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Jimmy Buffett never revealed the secret to his success

Photo: Encyclopaedia of Alabama

RIP 𝗝𝗶𝗺𝗺𝘆 𝗕𝘂𝗳𝗳𝗲𝘁𝘁, 76, pirate troubadour whose hit song “Margaritaville” and other laid-back tunes (“Come Monday,” “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”) celebrated a sunny life worth living. Legions of devoted #Parrotheads are in mourning. I talked to him in August, 1995, prior to a rare Toronto performance:

Caribbean cowboy Jimmy Buffett reborn as musical guru for the party-minded

Peter Howell

Toronto Star

Raise the lard and pass the crackers.

The Church of Jimmy Buffett, dedicated to cheerful hedonism, fine al fresco dining and musical merrymaking, will soon be in session.

All Parrot Heads, the people of our congregation, are summoned tonight to the Molson Amphitheatre to hear the words and music of Chief Poet Jimmy.

It's been 11 long years since he last addressed us in person. You have your song sheets: "Margaritaville.” “Come Monday.” ”Cheeseburger In Paradise." "Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes." The new "Bank Of Bad Habits."

Know them by heart. There will be tests.

Remember, brethren, to use two fresh lime wedges when mixing your Margaritas, and flip the shaker in mid-air twice (three times for pros).

Remember, also, that the family that flocks together, stays together. And prays, too (definitely not preys).

This is a church, remember? There's even an official website for it.

Bow your feathered heads, put down your noisemakers and give a moment's silence for the departed of our sister faith, the Church of the Grateful Dead.

Our Deadhead brothers and sisters — the inspiration for our own Parrot Head name — are in mourning for their leader Jerry Garcia, who trucked away from this mortal coil just last week.

Chief Poet Jimmy, friend to Jerry, mourns too. He speaks to us now from a pilgrimage stop in Washington, D.C.:

"I'm a big Grateful Dead fan, and obviously we're compared a lot in our followings," Buffett says.

"Fortunately, I think I'm in better health than Jerry, thank God. But it's such a loyal fan following we both have. There's a great magic that's created not only from us doing the music, it stems from the audience reacting to the music. It transcends hype or BS or the way the record business is run today.

"It's about people going to the few oases in life where they can have a good time and express themselves."

The Grateful Dead and Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefer band played together only once, at the US Festival in California in the early '80s.

Garcia and Buffett joked about doing it again, drawing the Deadheads and the Parrot Heads together for a huge bash. They planned two shows, with Buffett opening for the Dead in its California homebase, the Dead opening for Buffett in his Florida realm.

"It was certainly something we all chuckled about doing, and I regret we won't be able to do it now."

But you never know. The Dead haven't called it quits yet. And even though Buffett's seaside blend of Caribbean, rock and country flavors — you might call it "world beach" — is far from the psychedelic boogie of the Dead, their fans share a willingness to travel far and wide and high to hear it. They'll even stand in the rain for hours.

"Last week, we played in Buckeye Lake, Ohio, which is just outside Columbus, and it was pouring rain and thunderstorms - no break," Buffett says. "And we were on our way in from Chicago the morning of the show, and the promoter called us and said, 'Do you want to cancel the show?'

"I told him, `We don't cancel shows. I'll call my tech guys and if they say we've got a show, we play.'

"But the promoter Insisted. He said, We've sold 39,000 tickets here, and you'll have only half the house show up.'

"And I said, 'I doubt that. Let me be the judge of that. I know my fans.’ And we got there and we played to 41,000 people in the pouring rain, many who had waited six hours to see us.

"I thought about that dedication afterwards, and what I feel for my fans. Who would I sit out in the rain for six hours to see? There's only two people: Bob Marley, if he came back from the dead, and Catherine Deneuve. If Catherine Deneuve told me, `You sit out in the rain for six hours, I'll take you to lunch,' I'd do it. Other than that, I wouldn't do it for anybody."

Buffett's attraction as a live act is so high, he ranks up near the Grateful Dead in Pollstar magazine's annual list of Top Ten tours.

It's a rare Jimmy Buffett show that doesn't sell out (tonight's show is sold out), and the only reason he hasn't been to Toronto all these years is that he's so much in demand south of the border, and he's been cutting back on the number of dates he does each summer — about 40, down from a high of 90.

At 48, Buffett craves more quality time for fishing, reading (he also writes, both children's books and detective fiction) flying his plane (which nearly killed him last year), piloting his new sloop, Fancy (a custom-built 52-footer), managing his Margaritaville Records label and, most recently, working up a Broadway-bound version of his author pal Herman Wouk's tale of Caribbean life, "Don't Stop The Carnival."

He's come a long way from "Come Monday," his first hit in 1974. A typically self-deprecating Buffett song: "I've got my Hush Puppies on / I guess I never was made for glitter rock 'n' roll.” It came at a time when he was plying the singer-songwriter trade, but living in Key West, Fla.

It was far from the usual tour, circuit of such early '70s singer-songwriter contemporaries as James Taylor, Steve Goodman, John Prime, Loudon Wainwright III and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Buffett survived and thrived, and most of these other players didn't. Of the names on that list, only Taylor remains today as a major force in pop music.

"I wanted it," Buffett says of his success. "I wanted it more than anything. I wanted to be that good. I wanted to go all the way. And I knew a lot of people in that singer-songwriter period, and it was a wonderful time and era.

"But I saw a vision of it that didn't stop. There was a feeling back then that you could only communicate with an audience in a small club, that 500 people was as much as you could go, if you wanted to keep the one-on-one feeling.

"And I wanted to push the envelope. I wanted to at least try, because when people tell me I can't do something, it really bothers me. So I started opening for acts with 2,000 to 3,000 people, and worked on establishing that one-on-one feeling. I've got a secret, but I'm not going to tell you how I did it.

"And then they said, 'Well, you can't do it do it for 5,000 people.' And all of a sudden you are. And then they say,

'Well, You can't do it for 10,000 or 20,000 people,' and well, we do it every night."

The Parrot Head phenomenon, where fans dress up as parrots and sharks (they chant, "Fins to the left! Fin to the right!') and other colorful creatures, began as Buffett expanded his shows to arenas and amphitheatres.

That move followed the massive success of the song "Margaritaville" and the album "Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitude" in 1977.

"It started in little pockets at first. People felt they were going to hear this tropical guy, because of the music, and they'd wear Hawaiian shirts, and it grew from there. And it fit me perfectly, because I grew up in New Orleans and I loved the tradition and culture of Mardi Gras, and all its costumes. It's a few days where everybody is equal."

Buffett lore has it that Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles, then a member of the Coral Reefer Band, came up with the Parrot Heads label after spotting a group of fans dressed up like giant Pollys in the front row.

The dressing-up is all for a laugh, as crazy as Buffett's penchant for the outrageous puns of his album titles: “A White Sport Coat And A Pink Crustacean,” “Last Mango In Paris,” “Off To See The Lizard” and more.

It's nobody-gets-hurt fun that has its own checks and balances, even while the music encourages everybody to drink Margaritas, to fire up the tailgate barbecues, to dance in conga lines.

"The wrong thing is the right thing, until you lose control," Buffett sings in his current single, "Bank Of Bad Habits," off his just-released new album, "Barometer Soup," and that seems to sum up his personal philosophy.

"You got it," Buffett agrees. "If you look back, I just write about what I've done. I was pretty bad at one stage of my life, I was lucky to live through it. And I ain't that bad anymore, but I certainly don't apologize for those times."

Funny how times change. When he first wrote "Margaritaville," it was the song of a beach bum looking at his life and wondering what went wrong: "Some people claim that there's a woman to blame/But I know it's my own damn fault.”

People heard it differently in the Feel Good '70s than they do now in the Self-Denial '90s.

"When I sing the line 'it's my own damn fault' now," Buffett chuckles, "I see people in the crowd who are saying to themselves, Well, he's sort of getting over denial."

Only a few though. You can't be thinking denial when you're wearing a bright red parrot costume, sipping a boat drink and exchanging recipes for key lime pie and Margaritas.

"I think when we come to town, we're sort of a carnival," Buffett says. "People who normally lead straight productive lives come to be bad, but not too bad. I think it's an essential part of the human psyche that you need a blowout every ,now then, especially in this day and time, to put up with life in the late 20th century.

"So people come in, they get their jollies and it's a traditional tribal custom to have a celebration, then go back and work hard again."

Not all Parrot Heads are in total agreement with Buffett. They miss his early days as a guitar-strumming singer-songwriter, and they wish he'd put away the big steel pans for a while and trim the stage production back.

These traditionalist Parrot Heads are responsible for the creation of the Church of Buffett, Orthodox, a website where old-time Jimmy fans conduct discussions with truly religious fervor.

The Orthodox faithful have posted an official charter which identifies the Buffett albums prior to Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes as "the spiritual core of our holy canon."

It denounces the people-pleasing tunes, especially the "apostasy" of "Margaritaville" that have become Buffett's stock-in-trade and favored picks for concert set lists.

Buffett tries to please both orthodox and non-orthodox amongst his faithful by putting a couple of acoustic guitar

tunes on every new album — such as the beautiful new "Blue Heaven Rendezvous" on "Barometer Soup," or "Six String Music" on 1994's "Fruitcakes."

But it bugs him a little bit when people expect him to return to the old days, because that's not where he's at musically anymore.

"You have to stay true to your music and your sound," he says. "And the steel drums and "Fingers" Taylor (the Coral Reefer harmonica player) are part of what Jimmy Buffett's music is. We're not going anywhere just because it's faddish, or isn't. I think my band has never been better than it is right now."

But even the Orthodox Parrot Heads know how to let their feathers down, so speak. You can't be a Buffett fan and hate parties. And so the official charter for the Church of Buffett, Orthodox ends with this final benediction:

"It's the easiest church to join. Just say a couple of Hail Bloody Marys and you're in. Disenchanted Parrot Heads are welcome; after all, even Martin Luther was a disenchanted Rome Head." 🌓

(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)


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