Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way
By Ryan White
Touchstone Books, 368 pp. $26.99
In 1976 – the year before the song “Margaritaville” entered public consciousness and the charts – the pot-friendly Jimmy Buffett gave an interview to the pot-friendly magazine High Times. In it, he said this about his career and touring:
“I’m not going out there to try and sell my lifestyle to America. Because they aren’t going to buy it. They never have.”
Are there any sentiments from any musician, ever, that proved so untrue? Long after that little tune slipped off the charts, Jimmy Buffett has been selling his lifestyle to an audience that has been more than hungry for it for more than 40 years now. Because while they may waste away in Officeville or PTAville or AutoshopVille during the week, they can dream of sipping a cold, salty one on a beach under the palm tress while wearing some variation of a loudly colored shirt with Buffett’s music as the soundtrack.
Jimmy Buffett has built the “Margaritaville” fantasy into a monster franchise worth approximately $1.5 billion a year, extending into not just music, T-shirts and children’s books, but casinos, restaurants, liquor brands, an Internet radio station, shoes, souvenirs of all sorts and – as was announced recently – an actual retirement community. And coming this year will be the Broadway-style jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville, scheduled to open in Houston in late October. Not a bad payoff for a song that took its author (depending on the telling) between six and 20 minutes to write after a particularly liquid afternoon in an Austin, Texas, Mexican restaurant.
While Buffett’s life and career have been the subject previously of a 1997 bio, The Man From Margaritaville Revealed, and his own 1998 memoir, A Pirate Looks at Fifty, White’s book claims to be the definitive look at the formerly mustachioed troubadour. But it isn’t.
Any great biography leaves its reader with a firm grasp on its subject, both inside and out, an understanding and knowledge not gleaned from anyplace else. After reading this, one may certainly not feel that he knows much more about the “real” Jimmy Buffett. Granted, for someone who has cultivated such a careful image and values his privacy (and did not participate), that’s a challenge for any author from the get-go.
White does his research – especially into Buffett’s years in Key West before his popularity, and he interviews a number of his compadres/running buddies in those years. The book is more than half over by the time Buffett records “Margaritaville.”
But their tales read more like an “and then we…” series, usually fueled by illicit substances. The reader learns just as much about the proclivities and personalities of these people as the book’s subject, and White’s narrative often strays into rabbit holes of other performers and topics. Every one of Buffett's own previously sourced quotes rarely goes deep into either his music or his mind-set.
White is insightful about Buffett’s stage persona, an observation early in his career that the performer has largely maintained. “Onstage, Buffett had become part Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, part barstool philosopher, and everybody’s stoned best friend,” he writes. “He was a run-on sentence, punctuated by an occasional song. And he was busy.”
Also revealed: How some early clubs would have "Buffett" on their roadside marquees to promote his concerts, but people would often come in asking where the food was.
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Incisively, White writes how the performer cultivated his own image and branding while providing the fantasy that he actually lived much of what he projected. And that’s not a criticism at all. So when he put out his first T-shirts in 1984, it started the empire that he oversees today. Only one person can be Jimmy Buffett, but the rest of us can be like him – if only for a few hours during a concert, or a restaurant dotted with parrots and pirates as decor.
So, as it turns out, despite what 1976 Jimmy Buffet thought, the 2017 version does sell his lifestyle to America – and it’s certainly not a bad one to shill. He also essentially created his own genre of music that fills outdoor sheds today. This book certainly deserves a place of honor on the shelf of any self-respecting Parrot Head (a term, by the way, created by Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmidt to describe his friend’s particularly rabid group of fans). I only wish it revealed more about the man.
Jimmy Buffett & the Coral Reefer Band perform Thursday, June 8 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. Gates open at 6 p.m.