Beyond the End: Some Notes on the Enduring Significance of Jimmy Buffett | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Beyond the End: Some Notes on the Enduring Significance of Jimmy Buffett

Listen to 10 Buffett Deep Cuts

Sep 06, 2023 Bookmark and Share

My dad likes to say that he earned his PhD (Parrot Head Degree) as an eighth grader in Tell City, Indiana, after purchasing a copy of Jimmy Buffett’s then-recently released eighth album Son of a Son of a Sailor at a local bait shop/record store. For that idealistic midwestern teenager, the Gulf and Western hitmaker’s breezy yarns of salty beach towns populated by perpetually stoned troubadours, comely tourists, and exiled creatives in search of their own distinct outsider communities represented a personal revelation, a means of escape—the industrial banks of the Ohio River for the imagined paradisiac beaches of Key West, FL. In 1986, an essay he’d written for a college journalism class exploring camaraderie among Buffett fans (also known as Parrot Heads) appeared in The Coconut Telegraph under the title “Are You a Parrot Head?” Though the essay had received an “F” from his instructor, Dad took great pride in making his debut as a published writer in Buffett’s official newsletter, his byline reading “Parrot Head Scott Saalman.” Even now, he credits Buffett as the primary catalyst for his extensive 30+ year writing career.

In a sense, the “Parrot Head” label was my birthright. I was born into Buffett, his music being perhaps the first I ever heard. His songs played a key part in my early development, and what hazy, fragmented recollections I still carry of my parents’ marriage are scored by Buffett—the easygoing melancholia of “Come Monday” providing the soundtrack to car rides through town, Mom and Dad up front, me in the back, watching the swaying fields of corn and soy pass by my window; the gentle lull of “Coast of Marseilles” drifting from the living room stereo as the three of us ate dinner in the evening; the wistful yearning of “Island” haunting my childhood bedroom at night, its shimmering harmonica catching me in that delirious eventide between dreaming and waking; the rum-soaked Yuletide glee of Christmas Island playing in the car each December as we made the 45-minute drive to my grandparents’ house for the holidays. These memories of wholeness are perhaps, at least in part, what have endeared Buffett’s music to me over the years, each listen a submergence into the nether-realm of my history, a distant island silhouetted against a seemingly unnavigable sea. My sister, born shortly thereafter, derives her name from Buffett’s 1994-released track “Delaney Talks to Statues;” she too carries her family’s affinity for the music and has previously written on the topic as well.

I was therefore stricken with a unique sense of sadness upon reading of Buffett’s recent death at 76. The memories and messages returned immediately to me, once again contemplating Buffett’s seeming omnipresence within the various spaces of my life, and I was faced with the realization that too few people seem to recognize the breadth and value of his remarkable skills as a songwriter and trendsetter. It often seems as though casual listeners and critics have failed to see beyond the legacies of his signature hits, namely 1977’s “Margaritaville” and 1978’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” both ubiquitous staples of American popular culture in their own respective rights.

Before he was Mayor—and eventually Mogul—of Margaritaville, however, Buffett was another shaggy-haired twentysomething, roaming stoned through the streets of Key West. When not working his day job as second mate aboard a fishing charter, the young Mobile, AL-bred singer/songwriter performed his unique variation of folk-inflected Nashville-style country in beachside barrooms and partied with his fellow creatives. Buffett’s well-documented friendships with such local luminaries as novelist Tom McGuane—Buffett’s former landlord and future brother-in-law, whose 1973-published National Book Award-nominated novel Ninety-Two in the Shade played a crucial role in portraying Key West to the nation as a refuge for various outcasts, radicals, and seekers—revered poet Jim Harrison, iconic counterculture writer Richard Brautigan, best-selling novelist/journalist Carl Hiaasen, and even Gonzo journalism godfather Hunter S. Thompson remain central to the appreciation of his musical craftsmanship. Many of his lyrics possess a strong literary bent, heavily indebted to the vibrant artistic community from which he emerged during the 1970s. A voracious reader, former journalist, and bestselling author himself, Buffett penned literary-minded lyrics that paid homage to iconic Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez (“Nobody Speaks to the Captain No More”), Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde (“Quietly Making Noise”), French novelist Gustave Flaubert (“Love in the Library”), as well as American authors Mark Twain (“That’s What Living Is to Me” and “Take Another Road), James Jones (“Sending the Old Man Home”), John D. MacDonald (“Incommunicado”), Louis L’Amour (“Who’s the Blonde Stranger?”), Stephen King (“Vampires, Mummies, and the Holy Ghost”), and Pat Conroy (“Prince of Tides”).

Such cuts as “Death of an Unpopular Poet” and “He Went to Paris” showcase most overtly Buffett’s literary ambitions and earned him high praise from the likes of Bob Dylan, who once named Buffett among his favorite songwriters. At his best, Buffett, like his creative comrades McGuane and Thompson, eloquently captured the alienation and longing of a generation cut loose to navigate the post-Aquarian ruins of the previously idealistic 1960s—escapists, expatriates, freaks, stoners, outlaws, and wanderers, all seeking some semblance of freedom and paradise within the haze of mass societal confusion. In this respect, such early Buffett albums as A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, Living and Dying in ¾ Time, A1A, and Havaña Daydreamin’ remain especially significant as cultural documents, their solid musicianship and often thoughtful lyrics timestamped, rendering them unassuming relics of a nation in upheaval. Accordingly, Buffett’s finest lesser-recognized tracks typically embody a certain sense of sorrowful resignation, a poetic wistfulness awash in hues of bluest nostalgia, faded from memory by the relentless passage of time.

In tribute to the late, great Mayor, I have compiled 10 worthwhile Buffett deep cuts—those compelling, intelligent, and intimate gems that exist beyond the Margaritaville city limit. Each track remains a testament to the enduring vision of one of the era’s most familiar, and yet somehow most underrated songwriters.

“Incommunicado” (1981)

“Travis McGee’s still in Cedar Key/That’s what John MacDonald said,” Buffett notes at the beginning of this pensive reflection on the death of Western star John Wayne. According to Buffett, he wrote the track while in Aspen, where he decided to walk the nearby Continental Divide after receiving news of Wayne’s passing. Ultimately, however, the track concerns Buffett’s perception of himself and the respective values of his influences. He references McGee, the hunky “salvage consultant” from John D. MacDonald’s popular novels, and contemplates intellectual love affairs with “all of the things [he’s] sung and [he’s] read,” concluding, “They still apply to me/They all make sense in time.” Buffett’s love of reading is on full display here, as is his apparent apprehension regarding his place in the modern world and the role that he is expected to play. “Incommunicado” finds Buffett at his most contemplative as he stirringly describes the onslaught of an identity crisis.

“Coast of Marseilles” (1978)

Written by prolific singer/songwriter Keith Sykes, “Coast of Marseilles” was named by Buffett as one of the greatest songs he’d ever heard. Buffett’s rendition, which appears on Son of a Son of a Sailor, remains among the most unique songs in his catalog. Though not the track’s writer, Buffett was able to breathe fresh life into Sykes’ composition, crafting it into a delicately dusky pop ballad. This coastal dreamscape, saturated with romantic longing for intimacy, finds Buffett at his most beguiling, its strange beauty, to quote Sykes’ lyrics, “[coming] by like wind through [one’s] hand.”

“Nautical Wheelers” (1974)

An inebriated lullaby of the American outsider, “Nautical Wheelers” is one of the five tracks that complete A1A’s phenomenal second half. A vivid portrait of Key West’s nightlife in the 1970s, Buffett describes watching a local square dancing group, known as the Nautical Wheelers, before returning to the chaos and debauchery of Duval Street. The track describes the Key West of a bygone era—that beautiful and bizarre human carnival of artists, misfits, and eccentrics from which Buffett and his companions emerged. A dreamily lusty ode to an intriguing place in a legendary era, “Nautical Wheelers” remains a key track off A1A, as well as one of Buffett’s great ballads.

“I Have Found Me a Home” (1973)

This easy ode to the island escapism upon which Buffett would eventually build his brand finds the 27-year-old troubadour wasting away in paradise, navigating the streets on an old red bike, his refuge from the terror of the outside world won at last. “The days drift by, they don’t have names,” he sings of the tropical daydream he has since entered. “None of the streets here look the same.” This is prime Buffett, an affecting portrait of his fabled pre-fame existence as just another Key West local.

“Island” (1981)

Co-written with singer/songwriter Dave Loggins, “Island” finds Buffett pining for the unattainable, as personified by an elusive piece of land that he cannot seem to reach. When Buffett sings of “a need for love,” the solitary sense of anguish in his voice cuts deeply, his titular atoll silhouetted before him in the moonlight. “Island” is also noteworthy for its terrific use of strings, which serve to accentuate the track’s crushing sense of existential tragedy.

“If The Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me” (1985)

The key track off Last Mango in Paris, this balmy homage to heartache is the result of a collaboration between Buffett and songwriters Will Jennings and Michael Utley. Here, Buffett’s vocals take on a certain downtrodden dejection as he poignantly observes, “If our lives were that simple, we’d live in the past.” This remains among Buffett’s strongest offerings of the 1980s.

“I Heard I Was In Town” (1982)

Perhaps an informal sequel to 1973’s “I Have Found Me a Home,” “I Heard I Was in Town” sees Buffett returning to his old stomping ground. A decade after declaring “I have found me some peace” in that small island community, the singer has become an international superstar, making the occasional return to observe the drastic changes occurring in his former hometown. As Buffett drifts past his once-favorite haunts, he begins to recall his reputation as a “madman in a pickup truck, so many years ago,” noting, “changes have come like the storms of the season/But time here still moves slow.” This is far and away one of Buffett’s finest songs, an achingly relatable meditation on the nature of age and fame.

“Changing Channels” (1989)

Closing Off to See the Lizard, the mystical “Changing Channels” concerns Isabella, the “imaginary heroine” of Buffett’s 1989-published short story “I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever.” This lesser known deep cut explores the wonders of the universe and humanity’s intricate interconnectedness, with Buffett describing a harmonious island community of outcasts, refugees, and visionaries—not unlike the Key West of his younger years.

“Beyond the End” (1985)

A fitting inclusion, the otherworldly “Beyond the End” finds Buffett once again revisiting John D. MacDonald’s “Travis McGee” series, having offered a haunting quote from MacDonald’s novel The Lonely Silver Rain, which marks McGee’s final appearance, in the “Jimmy’s Notes” section of “Beyond the End’s” lyric page at “The world keeps closing in/It has before/It will again,” insists Buffett. “Voices call beyond the wind/Say we must go/Beyond the end.” Buffett’s visions of Mayan moons, beachfront bands, and eternal recurrence lend the track a certain celestial quality, all the more poignant in the wake of his own passing. Note the great Roy Orbison’s “crying angel” backing vocals, which contribute to the track’s haunting atmosphere.

“A Pirate Looks At Forty” (1974)

Its inclusion is perhaps deceptive, as “A Pirate Looks at Forty” is hardly a “deep cut,” considering its ranking among Buffett’s “Big 8”—the most popular fan favorites that attendees could typically expect to hear performed at most Buffett shows. However, this bittersweet account of an aging Floridian smuggler as he faces the prospect of irrelevance remains underrated among numerous non-Parrotheads. In truth, the track stands as Buffett’s major artistic achievement. “Pirate’s” alienated narrator, who describes himself as “a pirate, two hundred years too late,” may be Buffett’s most fully-realized character, and has the privilege of singing what may very well be Buffett’s greatest lines: “I’ve done a bit of smugglin’, and I’ve run my share of grass/I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast.” This is sheer disillusionment, beautifully rendered into an eloquent and intriguing character sketch.

Dylan and Baez cover:

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