My husband and I saw Jimmy Buffet perform at the Virginia Beach amphitheater last weekend, and I wasn’t prepared for how much it would affect me. Here was the background coastal music of my whole life, from as far back as I can remember. Here was the future I want for myself and my husband, job-free and on-the-water. And most refreshing in a world of entertainment filled with betrayal, deception, explosions, fighting, power plays, ugliness, and abuse, here was playfulness and optimism. What caught me most off guard was Buffet’s joy. Every time he grinned his open boyish grin, it sent an electric current straight to my heart. His smile lit me up inside.
Like most people of my generation who grew up or vacationed on the coast, Jimmy Buffet was the soundtrack of my childhood. Like the sun and the palm trees, the waves and the sand, the boats and the beachgoers, Jimmy Buffet was always there.
About a year ago, our family was on a road trip. We had dusted off the Banana Wind CD and were listening to it in the car. I had heard the CD a hundred times, and like I usually experience music, I never paid attention to the words. My husband and daughter always listen to lyrics, I rarely do. I don’t know why. I’ll even sing words, but not think about what they’re saying or recognize that they are even language. They’re part of the music I guess, like another instrument, and I don’t process their meaning.
At any rate, I was singing along to a song, and after singing a line or two, I realized, whoa, this guy can write.
I’ve got a school boy heart
A novelist’s eye
Stout sailor’s legs
And a license to fly.
I got a bartender ear
And a beachcomber’s style
In those few words I had a full picture of the person being described. I knew he was probably barefoot, loved life and adventure, sailed, and was a pilot. But I was particularly stunned by “novelist’s eye” and “bartender ear.” In two words he tells us he’s always observing the world around him, looking for scenes and stories, carefully watching and possibly writing descriptions in his mind. In another two words he tells us that he’s always listening. He’ll listen to your story and make you feel like he’s your best friend, like you are the most interesting and important person on earth.
I started listening more closely to his lyrics after that, really paying attention. His word choices are evocative. Song after song I am blown away by how much he conveys with very few words. Like Hemingway, but fun.
And it’s not just that he can capture a scene in just a few words. He is able to transport you to where you want to be (if you want to be any of the places he sings about). His anthem Margaritaville is so overplayed I imagine he must be tired of performing it, but it’s overplayed because of how resonant it is. He creates a laid-back world his fans feel in their hearts and want to be a part of:
Blew out my flip-flop
Stepped on a pop-top
Cut my heel had to cruise on back home.
But there’s booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.
The lyrics that move me most nearly every time I hear them, and that made my heart swell with love for Jimmy Buffet when he sang them to a backdrop of moonlight on the ocean, the lyrics that make me feel seen, that make me feel understood, and that sing the song of my heart, are from A Pirate Looks At Forty:
Mother Mother ocean
I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters
Since I was three feet tall.
You’ve seen it all.
You’ve seen it all.
I took Jimmy Buffet for granted all my life. He’s always been there. I never thought about his brilliance as a writer, even though I love words, even though I’ve listened to his music for all 44 of my years. I just knew how he made me feel: warm, relaxed, happy. His music transports me to where I want to be. He paints a beautiful world that exists right here and right now, and his smile shows me what it feels like to live in it.