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Paradise Lost

Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and its discontents



Jimmy Buffett will soon be docking at a marina near you. There is nothing you can do about it -- he's got more money and a bigger boat.

Although Buffett has the wherewithal to go anywhere he wants, he's not welcome at all moorings. Some have tried to insert him into yacht rock society. If you catch the skipper pouring screw-top champagne into a Cristal bottle, there's a possibility that Buffett might be buried at the bottom of the CD stack. Otherwise, the Parrothead Pied Piper's more at home among the marina set than the yacht basin bunch. His crowd is likelier to be pounding margaritas and wolfing down cheeseburgers.

You won't find Buffett on the beach either. Beach music fans get their soundtrack from an older crowd. Beach music was originally black music, R&B from the '50s that white kids picked up on jukeboxes along the East Coast beaches because mainstream radio wasn't playing it back then. It's become homogenized over the years via white bands like the Embers, but Buffett was never welcomed.

Reggae aficionados don't hold out the spliff of friendship either. At an Unknown Hinson concert in Greensboro last month, opening act Puppet the Psycho Dwarf, ringleader of a rasslin' troupe composed of little people, asked for reggae to accompany his audience-interactive feature -- drunken midget limbo. When Puppet got Buffett singing the "Volcano" song instead, he shouted at the hapless sound man to "turn that shit off."

Buffett has really always been a country boy. He's disguised it some with his waterborne persona, but it ain't covered up too well. He moved to Nashville from his native Pascagoula, MS, in the late '60s to try to make it as a country singer, but country music wouldn't have him. He was just too flaky for 'em, more hippie than outlaw, a good ol' boy they just didn't know quite what to do with. Buffett was a boat bum, and most of your country boy stars were landlocked. He was kind of an early, aquatic version of Robert Earl Keen.

Even when Buffett was first launching his boat, it was plain to see there was a country boy at the helm. A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean (1973) is an homage of sorts to Marty Robbins' classic country hit "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)." The standout track "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw" is what country boys were thinkin' but couldn't say on the radio.

By 1974, Buffett's wet-and-wild persona was starting to pay off for him. "Come Monday" was a hit and "A Pirate Looks at 40" was coming up later in the year on A-I-A. He might have given off the image of just another barefoot bum with a guitar playing in bars for chump change and drinks, but he was living in a waterfront house in Key West (which wasn't cheap even in those days).

By the time "Margaritaville" broke in 1977 and helped kick-start Key West's ruination as an unspoiled haven for misfits, Buffett had moved on to more esoteric climes. And he crafted his parrot-hymns aboard bigger boats.

Now that the good ol' boys of new country have had enough success to buy themselves toys like planes and boats and can reach the far-flung beaches Buffett currently calls home, they've started to embrace the Parrot Pasha's kick-back-in-the-sun-drink-screw-and-reflect philosophy as well. Alan Jackson hopped aboard the floating party in 2003 for a semi-duet on "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere." Kenny Chesney has also been Buffett-ized, buying a home in the Virgin Islands and putting out Buffett-inspired albums: No Shirt No Shoes No Problem, When the Sun Goes Down and last year's Be As You Are (Songs from an Old Blue Chair).

Buffett rounded up a bunch of these parrot-heirs for 2004's License to Chill, enlisting Chesney, Jackson, Clint Black, Toby Keith and George Strait to help legitimize his version of Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" before splashing around with 'em individually on half-baked, sun-worshipping odes.

But if you're not of the Buffett persuasion, you needn't move your vessel to avoid him. The boats he controls these days are too big for most marinas, so he parks offshore and flies in. His concerts usually sell out minutes after they're announced, and all his rabid followers will be removed from the general population -- at least for the evening. So if you feel the islands calling, put on some Marley, light up, kick back and personalize your own tropical dreams with a classier soundtrack.

Jimmy Buffett & the Coral Reefer Band tie-up at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on Sunday, June 4, at 8pm. Tickets were $36-$126, but the show's sold out.

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