JIMMY BUFFETT: SUBSTANCE UNDER THE SALT
Of the Post-Dispatch
Submitted June 30 for publication July 16, 2000
"Fins to the left! Fins to the right! We're havin' a feeding frenzy at Riverport Amphitheater on a hot Tuesday night!"
Jimmy Buffett will shout that, or something very much like it, from the Riverport stage on July 18, and several thousand pairs of arms will reach for the sky, palms meeting, fingers steepled - music sharks schooling around big fish Buffett.
It will be the Parrot Heads' annual trip with "Bubba" to that island in their minds, to that "One Particular Harbour" that has "a magic kind of medicine/ That no doctor could prescribe." It's a place of palm trees, cool breezes, spectacular sunsets, beautiful Tahitian dancers and, of course, boat drinks.
But this harbor also is "sheltered from the wind/ Where the children play on the shore each day/ And all are safe within."
There is more to Jimmy Buffett's music than meets the ear. It has depth, which some detached observers, like so many Margaret Meads among the islanders, miss when they see the tropical shirts, balloon parrot hats and big old plywood fins sticking up from car roofs.
Buffett has had a career spanning about 30 years now, a rarity in any era. And, as he often jokes, he's had only 2.4 hit records ("Margaritaville" and "Come Monday"). He's a best-selling author. He's a restaurateur and nightclub owner. His new video collection, "Tales From Margaritavision," was released in June and immediately moved into the Top 10.
How is all this possible? Buffett's fans - people of all ages, from all walks of life - know. It's all about the music.
So here are one listener's picks from the 25 or so songs that Buffett has been playing on the "Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays" tour that will stop in St. Louis. Let's dive below the surface and see what's there:
"Great Heart" (Johnny Clegg; 1988): Buffett has been opening the show this year with this song written by Johnny Clegg, a white South African who fronts a multiracial band, the great Savuka.
"Great Heart" is about spiritual longing: "This world is full of strange behavior/ Every man has to be his own savior/ I know I can make it on my own if I try/ But I'm searchin' for a great heart/ To stand me by."
"Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes" (By Jimmy Buffett; 1977): "I knew I had really hit the big time when 'Changes in Latitudes' came out because that was the first time I would remember having my own section in the record bins at record shops," Buffett says on his Web site, margaritaville.com.
OK, Buffett runs "into a chum with a bottle of rum" and winds up drinking all night.
But he also talks about acceptance ("If it suddenly ended tomorrow,/ I could somehow adjust to the fall./ Good times and riches and son of a bitches,/ I've seen more than I can recall.") and not dwelling on the past: "Oh, yesterdays are over my shoulder,/ So I can't look back for too long./ There's just too much to see waiting in front of me,/ and I know that I just can't go wrong."
"Son of a Son of a Sailor" (Buffett; 1978): The grandson of a ship's captain, Buffett comes by his love of the ocean genetically. (Then there's crazy Uncle Billy Buffett, who introduced him to more earthbound pleasures in "Pascagoula Run," but that's another song.) Jimmy has gone "out on the sea for adventure," and while he may not have been really "one step ahead of the jailer," he has learned to appreciate doing a job he loves: "Where it all ends I can't fathom, my friends./ If I knew, I might toss out my anchor./ So I'll cruise along always searchin' for songs,/ Not a lawyer, a thief or a banker."
"Come Monday" (Buffett; 1974): Buffett doesn't write many love songs, and most of those that he does write are cast as stories. This song is about separation and reunion. It was written about his then-girlfriend, Jane, for many years now his wife. The video from 1974 stars Jane and Buffett's battered pickup. The chorus: "Come Monday it'll be all right,/ Come Monday I'll be holding you tight./ I spent four lonely days in a brown L.A. haze/ and I just want you back by my side."
"We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About" (Buffett; 1983): A biographical song with which any baby boomer can identify.
There's rebellion: "I was supposed to have been a Jesuit priest or a Naval Academy grad/ That was the way that my parents perceived me/ Those were the plans that they had."
And Vietnam: "When they tried to draft me I earned a college degree/ Buyin' time till things were not so bad."
And nostalgia for the good old days: "Now I got quarters in my loafers tryin' to fight inflation/ When it only used to take a cent/ Sometimes I wish I was back in my crash pad days/ before I knew what cash flow meant."
And as often is the case with Buffett's songs,
the chorus says it all:
"We are the people there isn't any doubt/
We are the people they still can't figure out/
We are the people who love to sing "Twist and Shout"/
(Shake it up, baby)/
We are the people our parents warned us about."
"A Pirate Looks at Forty" (Buffett; 1974): An emotional song that never fails to move audiences, "Pirate" is an homage to "mother ocean" and the men who sailed her and a prayer of regret from somebody who feels out of place in the modern world:
"Yes, I am a pirate two hundred years too
The cannons don't thunder there's nothin' to plunder/
I'm an over forty victim of fate/
Arriving too late, arriving too late...
Mother, mother ocean, after all these years I've found/
My occupational hazard being my occupation's/
just not around."
"One Particular Harbour" (Buffett, Bobby Holcomb; 1983): Here is the translation of the Tahitian lyrics: "Nature lives (life to nature)/ Have pity for the Earth (Love the Earth)/ Bounty of the land is exhausted/ But there's still abundance on the sea."
"Margaritaville" (Buffett; 1977): This is the national anthem of Margaritaville, Buffett's biggest hit, the one that gets the glasses and voices raised. But is it really such a happy song? There is a certain sadness about the characters in this story that seems to have vanished in the fog over the years.
There's this guy - maybe he took a beach house for vacation, but he hasn't gone home; he's sitting on his front porch "watching those tourists covered with oil," waiting for the shrimp to boil. And he's "wasted away again in Margaritaville, looking for my lost shaker of salt."
He "don't know the reason/ stayed here all season/ With nothing to show but this brand new tattoo... But there's booze in the blender,/ And soon it will render/ That frozen concoction that helps me hang on."
Then there's this bleak picture, from the "lost verse" that didn't make the studio version: "Old men in tank tops/ Cruising the gift shops/ Lookin' for chiquitas down by the shore/ They dream about weight loss/ Wish they were their own boss/ Those three day vacations can be such a bore."
In the end, however, this porch-sitting boozer admits responsibility, moving in successive verses from "Some people claim that there's a woman to blame, but I know it's nobody's fault," to "now I think, hell it could be my fault," and finally to "but I know, it's my own damn fault."
"Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling" (Buffett; 1999): That guy in "Margaritaville" who hasn't a clue how he got his tattoo? Well, he's got a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.
This song from last year's "Beach House on the Moon" CD is about consequences; the actors in this story, however, pay big time for their inebriated transgressions in Vegas that lead from the wedding chapel to the maternity ward.
We're all victims of actions that we can write off with, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. So, the morning after the Buffett concert, when you notice that the tape that held the cardboard fin on your car took some paint with it, or you wonder what you saw in that hideous Hawaiian shirt, or you notice the destruction of that beautiful blanket you brought to the lawn seats -- well, you too may have a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.
Me? I'll be looking for my lost shaker of salt.
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