During our walk in Cozumel, when Margaritaville
appeared out of nowhere at the perfect time, I took that as a good omen.
I had definitely undergone a Changes in Latitude, Changes in
Attitude-style transformation on this trip.
Noting the loyalty of
my friends towards Jimmy Buffet,
I considered it
an honor to visit this place and show my
Now that I was inside, I
noticed that videos of previous Jimmy Buffett concerts were playing
above the various bars. I picked a spot at the bar directly under
one of the monitors and began watching. As I studied the videos, I found myself
intrigued with the "Jimmy Buffett Mystique".
The first thing I
noticed on the video were the immense size of the crowds at Buffett's
concerts. These crowds formed a giant ocean of humanity.
I didn't understand the
size of those crowds at all. This guy had recorded one hit
record in his entire life. One hit record.
So how in the hell did this guy parlay one hit record into gigantic crowds
the Beatles or the Stones would be proud of? Or for that
matter the legendary Grateful Dead? This guy wasn't just
popular, this guy could give Jesus a run for his money.
I took my eyes off the
screen and looked around the bar. The place was jam-packed
both inside and outside. I didn't see a single empty table.
Marla and I had just passed a dozen Mexican bars. Every one of
them had been completely empty. Now I knew why - every tourist
with two legs that still worked was in here. Then I noticed a
few canes and walkers. Heck, even the one-legged tourists were
This situation was clear
evidence that Life is cruel. Every other place in town was
empty; this place was hopping. What those bars wouldn't do for
just a few of these patrons to come to their joint instead. It all boils down to reputation.
A crowd creates a crowd; an empty bar stays empty.
As I studied the various
people in the bar,
my first impression was that they were all aging
hippies. Most of them had long hair, they wore
Hawaiian shirts, they wore shorts or tattered jeans, and they all had
dark tans from too many days
in the sun.
I might add they all looked deliriously stoned
too. Half of these people looked more like "Marijuana-ville" than they did
"Margarita-ville". All roads in this place lead to
Born in 1946, Buffett is
67 now. He's a little round in the middle and a little thin on
top... definitely an unlikely music star.
But watch him perform his signature song, "Margaritaville," before a
crowd of more than 20,000, and you could mistake Buffett for the
leader of some strange tropical cult. They call themselves
Parrotheads and dress in bizarre ceremonial garb. They know all the
hymns by heart. Buffett is the walking talking Pied Piper of Parrot
It crossed my mind that
I had seen other Margaritaville Clubs during my travels across the
Caribbean. I had definitely seen one in Key West. I had
definitely seen one in Jamaica. There was a new one in Cayman
and I had seen a Margaritaville in Puerto Rico too. And now
here. The more I thought about it, other locations came to
mind.... St Thomas, maybe St Maarten.
Good grief, these clubs are everywhere!
The Caribbean is infested with them! The
strange thing is today here in Cozumel was the first time I had ever actually taken
That is when
it struck me. This Buffett
guy must be one heck of a smart
dude. Then I saw
a the goofy picture of him from his early days hanging on the wall
of the bar and did a double take. There was a serious
disconnect in my mind between the stoner on the wall and the
director of a corporate empire. How on
earth did Buffett put this giant empire together??
On the spot
I decided to
learn more about Jimmy Buffett. The first two things that
caught my eye were that he is a college graduate (University of
Southern Mississippi) and that his
concerts make way more money than his
I believe what they
said about the concerts. From what I saw on those videos, the
man is clearly a marvelous crowd pleaser. Everyone knows that
if they go to one of his concerts, they are going to end up having
lots of laughs and way too much fun.
But none of this
explained the vast empire.
How did he do it?
I mean, yes, the
sing a little, but let's face it, his best song
"Margaritaville" is rated no
higher than 234th on the Recording Industry Association of
America's list of "Songs of the Century".
And I couldn't even name another one of his songs until I researched this story.
I was completely
awestruck. I had just realized that somehow
Buffett had parlayed one really good song - Margaritaville -
into this amazing string of clubs
that spanned the Caribbean.
I looked at a list of the locations for his
clubs. Wherever I go - Key West,
Jamaica, Cayman, Cozumel - there will be a
friendly Margaritaville Club inviting me in. I was
impressed at the sheer number of locations. There are over 20
of them at this point. In addition, there are hotels, retail outlets
for his merchandise, resorts and casinos. This guy is
serious big business.
My next thought was even
more profound. It dawned on me that Jimmy Buffett
might actually be the best businessman of any singer in
history this side of Paul McCartney… and maybe even better
than Sir Paul.
I began to think
of Jimmy Buffett in the same way I thought of the
Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead had the Dead Heads
who formed the most amazing fan base in history.
And yet name me one song
they are famous for. Unless you are a rock 'n roll expert,
good luck. I bet you come up empty on
name that tune.
Buffett is the same way.
His music isn't that well known outside of
his loyal fans, but he is famous nonetheless. Now that the Grateful Dead
phenomenon born in the Sixties has passed, Buffett's Parrot
Heads have replaced the Dead Heads.
one is quite sure where to find the road map to popularity,
but Jimmy Buffett
obviously has found the path.
Here is a good example.
Buffett seems to have the ability to be in the right place at the
right time. Did you know that Buffett
was the Pirate of the Caribbean before Pirates were cool?
Back in 1974, before
anyone even knew who he was, Buffet released a song called "A
Pirate Looks at 40". Considering Buffett was only 27 at
the time, it is an odd song.
Yes, I am a pirate
two hundred years too late
Cannons don't thunder
there's nothin' to plunder
I'm an over forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late
But I've done a bit of smugglin'
I've run my share of grass
Made enough money to buy Miami
But I pissed it away so fast
Never meant it to last
As Buffett's career began to pick up, the
song was always one of Buffett's more popular issues. However
it turned positively radioactive the moment
the "Pirates of the Caribbean" became a
huge phenomenon. Now Buffett had the sense to
integrate the pirate angle into his beach daze schtick.
Today his Pirate song is part of Buffett's "Big 8", a list of songs that he
plays at almost all of his concerts, and always during the important
second set. Buffett seems to know exactly what he is doing and
when to do it.
I have always wondered how one would categorize Buffett's
music. A quick peek at Wikipedia gave me the answer. Buffett
says he is sort of "Country Western", but to be specific,
his music is "Gulf and Western". I had to smile.
If someone is famous for being snubbed, it is
obviously my fault for liking them.
In my story about the
Catamaran trip, I spoke of the disrespect shown to my buddy
Winston Churchill after
World War II. For that matter, my
favorite director Alfred Hitchcock never received a single
"Best Director" Oscar.
And my favorite actor Cary Grant never
won "Best Actor" either. Add
Bruce Willis to that list - he ain't won nuthin' but I am first in
line for each movie. Buffet fits right in. He is the
Rodney Dangerfield - Can't Get No Respect - of the music industry.
Jimmy Buffett was considered an
industry lightweight for much of his career. However, in 2003,
Buffett finally broke through. After 30 years in the
business, he won his first award. It was a CMA
(Country-Music Award) for a duet with Alan Jackson.
guess the song? I will tell you in a moment.
may just be a state of mind, but Buffett has transformed
the song into a
He has branched off from the Caribbean to
own places in Vegas, Memphis, Florida, Canada, Australia and on the
Beneath the shorts and the T-shirts
and flip-flops beats the heart of anything but a beach bum.
An article written in the Nineties said Forbes
Magazine estimated Buffett's
earnings at $26 million, ranking him somewhere
between Tom Clancy and Robin
Williams in show-business income. A more recent article from 2008 pegged his
income at $40 million per year.
By the way, have you guessed the
prize-winning song yet? "Cheeseburger in Paradise".
Nah, that's not it. Nice try though. The
answer is "It's Five O'Clock
Somewhere". That's the
song that took the prize.
2003 was definitely Buffett's
breakthrough year. It all started innocently enough
whenAlan Jackson, the country music superstar, asked Buffett for help recording a new song called
"It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."
lifted a finger on the way to winning his first major music award. As Buffett
"I went in the studio and I was there
literally for about 20 minutes.
I sang for a total of 24 seconds on the record. And it became
this huge hit."
The song spent weeks at the top of the country music charts and was
so successful that it received the Country Music Association award
for Vocal Event of the Year. Buffett
accepted a CMA award, his first honor in
a 37-year career.
As Buffett continued,
"I didn't know how to act,
because I'd never been to anything like that
ceremony before. I've never won
anything for anything. I've never won a talent contest.
I didn't know what I was gonna say, other than I was gonna
thank my wife first. As I walked up to the stage,
I prayed I wasn't gonna forget that one."
On the heels the CMA award, Buffett recruited some of the biggest
names in country music to help out on his latest record, "License to
Chill." When you're hot, you're hot.
Its success took everyone by surprise when
it debuted on the
charts at #1.
"At 57, to have a #1 album, wow, I
wasn't expecting it," says Buffett. "What
a relief to escape my demon."
exactly motivates Jimmy Buffett?
What does he mean by "escaping his demon"?
"Lots of people
ask me what keeps me going. I can only say the first thing that
pops into my mind is years ago, I remember seeing
this poor has-been country singer working
in a bar at a Holiday Inn.
And it was obvious that this guy had
been somebody that'd been there and come back down.
This guy's fate
shook me up. I didn't want to sit there in the dark some night
and say to myself 'Remember me back in 1977?
Hey, I had this one
big hit, "Margaritaville."
I was really special back then.'
I told myself I
wanted to keep my foot on the pedal. I did not want
to be one of those people in free fall.
I never wanted to take that run
The more I read about
Jimmy Buffett, the more I liked him.
Buffett is pure rags to riches.
His rise to fame is a very interesting
Back in the Sixties,
Buffett was something of a
wanderer. He attended three different colleges on his way to a
degree in journalism. He was married just out of college in 1969 and
divorced soon after. His life was going nowhere fast.
a nobody folk singer whose songs interested no one.
He was no more than a wannabe performer.
Forced to make money, he took a job writing
rock schlock for Billboard Magazine in Nashville.
His big claim to fame was breaking the news of Flatt and Scruggs
separating. Apparently that was big news back then, especially
for Beverly Hillbilly fans.
"Now listen to the story
about a man named Jed, poor mountaineer, barely kept his family
The writing gig
barely covered the bills. Working on the fringes of the music
scene in Nashville and New Orleans, Buffett was so broke
that he often played guitar on New Orleans sidewalks for
tips. There were times he didn't
eat until someone took pity on him and put some money in his jar.
I am not sure if you
would call it a "break", but the major turning point in his life
came in 1971. That's when a buddy of his, Jerry Jeff Walker ("Up Against the
Wall Red-Necked Mutha"),
invited him to come along on a trip to Key
Buffett loved the place. Short on cash, he discovered
he made more money playing sidewalk rock than any place he
had ever been to before. When
Walker left, Buffett
decided to stay behind. There he
mixed with marijuana smugglers, drifters, writers and a weird
assortment of cultural pirates.
It was in Key West that Buffett developed the easy-going
beach bum persona for which he is known. Buffett's "Wasted
Away in Margaritaville" is an autobiographical song inspired
by his early days in Key West.
After studying Buffett's
career, it strikes me that one of Buffett's gifts is his ability to
observe people and sing about them in clever and quite ironic ways.
little known verse from the
is a good example.
It was left off his original recording to make
Old men in tank tops,
Cruisin' the gift shops,
Checkin' out chiquitas,
down by the shore
They dream about weight loss,
Wish they could be their own boss
Those three-day vacations can be such a bore.
I cannot help but smile. Buffett nailed it.
Those acid lyrics are so right on! You really have
to visit Key West to realize how perfectly this
captures the place.
When Marla and I visited Key West for the first time on our
2004 Honeymoon Cruise, I saw countless
street bums dressed
in tank tops. They wandered around
the place in an aimless daze.
It makes complete sense to me
that anyone playing street music would have an immediate audience.
The bums just stand around anyway, why not go check out the music
and stand there instead? Now you know the secret of
Buffett's Key West success. He sang songs about oblivion to
people who were oblivious.
When I returned home, I wrote a highly satirical
story about the
Zombies of Key West.
You will be intrigued to know my story
also talks about Ernest Hemingway. Did you know that two Key
West bars were locked in a costly
legal duel to the death over which bar had the right to claim
Hemingway as their most famous customer?
Buffett's best friend Captain Tony Tarracino figured prominently in
the story. No surprise there.
It must be deeply ironic that the first real success Buffett
ever experienced in his career was a song about his days as
Well, today Jimmy Buffett is hardly a loser. Sometimes a man just
needs a break. Ask me, I should know.
I remember full well calling myself a loser at one
point in my life. My 33 year career with
SSQQ started in a wretched pool of sorrow and self-pity
after being thrown out of graduate school.
It took a very strange dance class and a very strange friend to pull me out of my perilous
So I know what the
bottom feels like.
That explains why I relate to
Jimmy Buffett's story so keenly.
Buffett never imagined
creating an Empire. But that's what's happened. His
Margaritaville Empire started in 1985.
That is when Buffett opened a Margaritaville retail store in
The store did so well
Buffett was encouraged to try another venture. Two years later
in 1987, he opened
the Margaritaville Cafe in Key West.
From that point, one good thing led to another.
Today there are over 20 locations. Amazing.
Stop and think about it.
think of a similar situation where someone parlayed a hit song into a vast empire. There have been a lot of one-hit wonders in
the music industry, but there's never been anyone like Jimmy Buffett
One of the things that
makes Buffett so interesting is his versatility. Buffett is not just a
good writer of song lyrics, he is a very accomplished book writer as
His book "A Pirate Looks At Fifty" went straight
to No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller non-fiction list
That accomplishment put
him in company with another Key West notable, none other than Ernest Hemingway.
Buffett is one of seven authors in history to have reached No. 1 on
both the fiction and non-fiction lists. The other six authors
who have accomplished this are Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck,
William Styron, Irving Wallace, Dr. Seuss and Mitch Albom.
Nice company. I
like the Dr. Seuss comparison. It fits. Horton Hears a
Who and Eats a Cheeseburger in Paradise.
Between his restaurants, album sales,
books, and tours, Buffett is now
among the richest singers in the world with a net worth of
over $400 million.
has homes all over the United States, including Sag Harbor, New
York, Palm Beach, Florida, and St. Barts in the Leeward Islands of
the Caribbean. He has his own yacht and he has his own
Definitely not a loser. Not by a long
In parting, I would like
to share Buffett's own words about his unusual career from a 60
Buffett says he's a
workaholic. "I know so many people hate their jobs," says
Buffett. "And I love my job. I really do. And it gets more
exciting every day.
high-pressure situations and high-pressure jobs use my fantasy
world as an escape from the rigors of life," says Buffett. "I
think escapism is something that, you know, if you asked me,
'What's my job in a nutshell', I would say I sell escapism.
I understand that I
have been anointed the king of the kicked-back lifestyle.
And it's been wonderful for me. I feel so privileged to
have fans that are so loyal.
But on some days, I
want to go up to some of those people and say, 'Hey, man, get a
You know? This
world I created, it's just made up, you know? It's all make
believe. It's one thing to be
a kid without a direction, but at some point you get a job and
you work to make something of yourself.
Hey, if life knocks
you down, you get back up and start swinging. You can't
spend the rest of your life wasting away in Margaritaville."