The beloved songwriter died on September 1 at age 76
Future gatherings of Parrotheads will be taking place without their leader, the man who got them together in the first place.
Jimmy Buffett passed away at home Friday at the age of 76 after a private four-year battle with cancer. What started as skin cancer had progressed to lymphoma, according to TMZ.
Buffett had remained as active as he could, touring into this past spring. The live show was always the key component to the unification.
Ornithological cross pollination led to the name. One of Timothy B. Schmit’s post-Eagles gigs was playing in Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. At a 1985 show in Cincinnati, Buffett noticed that a sizable portion of the audience was decked out in Hawaiian shirts, pastel beach wear and the like, as if Southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky had been transported to the Florida Keys or St. Bart’s. Schmit said the crowd looked like a bunch of parrotheads out there. The name stuck for Buffett’s fanbase, one they leaned into.
When they wanted to start official Parrothead groups, Buffett agreed on condition that they be set up as non-profit organizations to benefit charities in local communities. To this day, Parrotheads in Paradise is a network of over 200 clubs in the U.S. and worldwide.
Buffett was a man who knew the power of brand marketing.
I’m reminded of the scene from Mel Brooks’ 1987 Star Wars spoof Spaceballs. The lead characters run into Yogurt (based on you-know-who), where he reveals to them the true power — merchandising.
He opens up a door to reveal a bunch of merchandise based on the film viewers were watching.
“Merchandising! Merchandising! Merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made,” Yogurt intones. “Spaceballs: the T-shirt, Spaceballs: the Coloring Book. Spaceballs: the Lunchbox, Spaceballs: the Breakfast Cereal, Spaceballs: the Flame Thrower.”
Buffett never licensed a flamethrower (or owned one as far as I know), but there have been the chain restaurants and bars, the hotels, the stores, even the legal weed, all attached to this escapist fantasy of beach life where all worries are gone and you can just kick your feet up with a tropical drink and chill. It’s all tourist trap fantasy, of course, especially these days when Florida’s ruling party seems intent on making the state as unpleasant and unwelcoming as possible.
The DeSantistan vibe is antithetical to Buffett himself, who was a Floridian who’d have rather had a margarita composed entirely of broken blender glass than set foot in Mar-a-Lago.
It’s hard to begrudge Buffett for finding a niche and running with it. In a business where labels often find a way to screw over artists, Buffett became his own brand, eventually putting out music on his own label while maintaining the size of his live audience to the end. It was the difference between large venues vs. spending his last days only able to fill small clubs. It’s a lot more difficult to have the pre-show tailgate, a chill “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” for the Priest fans’ parents, outside a 500-seat indoor venue in the city.
There’s a certain level of irony in “Margaritaville” being the signature song for the trademarked Good Times. Because the song itself isn’t as happy as it appears.
VIDEO: Jimmy Buffett “Margaritaville”
The lead single off Buffett’s 1977 album Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes, it was the biggest hit of his career. It’s also part of the long, established tradition of pairing happy music with sad lyrics.
With its sunny Gulf Western sound and sing along chorus, it’s easy to ignore what happened to the song’s character. He’s in some unnamed beachy locale but he’s alone, a relationship having run aground. The titular boozy beverage exists to help him hang on.
The key is in how he accepts how he wound up in this position, shifting from “And I know this is somebody’s fault” and “I know it’s all you women’s fault” to accepting, “And I know it’s my own damn fault.”
Sure, this dude is abiding, but you’re aware that he’s not completely oblivious to aimlessness of his situation.
It’s canny songwriting. It’s a reminder that for all the cheesy trappings and obvious merchandise, Buffett’s empire was built on the strength of his songs, particularly before the Parrothead phenomena got its name.
What could get forgotten is that Buffett’s beginnings were as rocky as the most unforgiving shoreline. His debut album, 1970’s Down to Earth, sold only dozens of copies. That’s not a typo.
He was a very different songwriter then, more in a folky vein and quite earnest. Lyrically, he was much more earnest, singing about social issues like evangelical hypocrisy (“The Christian?”) and racism (the dated “Ellis Dee (He Ain’t Free).”
Barnaby Records, his label (owned by singer Andy Williams), had success with Ray Stevens’ No. 1 single “Everything is Beautiful” in 1970, but were apparently leery of another Buffett flop.
To his consternation, the master tapes of his second album, Wild Cumberland Jubilee, were lost. They mysteriously were found a few years later after he’d started having success on ABC/Dunhill Records to be released as an attempted cash-in.
Buffett grew up close to the Gulf of Mexico, born in Pascagoula, Mississippi and graduating from an all-boys Catholic high school in Mobile, Alabama. Nashville didn’t hold much appeal for him, but Key West and the Caribbean beyond definitely did.
”I once read a great passage in The Commodore’s Story to the effect that ‘if you ever grow up on a body of water, you know it’s connected to another one,'” he told Rolling Stone in 1979. “My grandfather told me sea stories, tales about the Caribbean and how exotic it was. That was a lure. I grew up on Mobile Bay and I knew it would connect to white, sandy beaches and palm trees — which don’t exist around Mobile Bay. You know that you can gain the access if you have the courage and the spirit of adventure within you to get out on the water. It does link you to any other place.”
The lifestyle began to inform the songs, as Buffett could pen songs that could be memoirs or observational journalism with the characters who came into his line of vision.
This led to the more familiar version of Jimmy Buffett appearing on his third album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean. The title spoofed Marty Robbins’ 1957 country hit “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation).” It was somehow not the name of a cocktail at Margaritaville restaurants years later.
There was the jokey fan favorite “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw)” that didn’t get airplay for obvious reasons but found its way to lots of jukeboxes. It was inspired by one night in Atlanta where Buffett, chowing down on some diner food, watched a random businessman trying to hook up with a sex worker.
Totally intended as satire, it was recorded in one take and wasn’t even going to be on the album originally. In the liner notes for 1992’s box set Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads, Buffett said, “I was hearing a lot of very suggestive country songs—in particular, Norma Jean’s ‘Let’s Go All the Way.’ I figured I would write a song that would leave no doubt in anybody’s mind.”
The song was the B-side of the single “The Great Filling Station Holdup,” an early example of Buffett’s knack for sketching hapless characters. In this case, the country tune looks at a couple of guys convinced they were master criminals for a haul of “fifteen dollars and a can of STP/A big ole jar of cashew nuts and a Japanese TV” only to wind up in jail for two years.
In “Peanut Butter Conspiracy,” the crime was shoplifting to stave off hunger, “based on a true story beyond the statute of limitations” as Buffett put it in a pandemic YouTube video series about some of his lesser known songs.
VIDEO: Jimmy Buffett “Peanut Butter Conspiracy”
The album was more country than he’d become, mixing the serious — “He Went to Paris” (about a Spanish Civil War vet’s post-war life) and partying crowd pleasers like “Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit”.
It was a blend he’d continue to follow through the ’70s. 1974’s Living and Dying in 3/4 Time contained the wearily affecting “Come Monday”, a life on the road ballad which gave him his first chart success.
“Pencil-Thin Mustache”, with its mix of sad nostalgia and sadder present absorbed in fantasy, was a live staple until the end.
The more personal A1A arrived later in 1974. Starting in 1976, new albums came every year for the rest of the decade –Daydreaming, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, Son of a Son of a Sailor and Volcano.
Country never left Buffett’s sound, but being part of the Nashville establishment never suited him. As much as it later became a brand, the Florida Keys fit him in reality. It’s telling who the writers outside the band that he worked with and/or covered in the ’70s were: Jerry Jeff Walker (who’d introduced him to Key West), Willis Allan Ramsey, Steve Goodman and Jesse Winchester.
It’s easy, for example, to hear Walker in the morning-after-the-night before tale of “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus.”
The sense of humor would make its way into songs like “Door Number Three,” a Goodman co-write in which the protagonist can’t win, but fantasizes he will. The title song to Changes in Latitudes wittily inverts the premise of “Come Monday,” as Buffett keeps wanting to get back on the road for good times with his buddies, singing, “If we couldn’t laugh, we just would go insane/If we weren’t all crazy, we would go insane.”
“Cheeseburger in Paradise” was sort of Buffett’s traveling the turf of Larry Groce’s “Junk Food Junkie,” although he doesn’t seem all that broken up about forgoing perceived rabbit food for a burger that is neither too particular nor too precise.
VIDEO: Jimmy Buffett “Cheeseburger in Paradise”
Volcano was the least of his Key West ’70s run, but even it supplied “Fins,” a playfully rocking view of a woman discovering that the beach bum lifestyle is a bit of a sausage fest.
He capped the Latin-flavored shaggy dog portrait “Mañana” with “And I hope Anita Bryant never ever does one of my songs/No, no, no.”
Bryant never did, thankfully. That would have been a real slap in the face, or a pie in the face, as the case may be.
It’s no surprise that Buffett later became an author with his eye for detail. A Pirate Looks at 40 (written when he was still in his 20s) inhabits the mind of a drug smuggler at the end of his rope, wishing he could live the romanticized fantasy life of a pirate on the high seas, only to know that he’s going nowhere. You can close your eyes and picture the “Woman Goin’ Crazy on Caroline Street”, the dance floor denizens of “Livingston Saturday Night” or the anxious guy in “Volcano.”
Buffett’s career didn’t stop after the ’70s, by any means. He’d released 29 studio albums in his lifetime. In a remembrance posted to social media, author Carl Hiassen, a friend and sketcher of South Floridians in various stages of reputability, said that Buffett was working on putting the finishing touches on another album this year.
There were plenty of additional worthy songs after the ’70s – the title track to “One Particular Harbour,” the unusually (for him) soul-flavored “Meet Me in Memphis,” the pitch-perfect team up with Alan Jackson on the latter’s hardy party “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” the deeper country of “The Devil I Know,” the reflective “The Oldest Surfer on the Beach” and one of underrated birthday songs in “One More Trip Around the Sun” (with Martina McBride).
VIDEO: Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
There were some albums better than others, like 2004’s License to Chill with its well-chosen collaborations and the charming Life on the Flipside from 2020.
Others were less essential, but through it all, Jimmy Buffett was a man who knew his strengths and knew his audience. He was never unwilling to play to that audience, who’d appreciate the old hits and the sensibility of silliness that resulted in songs like “Will Play for Gumbo.”
That popularity would continue to be passed down. Buffett told Rolling Stone in 1996, “It’s amazing. The audience has sort of regenerated itself. People my age bring their children now. I looked around one day and said, ‘Jesus, I’ve turned into family entertainment!’ But not really. I think I’m a far cry from a Disney act.”
Buffett even found time to appear in films and television, often as himself, as he did in Harmony Korine’s 2019 rambling stoner flick The Beach Bum.
His sense of humor showed up in a 2022 episode of the particularly copagandic police procedural Blue Bloods, where he played himself and a lookalike who’s been impersonating him since the mid ’80s. He makes the con pay back a cop for dinner, then tells the cop he’s generally okay with the guy, saying, ‘Yeah, you know, a couple of days a year, he can run out, play me and have a blast. The rest of the time, he lives a very hard life. For all that I’ve been given, if I can’t show a little mercy, who would I be?”
Buffett’s run of albums from 1973 through 1979, including 1978’s live You Had to Be There remains the place to start, for Parrotheads, the uninitiated and the agnostic alike. For the most ardent fans, it’s where he set the template and laid the foundation for the sound he’d live in and augment the rest of his career, full of a lot of his most-loved songs. For those more skeptical, it’s proof that Buffett was smarter and more skillful as a writer and performer than they remember. He knew how to market, but he had the goods to offer.
At the end of the day, even if you’re reading this and don’t “get” Jimmy Buffett, he’s still a man who was able to connect with people and bring joy. There are far worse things to be said about someone.
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