BOOTLEG FILES 527: “Jim Croce VTN Free Concert” (1973 concert starring the singer-songwriter).
LAST SEEN: The concert is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It may have been on VHS and Betamax back in the 1970s.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No one appears eager to clear the music rights and pay for a full-blown restoration.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at this time.
Back in the early 1970s, a company called Video Tape Network Inc. (VTN) specialized in offering programming for American college communities. VTN utilized closed-circuit television for the broadcasting of their programs, which consisted of documentaries and cult movies including “Reefer Madness.” VTN offered its line-up under the slogan “Television that won’t rot your mind.”
Not surprisingly, many colleges viewed VTN’s offerings with a high degree of skepticism – relatively little of the company’s presentations had any connection to academia. By April of 1973, when VTN announced it was producing a series of free concerts featuring the leading performers of the day, the company had a presence at only 235 colleges.
Billed as the “VTN Free Concert,” the program consisted of half-hour sets that colleges could broadcast on their closed-circuit campus networks for 10 days. VTN provided posters and other promotional materials to highlight the shows. In some ways, the most poignant of the VTN Free Concerts featured singer/songwriter Jim Croce, who was killed in a plane crash a few months after his show was videotaped.
Croce had been kicking around the music industry since the mid-1960s, but only began to achieve success with the 1972 album “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” Croce’s music offered a distinctive blend of melodramatic ballads that plumbed raw emotional crises and light comic commentary on clueless individuals with a penchant for self-destructive behavior. By mid-1973, Croce’s star ascended high enough to warrant a number of high-profile television appearances, including a co-hosting gig on “The Midnight Special.”
For his VTN Free Concert appearance, Croce performed in a studio without an audience. Except for guitarist Maury Muehleisen accompanying him on back-up vocals and guitar, there were no other performers joining the show.
Croce began his set with “Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” and his gritty acoustic rendition lacked the bouncy fun of the polished (and, admittedly, overproduced) version that appeared on his album of the same name. He then followed with “New York’s Not My Home” before launching into a rambling tale of how he found the inspiration for the comic tune “Roller Derby Queen.” At one point in the story, Croce speaks about drinking Ripple, which he describes as “the wine that has never seen a grape – you know, made by Dupont.” And while the song is fun, the set-up for the tune gave the impression that it would be a lot more entertaining.
For the most part, the concert’s videography was mostly straightforward and a bit desultory. For Croce’s hit song “Operator,” the show’s visual style changed dramatically, with a 180-degree camera spin around Croce and a bit of trickery that gives the impression of two Croces singing to each other.
Croce then launched into “These Dreams” and, after a brief and belated acknowledgment of Muehleisen, he performed “Rapid Roy.” This was followed by another rambling story, with insight into the inspiration behind “Speedball Trucker” and other assorted trivia (including the announcement that Reading, Pennsylvania, was the “pretzel capital of the world.” “Speedball Trucker” concludes the set, and the concert abruptly closes.
Information on the production behind the Croce concert is difficult to locate, so it is unclear just when the show was taped. “Roller Derby Queen” and “Speedball Trucker” were included in his “Life and Times” album that was released in July 1973, so one could assume the show was taped during the summer of that year. The selection of songs in this concert is also a bit peculiar, with Croce omitting two of his bigger hits (“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Time in a Bottle”) for several of his less popular compositions. And while “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” would obviously not have the same impact in an acoustic version, “Time in a Bottle” could have easily fit this presentation, and its absence is a shame.
But despite its shortcomings, the concert offers an intriguing glimpse at a creative artist at the peak of his success. And this would have been a final peak – Croce very quickly grew tired of the demands that stardom brought, and he expressed the hope to withdraw from the music world following the production on his “I Got a Name” album in the summer of 1973.
Alas, Croce left the music industry – and, for that matter, the world – while at the peak of his fame. On September 20, 1973, Croce, along with Muehleisen and four others – died in an airplane crash in Louisiana. “I Got a Name” was posthumously released in December 1973 and became one of the biggest selling albums of 1974.
As for Croce’s VTN Free Concert, that reached its campus audiences in early 1974, while “I Got a Name” was climbing the sales charts. Betamax and VHS copies of this concert were reportedly made available in the late 1970s, though whether this was authorized by VTN for retail distribution is unclear. The production has been out of official circulation for more than three decades. An unauthorized posting of this concert can be found on YouTube.
In an ideal world, the Croce show and the rest of the VTN Free Concert offerings would be repackaged for DVD and Blu-ray release. However, clearing the music and performance rights while digitally restoring these video productions would probably cost too much – and, as a result, these shows remain unavailable.
Thankfully, the bootleg version on YouTube is keeping Croce’s magic alive, while giving contemporary viewers an idea of how music and video overlapped four decades ago.
P.S. A special thanks needs to go out to Chris Sobienak, who tipped me off to this title via a Facebook posting. Hey, you never know what you can find on Facebook!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!