“It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. And I came in too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
It seems that, perhaps, every generation is doomed to find Tony Soprano’s words in the pilot of THE SOPRANOS relatable; they’ve certainly been on my mind as of late as we watch a lot of the last decade grow diseased and wither away. Online political communities that we grew excited about and hitched our horses to around 2016 or so failed or proved themselves cynical. We’re supposedly due for some great bottoming-out of the economy as it becomes more and more inhospitable to live anywhere—it remains to be seen if anything hopeful can be picked from the wreckage. The social media we grew up on went belly-up, we all sort of let the rise of streaming across all forms of media lie to us before imploding, and creative industries at large are actively trying to stamp out the human creatives involved in them. As such, I’d wager there is some lurking anxiety behind the fact that it seems as if a lot of people my age are now meaningfully getting into the music older people always swore by; if the new failed us, there’s something to be said for the old. The loss of Robbie Robertson garnered wistful memorials from all manner of millennials, recent retrospective screenings of THE LAST WALTZ captivating sites such as Letterboxd. The Dead have famously drummed up a new legion of Heads on their most recent route of cosmic truckin’. Artists going loudly into that dark night such as Elton John, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen each fill stadiums decades into their career, many for their supposed final runs (although the faces in the crowd look a lot more and more like the same you see on your Instagram feed). I remember rejecting all these acts and their ilk at one point or another in my younger days as carte blanche and milquetoast, the puffed-up, four-chord creaks and sighs of the dying rockist tastemaking of yesteryear that no longer held weight; I’m sure many out there can recall being of a similar sentiment. But the way we’re talking now, maybe our uncles were right all along: the best is over and we came in too late for it.
Somewhere amidst all this peacefully rests James William Buffett, an artist who rose to prominence in a past generation with an output and cultural cache that have found a home in the reappraisals of the currently online. As was proven when he passed away on September 1st, we did regrettably come in too late at the end. Buffett leaves behind a discography of hidden gems and rewarding depth, and yes, a larger-than-life personal lifestyle and entertainment brand that grapples with his purely artistic output. His memory inspires plenty of things to appreciate and some things to chew over, but more than that, his passing seems intimately tied in with the moment, a songwriter who was regularly preoccupied with the past, a sense of that which is now out of reach forevermore, and ways both productive and destructive to make sense of and find footing among it all.
To me, Jimmy Buffett always seemed somewhat out-of-step with the textbook definition of a financially and culturally successful musician. While he commanded an infamous legion of Parrotheads, his success was nevertheless happening almost entirely out of the purview of the going-rate consensus of my generation—that is, at least until his appearance in THE BEACH BUM, where he introduced himself to many of us as someone who might have an appreciation for the weird and vital in a manner we didn’t expect. While a handful of singles obviously became inescapable radio staples in our parents’ car, I never encountered anything other than spitting derision for “Margaritaville” until fairly recently, and the general impression that was handed down to me by the Internet was that he was nothing more than hollow kitsch and cheese that belonged on his burger in paradise, a leering, cynical specter of late capitalism designed to sell branded beach towels and frozen cocktails. Admittedly, the all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk of a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville (Resort) can be formidable if one isn’t open to buying in, and I would not exactly rush to call his larger discography airtight. There’s quite a dramatic cut-off between generational appreciation of Jimmy Buffett, but if nothing else, I’m writing this to let you know that if this is the final push you need, it’s a chasm worth attempting to cross.
Well, first and foremost, he made a lot of good music! It seems there are rumblings of moving away from the polemical, taste-based extremism that has dominated a lot of online chatter for the past several years and if you want to remember Jimmy Buffett for something, remember him as a perfect reintroduction to the concept of things still having worth even if they are not the “best” or the “greatest” or the “most [insert adjective] thing you’ve heard in [insert period of time].” A vast majority of Jimmy Buffett is capable and adept country-tinged rock; revisiting his discography makes the later link-up with the Zac Brown Band come into crystal clarity, and especially on A1A (my Buffett pick if you’re in need of an album to recalibrate your preconceptions of him), there’s a good deal of palpable, initially surprising connections you can make with ‘70s contemporaries (“Life Is Just a Tire Swing”… The Band did that in another life, folks, I’m telling ya!). A good deal of the LIVING AND DYING IN ¾ TIME to HAVANA DAYDREAMIN’ run evokes a vaguely rootsy and rollicking trip to the piano bar, albeit one far more likely to luxuriate in an easy and breezy pedal steel reverie than some of its forebears.
The “tropical rock” / “tropical pop” era… it’s part and parcel to the Jimmy Buffett legacy and it’s hard to deny it’s anything other than a consummate vibe. CHANGES IN LATITUDES, CHANGES IN ATTITUDES remains the definitive Buffett album any way you slice it, the start of his voyage into becoming more of a business than a musician in the public eye. But it’s pretty hard to downplay the appeal of its title track and yes, “Margaritaville”: that is one motherfucker of a midpoint to anchor your album. Everything’s a little softer, a little more laidback, a little more prone to pillowy bongos drifting you off into a rum-soaked stupor instead of offering some of the bite and drive of his early efforts. But there’s also the smirking slink of “Tampico Trauma,” the anthemic chorus to close us out on “Landfall,” and a collection of ballads like “Banana Republics” that stick around after the runtime runs its course. Besides, you can always hang your hat on the ability of the members of the Coral Reefer Band to have more interesting communication with each other than you may initially realize. There’s both chops and restraint present aplenty, the layers to the amiable licks, riffs, and chatter between Fingers Taylor, Michael Utley, and Michael Jeffry progressively revealing themselves with each listen. It was the end of one era and the start of another, and few will begrudge you if you sail off for warmer waters right around VOLCANO, when things begin to smack more and more heavily of Mike Love’s Beach Boys (or maybe it was the other way around).
But across Buffett’s career regardless of era, there is a persistent sense of yearning that makes him intensely relatable to the modern aging millennial. Many of those reading this are staring down the scant remaining time of their 20s, if they’re not in their 30s already, comfortable enough with themselves to feel lived-in and with a collection of stories to tell of their own, but with a vast, clouded morass of decades to come where the future looks increasingly uncertain: “Most mysterious calling harbor / So far but yet so near / I can see the day when my hair’s full gray / And I finally disappear.” The characters of Buffett’s songs are typically heavy-drinking, sun-worn Epicureans, but you can consistently find a bittersweet glance over the shoulder towards the past at the bottom of many of their rum barrels. “I took off for a weekend last month just to try and recall the whole year / All of the faces and all of the places wonderin’ where they all disappeared”—taking a whole weekend off to be in your cups and feelings reflecting on that which has passed and is passing us by sounds a whole lot like the activity du jour during the pandemic to me, and there is something to be said for how a lot of Buffett reappraisal began to pop up during that period among my peers. Nevermind the gut-punch of “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” an objectively great song that is perhaps the peak of Buffett’s career in a vacuum. As we are continually failed and betrayed by the institutions around us, it’s hard not to be affected in some way hearing “Yes, I am a pirate, 200 years too late / The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder / I’m an over-40 victim of fate / Arriving too late, arriving too late.” Sounds like we’re just barely missing a mention of wishing we had gotten in on the ground floor.
Jimmy Buffett is larger than his music, and what a large number of people will remember him for, for better and worse, is his own particular promise of escapism: the tourist-centric, Gulf Coast-lensed simulacra of Margaritaville. As far as Margaritaville at large is concerned, if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it, and that’s really all that it boils down to on a qualitative level. The food is comparable to that served at Islands, the drinks menu is surprisingly extensive and features several knockouts (the experts will tell you to start with the frozen drinks, not the margaritas), and Jimmy Buffett songs play on loop.
The chief reason that I got roped into the larger Buffettverse is precisely because the Times Square Margaritaville Resort is the only place I’ve been in New York that makes me feel like I’m not in New York (complimentary), so I can’t deny that, yes, escapism is a large part of the appeal. I can’t necessarily defend escapism past a certain point: if you’re escaping, you’re not really committed to making the world around you a better place. But what I will say is that while the concurrent escapism of the booming tiki revival is always teetering on the precipice of falling into the crosshairs of appropriation accusations, Margaritaville largely neglects to feature any potentially problematic Polynesian imagery or aesthetics, instead placing you on the Key that never was, Americana and tropicalia combining in a blissful imagination of what Florida could be divorced of Republican politics.
And yet, the larger implications of Jimmy Buffett and his lifestyle brand can be considered the last exemplars of this particular brand of escapism. With the death of Buffett, there’s an argument to be made that his dream of clear waters, golden beaches, boat drinks, and sailing away dies with him—at least in the way that it was known. The previous generation could feasibly manifest a real-world participation in the warm climes and colorful libations of a tropical vacation often portrayed by and constantly associated with Buffett’s music, with all of the baggage that we now regularly discuss as far as the darker side of the tourism industry is concerned. This conception is probably why a large swath of people harbor a distaste for Margaritaville. But for those of us grinding away and scrimping and saving time off for what usually amounts at most to a long weekend, running into a chum with a bottle of rum on some fantasia-laden coast is never really going to be in the cards. The “upper middle class” is the demographic that Buffett’s material historically laid down its most fervent roots in, and a large portion of these people are white and conservative, but this demographic grows physically and metaphorically sicklier and sicklier with each passing year. There are certainly criticisms you can lob at the individual you conjure up when you think of a “Parrothead” and the sociopolitical communities they have their majorities in, but their plumage is fading and the booze is going into the blender less and less as time goes on. All in all, the thornier elements of Jimmy Buffett’s legacy are all things we’re growing out of as a culture and, to a certain extent, don’t even have the means to participate in even if we wanted to. Jimmy Buffett as a registered trademark belongs to us now that he’s gone, and the escapism he’s associated with ends at the doors of Margaritaville. We came in too late for too many reasons for it to be otherwise.
What we’re left with is something I think is worth remembering and celebrating—actual trappings of the music aside. A stalwart antithesis to the grindset, an unexpected bedfellow to the rise of restcore in modern dialogue, we can all stand to benefit from Buffett’s projections of kicking back and letting the world wash over you as it will. A consistent humanist, Buffett’s music exhibits an affable desire for mutual merrymaking and a persistent encouragement to break bread and pour drinks with friends and strangers alike. The early 20th century was privy to Gebrauchsmusik, or “music for use,” music designed for a direct, distinct purpose. As Buffett the man drifts further away, perhaps the ultimate reach of his career will be to soundtrack frozen Havanas and Bananas and 5 O’Clock Somewheres at Margaritavilles across the globe. What’s really so bad about that? Music to heighten the good times that bring so much pleasure, making you want to go back there again.
I came in too late for Jimmy Buffett. I only really ended up being a fan for what amounted to the last year of his life. I still wouldn’t call myself a Parrothead, and maybe I wouldn’t necessarily want to be one in the first place (at least in the classical sense). But I can maybe be one of those on the ground floor of telling you he’s an artist worth spending some time with in our current context, someone whose products garnered some unfair dismissal of his art. I think he has a lot of good albums, and a handful of great songs. I think it’s aspirational to drop out of the flow every now and again and find your beach, as it were. I think it’s fun to drink fruity drinks and hear “Margaritaville” played every hour on the hour at Margaritaville. And I think it’s admirable that I didn’t make the obligatory reference to a lost shaker of salt. Rest In Peace, Captain, this one’s for you, I hope you have a lovely cruise.