Pop Notes/Opinion

Sail on, sailor: Remembering Jimmy Buffett

Jimmy Buffett performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Sunday, April 29, 2018, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Jimmy Buffett performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Sunday, April 29, 2018, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Let those winds of time blow over my head

I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead

                                                   — Jimmy Buffett, “Growing Older But Not Up”

We were walking our dogs down by the marina near our house last Friday afternoon, and someone with one of of the bigger boats was sitting on the dock playing Kenny Chesney through three-foot tall Bluetooth speakers.

At least I thought it was Chesney—I’m not that familiar with the guy’s oeuvre, and my hearing isn’t that sharp. But as we walked a little further I thought maybe it was some late period Jimmy Buffett. I’m not such an expert on Gulf and Western troubadours that I can positively ID them by their bass lines.

When I woke up the next morning and saw Buffett had died, I wanted to think that the guy with the boat was playing Buffett. But he couldn’t have known; Buffett was still alive—at least in the Schrödinger’s Cat sense that we didn’t know he was dead—on Friday afternoon. My man was just enjoying loose life along the Arkansas River; sitting in a lawn chair with a Corona Light with his tunes as summer retreated on a sweet breeze.

Buffett wouldn’t die until later that night, surrounded, his official Instagram account said, by “his family, friends, music and dogs.” I hope so. Like just about everybody else, I have a soft spot for Jimmy Buffett.

One of the things I liked about him was that he played hurt.

The only times I ever saw him play live, his leg was in a cast. The first was when I was in college in 1978; the second was in law school in 1982. The first time, he stood at the microphone with a cane nearby; the second time he was in an easy chair with his leg propped up. He joked about it. I remember he said he “tripped over a line of coke.”

It didn’t take four years for his leg to heal; Buffett initially broke his right ankle in two places in May 1978 in a softball game in Palm Beach, Fla. Doctors set it, but Buffett wouldn’t stay off it long enough for it to heal properly, so they ended up rebreaking and resetting it.

If you listen to Buffett’s double-live album “You Had to Be There,” recorded during that 1978 tour and featuring a photograph of Buffett in a cast with his cane and the Coral Reefer Band and their crew (“the taxi squad” in CRB parlance), you can hear Buffett alluding to his accident.

He tweaks a line in “Margaritaville” to “I broke my leg, I had to limp on back home …” and on “Come Monday” he allows that “with this cane I can walk anywhere.”

Apparently Buffett suffered a second broken leg in 1981; it’s difficult to find any detail about that accident (if it was an accident; maybe Buffett’s doctors had to rebreak the ankle a second time) but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from fans who remember seeing him perform in a cast around that time.

But, like the basketball referee who ejected Buffett from a Miami Heat game in 2001, I was never much of a Parrothead, though I retain a lot of affection for those pre-“Cheeseburger in Paradise” JB records. I owned a copy of “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean,” soon after it came out in 1973, and was into his 1974 follow-up “Living and Dying in 3/4 Time” featuring the hit “Come Monday,” which Buffett wrote after he found himself missing his then-wife Margie Washichek while out on tour.

“Come Monday” was treated in some quarters as an exemplar of the worst impulses of the nascent singer-songwriter movement and derided as a lightweight trifle. But I liked the song then and like it more today, because I know Buffett was already divorced from the woman who inspired the song when it became a hit. (Second wife Jane Slagsvol, to whom he was married for 46 years, was by his side.)

Nobody’s life is a fairy tale; things don’t always work out, but we can still remember those nights in Montana when we believed there was no room for doubt.

When he wrote “Come Monday” circa 1971, Buffett was at a low point. His marriage was failing and he was living in cold Cambridge, Mass., playing for drunks in what his unlikely drinking buddy Boston Bruin hockey great Derek Sanderson described as a “gin mill” in his 2012 autobiography “Crossing the Line: The Outrageous Story of a Hockey Original.” Sanderson, who’d opened a bar in Boston called Daisy Buchanan’s, remembered that Buffett used to drink (but not play) in his bar.

On one February night, Sanderson writes, “with a belly full of rum and tonic serving as antifreeze” Buffett was ready to head home from Daisy’s, but couldn’t find a cab.

“Then he noticed one idling nearby, with the driver nowhere to be seen,” Sanderson writes. “Cold and buzzed enough that he didn’t care about the consequences, Jimmy jumped in and drove himself back to the hotel. He swears he left the fare on the front seat. He wrote a song about the incident and released it in 1979. It’s ‘Boat Drinks.’ Whenever he plays the New England area, Jimmy usually plays ‘Boat Drinks’ and mentions me.”

The song “Boat Drinks” is not exactly about the incident Sanderson describes. It’s a pleasant singalong about a beach bum marooned in a hockey town, watching the game on TV in a bar while longing for Southern beaches and frothy rum and crushed ice concoctions. But when he plays it in concert, which is fairly often, he usually introduces it with a variation of Sanderson’s story.

Buffett’s songs were among the first I learned to play on guitar (I still have a spiral notebook from when I was 15 with the lyrics and cowboy chords of my meager repertoire); “He Went to Paris,” “Pencil-Thin Mustache” and “Great Filling Station Hold-Up” sit shoulder to shoulder with “The House of the Rising Son,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Like everyone else who ever played a fern bar in the 1970s or ’80s, I eventually (reluctantly) added Buffett’s “Why Don’t We Get Drunk …” to my set list.

But I didn’t really care for “Margaritaville” or “Cheeseburger in Paradise” or “Volcano” or any of those calypso-inflected ditties that would come to define Buffett as a cultural phenomenon. They were ubiquitous radio songs at a time when I didn’t care about ubiquitous radio songs.

Would anyone argue that once Buffett hit his stride as a hitmaker (there were almost three years between the release of “Come Monday” charted and “Margaritaville,” and though he had near-hits with “Pencil Thin Mustache” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” some people were already regarding him as a one-hit wonder) he leaned into the carefree drunk beach-bum persona?

By contrast, listen to his once-lost second album “High Cumberland Jubilee”—much more a folk rock album in the vein of Crosby, Stills & Nash than a Caribbean-flavored country one. “HCJ,” recorded during Buffett’s wilderness year of 1970, was originally scheduled to be released in 1971, but the record company misplaced the masters, delaying its release for nearly five years, until after Buffett had signed to ABC/Dunhill, some say as Jim Croce’s “replacement” after Croce died in an airplane crash in 1973.

But Buffett had better things to do than remain a singer-songwriter with a genuine gift for storytelling (believe it or not, he only netted a single Top 10 hit). It would be un-American to blame him for becoming a mogul of the faux dissipated island lifestyle, offering his devotees everything from theme park restaurants and $60 flip-flops to $350 “frozen concoction” machines (blenders). You didn’t have to be a Parrothead to find Buffett a pleasant and gracious spirit.

There might be some risk involved in making the analogy, but Buffett was for a lot of boomers the same kind of figure that Taylor Swift is for her cohort. He embodied more than a lifestyle brand, but an ethos. Buffett’s was both pragmatic and down to earth and utter fantasy—a billionaire in board shorts.

But, like Swift, he was a much better songwriter and performer that those who would dismiss his work as post-frat boy pandering. Buffett was reportedly one of Bob Dylan’s favorite songwriters (Dylan occasionally covers “A Pirate Looks at Forty” in concert.)

Thousands of fans swear to his proficiency as an entertainer. His shows always featured great players (the Coral Reefer Band was a tight deep-grooving machine that featured Arkansas keyboardist Michael Utley and Trinidadian steel drum master Robert Greenidge) and Buffett bantered with crowds often and easily.

Buffett authored a culture that was both pragmatic and down to earth and utter fantasy. He was a pirate, he was a smuggler. Mostly he was lucky.

I can make a case for him as a tremendous and underrated singer-songwriter. His first six studio albums constitute a significant body of work. But his greater impact is as a businessman, an entrepreneur selling something as evanescent as a summer evening on a dock, with a Mexican beer and pleasant soft rock on the box.

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