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A toast to Jimmy Buffett: Partygoers depart, but the party goes on
Breathe in, breathe out, move on.
When you’re at the beach, the vast water before you, the sounds of waves and birds in the air, there’s always a moment when you settle in and realize, I have nothing to do but enjoy this moment. The moment stretches out before you, touching the edges of the horizon, and time loses its meaning. You feel like you could just hurl your watch and your phone into the sea — and, let’s be honest, we all should — and live in perfect, unceasing bliss, the crash of the waves and the warmth of the sun and the chill of an icy beverage all you need in the world.
But the end of the day always comes, and when it does, it comes fast. The sun drops low, and after hours of sitting on the beach, you’ve got to pack your crap up and haul it back to the car. The ice has melted to water, your skin is starting to redden, and there’s sand everywhere. You pile your junk into the car, you start it running to get the AC going — you promise yourself you’ll recycle extra this week to offset this the damage to the environment — and just before you get in the car and drive back to your life, you take a moment and look out at the water. The sun is setting — maybe over the water, maybe behind you, depends on where this hypothetical beach is — and just for a moment, you feel a wistfulness, saying goodbye to everything you had in your hands just a few minutes before.
That, my friends, that is the true Jimmy Buffett experience. Reveling in the moment …and then realizing how quickly it’ll pass you by.
One of the two CDs pretty much everyone owned in the 1980s was Buffett’s “Songs You Know By Heart.” (The other was Bob Marley’s “Legend.” The Reagan era craved greatest hits only.) With its neon-yellow cover and gospel-truth title, “Songs You Know By Heart” was in the CD carousel at every party, the ultimate Buffett playlist before “playlist” was even a concept.
The album begins with the party-hearty harmonica-fueled stomp of “Cheeseburger In Paradise,” maybe the single dumbest song ever written, and that is in no way an insult. It’s the perfect distillation of the most obvious part of the Jimmy Buffett Way Of Life: the everlasting party, fueled by a cold beer and some food that’s bad for you, but who cares? That’s a problem for another day.
(“Cheeseburger In Paradise” was allegedly inspired by a true incident where Buffett was stuck on a boat with only peanut butter and canned food to eat. When he made it to shore and found a beachside restaurant offering you-know-what on the menu, presto, instant song. Buffett was of the Hunter Thompson-Anthony Bourdain-Ernest Hemingway world-traveling, live-life-loud tradition, but he was the only one of those who managed to clean up before it devoured him.)
Buffett’s Drink Up, Party Down, Chill Out persona is just fun, man. You put on “Cheeseburger In Paradise” or “Fins” or “Volcano” and the mood lifts; you put on “Margaritaville” and everyone sings along. Buffett’s best songs aren’t technically complex, but that’s their genius — easy to play, easy to sing.
The details complete the picture; just like sleigh bells can turn any tune into a Christmas song, a few steel drums bring an island feel to every Buffett song. Put any of those upbeat beach tunes on, close your eyes, and you can hear the surf and smell the sunscreen. It’s glorious.
Eventually, though, the music winds down, the sun goes down (or comes up), and the work week begins again. And that’s when you move into the second phase of the Jimmy Buffett Worldview.
Since Buffett’s passing, I’ve seen more than a few of the blissfully self-obsessed denizens of Twitter astonished to realize that “Margaritaville” is actually melancholy as hell, even though “it’s my own damn fault” was just sitting right there all along. (The minor key version of “Margaritaville” that someone whipped up brings this home with a hammer.)
Most of the Jimmy Buffett Empire — the “Margaritaville” restaurants, frozen seafood and retirement communities (!!!) — steers well clear of these more wistful elements of the Buffett worldview. Everyone wants to be living in the Good Ol’ Days, not looking back on them years later.
But part of Buffett’s brilliance — and the reason why he created an entire lifestyle — is that he tapped into that sense of time passing, of remembering and smiling at days gone by. Hell, the second damn song on his greatest hits CD is “He Went To Paris,” about an 86-year-old man looking back on his life and declaring “some of it's magic, and some of it's tragic, but I had a good life all the way.” As epitaphs go, that’s not a bad one.
The saddest song in the Buffett catalog has to be “A Pirate Looks At 40.” At least when you’re wistful, you’re remembering the good times of the past; the poor bastard narrating this song never even had a chance. You know the lyrics, sing along …
Yes, I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don't thunder, there's nothin' to plunder
I'm an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late
In the last few decades, Buffett would introduce “A Pirate Looks At 40” in concert by noting that “we put that [age] astern awhile ago.” When you’re a young Parrothead, the song is a chance to hit the bathroom, or buy more beer, or get up close and try to finagle a slow dance with another, equally sweaty Parrothead. But then, as you get older and closer to 40, you realize the song has been right there waiting for you. And when you, too, put age 40 astern, you hope that you’re not a victim of fate, too. And then you think, goddammit, Jimmy, play “Cheeseburger,” already!
There’s a third element to the Jimmy Buffett experience — the obligation to pass along what you’ve learned to the next generation, usually while sitting at a barstool. The subject of “He Went To Paris” does that, and so too does the hellacious raconteur of “Last Mango In Paris,” among so many other tunes:
I ate the last mango in Paris
Took the last plane outta Saigon
I took the first-class boat to China
And Jimmy, there’s still so much to be done
Early on, Buffett cast himself as the young wide-eyed student gaining wisdom from well-traveled elders, at the price of a couple drinks. But as he aged, he became that elder, and there was always another generation ready for — and needing — a perspective on how the hell to make sense of life. And hey, if you occasionally viewed the world through the bottom of a shot glass, what’s so wrong with that?
One of my favorite late-period (i.e. post-“Songs You Know By Heart”) Buffett tunes is “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On.” Released in 2006, it was a direct response to the trauma of Hurricane Katrina. It begins with a beautiful, literally timeless image:
I bought a cheap watch from a crazy man
Floating down Canal
It doesn't use numbers or moving hands
It always just says “Now”
Buffett perfected his songwriting in the pre-“Margaritaville” days as a street performer in New Orleans, and so the devastation of Katrina was a deeply personal wound. He tries to make sense of it all here, in words that obviously aren’t just about weather patterns:
If a hurricane doesn't leave you dead
It will make you strong
Don't try to explain it, just nod your head
Breathe in, breathe out, move on
As long as there are beaches, as long as there are frozen drinks, as long as there are sun-soaked fools making bad decisions, there will always be Jimmy Buffett. The man created an entire way of life with a guitar, and that’s one hell of an achievement. Partygoers may leave, but the party goes on forever.
Rest easy, Jimmy, and thanks for all the songs. Hope there are white sands and blue seas where you are.
As Arkansas as it gets
Let’s go out with a sign that sounds like a Jimmy Buffett lyric. Credit to this liquor store in Northwest Arkansas for not even pretending to dance around the hard truths we all know about teaching school:
(via @BunkiePerkins / Twitter)
Thanks for hanging, friends. See you next week when the party starts up again. Bring something to throw on the grill, and we’re going to need some more ice…
Land Cat, Georgia
This is issue #105 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, jump right to our most-read stories, or check out some of our recent hits:
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