He left us just as summer did, slipping away as Labor Day weekend dawned. The date when he would usually draw boats to our bend in the river like a tropical magnet had passed, and it was quiet.

The season is over and I can no longer put off discussing the loss of Jimmy Buffett to skin cancer. The topic does apply here; he recorded an album during a concert at Fenway, and, depending on the island where he was landing his seaplane, he with all honesty identified himself as a baseball team owner.

The Slow Sunshine Life

I was pleased when I learned this. It is fitting that humanity’s most ardent supporter of a slow sunshine life should throw in with the four-hour boys of summer. “I like the fact (baseball is) a non-polluting industry with no tall buildings,” he once told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. In his younger days he played softball with such gusto that he broke his leg. He enshrined the incident into a song, mentioning Pete Rose in the process. He got baseball.

It is also fitting that his many commemorations identify him not just only as an entertainer, but as an entrepreneur. That’s the most visible part of him– the $100.00 Margaritaville inflatable fanny pack, the Coral Reefer strain of cannabis, the giant fiberglass flip-flop outside one of his many resorts –but the one he least discussed. It’s not that he attempted to hide this aspect of his life, but rather because the idea of board meetings and contract negotiations are in argument with the very lifestyle he touted.

Because we happily paid and paid to hear all about it. No one gave a thought to sand fleas, sargassum, choking humidity, or a distinct lack of access to Netflix. We needed to believe that Margaritaville was just over the next clump of beach tourists.

The Private Beach

Buffett really did stroll on the sands and wake up hung over in a Key West hammock, but as a 24 hour existence, most of it was accomplished long before he hawked a licensed line of pool floats. Jimmy Buffett was the hardest-working beach bum who ever was or ever will be.

He lived in a 6.9 million dollar mansion in Palm Beach, with sliding glass doors framed in mahogany and a private beach. But Key West Jimmy survived in– of all things– his interior decorating. Within this enormous space, the walls are beige and the wildest colors are the patterned throw pillows placed with careful disorder on a high-end sofa set. The decor refuses to even try to outshine the stunning house-wide view of the ocean that got him there.

The Delta Lounge

Despite ghoulish observations noting the irony that Jimmy Buffett died of overexposure, he was in some ways a victim of his own success. Because he so adeptly touted old Key West, there became no possible way for him to actually live the life he plumbed for songwriting material. He now sold a simulacrum of an existence he’d already lived.

He still skipped island to island. He just did so in one of his own airplanes.

And that will change a man. Not necessarily for the worse, but once you’ve experienced the members-only Delta lounge, you can never return to the hard seats at the gate. The well from which this changed-circumstances artist drew now sat above different waters.

And indeed, Buffett’s music after his “passed out my hammock” period is absent the leanness and melancholy of a struggling musician and more a matter of “What If the Hokey-Pokey Is All It Really Is About?” and “Santa Stole Thanksgiving For Christmas.”

The Concert We Never Got

There were signs. The most obvious one was that he stopped showing up for work at his summer job. He canceled a concert due to a hospital stay in May and promised a tour rescheduling, but as spring became deep summer, his annual visit to Riverbend remained unannounced. The silence was louder than any faux erupting volcano he ever stood in front of. Jimmy Buffett was our own. He was Cincinnati’s– we’d claimed him– and now he wasn’t here.

His loss was a shock, and it was a shock because none of us took seriously the notion that at one point he would no longer draw breath. Sometimes, as he aged into his 70s, I wondered how long he would continue smiling at center stage and how he might extricate himself from it. Would he retire suddenly, or throw a farewell tour, or subject his fans to a long, slow decline of forgotten lyrics and mangled harmonizing?

He once said he would tour as long as he could carry a tune, and indeed in his live shows began to incorporate teleprompters, he occasionally spoke lines rather than singing them, and he took up residence in New York where, he said, he enjoyed visiting the mall. At the very end, he showed visible signs of pain and weariness.

He could always, however, carry a tune.

His Final Gift

In the end, he spared us a public deterioration, entering hospice care just as when he usually rolls into Cincinnati. It was his final gift.

Buffett continued to perform as long as he could stand, and his final public appearance was a last minute drop-in to sing with his bandmate Mac McAnally. In a small restaurant in the markedly northern Rhode Island, he sang the bittersweet “A Pirate Looks at Forty” and “He Went to Paris..” Lyrics about grasping what once was but could never be again.

His final public  song was “Margaritaville,” the song that launched him, the song that most completely encapsulated his best work, the song that forever separated him from a long, contemplative night in a bar with the hurricane shutters open.

He will always be summer.


27 Responses

  1. Brian

    This guy turned a mediocre catalog into a Billion Bucks. He was overrated as an artist but way underrated as a businessman.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      He was crafty, and claimed he only started selling anything because people were buying shirts with his lyrics anyway, so he figured he might as well do it himself. I truly miss our Margaritaville and am looking forward to when the one in Newport opens on the Levee 🙂

      • Brian

        He found his niche and that one song will keep him around for a very long time. Margaritaville is synonymous with paradise to so many people. Fun thoughts.

  2. David

    Alone on a midnight passage
    I can count the falling stars
    While the Southern Cross and the satellites
    They remind me of where we are
    Spinning around in circles
    Living it day to day
    And still twenty four hours, maybe sixty good years
    It’s still not that long a stay.

    We’ve gotta roll with the punches
    Learn to play all of our hunches
    Makin’ the best of whatever comes your way
    Forget that blind ambition
    And learn to trust your intuition
    Plowin’ straight ahead come what may.
    And there’s a cowboy in the jungle.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      One of my absolute favorites. Another is “Migration.’ Thank you for placing “Cowboy in the Jungle” in this remembrance.

  3. Scott C

    He was a shrewd businessman but still his greatest legacy will be the fact that people will sing his songs for a long time. I live in Florida and most cover bands around here sing at least one or two of his songs maybe only Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise but at least for me, my ears always perk up when I hear them sung. When I lived in Charlottesville, VA, they had a Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant, it had the best sandwiches of anyplace I have ever eaten, don’t know how much he put into the restaurant but … “I believe it was “his fault own fault”, Thanks for this fine tribute Mary Beth.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Many thanks. He really will outlive his mortal self. Can’t wait for our Margaritaville to return to us across the river. And YES the club sandwiches and chef salads were amazing!

  4. LDS

    “A Pirate Looks at Forty” and “He Went to Paris” are probably my favorites from his catalog. And Buffet in his 70s was still more authentically the beach bum, remembering his fans and where he came from, far better than say Springsteen who is simply a shadow of his 1970s self and doesn’t really care about his fans anymore. Jimmy’s musical legacy will last far longer than most expect.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      You’re absolutely right; he never completely tossed that part of him away. I think he struggled creatively in the 80s because he was apart from his wife and trying to figure out his new station in life. Once he gained a bit of age and wisdom, he began to accept his elder statesman role. And what I think will set his music apart is that it’s generationally passed down. The children of Parrotheads are called Parakeets and some of them are into the 3rd generation. Childhood musical memories are tough to beat.

    • Harry Stoner

      So now Mr. Sunshine is dissing the Boss.

      You can be sure Springsteen cares about his fans, but unlike some Reds’s fans he isn’t locked into a fantasy of life (or baseball) from 50 years ago.

      The faith in the “authentic” billionaire “beach bum” puts a lot in perspective or better said, the distortion of the rear view mirror view of life on display.

      Some musicians and their fans (and even baseball fans) grow, change, mature, adjust their thinking and don’t expect the world to conform to their nostalgia or inflexible ways of thinking.

      Others just enjoy Buffet’s music without having to layer on yet another predictably cranky, jaded, tired old guy critique.

  5. David

    Some of it’s magic
    Some of it’s tragic
    But I had a good life all the way…..

      • David

        From..”The Captain and the kid”

        He died about a month ago, while winter filled the air
        And though I cried, I was so proud to love a man so rare
        He’s somewhere on the ocean now, a place he ought to be
        With one hand on the starboard rail, he’s wavin’ back at me

  6. Jim Walker

    I never associated any song but Margaritaville with Jimmy Buffett; and always thought of it as more of a continental Latino than a Caribbean song because of the “Mexican cutie” line and the use of the marimbas in the instrumental along with some more Latino sounding chord progressions. My brain picture was a guy living on an abandoned beach in Baja or somewhere along the Pacific coast of Mexico.

    This said, the concept and lyrics were themselves worthy of the staying power enjoyed.

    It is good to read here some of the other Parrothead anthems.

    • Harry Stoner

      Buffet wrote “Magaritaville” while he was hanging out in my hometown, Austin, TX, so perhaps the Latin vibe was in the air.

      Though nothing particularly Tex-Mex about it, though.

      At that time, there was pretty much of a musical gumbo being served up all over.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        I like musical gumbo.. and he once said he wrote the last part of “Margaritaville” while stranded in a traffic jam on the 5 Mile Bridge. I admire the efficient use of time.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I had never heard anything in my life like “Margaritaville” when I happened to hear it in a neighbor’s car. I was fascinated. This wasn’t Tiffany!

      • Jim Walker

        For me, it is the tight 3rd or 5th harmonies (not that good of ear and musical knowledge) whether paired voices, marimbas, or what ever instrument the is that sounds almost like a simple recorder. Then the guitar is dancing all around on quick little half riffs underneath and between but never really taking off with marimba or keyboard fill supporting the rhythm line. But of course in the end it is the lyric content that nails it all.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Exactly! To an 80s baby who mostly heard Broadway and 40s/50s at home, it was completely new. I couldn’t even have imagined it existed.

  7. greenmtred

    Very nice remembrance, Mary Beth. The first of his songs that I heard was “Come Monday.” Would have been 1974. I took a couple of Saturday hours off from logging and drove to the nearest record store–in Littleton, NH–and bought the album which, was, of course, a record, a vinyl record. I still have it.

    • Jim Walker

      “Come Monday” is one of the songs I was familiar with and really liked but did not identify with Buffett until I was reading one of his obituaries.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks! And no doubt he considers that a tremendous compliment– both the acquisition as well as the retainment. That’s lovely 🙂 Thank you for telling me.

  8. doofus

    It was the summer of 1976 when I attended my first concert in this dilapidated meta- Quonset hut type structure not much bigger than a high school gym in Myrtle beach. The crooner on stage was Jimmy Buffet.