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.