Jimmy Buffett died Friday night. He was 76.
The world was even worse – things were a little less serene, less fun and certainly a little less relaxed.
After his death, death cries and tributes poured in for a musician and lifestyle tycoon loved more than any other. The big release memoirs all seemed to hit the same checkpoints — that’s how deaths are officially recorded — a struggling musician, found Key West, found his sound, made songs for Boomers in hammocks, built a Margaritaville empire, and became a brand.
There is nothing wrong and nothing wrong with this narrative. But like any life, there’s a lot more to Buffett’s story than fits into an obituary, no matter the number of words. In short, Jimmy Buffett was much more than Margaritaville.
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I hate to paraphrase myself, but here we are: “If all you know about Buffett is cheesy hits like ‘Margaritaville’ and ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise,’ I’d say you still have a lot to learn. “
Are you ready for a Jimmy Buffett summer?
Full Disclosure: I’m a huge Jimmy Buffet fan. His music, his lifestyle, his everything. On Saturday, I woke up to more condolence texts from friends than I care to admit. But as a fan, I feel it’s my duty to share what Jimmy has to offer beyond Margaritaville.
To put it bluntly: there is nothing incorrect with Margaritaville. There’s nothing wrong with It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere. There is nothing wrong with a large blender full of frozen concoctions – in fact, there are some things right. I like Buffett Core’s ambitious image – a laid-back life in a Hawaiian shirt, drink in hand, sunshine and sailing. How couldn’t it?
But as broad as “Margaritaville” is, Buffett was also a sensitive songwriter, an artist intent on telling fully fleshed out stories through diverse characters. Take “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” my favorite Buffett song. I wrote in May:
It’s a perfect distillation of a certain American malaise. It tells the story of a lost man who believes he was born to float on the seas in a forgotten version of the world. He stumbled in and out of small fortunes by smuggling drugs and causing a stir. Lost and happy, he spends his days enjoying all the comforts of American excess. I would argue that it is a perfect picture of late capitalism and imperial America in 2023 – and it was written 48 years ago. And if you think I’m over-analyzing this, just know that Bob Dylan and Joan Baez covered this song.
Or try Tin Cup Chalice, another one of my favorites. It’s a little ditty about a simple life. The point is that sailboats are meant to be sailed; The sun shall shine; and people should enjoy their short lives. There’s so much joy when Buffett sings, “Give me oysters and beer / For dinner every day of the year / And I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.”
Or take “He went to Paris”. It tells the story of an old man who has quietly lived a fulfilling life – a life full of tragedy, touching moments and glorious moments. It’s not subtle. It’s sincere. The “magic” and “tragedy” in a man’s life is distilled through the man’s story—not through metaphor or sleight of hand.
Smaller musicians could have done “Cheeseburger” or “Margaritaville”. But to be honest, lesser-known musicians wouldn’t have gotten their hands on these cheesy hits. The was Buffett’s superpower — he was sincere and living this life sincerely. That means you could actually find him in the Keys.
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After writing about Jimmy Buffett Summer in May, I spoke to a person who worked closely with Buffett. The person spoke enthusiastically about Jimmy – and confirmed that he was indeed who you hoped he was. Jimmy Buffett was a good man who liked sailing, warm weather, great friends, and good songs. Sure, you could portray him as an empire builder born of cheesy songs. And yes, Buffett has raked in tons of dollars through clever branding. But the man pulled off the small miracle of making the boomers relax — he earned every penny.
I think the world could use more of Jimmy’s sincerity in his absence. Cynical people out there might dismiss his music as mediocre – too obvious. Honestly, I would normally fit that bill. My three favorite music acts are, in any order, the best bar band in the world, an indie musicians supergroup, and a defunct Canadian band with a poet. But through a back door, because I wanted to drink margaritas in a Hawaiian shirt, I fell in love with Buffett.
The apathy towards Buffett’s work reminds me oddly of reviews of the punk band Idles, another of my favorite bands. Idles writes brash, loud music that is explicitly and blatantly pro-immigrant, anti-fool, and pro-diversity. It’s loud and angry, and the polar opposite of Buffett’s work at first glance and in volume. But keep in mind that Idles titled their groundbreaking album Joy as an Act of Resistance.
They are tell You will learn how they feel without a buffer. It is hopeful And sincerely and mocked as a preacher. Forgive me, but I think some things are worth preaching. And Jimmy Buffett too. There is tremendous power and bravery in saying it clearly.
The closing line of his 1978 song “Mañana” reads, “And I hope Anita Bryant never does one of my songs.” It has nothing to do with the lyrics, except that it rhymed. But Bryant was a horrific anti-LGBTQ musician who campaigned for legislation that would allow gay discrimination in Florida. Buffett, a national star who lived In Florida he had the guts to tell a fanatic to pound sand.
It is anything but an isolated text. Even amid his free-spirited personality, Buffett devoted time to genuine beliefs. He wrote the lines, “Religion is in the hands of some crazy people / TV preachers with bad hair and dimples.” He sang about not loving Jesus. He was an artist loved by the Boomers – parishioners of the Church of Greed Is Good – who told the world it needed more “pies,” less capitalist excess, and more gentleness.
Jimmy Buffett could be reduced to jokes about binge drinking, Margaritaville retirement homes, and hordes of elderly people who paid hundreds to see him. But that’s like reducing The Grateful Dead’s community to a merry band of traveling, drug-addicted hippies — that’s not wrong, but it’s not right either.
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If Jimmy Buffett’s legacy boils down to fun summer tunes, huge resorts, and, yes, Margaritaville, there are far worse legacies. Life is meant to be enjoyed and he told the stories of that joy.
But the Jimmy Buffett I will hold dear in my heart is one who sang with sincerity. A songwriter who told stories of people watching life go by while sitting in the gentle breeze.
Yes, I will play Jimmy Buffett songs while holding a frozen drink on a boat. But I will also play his music in the quiet moments when the sun goes down and my only company is the stillness of the night. In those moments, I’ll remember to live a life worthy of a song – it’s up to me what happens next.