Buffett an entertainer extraordinaire
BY WANDA A. ADAMS / Special to the Star-Advertiser
It was midnight. Close to final deadline at the mainland newspaper for which I then worked. I was waiting on a photographer to finish printing photos for a story.
JIMMY BUFFETT AND THE CORAL REEFER BAND
» Where: Waikiki Shell, 2805 Monsarrat Ave.
Eager to leave, I tripped down to the dungeon where they corralled the photographers. I heard a voice. I heard a lyric. I burst through the door and eagerly asked my photog friend John, a former Floridian, “Who is that?”
He gave me with a look and said, “Jimmy Buffett.”
And I said, “The ‘Come Monday’ guy? The ‘Margaritaville’ guy?” He responded with the 1970s equivalent of “Duh.”
BUFFETT was singing a ballad,”Survive,” from his 1979 album “Volcano.” I was in love.
“I play the stereo loud / when I’m away from the maddening crowd/
Smokin’, jokin’, clowns we all are/
“Sometimes, kinda get real ill / when I receive my monthly telephone bill.
“But you say it, and I’ll pay it / ‘Cause it just helps me to/Survive, stay alive, till I see you again …”
It wasn’t Faulkner or Shakespeare, but the man has the “hook” down — that line in music that makes listeners remember, that draws them in.
It was three or four technologies back: cassettes. I went out the next day and bought every one of Jimmy’s cassettes.
Then I heard he was coming to Seattle.
At this point, I knew nothing of Parrotheads. I thought I’d find a half-full Seattle Exhibition Hall and Jimmy with a guitar and a bass and some drums.
Instead, I walked into Margaritaville: a dance hall full of women (and men) in coconut bras, with beach balls flying all over the place and people brandishing plastic sharks. Not an unsold seat in the house.
And everyone, everyone — I’ve been to many Jimmy Buffett concerts now and I can tell you this is not an exception — knew every word of every song, just as I did.
At that time, Buffett often would break in the middle and do an acoustic set of ballads. As with concerts I have been to with Elvis (a musician I want to meet in heaven), I didn’t know whether to scream or sit quietly and take it in.
I HAD the chance to meet him, years later, when working for the Honolulu Advertiser. We were offered an interview, and I assigned another writer, a former Nashville performer and songwriter, Will Hoover.
Hoover said, “Why don’t you do it?” And I had to blush and poke my toe into the carpet and say, “Because I don’t think I could talk in the presence of Jimmy Buffett. I’m too big a fan.” But I did ask to go along on the interview and, as Will and Jimmy talked easily and shared “who we have in common” musician stories. I sat there, barely restraining myself.
I wanted to tell Buffett how he’d taken me to “One Particular Harbor” in Tahiti, though I’ve never been there. How he’d opened up the mysteries of so many kinds of relationships, how he communicated wanting to live in another century and knowing you never could.
I wanted to tell him how a best friend’s last public appearance was at one of his Waikiki Shell concerts. A drunken Parrothead actually hit on her: a woman with a steroid-swollen face, wearing a bandanna over her bald, chemo’d head — and it made her night.
I wanted to tell him about the night I saw him in the Blaisdell Arena, kind of high in the stands, surrounded by drunken soldiers. They were so wasted and spilling so much beer. I was dancing barefoot on the concrete, the beer spilling around me, and this one guy, maybe 20 years younger than I, kept saying, “You’re sooo beautiful.” I didn’t mind.
I wanted to tell Jimmy that I have one of his guitar picks framed, and that it would be one of the first things I would grab if the house was on fire.
I figured he probably wouldn’t want to hear any of it. He’s a very kind man, according to what I’ve heard, but he must have been told stories like that more than he’s got consecutive sold-out concerts in a season.
All I could manage was some kind of slurred version of “Jimmy” and then a request for a photo of us together, which also goes with me if the house is on fire.
It’s not a coincidence that my father was a Southerner, like Buffett, who was born in Alabama. I have that Southern gene, despite being a local Portagee. And it exerts a powerful pull.
THERE HAS been a great deal of speculation about how a guy is able to sell out stadiums with little more than a guitar, bare feet and a increasingly scarce hair.
Here’s what I think it is:
He’s fun, just flat fun. He looks like he’s having fun. He never mails it in, even if a rap or reggae beat sometimes emerges. You don’t even have to drink to enjoy a JB concert. And he never sings stink about women.
He’s smart. His band is really tight, he’s always adopting young artists (such as Jake Shimabukuro), and he knows how to change things just enough to stay interesting without pissing people off by not playing their favorites.
He may not be a great writer of novels (sorry, Jimmy, but it’s true), but he can write a song hook like I can whip up dinner without anything in the pantry.
They are countless: “We are the people/our parents warned us about.” “The weather is here/I wish you were beautiful.” And (about a visit to his hometown, Mobile, Ala.) “Ain’t it quite funny/ word gets around/ I heard I was in town.”
When my friend Eileen Mortenson died, not long after we spent the evening at that Jimmy Buffett concert,
I was among those asked to say a few words at her memorial service. I chose to talk about how she and I shared that love for Buffett, and I was going to read a lyric. Suddenly — perhaps painfully for others, but in one of the most unforgettable moments of my life — I said, “Oh, heck, you guys, I’m gonna sing it.” (By the way, Jimmy: I brought down the house.)
Be good and you will be lonesome /
Be lonesome and you will be free /
Live a lie, and you will live to regret it /
That’s what livin’ is to me /
That’s what livin’ is to me.
Wanda Adams is a freelance writer and editor based in Honolulu.
We ‘love to dress up and just have fun’
Jimmy Buffett thought his route out of Pascagoula, Miss., was going to be aboard a ship, in keeping with his family’s maritime traditions. Turned out to be a guitar and three chords (and many songs about sailing), though even he acknowledges that he’s not that great a guitar player (or singer). But he does know how to please people and do business.
Today, he is a phenomenally successful entertainer.
When you ask him if any of this was what he had imagined for his life, he says, simply, “No.”
Buffett called in from an undisclosed location on Oahu as he was preparing for his Saturday concert here at the Waikiki Shell, relaxing for a few days.
» NEXT BIG PROJECT: A “Margaritaville” Internet TV channel that will allow thousands of his fans to watch his shows in real time on their computers. He already has a “Radio Margaritaville” following. Though he’ll turn 67 on Christmas Day, he said he’s a techie and loves social media.
Buffett hopes to go online in May; there will not only be concert broadcasts but “reality TV” stories of his and adventures. Check margaritaville.com.
» WHY THE PARROTS AND SHARKS: Bottom line, he has no idea why parrots and sharks are so prevalent at his shows. “People love to dress up and just have fun,” he said, but “dress is not required.”
» WHAT HE’LL PLAY: A tune related to the islands, “The Oldest Surfer on the Beach,” by Mark Knopfler. (He mentioned this song right after describing how he wiped out while surfing here on Monday.)
» ON WORKING WITH A BAND: Although one of his songs cries out “Don’t EVER start a band!,” Buffett said he found that he enjoyed the process of putting a show together as much as writing songs and playing; figuring out the set list, which is different in every town. “There are certain things I like to change in certain places. … Recently, I’ll take basic songs and make them over,” he said.
He clearly understands that his longtime fans want to hear their old favorites, but, he said, it’s like when you own a vintage truck; you never want to give it up, “but at some point, you have to.”
» ON HAWAII: “I absolutely love it, as I do most island cultures. I’m so appreciative that I am accepted here, this strange haole boy from the mainland.”
He recalled one way he has repaid island hospitality: The first time he played the Shell, he had the speakers turned so people outside the grounds could hear the concert. He still does so. “I don’t care that they haven’t paid to get in. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
— Wanda A. Adams
WHO IS THIS GUY?
Jimmy Buffett began as a nobody in country music and now routinely sells out large venues. He has written best-selling books, owns a chain of restaurants and has his own airplane.
» BIO: Born Dec. 25, 1946, Pascagoula, Miss. Raised in Mobile, Ala. Married, three children. Lives, not as most people think, in Florida, but in New York; he maintains a home in St. Barts and sails around the world whenever he’s not touring.
» MUSICAL BIO: Began his career in the 1970s, but quickly left the country scene in Nashville, where he started, to create his own style, which he liked to call “Gulf and Western,” although an oil company objected, so he now calls it “Drunken Caribbean Rock.” It’s a blend that rather resembles Hawaiian contemporary music: One minute, there’s a reggae beat, then some Tahitian person is chanting, then someone is playing a guitar and singing a ballad — and so on.
» BEST KNOWN FOR: “Come Monday” (1974), “Margaritaville” (1977, his highest-charting single).
» STANDARDS PLAYED AT ALMOST EVERY SHOW: “Margaritaville,” “Come Monday,” “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” and “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.”
» BUT REALLY BEST KNOWN FOR: Sold-out concerts across the nation annually, around despite not often hitting the charts. Also for an enthusiastic following of “Parrotheads,” who wear aloha shirts or coconut bras, carry artificial parrots or blow-up sharks, and shout out Buffett’s lyrics at concerts. As he has written in a song title, “You Had to Be There.”