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Still Rockin’ In Jimmy Buffett’s Key West Margaritaville

17 minute read
Eric Pooley

Jimmy Buffett has lived in some of the sweetest spots on the planet–Key West, Aspen and St. Barts before they became boutiques–but right now it looks as if there’s no other place he’d rather spend the weekend than a staid Midwestern city hours from the nearest beach. “Saturday night in Cincinnati–it don’t get no better than this!” Buffett yelps as his 13-piece Coral Reefer Band takes the stage in Mardi Gras costumes and towering headdresses. The crowd at the Riverbend amphitheater roars its agreement: 18,500 otherwise respectable people, many in full tropical regalia–foam parrot hats, grass skirts and coconut-shell bras. And that’s just the men. (Let’s not even discuss the folks dancing naked on their boats in the Ohio River, right behind the stage.) Buffett’s fans, the Parrotheads–so named by a friend of Buffett’s at a Cincinnati, Ohio, show in 1986–have made tonight his 35th consecutive sell-out in this city, the kind of middle-American burg where people are thirstiest for Buffett’s cheerful, escapist anthems. Quenching that thirst is Buffett’s civic duty.

Twenty-one Julys have come and gone since Buffett scored his only Top 10 single, Margaritaville, but every year Parrotheads across the country flock to hear his island-inflected folk-pop tunes, drawn from three decades’ worth of albums and played pretty much the same way night after night, year after year. “He’s like an old friend you haven’t seen in a while, but it’s comfortable,” says David Jahn, 51, a hospital administrator with parrots painted on his toenails. “No surprises.”

The fans spend some $50 million a year on Buffett concert tickets, albums and merchandise (from T shirts and caps to margarita mix and salt shakers) and on the comfort foods and frozen concoctions sold at his Margaritaville Cafes in Key West and New Orleans (new ones will open this year in Charleston, S.C., and at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla.). The fans have also subsidized Buffett’s leap into the world of letters, buying so many of his books (children’s stories, a novel, a short-story collection, and his latest, a travelogue/ memoir called A Pirate Looks at Fifty) that last month Buffett became one of only six writers to reach the No. 1 spot on both the New York Times’ fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists. (The others: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Styron, Irving Wallace and Dr. Seuss.) Buffett, quoting one of his early songs, says he is still “tryin’ to figure out how I ever got here.”

He knows how. Buffett’s empire rests on the beer-soaked foundation of shows like this one in Cincinnati. He presides over the ritual, a short, balding, joyful character charging around the stage, cracking wise and showing off an uncanny ability to sing, play guitar, smile and kick beachballs all at the same time. Scores of those balls and inflatable sharks are bouncing above the crowd; doctors and lawyers are dancing with their children; sales clerks and college kids are swaying with their honeys; and everyone’s singing along with the tight, glistening music. It’s a giddy, collective delusion–landlocked Ohioans pretending that they’re finally going to cash in their chips and set sail for uncharted isles, just like Jimmy. Come Monday, of course, they’ll be back at work. “I look out at my audience,” Buffett says after the show, still vibrating from the rush of performance, “and I see people who are caring for aging parents and dealing with tough jobs and adolescent kids, and they look like they could use a little relief. And frankly, I could use a little myself.”

The man who long ago dedicated himself to “the light side of life” knows that the dark side has a way of encroaching, even on post-hippie millionaires like himself. He has worked hard to fix a once broken marriage. He watched his father slip into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease and his mother suffer a crippling stroke. And Buffett very nearly died two years ago, when the vintage seaplane he was piloting crashed and flipped during takeoff from Nantucket Harbor, leaving him dazed and “hanging like a captured insect” in a cockpit filling with water. After he clawed his way out of the wreckage, he says, “it was time to take a little inventory.”

At 51, Buffett looks like an Islamorada bonefishing guide: stocky and squint-eyed, with seaworthy legs and skin that’s leathery from the sun. The hair that used to hang in long blond sheets has fallen out; the famously droopy moustache is gone. And though he is 25 years away from the Key West beach-bum days that make up the heart of his myth, he still has gregarious charm, an elfin smile and a bottomless well of stories to tell. That’s not the whole picture, of course. “He’s incredibly outgoing and confident when he switches it on,” says his wife of 21 years, Jane. “But in real life he’s shy and reserved.” Others describe him as restless and often remote, which is kind of understandable since millions of people would like nothing better than to buy him too many drinks and be his new best friend.

When they’re not vagabonding around the world, Jimmy and Jane Buffett live in Palm Beach, Fla., and Sag Harbor, N.Y. They have daughters ages 19 and 6, and a son, 5. And though Buffett seems to enjoy schmoozing with the American elite, Jane says, “If I didn’t force him to go out, he would be a total recluse. He is self-contained: up early, writing or fishing or boating or flying, making pancakes for the kids, driving them to school or camp, playing tennis or working out. That’s the life he loves.”

Therapy, says Buffett, “has helped me learn that my life is not an endless Buffett show.” Band members say he has mellowed and become more real in his dealings with them–less given to angry outbursts, less interested in throwing postconcert parties to show the younger players what it was like in the old days, more able to have an actual conversation. But it’s a work in progress. “We’re just always working on that,” says Jane. “We worked on it last night. Everybody is fascinated by Jimmy’s life. He tries to remember to ask about theirs.”

This balancing of emotional accounts lends much needed heft to A Pirate Looks at Fifty, providing a gravitational tug that keeps the book from flying away on the wings of Buffett’s endless enthusiasms–for saltwater fly-fishing, camaraderie in remote places and, of course, boats and seaplanes. (“Flying in the day is like being in the ultimate movie,” he writes. “[But] when you’re flying at night, you’re not in an airplane. You’re in a spaceship.”) He builds the book around his 50th birthday present to himself, an air journey through Central America, the Amazon and the Caribbean with a mind-boggling array of sportsman’s toys and a retinue of family, friends and assistants. “To work with Jimmy,” says pilot Jim Powell, “you’ve got to think and whistle at the same time.” Buffett and his little boy flew his huge, cacophonous 1947 Grumman Albatross seaplane; Jane and their youngest daughter rode in his Citation jet. (“Remember,” he tells his audiences, “I am spending your money foolishly.” Right now, he’s thinking about buying a staggered-wing biplane and a truffle farm in Provence–if Jane will let him.)

Reading A Pirate Looks at Fifty is like sitting with Buffett at a beachside bar, listening to him spin tales, repeat himself now and then, discourse on life and share nifty bits of geography and history. (“In the late ’30s, Henry Ford…constructed a picture-perfect replica of a Michigan town to house 10,000 rubber workers” in the Amazonian jungle. “It didn’t catch on.”) He has a gift for equatorial observation but doesn’t like to rough it. He wants his adventures to come with a four-star hotel and perhaps a chilled bottle of Puligny-Montrachet at day’s end. (Jane, the practical one, does all the booking.) He writes about the Caribbean custom of doing as one pleases, then asking “forgiveness, not permission,” but when he’s repeatedly denied permission to land his seaplane in the waters along his route, he obeys. And when he’s flying near the island of Carriacou and sees a “lost tribe of tarpon” in the sea below, he wants to “get the Albatross wet” but doesn’t. “To even attempt to obtain permission …we would have to fly back to St. George’s and immerse ourselves in a nightmare of red tape.” The author of A Pirate Looks at Fifty isn’t a pirate at all. Never was.

Impersonating a pirate was part of his marketing plan. Born on Christmas Day, 1946, in Pascagoula, Miss., Buffett was raised in Mobile, Ala., where his father worked in the shipyard. He was an altar boy who busted loose, discovering girls and guitars at Pearl River Junior College in Poplarville, Miss., playing acid rock in the clubs of New Orleans, moving to Nashville and working for Billboard, and failing in his first bid for folkie stardom (his debut album stiffed, and his second was put on the shelf). In 1971 he fled Tennessee and a bad first marriage and wound up at the end of the road in Key West, then a lazy outpost for shrimpers, smugglers, gays and cosmic cowboys like singer Jerry Jeff Walker and novelist Tom McGuane, who ended up married to Buffett’s sister Laurie.

“Back then I was havin’ such a good time bein’ me,” Buffett says. “I was like a flower in bloom.” He wrote a satchelful of sparkling, finely detailed songs about life in the Keys and toured constantly, attracting a following and then a new record deal. Promoting himself, he liked to imply that he had smuggled marijuana to make ends meet. When stardom hit, Rolling Stone repeated the old tales in a 1979 cover story, and Buffett was detained by the authorities in St. Barts, where he was then living. “Me and my big mouth,” he says. “I had never been a dope dealer; I was just hangin’ in the bars, tryin’ to be cool.”

The legend was sealed by A Pirate Looks at Forty, a mournful 1974 ballad that is still a concert highlight. When its narrator, a pirate born “200 years too late,” offers up a confession–“I’ve done a bit of smugglin’/ I’ve run my share of grass/ I made enough money to buy Miami but I pissed it away so fast”–Buffett’s fans assumed he was singing about himself. In fact, he wrote the song about one of his disreputable friends. “I was never the damn pirate,” says Buffett.

But he was the Prince of Key West. One night in 1971, Buffett was drinking, singing and passing the hat in the Chart Room bar when he met a radiant honey blond named Jane Slagsvol, who’d come to town for spring break from the University of South Carolina. The next night he saw her again, “wearing a tight, long pink dress that made a lasting impression on me.” Jane moved in with Buffett and never did get back to school. They were married in 1977–the year Margaritaville hit–at an all-night Aspen blowout (the wedding band was the Eagles). But after five more years among the rock aristocracy, Jane needed a change. “I’d been with Jimmy since I was child, through the craziest times, and I didn’t have a clue who I was. So I left. I got sober.” The couple reunited in 1991, and have been together since.

Buffett partied longer than his wife did, but gave up drugs and tapered off his drinking when, he says, “the hangovers started to feel like surgical recoveries.” After Jane left, he retreated to Key West, wrote some fine, broken-hearted songs (and some mediocre, jolly ones) and kept touring, though his audiences were getting older and sometimes smaller. When radio stations wouldn’t play his new records, he figured his career was winding down and set about creating an alternative revenue stream. He and a friend opened a T-shirt shop in 1984 and expanded it into the first Margaritaville Cafe.

Then something strange happened: the crowds at his shows started growing. College kids were showing up again. Fans began making a day of it in the parking lot, competing to see who could wear the most outlandish costume. Buffett’s musical sidekick, harmonica-ace Greg (“Fingers”) Taylor, saw the change when he rejoined the band after taking a year off to “learn how not to drink.” Taylor and Buffett were riding in a limo through a Midwestern parking lot “and all these insane rituals are going on around us. Winnebagos with shark fins on top. People dancing. Buffett turned to me and said, ‘Fingers, I have no idea how it happened.'”

But he knew what to do about it. Even in his beach-bum days, Buffett had been an effective businessman, handling his own bookings, keeping the club owners passably honest, locking himself in his motel room to go over the accounting ledgers. So now he spent freely to turn his concerts into spectacles, building elaborate stage sets with erupting volcanoes and such. He also tightened up the music and hired the Trinidadian steel-drum virtuoso Robert Greenidge. Eventually he brought in clowns on stilts and a storyteller for the children and sent bands into the parking lot to play for the fans. He launched a newsletter and later a website to sell his merchandise and was among the first stars to land a corporate sponsor, Corona beer. When Disney approached him about opening a Margaritaville Cafe at Disney World and performing at the park 10 nights a year, he called financier Warren Buffett, a distant relative, for advice. Warren told him Disney could be hard to work with, so he killed the deal by demanding 10% of Disney World’s gate on nights he played.

Buffett often claims to be uninterested in money, but he has been uneven about sharing it. He gives freely to environmental causes and has a foundation that donates $1 from every concert ticket to grants for nonprofit agencies in the cities where he plays. At the same time, his band, though well paid, has long griped about having no pension plan. Buffett is now creating one for his veteran sidemen.

Buffett is sitting in a darkened room, his eyes welling with tears. He’s surrounded by other people who are crying–a Pittsburgh multiplex crowd experiencing Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Leaving the theater after the movie, Buffett is speechless, an unusual condition for him. “Whoa,” he says finally. “Not a big popcorn movie.” Soon he is talking seriously about thoughts the film stirred up. “My dad, J.D., was in the Army Air Corps, a crew chief on C-47 transports in China,” he says. “He was on a flight over the Himalayas when fire broke out belowdecks. He put it out but got back up to find the pilot and copilot bailing out. He and a master sergeant talked ’em back to the controls.” There’s emotion in Buffett’s voice. His eyes are hidden behind aviator shades. “My father never told me that story until the Alzheimer’s. He never talked about the war. His generation did so much for ours, and it took us so damn long to figure that out.”

Buffett didn’t serve in Vietnam, thanks to a college deferment and a flunked physical. He and his father used to fight about his chosen occupation–J.D. wanted him to be a naval officer. “By the time he was diagnosed,” he says, “we’d made our peace.” In 1996 he wrote one of his finest songs, False Echoes, about J.D., a sober lyric without fancy wordplay about a man who “fades like a flare.”

“I’ve never performed that song live,” he says. “I don’t know if I could.”

And he’s not sure how it would be received. Buffett’s success came with a devil’s bargain: he would be a cartoonish entertainer, not an introspective balladeer. Among his better recent work is a musical based on Herman Wouk’s Caribbean novel, Don’t Stop the Carnival, but the show never made it to Broadway. And though his concerts deliver moments of beauty and power–a song called One Particular Harbor gets people dancing but with tears in their eyes–they also deliver mindless ditties like Cheeseburger in Paradise. “The set I’d like to do is all ballads,” he says over dinner in Pittsburgh. “But the carnival atmosphere wouldn’t allow it. You’ve got to do what’s necessary for the business you’re in.”

Fingers Taylor thinks Buffett sells his fans short. “He is a great songwriter, and they know it,” he says. “They’re not just interested in the further adventures of Margaritaville and Cheeseburgers.” There’s a community of fans on the Internet called the Church of Buffett, Orthodox, who believe that Margaritaville amounts to “apostasy” and that Buffett’s “spiritual core” resides in his earliest work. “If I ever had to defend myself to the Church of Buffett,” he says at dinner, “I would only say that the bitterest artists I know are those who had the chance to jump through the hoop and chose not to take it. They stayed on as coffeehouse singers. But I jumped through, not knowing what was on the other side. And when I got there, I had to deal with it. It wasn’t ‘happily ever after.’ I was just getting started.”

The next morning Buffett jumps on his mountain bike to ride through the streets of Pittsburgh, spreading good cheer. He is trailed by two assistants, one of whom records his escapades with a digital video camera. Buffett follows this routine on every stop of the tour. This afternoon the footage will be cut at a backstage editing suite, then projected on giant screens during the show–a canny bit of marketing that appeals to the fans’ civic pride. Buffett rides by the Heinz 57 factory, rows up the river on a mahogany scull, goofs around with some preschoolers and winds up at Kenny B.’s Eatery, a downtown Cuban-American diner.

He slides behind the counter, looking like your typical down-on-his-luck short-order cook. He flips burgers, takes orders, cracks jokes and signs autographs for the fans pouring into the place: businessmen, working women, students from the culinary academy up the street. They’re not star struck, just pleased to meet a star who seems like a regular guy. “Can I shake your hand?” someone asks. “Sure,” says Buffett, “for a hundred bucks.” Everyone laughs. He asks a woman at the counter how she wants her burger, and suddenly he’s leading the crowd in a Cheeseburger in Paradise sing-along. The assistant captures it all on video, and Buffett is ready for his getaway. He ducks outside, gets on his bike. Another wave of autograph seekers hits him. “Sorry,” he says, checking his watch. “Gotta go to work.” It’s a canard: he’s already there.

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