I turned 42 earlier this month, and tried my best to act 24. I’ve been to three concerts over the last three weeks.
It would have been four concerts if not for a Kenny Loggins health issue. He was scheduled to play at an Indian Casino with Air Supply.
Okay, so maybe these concerts aren’t technically in the “acting like a 24-year old” vein. The acts themselves were more in the “Middle Aged White Male” range. But nonetheless, it was three concerts, hundreds of miles apart from each other, in three weeks, with nary a stop for Matamucil in between. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
Literally, I got the T-shirts:
First up was a flight to Southern California for Mumford & Sons. It was my birthday present from my wife, so I didn’t even know it would be happening until a few days prior.
Next up was a train trip to Reno to see Straight, No Chaser, an a capella group that sings medleys and various other non-instrumental versions of modern hits. Like “All About That Bass (No Tenors).” That was my anniversary gift to my wife. Concert gifts all around this year.
But I’m not here to write about listening to ten men sing Christmas songs in October. Nor shall I delve into… whatever the hell style of music Mumford & Sons is. Folk? Bluegrass? I tried explaining them to my Mother-in-Law.
“Bluegrass? Are they from the South?”
“They play a lot of mandolin.”
“Maybe my hippie brother would like them. He’s been teaching himself mandolin.”
But I’m here to talk about the cherry on the top of my Middle-Aged White Male Trifecta Sundae, when I lowered the average age at a Jimmy Buffett concert by about a decade. I did not have as great of an effect on the Hawaiian shirt average – my Tommy Bahama kept the ratio perfectly pegged at 1 to 1.
Jimmy Buffett is another musical act that’s hard to classify. His music isn’t overly complex. I’m pretty sure the chord progression on “Fins” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise” is exactly the same. But he’s worth $400 million (behind only Paul McCartney and Bono, according to a Google search), so he must’ve figured something out.
He started out primarily as a country act, and I suppose is still heavily grounded in that particular genre. But I know a lot of Parrotheads that have no love of country music. I sometimes refer to Jimmy Buffett as beach music, but that tends to conjure up images of Brian Wilson and Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello dancing in a bikini.
Oh wait, I know. Jimmy Buffett is drinking music.
But not so much. Because in reality, Jimmy Buffett plays Jimmy Buffett music. He’s worth so damned much because he is his own genre.
Jimmy Buffett is a lifestyle, with maybe a little bit of music attached.
I first discovered Jimmy Buffett when I was in college from a Parrothead who lived on my dorm floor. I assume “some guy in college” is how most people first encounter Jimmy Buffett. Isn’t that the type of alternate lifestyle that college is for? Sure, that “guy in college” must have discovered Jimmy Buffett elsewhere. He was two years ahead of me, so I assume he caught it from a junior when he was a freshman, thus continuing a herpes-like chain reaction stretching all the way back through time.
Someone must have started the chain, but I can’t imagine who. I know there were those old PSA’s from the 1980s (“Where’d you learn to do drugs? “You, okay? I learned it from watching you!”), but I doubt either the parent or the teenager in that ad was pleasantly puffing away to the prospect of visiting that “One Particular Harbor.”
That’s why I think it has to start in college. Because, contrary to how most people classify Jimmy Buffett, his songs aren’t drinking songs. We don’t see the neediness of a “Tubthumping” or “Red Solo Cup.” They aren’t party songs. You don’t crank up the Jimmy Buffett at a rager like you would Beastie Boys or Sublime. Jimmy Buffett is much closer to “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” than he is to “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” Even if “Pencil Thin Mustache” references marijuana, you’re not going to puff-and-pass to it like you would to “Gin and Juice.”
I teach high school. I hear a lot of stories about drinking parties. I’ve had plenty of burgeoning alcoholics and chronic addicts come through my room. But I can only think of a very small collection of students who could truly understand what Parrotheading is all about.
The confusion about what Jimmy Buffet is singing about is understandable. His most famous line, after all, is “wasting away again in Margaritaville.” My students would probably say “Yeah, man, I’ve totally been wasted on margaritas, too.”
Okay, margaritas might be too fancy for my students. So maybe “Wasting away again in straight-shot-of-tequila-with-Coors-Light-chaser-ville.”
But anyone who thinks that song is about getting wasted misses the point. One is not wasting away in Margaritaville due to the alcohol content of said drink. It’s the introspection that comes with each successive drink or hour or day spent there. From “it’s nobody’s fault” to “it could be my fault” to “it’s my own damn fault” – one of the most brilliant evolving choruses of all time.
I once got in an argument with an English teacher about whether or not the entire song is a metaphor or not. Even the tattoo is a mental tattoo. Who the hell describes ink on an arm as “a Mexican cutie?” That tattoo has been stamped on his brain, and it ain’t leaving until he blends that next frozen concoction.
I’m right. The English teacher is wrong. What the fuck do English teachers know about metaphors? Seriously. If he really blew out his flip-flops, he could’ve just bought new ones – Margaritaville has a shit-ton of merchandising.
But to understand why Jimmy Buffett isn’t just about drinking and partying, you need to go beyond his most famous title. A better song to reflect what the Parrothead life is about is “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude.”
Sure, Mr. $400 Million might be able to live the lifestyle permanently, the rest of us can’t party all day, every day. We have to wait for, or in some cases force, a change in attitude. The easiest way to do this, and yet the most complicated, is to go on vacation somewhere tropical. That fixes up your attitude right quick.
But sometimes we can’t pick up and shove off to the Mexican Riviera. That’s okay. The change of latitude need not be extreme. Go downtown for the evening. Veer off the home-to-work commute. Date night with the spouse. Whatever it takes to change the attitude, if only for an hour or two.
Carpe diem. YOLO. Make the most of the times that should be made more of. That’s what Jimmy Buffett really is about. Drink? Sure! Party too hard? Absolutely! But make it about enjoyment, make it about reflection, not about obliteration. Because “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”
Most non-fans don’t realize how much introspection Jimmy Buffett sings about. It’s not in “Cheeseburger in Paradise” or “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” (and screw?), but you don’t have to delve deep into his track list to find it. It’s the reflection that comes from sitting on a beach or a bar and having a few drinks. Or from talking to the old guy next to you at the beach or the bar.
To understand the appeal and the staying power of Jimmy Buffett, you need to listen to the lines the audience sings along to most fervently at his concerts. It ain’t “Volcano.” Despite the elaborate hands-above-head movement, it ain’t “Fins.” It isn’t even “Margaritaville.”
Those songs all have sing-alongs, but they are rote. People sing the whole song at the same volume. There are no natural crescendos, no particular lines that have more gravitas than the others..
The ballads are where you’ll find that extra connection that defines Jimmy Buffett. “A Pirate Looks at 40” is a wonderfully retrospective song about mid-life crises and how we are never able to do that thing we always thought we were destined to do. Perhaps I should re-title this blog “An Asshole Looks at 40.” But I doubt I could fill it with anything as profound as “I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast.”
That’s a line that gets the concert crowd warbling. Because we’ve all been there, haven’t we? Everybody’s been Candide, looking back on his time in El Dorado, thinking “What the fuck was I thinking leaving that behind?”
(How do you like that allusion, English teachers?)
Some other artists dally into Jimmy Buffett territory, but few stay for long. Toby Keith definitely has some party songs, and a few of them manage to toe the line between happy drunk and angry drunk. Paul Simon’s an excellent lyricist and musician who has some wonderfully happy and introspective songs. But neither of them have a niche that is entirely of their own creation.
The most obvious non-Jimmy Buffett Parrothead song is “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.” How the hell did Jimmy Buffett NOT write that one? I almost wonder if Alan Jackson felt guilty after writing it. Like “Oh, shit, what is this? This is not an Alan Jackson song!” So he invited Jimmy Buffett to sing along with him and included him in the lyrics. Then he went back to writing more snoozers like “Country Boy.”
The one band that seems to be hanging out in Margaritaville on a more permanent basis is the Zac Brown Band. But consider this: Zac Brown wasn’t alive when Jimmy Buffett released his first album. So maybe that niche is only big enough to be filled once per generation. Zac Brown’s next on my list of concerts to attend. I wonder if I will skew the average age down by a decade, as I did at Jimmy Buffett, or if I will skew it up.
I also don’t know if Zac Brown has quite figured out the retrospective part yet. He can’t sing about a 40-year old pirate if he isn’t even a 40-year old musician yet. I don’t know if the Zac Brown Band has any ballads that sum up a life’s journey yet. They need to add some if they’re still want to be playing new arenas, not state fairs, in forty years.
Jimmy knows this. He knows that people come for the “Boat Drinks” and stay for the “Son of a Son of a Sailor.”
That was evident in how he finished the concert I saw. The main concert ended with “Volcano,” because it’s named the “I Don’t Know Tour.” The first two songs of the encore started out with “We are the People our Parents Warned Us About” and “One Particular Harbor.” The latter is a standard Parrothead anthem and the former is more quotable than singable. It was pretty standard stuff, except for the voracity with which he sang “But Not Yet” after the line “I can see the day when my hair’s full gray and I finally disappear.”
Then he did something that I have never seen in any concert before. After the entire band left the stage, Jimmy doubled back out. I assumed he would give one last wave, but instead he pulled out an acoustic guitar and broke into “He Went to Paris.”
That’s how the concert ended, with Jimmy Buffett alone on the stage, playing one of his softest ballads. And it was brilliant. Because if it’s the “I Don’t Know Tour,” what better way to end than with “all of those answers and all of those questions” that we never quite finish.
And if you sing about the great adventure that is life, there can be no better line to walk off the stage to than:
“Jimmy, some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I’ve had a good life all the way.”