By Tom Shroder
Sunday, September 30, 2007
When I first encountered the manuscript that became "Return to Margaritaville," the story that begins on Page 14, I said: "We'll run a story about the deeper meaning of Jimmy Buffett over my dead body."
Well I'm still here, and so is the Buffett story, and let that be a lesson to me.
My initial reaction was based on the terra firma of musical snobbery. To me, Buffett was a guy who'd hit on a successful formula -- writing bouncy songs about a mythological slacker paradise that glorified the aesthetic of unemployed alcoholics -- and ground it so far into the ground it struck oil. Let's not mistake commerce for art. To me, Buffett's real accomplishment was transforming himself into a one-man industry -- I've seen annual earnings estimates ranging from $40 million to $100 million -- with his concerts, his recordings, his restaurant chains, his beer brand, not to mention merchandise galore, from a talking-parrot toy for dogs to a monogrammed carrying case for a margarita blender. Did I mention his best-selling novels?
Okay, so maybe there was a touch of envy tossed in there. Not to mention shame: If "Margaritaville" comes on the radio, and I'm alone, I find myself singing along. The guitar and percussion somehow suggest steel drums and maracas. The lyrics evoke that slow, sensual slide to the bottom of a tropical tourist town. It's irresistible, like barbecue potato chips. But, and here was my mistake, I didn't think potato-chip music and dog toys merited much serious reflection.
Gary Logan proved me wrong.
He didn't convince me that Buffett is a great artist, but he did remind me that art, especially music, can be as much about what's going on in the mind of the listener as it is about the notes and lyrics.
I once lived in a ramshackle three-room house separated from the beach by a stand of coconut palms. I know (or hope) this can't be true, but it seems like I spent the entire time I was there in a wicker chair on the front porch, frosty drink in hand, listening to the rustle of fronds in the salt air and the scratchy recording of Billie Holiday that curled lazily from the stereo. I was poor (this was long time ago, when there was still such a thing as a cheap beach shack). I hadn't blacked out and suddenly discovered a brand-new tattoo, but I had made some questionable decisions in my personal life. Even so, I'll always remember those times for their now-ness, for that sense of being overwhelmingly in the moment that made any anxieties about past and future vanish like smoke in a tropical breeze. And that's what I think of when I hear "Margaritaville." And that's why I sing along.
Tom Shroder is the editor of the Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.