Return to Margaritaville
The possibility of meeting Jimmy Buffett prompts a longtime Parrothead to examine just why his idol's music moves him so

By Gary Logan
Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wastin' away again in Margaritaville,

Searching for my lost shaker of salt.

Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,

But I know it's nobody's fault.

-- "Margaritaville," 1977

ONE MORNING IN MID-MARCH, I HIT THE SPEED-DIAL BUTTON AGAIN, AGAIN AND AGAIN. Finally, after 30 minutes, I got through to Ticketmaster.

"Buffett at Nissan Pavilion on June 28," I requested.

"Sorry, the event is sold out," a female voice on the other end informed me.

No surprise. As a Parrothead for nearly four decades, I knew well that obtaining a couple of tickets for Jimmy Buffett's annual show in the area was no given. I'd done the mall sleepovers, waited in line after line at Ticketmaster, surfed eBay and StubHub, and paid well more than I could afford with no regrets. I've been in the last row on the lawn, second-row center orchestra and everywhere in between. With 20 or more concerts under my belt, an autographed copy of one of Buffett's books and purchases of all his vinyl LPs, eight-tracks, cassettes, CDs and DVDs, I'd banked a lifetime of Buffett experiences. Missing one concert wasn't going to ruin my summer.

A week later, my wife, Jill, called me at my office, sounding like she'd just run the 100-yard dash.

"Guess what? You're not gonna believe this. We got tickets to Buffett."

Her girlfriend from Boston, she explained, was going out with a guy from Scottsdale who knew a guy from Palm Beach who worked with another guy from Palm Beach named Buffett. Not only were we getting tickets to Nissan, but they'd be complimentary tickets. And, oh yeah, we were getting backstage passes, too.

"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?

Something else in Buffett's music was resonating in me -- the sea. Since I was knee-high to my father, my weekends were spent on a 22-foot sports fisherman off the Jersey Shore. Early on, I was ballast, but years later, my dad handed me a pole, too. We'd bottom-fish for fluke, troll for blues, trek miles out -- where eyes couldn't reach land -- to track tuna. Often we'd rock silently but for the sounds of waves splashing the sides of the boat, the seagulls and the radio static of a Yankees' game. Onboard music, by captain's orders, was limited to Zamfir and his pan flute -- a new form of water torture -- and Polish polkas that turned our Irish-Scottish ancestors over in their graves. Then, one balmy day in the late '70s, I handed the captain an eight-track tape of Buffett, to whom he paid his highest tribute: "Play that one again."

The composition was "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes," and like many Buffett ballads about bayous and shrimp boats, it lent poetry to the sea. For me and my dad, these melodies gave voice to what we felt as we sat quietly aboard in the salt air, unable to express ourselves what the sea and these trips meant to us.

MY '80S KICKED OFF WITH GRADUATE SCHOOL AT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, followed by an array of journalism jobs covering Congress, the courts, health and veterans affairs. I wanted an adventure, and Washington was a heady one. In kicking off my sandals for leather shoes, I'd taken a Buffett break, too. What I knew of his world didn't fit with the new one I was being lured into. It was time to focus, not flee. But in a sense, I saw later, I was fleeing -- from myself and memories of a war that had left me feeling isolated from those around me. I knew I had to face those ghosts.

I joined a Vietnam veterans group in McLean, where over 12 weeks I finally broke a decade of silence about my experiences. I was not cured but recovering, and you'd think that would have set me in a purposeful direction. Instead, it led me deeper inside to try to resolve the unresolvable -- the death of a member of my squad, the destruction of a village. So, rather than continue to carve out a career path like my peers, in 1983 I headed for a remote, lakeside cabin in southern Maine, where over the course of a winter I poured my ghosts onto paper, hoping to publish a novel. My only company was Fred, a Saint Bernard-golden retriever mix I had picked up at the SPCA, and the sound of a barely audible, classical music station out of Portland. As the temperatures reached sub-zero, and I warmed myself by the wood-burning stove, Buffett was nowhere in earshot.

He surfaced again in 1984, when I returned to Washington, where I was now ready, I told myself, to move ahead rather than back. I took a job as an editor for a legal magazine in Georgetown, and I rented a top-floor Foggy Bottom apartment, where I'd host Friday night margarita parties, disco ball included, for friends and colleagues. Life was good, life was fun, and Jimmy Buffett stopped at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia each summer.

I was discovering a different me, but a different Buffett, too: less mobile and more mellow, more contemplative Caribbean soul than country-folk singer, his concerts enveloped in a circus-like atmosphere. Buffett's children of the '70s had evolved into exotic personalities wearing grass skirts and feathered hats. Their tailgate parties had turned into luaus with Cajun queens and court jesters, Flamenco dancers and Elvis impersonators, parrots and pirates. Many of the fans were younger, too -- high school and college students. Buffett had attracted a new generation of followers. These fans were later coined Parrotheads by a member of Buffett's band, the Coral Reefers, and I saw them as live characters in his songs -- putting the top down and dancing the Conga line till daybreak but still searching for distant islands, their own Margarita-villes. The essence of Buffett, that sense of carefree escape, was still intact.

Given where I was, the ride now was more about moonlight and starlight, rhythms of the heart and romance. Let someone move you, Buffett's lyrics suggested to me. But as a single man in the mid-'80s, making myself vulnerable was the last thing I was interested in doing. I had just broken up with the woman I thought I would marry and had entered into a series of brief relationships that purposely left little room for real intimacy. I was better off seeking fun than a serious relationship, I told myself, and Buffett's music could help with that, too.

So, naturally I said "sure" when in 1986 a friend from graduate school asked if I'd be interested in traveling with her to Jamaica. Fodor's described a sybaritic, seven-mile stretch of pink sand, chicken grills and reggae clubs in Negril, a place where you could get by for a week with only a bathing suit and a T-shirt. The only other thing I had to pack was my collection of Buffett tapes. Off we went.

Of course, Fodor's hadn't mentioned the ganja-peddling Rastafarians walking the beach. So, the trip was very relaxing and uneventful, until day three, when I found myself sitting at a tiny, thatched beach bar at the Negril Tree House hotel. There was I, the bartender, three guys at another table and a guy standing next to me who looked and sounded just like Jimmy Buffett, with a cute brunette on his arm.

"Got one I can borrow?" asked this Buffett clone, nodding toward a pack of cigarettes on the guys' table. "All I got are OPs."

"OPs?" one of the guys asked.

"Other people's," he laughed.

They laughed with him. I looked at him long enough to realize that it was Buffett, without the mustache, before quickly glancing down at the stack of six Buffett cassettes next to my yellow Sony Walkman on the table. Say something, I told myself. But I couldn't, or wouldn't, before he and the cute brunette sprinted toward the surf, laughing all the way.

Nah, someone else, I told myself as I placed the earphones back in their rightful place. But that night at Rick's Cafe on the west end of Negril, where the tourists trek nightly to catch the sunset while sipping rum punches, a swarm of spring break teens sat around someone on the terrace, someone who was making them laugh. Buffett? I concluded it was when after dinner he showed up next door at La Kaiser's Cafe, a reggae club on the cliffs along the shore. I turned, and there he was, in front of me, eyebrows raised, as close to me as you are to this page. So, what did I do? Not only did I not say a word, I turned away. Thirty minutes later, I walked past him like he didn't exist as he sat on a bar stool in the middle of the milling crowd, approachable by anyone but me.

At the time, I wasn't inclined to delve too deeply into anything. And, as I've said, I'm a shy guy. But years later, I would understand that my apprehension about approaching Buffett also had a lot to do with my growing detachment from everyone around me. Here I was in a more carefree place, but still keeping others out.

Not too long after returning from Negril, a new Buffett song, "Bring Back the Magic," spoke to me about the need to allow someone in. In 1989 I did, which led to another chapter in my life, and another decade of Buffett as traveling companion -- not just for me, but for my wife and children, too.

"I DON'T KNOW WHY I HADN'T INTRODUCED JILL AND GARY SOONER. They both love sailing and Jimmy Buffett."

That was the central line of the rehearsal dinner toast from Lisa, my best woman. A tropical wedding reception with tiki bars, Hawaiian leis and hula dancers at the Key Bridge Marriott followed, then a week in Oahu, then the beginning of a life in Arlington that was increasingly less about me and more about a wife and work, a home and mortgage, and kids -- Ben, one year after we exchanged vows, and Ethan and Grace five years later. Quickly our lives became consumed by baptisms and birthdays, carnivals and camp outs, puppies and vet bills. But each summer, a life raft drifted offshore. We grabbed it.

The Buffett show had become a shared event with a like-minded soul. I was no longer flying solo with a group of friends or taking someone I knew I wouldn't be taking the following year. We'd park the '79 yellow Volvo (a.k.a. "Banana Boat") decaled with iguanas and parrots, open up our foldouts, sip margaritas and nibble on grilled chicken until the mania around us started to merge into the pavilion. This was our time, our date for the year, a contemplative but adrenalin-laden escape from parenting. We could dance, join the group singalong, simulate sharks, sail moonlit bays in search of our own suppressed dreams and ponder ancient puzzles beneath a mango tree.

But the music was becoming about our kids, as well. Tropical love songs were bumped by Buffett lyrics about barefoot children running in the rain, finger painting in the sand, a Rastafarian who could sing fish out of the sea, and, of course, pirates. I sold my dad's old fishing boat, built a play pirate ship in our back yard and watched toddler Ben strum his green plastic guitar as he watched a Buffett video.

The music touched our losses, too. My father, my captain, died of a heart attack just weeks after his last fishing trip. When I learned through Buffett's song "False Echoes" that his father had been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, a subject I was then writing about in my public affairs job at an academic medical center, I gathered up the latest studies and sent them off to Buffett's store in Key West. Silly thing to do, part of me thought. He has plenty of resources. But I'd do the same for any acquaintance or friend, so why not for him?

I'm growing older but not up.

My metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck.

So let the winds of change blow over my head.

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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