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Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Some thoughts on Jimmy Buffett, plus my weekly shareables: A quarterback's new challenge, a head-banging dog, and listening to Taylor Swift in prison
I grew up on the coast and knew a couple of folks who could have been Jimmy Buffett songs.
There was the Australian who migrated to Georgia every year at the start of the Aussie winter. He said he worked construction but his real job seemed to be lounging on the beach, charming the hometown girls into bed one by one. The moment we woke up to the first breath of fall, he was gone.
There was the old guy I always saw crabbing down at the pier, never talking to anyone, just staring at the ocean from his worn-out canvas chair. I always wondered if he had left something behind out there, and planned to one day go looking for it.
Buffett had an eye for characters like that. If you skimmed his surface all you heard was margaritas and cheeseburgers, and all you saw was a bunch of Parrotheads buzzed on Corona Lights. That was part of his appeal, for sure, and it helped make him a billionaire. But there was a real writer underneath. I always thought he was a lot like Bruce Springsteen. They both merged a place with a state of mind. Springsteen knew New Jersey, and understood the burning desire to break free. Buffett knew the Florida sand, and understood the temptation to mix a strong drink and let life slide on by.
Most of his best songs were little tragedies. “Margaritaville”: There’s booze in the blender / And soon it will render / That frozen concoction that helps me hang on. “A Pirate Looks at Forty”: I made enough money to buy Miami / But I pissed it away so fast. He mixed in the steel drums and the pop melodies, but I always thought of him as a country singer, because he understood that classic definition of country: happy songs about sad stuff. A lot of his characters were quiet quitters before anybody invented the phrase.
Buffett also ended up in that Springsteen place where he felt the need to branch out. He wrote books. He didn’t do a solo Broadway show like Springsteen did, but he did put together a Broadway show based on his songs in 2018. That’s the moment when Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote her amazing profile of him, centered on the idea that Jimmy Buffett the man had traveled so far from Jimmy Buffett the icon that he had a hard time remembering who he used to be.
That’s the trap if you really have ambition. Jimmy Buffett couldn’t actually be the guy sipping boat drinks and giving up on bigger things … if that had happened he never would have become what he became. Beach bum is a seductive life. I still fantasize now and then about living in a little shack on the water and catching fish for supper every night. But I’ve met a lot of those folks and most of them are lonely. The ocean makes beautiful sounds but it never talks back.
Jimmy Buffett’s genius was that he could be honest about that loneliness and also honest about how much fun the life could be. I don’t know that I have a favorite Buffett song—it’s more like 10 or 12 favorites, depending on my mood and the barometric pressure. But I always have a place in my heart for “He Went To Paris.” Buffett wrote it after meeting a one-armed janitor at a club in Chicago. The guy told stories about serving in the Spanish Civil War, and Buffett took that as a jumping-off point for a tale about love and death and loss. In the song, the old man ends up fishing the pilings down in the Keys somewhere, writing his memoirs, trying to sum it all up:
Jimmy, some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic
But I had a good life all the way
10 things I wanted to share this week:
My weekly for WFAE was about a shooting in Chapel Hill, and the numbness of gun violence.
It’s publication week for my friend Joe Posnanski’s delightful book WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL—you can now just walk into a bookstore and get a copy, and you should. And if you’re in one of the cities where Joe is doing his book tour, it’s well worth your time to go see him.
A convicted murderer writes about learning to love Taylor Swift’s music while in prison. Surprising and strangely beautiful. (New Yorker)
My friend Jonathan Abrams writes a touching piece about Alex Smith, the former NFL quarterback whose career was derailed by a devastating injury … and now has to watch his daughter battle a brain tumor. (NYT)
DOG NEWS: From now until DOGLAND comes out (April 2024!), I’m devoting this slot to dog stories. This week: The husky who wandered into a Metallica concert and actually took a seat to enjoy the show. (Stereogum)
BONUS DOG NEWS: Photographer Dana Litovsky on why she takes pictures of peeing dogs. It turns out to involve paintings from the Dutch Masters. (In the Flash)
Amy Ettinger on dying at 49, and living with no regrets. (Washington Post)
Let’s roll out some music to end the countdown … Zach Bryan and Kacey Musgraves’ duet “I Remember Everything” went straight to the top of the Billboard charts, and deserves to.
Tyler Childers’ new album RUSTIN’ IN THE RAIN is out today and I plan to dive in this weekend … for now, here’s his cover of the Kris Kristofferson classic “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
Finally, it was gratifying to see how many other musicians enjoyed and respected Jimmy Buffett and his music … Paul McCartney’s story on Twitter was especially touching. And I really enjoyed Dave Matthews’ cover of “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”
Have a great week, everybody.