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Farewell to Jimmy Buffett — licence to chill

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(Image via Picryl)

Jimmy Buffett, an artist who successfully pioneered a genre called “tropical rock” and promoted an enviable lifestyle described as “island escapism” has passed away from skin cancer complications. He was 76.

The star who is best known for his groovy and hedonistic track Margaritaville produced more than 30 albums throughout his career, which spanned many decades.

Nine of these albums were certified platinum or multi-platinum and eight were certified gold. In all, Buffett sold more than 20 million albums and became a billionaire by lending his name to two highly successful bar/restaurant chains called Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise.

Rock music writer Rob Harvilla said in The Ringer that Buffett ‘built an island of chillness and invited everyone to join him’.

Harvilla continued:

His job was just beach. His art, his philosophy, his religion, his ethos, his million-dollar brand: beach. Just beach. reality, Jimmy Buffett spent a solid half-century on vacation and didn’t waste a minute of it.

He was born James William Buffett on Christmas Day in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1945 and loved sailing from a very early age. He played the trombone in high school and enrolled in Auburn University in Alabama, which enabled him to escape involvement in the Vietnam War.

In his university days, Buffet was most assuredly a “player” in the true sense of the word. He initially learned to play the guitar because a fraternity brother at the university suggested that it was a good way of getting girls. In 1966, Buffett dropped out of university because, according to a friend, he was “unable to balance his newfound interests in music and girls with his college classes”.

In 1969, Buffett moved to New Orleans and enthralled drunken tourists with his impromptu street performances and the occasional gig at the now-defunct Bayou Room nightclub on Bourbon Street. However, Buffett found that the libidinous atmosphere of the “Big Easy” wasn’t quite to his taste so he tried Nashville, Tennessee for a spell, hoping to launch a career in country music.

Buffett’s first album Down To Earth was released in 1970 and tanked, only selling 325 copies. To make matters worse, Buffett’s first marriage was in serious trouble and headed for divorce.

Heartbroken, Buffett decided to try his luck in Florida at the invitation of country star Jerry Jeff Walker, who had a home in Coconut Grove, a suburb of Miami. In 1971, the pair went on a busking expedition to Key West. Buffett liked the vibe of Florida so much that he decided to live there permanently and to make ends meet while he pursued his music career. He took a day job as the first mate on a slick yacht owned by rich industrialist Foster Talge.

In 1973, Buffett signed a recording contract with ABC/Dunhill Records and filled a hole left by Jim Croce, who died in a plane crash the same year. Buffett’s second album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, featured the truly glorious boozers’ anthem, ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk’.

It also featured a homage to his adopted Florida home called ‘I Have Found Me A Home’. The album was a mild success and Buffett bought his first boat with the proceeds.

In 1973, Buffett released an album called Living & Dying in ¾ Time that included a tribute to his then-girlfriend, Jane Slagsvol. The song was called Come Monday and was a departure from the island-themed songs on which Buffett built his reputation.

Just as an aside, Jane went on to become his second wife in 1977 and the mother of his two daughters and an adopted son. They split up in the 1980s because of mutual substance abuse but reconciled in 1991 when Jane became sober.

During the 1970s, Buffett struck up close friendships with members of the Californian supergroup the Eagles and often opened for them on tour.

In 1977, Buffett released an album called Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes that featured his breakthrough signature song, ‘Margaritaville’. Based on an iconic drink that Buffett first discovered in Texas, the lyrics typify a lazy, carefree lifestyle in a tropical climate.

Buffett said in interviews that he wrote the song in six minutes flat and while he made some biting observations about tourists in Key West, Florida, the song actually led to an increase in tourism. The song reached number eight on the Billboard charts and went to number one on the Easy Listening charts. It also reached number 13 on the country charts and was ranked number 14 on Billboard’s singles-end chart in 1977.

Buffett sang:

Are you ready?

Nibblin’ on sponge cake,

Watchin’ the sun bake.

All of you Parrotheads covered in oil

And feathers, and signs, and pins,

Strummin’ my six-string on my porch swing.

Smell those shrimp, hey they’re beginnin’ to boil.

Bubble, bubble, bubble, bubble.

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville.

Searchin’ for my long-lost shaker of salt.

Salt, salt, salt.

Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame

And I know this is somebody’s fault.

Baby boomers who loved the song became known by the collective noun, “Parrotheads”. 

Reflecting on the success of ‘Margaritaville’ in 2021, Spin magazine said:

‘What seems like a simple ditty about getting blotto and mending a broken heart turns out to be a profound meditation on the often painful inertia of beach dwelling. The tourists come and go, one group indistinguishable from the other. Waves crest and break whether somebody is there to witness it or not. Everything that means anything has already happened and you’re not even sure when.’

In 1978, Buffett released an album called Son Of A Son Of A Sailor that featured another of his iconic hits called Cheeseburger In Paradise. It reached 32 on the Hot 100.

Anyone who has listened to ‘Cheeseburger In Paradise’ would know how Buffett liked his burgers.

Sang Buffett:

“I like mine with lettuce and tomato,

Heinz 57 and French-fried potatoes.

Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer,

Well, good God almighty, which way do I steer?”

In January 1996, Buffett was involved in a bizarre incident in which Jamaican police fired at his Grumman HU-16 aircraft, mistakenly believing that Buffett was using the plane to smuggle marijuana. On board at the time were his wife and two children, Bono of U2, Island Records producer Chris Blackwell and co-pilot, Bill Dindy. The plane sustained minor damage and the Jamaican Government later apologised to Buffett for its mistake. Buffett wrote a song about the incident called ‘Jamaica Mistaica’.

Buffett relaxed his concert schedule in 1999, only performing 20-30 dates per year and releasing a critically acclaimed live album. In 2003, he performed a duet with Alan Jackson called It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere. The boozy song that paid tribute to the sun being past the yard arm somewhere in the world topped the country charts for eight weeks and won the Country Music Association Award for Vocal Event of the Year.

The following year, Buffett topped the charts for the first time in his career with License To Chill, which sold 238,500 in its first week of release.

In 2006, Buffett dedicated his album Take The Weather With You to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

In 2015, Buffett received an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Miami. Appearing onstage in aviator shades and thongs, he told the graduating class that “it’s time to see the world, time to kiss a girl and time to cross the wild meridian”.

In addition to his music career, Buffett was an astute businessman who owned a $180 million dollar stake in Margaritaville, his popular chain of bar/restaurants and a $140 million portfolio of planes and mansions.

Buffett told Forbes magazine in 1994:

“If you’re an artist, if you want to have control of your life... then you gotta be a businessman, like it or not. So the businessman evolved out of being an artist.”

In May 2023, Buffett entered hospice care due to complications from Merkel-cell carcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer that he had battled for four years. Risk factors include being over 50, being fair-skinned and having a lot of sun exposure, which Buffett most assuredly did while living his halcyon life in Florida.

Buffett died on 1 September the same year, surrounded by his family and his beloved dogs. In his final days, as a mark of respect, Beatles legend Paul McCartney visited him and performed for his family.

His passing ignited the Twitterverse with everybody from U.S. President Joe Biden to Elton John paying their respects.

Biden described Buffett as ‘a poet of paradise’ and:

‘ American music icon who inspired generations to step back and find the joy in life and one another. His witty, wistful songs celebrate a uniquely American cast of characters and seaside folkways, weaving together an unforgettable musical mix of country, folk, rock, pop and calypso into something uniquely his own.’

Elton John said:

‘Jimmy Buffett was a unique and treasured entertainer. His fans adored him and he never let them down. This is the saddest of news. A lovely man gone away too soon. Condolences to Jane and the family from David and me.’

Buffett called his music “drunken Caribbean rock and roll”.

He said:

“It’s pure escapism is all it is. I’m not the first one to do it, nor shall I probably be the last. But I think it’s really a part of the human condition that you’ve got to have some fun. You’ve got to get away from whatever you do to make a living or other parts of life that stress you out. I try to make at least 50/50 fun to work and so far, it’s worked out.”

Buffett famously said: “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”


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