Deconstructing Lyrical Mythologies: Operator by Jim Croce

One of the artists I list as an influence when asked is Jim Croce. Not that I’m anywhere NEAR his level of picking, but his keen sense of storytelling and pacing had me rapt from the time I could comprehend language.

Time In A Bottle, Rapid Roy, Carwash Blues, You Don’t Mess Around with Jim, I Got A Name, Roller Derby Queen, New York’s Not My Home… There are more, but those are the songs I could list from memory.

Operator is THE unrequited love story of… my whole life. You know that feeling when you know how the story SHOULD go, because that’s how Hollywood would have written it? I mean, life ISN’T a Hollywood plot MOST of the time, but a good story is a good fucking story, and Operator is a GREAT story told in a VERY ingenious manner. AND he made it sound. SO. easy. I wanted to write stories like THAT.

In fact, Operator was so iconic that when the Martin guitar company released 73 custom guitars in honor of Jim, a 1973 dime was set into the fretboard at the third fret of each instrument as an homage to the final line in the song, “You can keep the dime.” The quantity 73 was not at all random, either. It was to commemorate the year in which he died as was the year of the coin.

Have I told you I’m a ridiculously, irrevocably, infuriatingly stubborn romantic? No?

Weird.

Here’s the thing about this song that makes it age well: It’s VERY specifically set in time. It’s SO specific that, much like the solid wood of a well cared for guitar, it can only grow more warm, deep, and nuanced with age. It’s the kind of song that, if it were an epic poem, it would have translations and Cliff’s Notes and it would be studied in AP English classes.

I’m NOT biased. YOU’RE BIASED!!!

The title Operator (for those of you born after 1980), refers to a particular job called a Switchboard Operator wherein a human person was required to physically connect incoming phone calls from a switchboard within a particular facility.

According to Wikipedia (because my research is lazy AF), “Emily Nutt became the first female telephone operator on 1 September 1878 when she started working for the Boston Telephone Dispatch company, because the attitude and behavior of the teenage boys previously employed as operators was unacceptable.”

SHOCKER

“Reclaiming my time” seems like an appropriate mantra at this juncture….

According to this New York Times article, on October 11, 1983, “Scores of residents crowded around a switchboard (…) and cheered today as the last hand-cranked telephone system in the country was disconnected.”

So, somewhere between the mid 1800s and early 1980s, this was a job people could do. Well….a job women could do.

So. Specific!

NOW, picture this: In order to contact a person via telephone, one would have to dial into a general switchboard, typically by dialing zero, and request that the operator connect you to the desired party. You know, back when humans interacted and shit….

Another thing that makes this song SO sweet is the vulnerability of the protagonist. This dude is in pain. And rightly so! His lover leaves him for his best friend? That’s cold. But it’s how he chooses to process these feelings that gives the song it’s arc. I mean, he COULD have gone all Don’t Mess Around with Jim or Bad Bad Leroy Brown on this motherfucker. But he doesn’t. He talks out his feels. Like an adult.

Let’s break it down. (Usually I’d annotate, but I won’t this time because the story is so good, I don’t need to.)

Operator, well could you help me place this call?
See, the number on the matchbook is old and faded
She’s living in L.A. with my best old ex-friend Ray
A guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated

Isn’t that the way they say it goes? Well, let’s forget all that
And give me the number if you can find it
So I can call just to tell ’em I’m fine and to show
I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well
I only wish my words could just convince myself
That it just wasn’t real, but that’s not the way it feels

Operator, well could you help me place this call?
Well, I can’t read the number that you just gave me
There’s something in my eyes, you know it happens every time
I think about a love that I thought would save me

Isn’t that the way they say it goes? Well, let’s forget all that
And give me the number if you can find it
So I can call just to tell ’em I’m fine and to show
I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well
I only wish my words could just convince myself
That it just wasn’t real, but that’s not the way it feels
No, no, no, no – that’s not the way it feels

Operator, well let’s forget about this call
There’s no one there I really wanted to talk to
Thank you for your time, ah, you’ve been so much more than kind
you can keep the dime (Squeeeeeeee!!!!!!)

Isn’t that the way they say it goes? Well, let’s forget all that
And give me the number if you can find it
So I can call just to tell ’em I’m fine and to show
I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well
I only wish my words could just convince myself
That it just wasn’t real, but that’s not the way it feels

Have a song you’d like me to de-mythstify? Let me know in the comments below!

One Response to “Deconstructing Lyrical Mythologies: Operator by Jim Croce”

  1. KRZ says:

    Beautifully written and analyzed. The love, the broken heart, betrayal and dated in a place and time that will never return. An intelligent, beautiful song.
    Well done Em.

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