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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)

I'd rather die while I'm livin' than live while I'm dead.

-- "Growing Older But Not Up," 1980

The white plane tipped its wings and buzzed the crowd, eliciting a wave-like roar across the field. But then the winds picked up and a torrential downpour sent fans -- except those oblivious to it -- fleeing for cover. As the rain let up and the Parrotheads emerged from their encampments and headed for their seats, two rainbows reached over the horizon. First Buffett kidded the crowd about flying over the bumper-to-bumper caravan heading for the concert.

"You drive in that every day?" he said, like it was the last place you'd find him. Then he added, "Did you see that double rainbow?"

The year was 2005, the venue Nissan Pavilion. The event was the "Salty Piece of Land" concert, and, until the backstage passes showed up, we figured it was likely our last Buffett show. The music was an accumulation of all the philosophical notes that had preceded it, but there was another theme, too, for the new century: It really is a short run, so tighten up the sheets and ride the winds; set a course true to yourself; stay young, but do what you gotta do now.

In ways we had done that -- I had finally landed the public affairs job in a children's hospital I had wanted a decade earlier, and Jill had left human resources consulting with Fortune 500 companies for a school psychologist position in inner-city Baltimore. In our choices, we may have invited more struggles, but Buffett would drop into town every now and then to smooth our troubled waters. Still, it was hard to stay young at concerts where there were now three generations of Parrotheads instead of two. A man in his mid-60s wearing a coconut bra and grass skirt is quite a sight. I found myself evolving into somewhat of a retiring Parrothead, shaking my head at the odd characters passing by. Also, we'd generally wait for Buffett's voice before heading for our seats in the pavilion -- the lawn was no longer an option for these two birds -- and leave before the final encore, a blasphemous offense, to beat the traffic back home to our kids.

"That's probably it, his last gig," I said to my wife when we hit Interstate 66 after leaving Nissan Pavilion. "He's not going to do this forever."

Nor, I thought, would we.

But there we were again at Nissan this past summer as the woman at the will-call window handed us four center-orchestra seats and four passes that read "Pre show" rather than "backstage." That wording, we soon discovered, makes miles of difference in Margaritaville.

Pre-show meant a pre-show party cordoned off behind the pavilion, more back lot than backstage. There we and our two friends found folks like us with similar connections -- a woman with a brother in the State Department who had smoothed some international travel issues for Buffett, a couple who were friends of a vocalist in the band. Some of the connections got you a 45-second drive-by with Jimmy, who was somewhere in the maze of trailers behind the pavilion. We hadn't made arrangements for a personal visit, so pre-show was as far as we got, which, as it turned out, was fine. As our Scottsdale friend said on the ride home: "It's not about meeting him and discovering he's a regular guy. We already know he's a regular guy."

"It's all about the show," I heard myself say to my fellow Parrotheads.

But by now, I had concluded that it both was and wasn't about the show. On the one hand, the relationship between the fan and performer is not a personal relationship. As much as we all want to connect, he doesn't know us, and we don't know him, not really. We can't get inside the artist's true intention with his music -- only our own interpretation of it. We cherry-pick what our context needs, what fills our voids.

On the other hand, there is something very intimate going on. The artist reaches deep within, opening up himself and his vision of the world. His fans, including me, eagerly soak up what we need and find ourselves transported. Artist and audience, we all make ourselves vulnerable in this sharing. And what could be more personal, and more honest, than that?

So, in the end there was no backstage brush with Buffett, no making up for the lost chance in Negril. But it no longer mattered because I finally understood: We'd been communicating all along.

Gary Logan is a freelance writer who lives in Millersville, not Margaritaville. He can be reached at glogan@jhmi.edu.


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