. Croce died eight days before that son’s second birthday. A few months later, “Time In A Bottle” hit #1.
When Croce wrote “Time In A Bottle,” he was still a struggling musician. He’d been trying to break into the music business for his entire adult life, more or less. It hadn’t happened yet. But it would. In 1972, Croce released You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, his first major-label solo album. “Time In A Bottle” was on that album, but it wasn’t a single. It was a deep cut, buried on the second side. Croce specialized in mellow, bluesy rock — sometimes contemplative, sometimes downright silly. “Time In A Bottle” was an outlier, a fragile and rapturous acoustic love-hymn.
The silly songs were the ones that broke Croce. The title track from You Don’t Mess Around With Jim peaked at #8. (It’s a 6.) A year later, Croce hit #1 with “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Croce, suddenly famous after years of trying, started touring heavily, playing a lot of college shows. “Time In A Bottle” found an unexpected second life when ABC used it as the end-credits music for She Lives!, a made-for-TV movie about a girl dying of cancer. The movie aired in September of 1973, and a whole lot of people called in to their local ABC stations to ask where they could buy the song.
Croce had other things going on. The night that the movie aired, Croce finished recording I Got A Name, his third major-label album. (The title track eventually peaked at #10. It’s a 9.) Eight days after that, Jim Croce died. He was flying from one college show in Louisiana to another in Texas, riding in a small plane. On takeoff, the plane hit a tree and crashed. The crash killed everybody on board — Croce, primary musical collaborator Maury Muehleisen, four other people. Croce was 30.
To date, six different people have reached #1 on the Hot 100 after dying. Croce was the third. The first was Otis Redding, also killed in a plane crash, which really speaks to all the time that pop stars’ work obligations force them to spend on small and rickety planes. (The three after Croce all died of gun murders.) Of those six, Croce is one of only two who’d had a #1 hit before he died. In all of those cases, those deaths add weight and context to the music that these people recorded before dying. The songs stop just being songs. They become objects of morbid fascination, totems of wasted talent.
In light of Croce’s death, “Time In A Bottle” is positively eerie. It’s a love song about feeling time slip away, about knowing that you and the person you love will only get a certain number of days together: “If I could save time in a bottle / The first thing that I’d like to do / Is to save every day till eternity passes away / Just to spend them with you… But there never seems to be enough time.” I imagine Croce was thinking about how he and his wife were about to become a different sort of unit, about how it would never be just the two of them again. But after Croce’s death — or even just after the song was used in that TV movie — its meaning changed. It became a song about mortality, about something a whole lot more final than the arrival of this baby. A song about new life became a song about death.
It’s a gorgeous piece of work. Muehleisen’s acoustic guitar, multi-tracked and fleshed out with strings and harpsichord, becomes a weird little hypnotic symphony. Croce usually had a pretty workmanlike voice, a plainspoken sing-speak thing. But on “Time In A Bottle,” he goes into his upper register and finds an an almost ethereal quaver. The song works as psychedelic folk — not in the sense that it has a lot of guitars screaming in different directions, but in the sense that it can knock you out of your day-to-day reality and send you off on an inward feelings-journey. It’s probably the best thing Croce ever recorded, and I have a hard time imagining hearing the song without the specter of death hovering over it.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 1978 episode of The Muppet Show where a scientist sings “Time In A Bottle” while attempting to brew up a youth potion:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis singing “Time In A Bottle” in the 2011 movie The Hangover Part II:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The best scene in the 2014 movie X-Men: Days Of Future Past is the one where Quicksilver runs around and switches up a bunch of bullets’ trajectories while listening to “Time In A Bottle” on his Walkman. I’ll never understand how Quicksilver can listen to songs on regular speed while time slows down all around him, but I am willing to just go with it. The X-Men movies are generally pretty bad, but of the three different screen versions of speedster superheroes (X-Men Quicksilver, Avengers Quicksilver, Justice League Flash), X-Men Quicksilver is easily the best. Here’s that scene:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lykke Li’s one-off 2018 cover of “Time In A Bottle”: