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LIFE'S A BEACH: New Jimmy Buffett bio explores his "good life" and musical legacy

Simon & Schuster
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BOOK REVIEW: Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White (Simon & Schuster) 2017

When it comes to “summer beach reading,” it could be argued that nothing could be more “beachy” in the book department than a biography involving legendary beach bum and multi-millionaire “Margaritaville” magnate Jimmy Buffett.

But there I was, sitting on a beautiful, sandy Florida beach just a few weeks ago, thoroughly enjoying Ryan White’s (Springsteen: Album by Album) wide-ranging and thoroughly-researched bio on Buffett.

Growing up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the “tropical” and “reggae” musical influences coming out in pop music in those years really grabbed my attention. Blondie’s 1980 cover of The Paragons’ song “The Tide Is High” was a favorite, as was “Pass the Dutchie,” the 1982 hit by British-Jamaican group Musical Youth.

Buffett’s music had some limited attention in our household. Dad had a vinyl copy of 1977’s Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (which featured “Margaritaville”), which was enhanced by the whole “yacht rock” vibe of that era and my family spending time on the Texas Gulf Coast when my grandfather was still alive.

So, Buffett has been on my radar for years. There was a period, in the last decade or so, when I avoided his music because he was purportedly a member of the sinister and elitist Bohemian Grove organization (you know, where they hatched the idea for the Manhattan Project!), but you get to a point in life where you take good music where you can find it – and Jimmy Buffett makes damn fine music, if you ask me.

And that’s where Ryan White comes in. He’s a big rock music writer guy and Buffett was one of those names that was hard to ignore.

Why? Because he has captured the heart and soul of not only his fellow Baby Boomers, but those in subsequent generations, with songs that capture a carefree approach to life, usually involving a beach or alcoholic drinks. In the past decade-and-a-half, Nashville (which wasn’t sure what to make of Buffett’s ‘unclassifiable’ music in the early days) has fully embraced the beach-bro country sound, crowning Kenny Chesney as king (with Oklahoma’s Toby Keith as court jester, naturally enough).

But it was Jimmy Buffett, thanks to his oceanic lineage, Gulf Coast raisin’, and sunny-yet-wise-and-observational disposition and bohemian lifestyle that worked so much in his favor as he wrote and recorded songs that so resonated with folks in the post-Sixties era which felt more like a neverending hangover for some folks.

And Jimmy Buffett had a remedy that didn't involve a boozy Bloody Mary, exactly.

But it was until making two misfired records (the folksy singer-songwriter records Down to Earth and High Cumberland Jubilee) that preceded his “beach music” years (which continue to this very day), that led to a reevaluation of where he wanted to go – and that was to the pre-touristy years (short-lived, though they were, much to Buffett’s lament) of Key West, Florida.

It was the perfect place for the Mobile, Ala. native to get inspired, and in the summer of 1973, the Jimmy Buffett known to Parrotheads the world over, was born, with the major label released of A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, which featured memorable tracks like “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw),” “He Went to Paris,” “The Great Filling Station Holdup” and “Grapefruit – Juicy Fruit.” 

A few film projects came up - Rancho Deluxe and Tarpon, for instance - helped with his Seventies countercultural appeal, as he hung out with alt-Hollywood heavyweights like Jack Nicholson and Jeff Bridges. He was moving in the right circles, but what about the music, man?

And with “Come Monday,” on 1974’s Living and Dying in ¾ Time, was a hit reaching number 58 on the US charts. He was starting to get some attention.

And after a few more albums solidifying the breezy, easygoing reputation of a man who would lead the Parrothead Nation (although that name would not come to be until the mid-80’s, when fans wore tropical and pirate-themed regalia and with it, the Margaritaville merchandising empire - and all things Buffett - was born) his shows - backed by the tight Coral Reefer Band - were selling out and he was soon hanging out with everyone from "fast lane" characters like members of the Eagles to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. 

But back to "Margaritaville," which was riding high on the charts this very month back in 1977 ...

"But it wasn't a happy song, not exactly," writes White. "It came with a dispiriting note; it was disillusioned, its narrator unsure why he'd stayed around town as long as he had. What was there to show for the time - besides the tattoo? Had he accomplished anything at all? Well, had you, Jimmy Buffett?"

Maybe not right at that moment, no, but when J.B.'s Margaritaville opened in Gulf Shores, Ala. in the summer of 1984, the commercialization of Buffett's music and lifestyle (something he had earlier said would not take off, saying the American public would reject what he was selling). Despite a few hiccups, White tells us, Buffett kept writing songs, recording albums and touring annually, as new generations were exposed to fan favorites like "Cheeseburger in Paradise," "Fins" and "Boat Drinks." 

What wasn't to like? Buffett was your happy, tanned, fun-loving uncle who could strum a guitar and charm his way into your heart. And it was that "heart" in Buffett's music that seemed to be at the heart of his appeal. His music led to a rise in "trop-rock" music (we have some right here in OKC) and his aforementioned appeal in Nashville.

White's stories about Buffett's many friends, musical companions, loves, boats and airplanes are all noted and all with a tinge of down-to-earth humor and readability. Reading A Good Life All the Way you can tell that the author had a blast writing the book and sharing these stories. 

After all, the Boomers may think they'll live forever, but they won't. And it's fortunate that guys like Ryan White are talking to Buffett and his gang, getting it all down on paper, so we can learn more about the artists we love.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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