"My epitaph should read, At last we can get some work done.”
That’s what Jimmy Buffett declared when asked in a 1986 Mix Magazine article about how he would like to be remembered.
James William Buffett was born on Christmas Day, 1946 in Pascagoula, Mississippi. His Newfoundland grandfather captained steamships and his dad was a marine engineer and sailor - making him an actual Son of a Son of a Sailor. In high school, he had played trombone in the band. While attending college in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he worked as a welder and electrician in a Shipyard. He avoided the Vietnam draft with college deferments and a failed physical. A fellow frat brother taught him a few guitar chords, and Jimmy seemed to appreciate the attraction that such a skill held for the young ladies in his orbit.
Buffett enjoyed the attention and the girls, and so he set out for New Orleans where he set out busking on Decatur Street and in a club or two. Soon he was off to Nashville where he envisioned himself a future country star and supported himself by becoming a music critic and reporter for Billboard Magazine. He admitted later that he was a lousy critic (he couldn't bring himself to be tough on musicians that he saw work so hard) but it gave him a perspective on what worked with audiences, how to make them more responsive, and he was able to observe some of the dirty underbelly of the music business. He managed to record a country-centric album but was depressed when it barely sold a couple hundred copies.
In what would become a famous and fortuitous friendship, Jerry Jeff Walker and Buffett hooked up in Nashville, traded some guitar licks, and shared some fun and more than a little drink. After the hangover, JJW insisted that Buffett should look him up the next time he traveled to Florida (Walker had already written "Mr. Bojangles," made a little money, and had a place in Coconut Grove.) After having little success in the Nashville scene and with a first marriage on the rocks, Jimmy took him up on the offer and traveled to Florida. While Buffett was feeling glum about his lack of any success, Jerry Jeff put him to work helping him fix his old 1947 Packard. JJW was doing pretty well, and his house was a popular spot for other singer/songwriters on the rise. Buffett was soaking it all in, and when the Packard was roadworthy, Jerry Jeff wanted to cheer Buffett up even more. They jumped in the car and headed south where JJW introduced Buffett to Key West. As he would later sing, "I Have Found Me a Home." Key West transformed him. The beaches, the sunsets, the funky vibe, a diverse beach town of shrimpers, hippies, drunks, tourists, and even a thriving LGBT community. He was a mate on a boat during the day, and performed (and partied) at night, all the while writing about his new lifestyle and cutting his first real album, "A White Sportcoat and a Pink Crustacean," released in 1973. While not a runaway bestseller, it had some fun stuff on it, including one tune that he would end up on his "Big 8" list, "Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw.)" (The Big 8 are the 8 most popular songs that he will play at every show. Margaritaville, Come Monday, Fins, Volcano, A Pirate Looks at Forty, Cheeseburger in Paradise, Why Don’t We Get Drunk, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.) Give the fans what they want.
More than one fan has noted that he could have retired on the jukebox royalties for "Why Don't We Get Drunk..." alone!
He toured colleges and bars and continued songwriting and recording. He built a loyal following with a music style that the studios barely knew how to categorize. With some slight country influence and so much sea and sun subject matter, he was at first known as a "Gulf and Western" artist. He would eventually define his own category of music, "Trop Rock," (tropical rock.) Later in his career, he would write and record duets with some big names in country music. He enjoyed the irony of having huge hits with George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith and others after having fared so poorly in Nashville when he was younger.
"...the theme of Mardi Gras is “folly chasing death,” so you gotta have fun to keep the devil away."
He was knocking out an album almost every year. After White Sportcoat... he followed up with Living and Dying in 3/4 Time and then A1A, (named for the lone highway that follows Florida's coast down to Key West.) Living and Dying produced his first hit, Come Monday, which rose to Number 3 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart and Number 30 on the Hot 100. A1A charted pretty well. With that bit of success, he found himself on the road with his Coral Reefer Band opening for the Eagles.
And then he released Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. This threw off his hit single, Margaritaville which reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and went to number one on the Easy Listening chart, also peaking at No. 13 on the Hot Country Songs list. Buffett never had a #1 hit on the Hot 100, (though he would later land #1 spots on the Country chart, Easy Listening, etc.) He confessed later that Margaritaville was originally meant as a dig at the tourists that wandered around Key West. There were some lyrics that didn't make the final cut: “Old men in tank tops/Cruisin’ the gift shops...” He wisely edited those out - why piss off the geese that are laying golden and platinum eggs?
Once a song is set free, the interpretation is left to the ears of the beholder. The unintended results mounted quickly. Key West tourism exploded, it raised Buffett's profile exponentially and made a certain Tequila and lime cocktail the favorite of revelers everywhere. It also sold a lot of blenders. A bunch. Many, many, many.
The Margaritaville back story was that he had a bad hangover in Austin, Texas, the result of a gig at a small club combined with a hard night of good fun. In a piece honoring Jerry Jeff Walker's passing, he wrote, "I went to El Rey, a Mexican restaurant on Anderson Lane for lunch. I had a margarita, which helped with the hangover, and in the car on the way to the airport, the chorus of a new song started to come to me. I wrote a little more on the plane and finished the rest of “Margaritaville” back in Key West."
The undertones of Margaritaville are melancholy if you really listen to it. This probably speaks to his growing up a good Catholic altar boy and at the same time enjoying huge, southern Mardi Gras celebrations. He pointed out that "...the theme of Mardi Gras is “folly chasing death,” so you gotta have fun to keep the devil away."
Margaritaville would come to be known in music circles as the most lucrative song ever written. It was the starting gate for a billion-dollar beach bum.
In one interview, he said that early in his career (as he started having some success and a little bit of pocket money,) he had been in a bar somewhere and recognized the bartender. Buffett knew that the guy pouring beer had been a songwriter/musician who had had a modicum of success in his own right. While he had no disrespect for the gentleman or his career arc, he promised himself that he would not fall back down that far.
About the same time, he noticed tourists walking around Key West with T-shirts and Margaritaville merch that he had no control over, much less any ownership or royalties. More infuriating, the "Jimmy Buffet" shirts had his name spelled wrong.
He trademarked the name "Margaritaville," and the rest is history. Well, there wasn't a magic wand that suddenly dropped new sailboats and island homes from the sky. But he opened a Margaritaville shop on Key West and eventually added a restaurant and bar. He also took the control of his music away from the record companies. Again, from the Times:
He established Mailboat Records, his record label, in 1999. He went from making $2.20 per album to making $6 an album, he told me. He built his own tour buses, because it costs five times more to rent equipment than to own it yourself. He then rented out that equipment to other acts. And he took charge of his merchandise. He didn’t do it because he was greedy. He did it because he could do it better than the people who were ripping him off with concert T-shirts that spelled his name as Buffet.
He opened more Margaritaville restaurants. There were Landshark Bars & Grills. He partnered with Corono to sponsor his shows. The beer grew so well under his brand ambassadorship that he developed his own label - Landshark Beer (brewed under the Margaritaville name by Anheuser-Busch.) He established a mail-order business for his merch. (Remember pre-internet mail order?) He began to license the name to other ventures. There was the Margaritaville blender (obviously.) I mean, who doesn't need a $350 blender to get their Change in Attitude going? Margaritaville Resorts and casinos followed. There was an internet radio station, and that eventually moved over to Sirius satellite. There were video games, more restaurants, a line of frozen seafood, and the Margaritaville at Sea cruise ship. There were three books that landed on the New York Times bestseller lists. He also wrote two popular children's books with his daughter, Savannah Jane. Finally, one of his last huge ventures was to establish Margaritaville retirement communities (read: entire Buffett-themed subdivisions... with swim-up bars in the pools, wide driveways for neighborhood parties, palm-lined esplanades, etc.)
He understood that he was a "lifestyle brand" before there was such a term. Remember: nary a number one hit on the Hot 100. He admitted that he wasn't the best guitar player or even much of a singer. But he knew he was a good performer. a solid entertainer, a storyteller, and a jokester who could captivate a crowd and put on a show. And he had a basketful of pretty catchy tunes that his crowd loved.
He was a true original. His concerts became spectacles. Palm trees were on stage, backup singers wore grass skirts and the band sported Hawaiin shirts with leis around their necks. Painted tropical scenes or sailboat rigging served as backdrops. Audiences caught on and began to wear similar outfits, only more outlandish. Fans showed up in bathing suits, flip flops, and famously, foam hats shaped like shark fins or parrots. A band member observed that the crazy crowds were much like the "Deadheads" - fans of the Grateful Dead who were loyal and all-in... dressing up, dancing, tailgating in the parking lot, only with fake parrots on their heads and shoulders. Thereafter they were known as "parrot heads. " (Someone else made the same comparison but with one small difference. Parrotheads were Deadheads with credit cards.)
Again, never a runaway bestseller when it came to albums, 8-tracks, cassettes, and digital download sales. He has sold over 20 million LPs, worldwide, but with those numbers, not exactly an Elton John, Michael Jackson, or Billy Joel. Yet his tours were always one of the top 10 grossing acts every summer.
Though part of that Buffett"brand" is the sex/drugs/rock-n-roll party thing, he realized early that he "can't run at this pace very long." He (mostly) sobered up. Moderated his drinking, cut out most of the drugs (well, except for a Coral Reefer every now and then,) and kept in shape with some exercise and a reasonable diet. (Cheeseburger? French Fried Potatoes? Only for special occasions.)
He and his wife, Jane Slagsvol, met while she was down in Key West in the early 70s on Spring Break. They fell immediately and madly in love (because - Jimmy Buffett.) His first hit, Come Monday, was written for her while he was in L.A. on tour and she was back in Florida. They married, but at the peak of the wild and crazy years, took a sabbatical from each other for a few years, contemplating divorce as they both sobered up. Rather than sign the divorce papers, they decided to get back together. He credits her with helping get the business side of his life organized.
It's those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Nothing remains quite the same
With all of our running and all of our cunning
If we couldn't laugh we would all go insane.
-J.B. Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
In the first few minutes of Bruce Springsteen's exceptional one-man Broadway show, he quietly confesses to his audience:
"I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud. [audience laughs] So am I. In 1972, I wasn't any race-car-driving rebel. I wasn't any corner street punk.I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park...Now, I've never held an honest job in my entire life. [audience laughs] I've never done any hard labor. I've never worked nine to five. I've never worked five days a week until right now. [audience laughs]... I've never seen the inside of a factory, and yet, it's all I've ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had...[in low voice] absolutely no personal experience. [audience laughs and claps [in normal voice] I– I made it all up. [audience laughs] That's how good I am."
-Bruce Springsteen, "Bruce Springsteen on Broadway"
Springsteen crafted his first-person characters out of whole cloth. But Buffett WAS the songs that he sang. When he inserted himself into a character, he WAS that guy. If not, he was only a grain or two of salt away from them. Most importantly, he had put in his time, refining his chops in those small clubs, on college stages, and while busking on the streets of New Orleans. In How-To-Please-An-Audience 101, he had learned, "give 'em what the hell they want." Escapism. A two-hour vacation to a tropical paradise. A story that has them laughing and crying in equal parts. A joke and a smile. A raised glass with a salted rim. Most of all, Joy.
The weather is here, I wish you were beautiful
My thoughts aren't too clear but don't run away
My girlfriend's a bore, my job is too dutiful
Hell, nobody's perfect, would you like to play?
-J.B. "The Weather is Here..."
In every show, in every song, he sold the fantasy of being Jimmy Buffett. The coolest, most carefree guy on the planet. The guy who is always fishing, sailing, flying or just napping in a hammock. And if you couldn't be him, couldn't you live like he did for a couple of hours?
When he was working on his own Broadway musical, the NY Times ran a great article titled Jimmy Buffett Does Not Live the Jimmy Buffett Lifestyle.
Has any pop star identified this particular strain of existential crisis better than Mr. Buffett? Who has been such a dedicated balladeer of the T.G.I.F. class? Who has been such a folk hero of workaday boredom and 9 to 5 drudgery? The knowledge that if we allow ourselves to think hard enough about our lives we will realize that they are spent in service of making someone else rich while we merely scrape by? Mr. Buffett may be rich, but he wasn’t always. He has grappled with dark thoughts about time and existence. He saw from the stage that we had, too. So he gave language to it: There has to be something more to this. There has to be a way to exist that isn’t quite so compromised. The ocean is often so far away. But a T-shirt that says “No Shoes No Shirt No Problem?” That you can take with you.
His fan base has only grown through the years. Maybe because of this late-stage, meritocratic, capitalist hell that we are now living through, we all need a trip on a peaceful sea, a swing in a hammock tied between two palm trees, or a rum-fueled "Fins" dance with our besties. The songs are fairly timeless. Even with references like a "pop top" in Margaritaville, or Boston Blackie and Sky's niece, Penny in Pencil Thin Moustache... everyone gets it. The aching pathos in Death of an Unpopular Poet, He Went to Paris, and Pirate Looks at Forty is timeless.
He expanded his reach as time went on. Imitators and Innovators alike started to emulate Buffett's island sound. Young artists planted themselves firmly in the "trop rock" space. In the country category, you were starting to hear some steel drums behind songs that reflected a certain easy/breezy attitude. Buffett not only embraced it, but he promoted it. He recorded duets with Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and several others. In doing so, he found even wider audiences, and with some irony, a big welcome back in Nashville where years before, he could barely afford a Cheeseburger, much less sell a song about one.
At his concerts, you can see three and even four generations of fans. None of them see him as a legacy or "oldies" act. I was at a show at an outdoor venue one summer. We spread our blankets on the hillside just like other friend groups, couples, and entire households did. At one point, during some stage banter, Buffett looked out to see kids running around the top of the hill. "Look at that! Whoever thought I'd ever be thought of as FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT!" Whereupon he launched into Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw.) No one left the show in a fit of shock or PC outrage. Everyone just laughed, danced, and joined in the chorus.
So bar maid bring a pitcher, another round o' brew
Honey, why don't we get drunk and screw.
Why don't we get drunk and screw?
I just bought a water bed, it's filled up for me and you...
Nobody from HR comes to see Jimmy Buffett. That's why the rest of us are here. Or more likely, there's probably an entire HR convention on the hillside, secretly letting their hair down, trading in their bras and neckties for some feathers and foam shark fins.
But it was an act, right? He admitted how well he could read and lead an audience. I believe that his authenticity is what seals the deal for his fans. He loves life, and it shows. He puts himself out as the laid-back good guy. And by a million stories that are told about him, he is. He runs a tight ship (through his various businesses, he ultimately oversees thousands of employees.) But his employees are as loyal as his fans. In a world where late-night talk show hosts and other superstar entertainers are getting called out for ugly and even abusive treatment, he keeps his band, his staff, his crews and his partnered business associates glad to have the chance to be along for the ride.
Maybe there will be a story one day about a waitress that he refused to tip, a vendor he stiffed, or a valet that he screamed at, but I doubt it. Even his family loves him! He's the nice, friendly guy we so badly want him to be.
There's always the famous story of him being shot at in Jamaica. Buffett learned to fly and had a commercial pilot certificate with multi-engine land and sea ratings and an instrument rating. He also holds type ratings for the Cessna Citation 500-series jets, the Falcon 50 and 900. He owned several planes, a restored Grumman Albatross that is currently on display at the Margaritaville restaurant in Orlando, Florida; a Cessna Caravan on floats; and a 1939 Grumman Goose.
In 1996, shortly after landing the Hemisphere Dancer (Grumman Albatross seaplane) on the water outside of Negril, Jamaican authorities shot at the airplane. Jimmy and his copilot were not the only ones on the plane that day. Bono (of supergroup U2) and his wife and two kids along with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell were also on board. They would later count about 7 shots hitting the Grumman, one smashing the windshield. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Bono was shaken so badly that he and family boarded the first commercial flight off of the island. What did Buffett do? He talked it over with the local constabulary and found out that they had been tipped that drug runners were flying in the area. Apologies were issued. Handshakes were offered. And then he wrote a song about it, Jamaica Mistaica. Seems so much more civilized than creating an international incident over it, what with all those lawyers that might have to get involved.
With his business skills and an uncanny grasp of what the market wanted, Jimmy Buffett became a billionaire, according to Forbes. Billion, with a "b." The laid-back, seemingly 'wasted,' party boy/beach bum who hung around the shores of whatever tropical paradise he stumbled across, is now thought to be as much Warren Buffett as Jimmy Buffett. (BTW, no relation. Even DNA tests show no connection. However, the coincidence of two ultra-smart/rich guys with the same last name was too much to ignore. They met and became friends, Warren often gave Jimmy bits of business advice. "Only buy businesses with management in place." Whatever that is. Rich guy talk, I guess. Jimmy called him "Uncle Warren" and "Uncle Warren" referred to "Cousin Jimmy.")
I had been aware of Buffett in high school and we played the party songs in college. I think it was the summer of my Jr. year that a couple of friends of mine and I traveled out to Palo Duro Canyon up near Amarillo to see another friend perform in the summer show, "A Texas Musical." (Catchy name, no?) It's one of those kitschy tourist shows performed in a large amphitheater against the backdrop of the Canyon itself. The show was predictable, with college theater majors whoopin' and a singin' and a dancin' for the RV crowd. But we camped out together 'neath the endless Texas night sky, and our musical theater buddy whipped out his guitar for a camp singalong. One of the songs that he sang was Death of an Unpopular Poet. I was hooked. Bought the entire Buffett back catalogue. Never vacationed again without a Buffett playlist. And in between, while working long hours for never enough pay, I played the list then, too, so I could think about beaches, boats, and friendly bars.
Years later, my then-girlfriend and I were invited on a bareboat sailing vacation in the British Virgin Islands. In the JB spirt. I had one of my boatmates hide a ring in a tire swing that was hanging from a palm on the beach at Cane Garden Bay. (That's two Buffett song references in one engagement if you're keeping score.) There was a "yes" and we joined our two album/cassette collections...
I hear it gets better, that's what they say
As soon as we sail on to Cane Garden Bay
-J. Buffett, Manana
My buddy who put that trip together had just texted me last week. "Want to go sail the Bahamas?" Me and the missuz were both ecstatic. My wife put in for a vacation the very next day, and the trip is at least ten months away. It wasn't a couple of days later that we heard the news.
Buffett died on September 1st at 76 of Merkel Cell Skin Cancer, a particularly vicious cancer strain that he quietly struggled with for 4 years. (Double up on the sunscreen, kids.) He had postponed the start of his usual summer tour.
His quiet, final days were as notable as his hard-charging life. His daughter Delaney wrote a lovely post on Instagram:
“I knew my dad my whole life but in his final days, I saw who he was: a man whose spirit could not be broken... Despite the pain, he smiled every day. He was kind when he had every excuse not to be. He told us not to be sad or scared, but to keep the party going. And as much as I’d like to use that as an excuse to drink myself into oblivion worthy of his literary heroes, I know it’s not what he meant… My dad was the joy he sang about. He was the hardest-working person I’ve ever seen. He was a great man and an even better dad to my brother, sister, and me.”
In 2020 he modified the epitaph request that he had made years earlier. In an interview for Rolling Stone, he was once again asked how he would like to be remembered. What would he like people to say about him? He answered, “He had a good time and made a lot of people happy,” would be good. Yeah, that’d be good. “
Buffett’s sister Lucy, (she was “Lulu” to Jimmy, he was “Bubba” to her,) said that even through the cancer treatments, Bubba never made a big deal about his diagnosis and ultimately his prognosis. “He was the best person I know that could ‘breathe in, breathe out and move on’ after hard news.”
She added, “He didn’t care about resting in peace. The last words he whispered to me were, ‘Have fun.'”
Fair winds and following seas, Jimmy. We'll get that fun going again in just a minute. The music that is your legacy will help, but it's going to be a bit more melancholy than usual. First, a sip of that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.
Some Extra Outlaw Stuff
Are you Watching...
The Ken Paxton Trial? It should start up again on Monday. You can find it on C-Span and YouTube... Check with the Texas Tribune for the deets. Houston's most famous attorneys are slugging this one out, and there are some great moments as they jab and take swings at each other. Yes, there are hours of tedium, too. Surprisingly, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been fairly reserved and balanced in handling the two sides' shenanigans. DeGuerin and Hardin (for the House Impeachment Committee) and Buzbee and Cogdell (for Paxton) are certainly as interesting as any scripted courtroom TeeVee show.
Stuff you should be reading.
"Journalism fails miserably at explaining what is really happening to America." Great piece on the continuing trend of covering the horse race of politics and not the underlying threat of authoritarianism that threatens to destroy our democracy.
More Musk ugliness, outrage. Elon's antisemitism is showing. And he's now making unilateral decisions affecting battle operations in the Ukrainian/Russian war. He is not even trying to hide it.
Sad, Sad Burning Man stuck in the mud. Any type of festival, street party, or public celebration eventually gets ruined by corporate money or simply becomes a drunken street bacchanal. Burning Man, once a unique art happening in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, it always had some libertarian undertones. An escape from the confines of social norms, HOAs, and government oversight. There was a feeling of 'we don't need no gub'mint here!' Until the rains set in and turned the ground into impassable muck, the Porta-cans overflowed, and fresh water and fuel ran short.
Another "hero" statue of a controversial Texan pops up. This one draws a line in the sand.
Something cool to check out.
Birdcast. A great site to observe and count migratory birds as they take wing over your country and state. Nightly bird counts for your area. Fascinating.