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Return to Margaritaville

Cristina Bettencourt of Bowie grooves to the sounds of Jimmy Buffet at Merriweather Post Pavilion in July 2003.
Cristina Bettencourt of Bowie grooves to the sounds of Jimmy Buffet at Merriweather Post Pavilion in July 2003. (Kevin Clark - Kevin Clark)

"Right. Where are the seats?" I replied.

"Did you hear what I said? Backstage passes!"

"Where are we sitting?" I asked again.

Truth is, going backstage holds little appeal for me. I'm a shy soul, challenged enough conversing with regular folks, let alone icons. I'm not one for mingling, not even in Margaritaville, Buffett's mythical nirvana.

But then, as decades of Buffett flashbacks began to roll in like waves on the shore, I reconsidered. Maybe I did want to meet him. After all, I'd invested more of myself in Buffett for more years than I had with any other artist. Just why did he have so much staying power? What is it about the Buffett experience?

Right away, I knew the answer was in the question. More so than with many other entertainers, Buffett is an experience for me and his legions of other diehard fans -- one that touches our psyches and spirits in some profound way. But I had never really considered the reasons Buffett's music moves me so. What's beneath the aging tropical shirt collection in my closet, the parrot named "Margarita" living in our basement, the pirate ship once moored in our back yard? What are the threads of the Buffett philosophy in my life? Had it changed how I viewed the world, other people, myself? What would happen if I took a journey through a Parrothead portal into my own past?

And that thought took me back to a brush with Buffett in 1986, an encounter I thought I'd resolved but suddenly realized I hadn't. Maybe the answer was backstage.

BUT I NEED TO START FROM THE BEGINNING. The year: 1974. The venue: Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. The event: my first Buffett concert. Over a sea of bouncing, longhaired heads was this mustachioed, barefoot guy with long sandy hair, wearing jeans and jumping and running around the stage -- a young Buffett playing to an equally young and frenetic audience. But he was more funky-country folk singer than rock star, singing not about the '60s but about colorful characters who had lived and loved and were now moving on.

From my perch on the grass, I was being pulled onstage toward this energy, a 180-degree diversion from where I'd been a few years earlier -- in South Vietnam with a Marine infantry unit -- and from much of where I still was inside my head. The summer before the concert, looking for an escape, I went to the French and Italian rivieras and, despite the heat, found myself locking the doors and shutters of hotel rooms overlooking the Mediterranean. To me at the time, my behavior seemed quite natural. But not to my traveling companion, Chris, a high school buddy who recommended Jimmy Buffett as an RX for my ills. "Have you heard of him? You'd like his music."

Who?

He dragged me to South Jersey, where Buffett's soft melodies and honky-tonk rhythms took me somewhere vibrant but safe, a place where you didn't have to take life too seriously. Also, while Buffett's music seemed somewhat anti-establishment, it wasn't antiwar. Not that I was pro-war. I looked at my experience in Southeast Asia as a human one, not as a divisive national issue. While friends judged me in political terms, Buffett spoke to me as a person, someone who could learn to have fun again.

So that 1974 concert was the hook, and hooked I was. I bought the LPs and waited for Buffett to find his way to the Jersey Shore each summer through the '70s. Between concerts, I commuted to William Paterson College in Wayne, N.J., to study journalism. I was uninspired in high school, but making it back to the world moved me to do something meaningful with my life, even as many of my '60s buddies were bailing out of college. We all partied together, but in my group, I was more drawn to Buffett than they were. Maybe my need for an escape was greater?


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