Dark Side of the Sun: ‘Margaritaville’

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Author’s note: the names in the article have been changed, the memories have not.

According to Forbes, Jimmy Buffett is worth just north of half a billion dollars. All because he wrote a tune while getting shit-faced one afternoon in Austin, Texas.

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It was 1976. Jimmy Buffett sat in Lung’s Cocina del Sur. He had just finished a series of gigs opening for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. At the time, it seemed like a smart move, but, mostly, Buffett played to a lot of confused, zonked-out freaks. He sat in the bar, reflecting on his career, his time in Key West, and what the future might hold. Buffett’s drink at the moment: a margarita

The song, “Margaritaville,” released Feb. 14, 1977, paints the portrait of a hungover man. He spends his days loafing about a small beach community. From his porch he watches tourists sunbathe while casually strumming his six-string guitar. He picks at some leftover sponge cake. In the kitchen, a pot of shrimp is beginning to boil. This is the day-to-day of the beach bum. A man with no worries except overcooking some shrimp. Somewhere around the house is a misplaced salt shaker.

He ganders at his new tattoo, not quite sure where or when he got it.

The final verse brings on the end of the day. Our hero limps home after busting his flip-flop and cutting his heel on a discarded soda can. However, waiting for him at home is a blender of lime-green salvation: “that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”

The stench of a failed romance lingers throughout the song. At first, he assures friends (or anybody willing to listen) that the breakup was mutual. These things happen. After some thought, and another round of drinks, he begins to ponder his own culpability in the relationship’s demise: “Hell, it could be my fault.” By the third chorus, the tune has become a drunken mea culpa: “It’s my own damn fault.”

What seems like a simple ditty about getting blotto and mending a broken heart turns out to be a profound meditation on the often painful inertia of beach dwelling. The tourists come and go, one group indistinguishable from the other. Waves crest and break whether somebody is there to witness it or not. Everything that means anything has already happened and you’re not even sure when.

The future is written and it’s a complete plagiarism of the past. The disappearance of a salt shaker, a regrettable tattoo, your lover walking out on you, every event, trivial or meaningful, seems to be both happening and ending simultaneously. The “booze in the blender” may help you hang on, but what are you hanging onto? Most likely the chance to meet another lover, boil more shrimp, and buy a new pair of flip-flops. To do the trip all over again.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism tells us that “Existence is suffering.” One trip through an Old Country Buffet line proves this. Even Freddie Mercury acknowledged the close proximity between pleasure and pain. The rest of the Noble Truths are instructions of how we can alleviate this enduring anguish; how to find your Patipada, or the pathway towards your ultimate destination: finding that lost shaker of soul.

Jimmy Buffett and Pitbull
Jimmy Buffett and Pitbull

Credit: Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

I missed my first Jimmy Buffett concert. Instead of dancing to some easy-breezy ‘70s AM hits, I spent the entire show lying face down in a grassy field that doubled as the parking lot. Dead drunk — not from margaritas — alone. A small fire pit smoldering a few feet away. I was surrounded by rows of pickups, shitboxes and rust-colored jalopies. A deflated beach ball just out of reach. Unconscious and most likely suffering from alcohol poisoning, I was stepped over by adults dressed in grass skirts on their way to the venue. My skin beet-red from the hot August sun. I was 16 years old.

In 1995, Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band strolled into the Buckeye Lake Music Center, in Thornville, Ohio, about 40 miles east of Columbus. This was the Domino College Tour, named after a song off that year’s surprisingly mellow Barometer Soup. Jimmy Buffett was cool again, or at least relevant to the younger demographics. The previous year he scored his first ever Top 10 album with Fruitcakes — an album I still enjoy today. I came to that album due to its cover of the Grateful Dead classic “Uncle John’s Band.” Before I was a teenage Parrothead, I was a pre-pubescent Deadhead.

A few friends and I drove up early that Saturday to tailgate before the show. In the trunk of my friend Jack’s parents’ Volkswagen was four cases of shitty domestic beer, a bottle of tequila, a half bottle of rum, some Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers (my contribution, stolen from my mother), a Ziploc baggie of weed, and a Coleman nine-quart Party Circle cooler that we snagged from our high school locker room. We filled the cooler to the brim with our own concoction known as Hairy Buffalo. Just a whiff of this brew was enough to give you a slight buzz. Everybody inhaled deeply. Our nose hairs singed. By the end of the concert there wasn’t a drop left; the white lining of the cooler was stained red.

Now for those of you unfamiliar with Hairy Buffalo, let me break it down for you: usually made (and served) in a trash can, the only ingredients you need to make this party favorite are slices of strawberries or oranges and fruit juice, preferably Hawaiian Punch. If you’re on a budget, Flavor-Aid will do just fine. Then pour in a bottle of Everclear, a 90-proof grain alcohol that can also be used for getting paint off a car bumper. Mix to taste. Serve chilled or whatever temperature you find the trash can to be.

We arrived at the venue around noon. Hundreds of people were already there and most of them were three sheets to the wind. A cacophony of Buffett, Bob Marley, and other groovy tunes resonated from dashboard CD players and cheap portable speakers. Parrotheads were grilling up food, doing keg stands and attempting to toss bean bags into cornholes. These were my people.

Jack parked beside a beige and brown Chevy conversion van. The owners sat in back with the doors wide open. “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison was blaring. Cliff and Trish Potter drove all the way up from Virginia Beach; this was their eighth Buffett concert that summer. Cliff ran his family’s dry cleaning business, but those past few years saw him and Trish taking off from June to August, following the Coral Reefers from town to town. Cliff Jr. took over the duties while his parents sowed some wild oats. Wherever the band went, Cliff and Trish followed, enjoying their golden years. There was the night they led the cheap seats in a sing-along of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” in Raleigh, North Carolina; the long and boring road towards the Indianapolis show; devouring crab cakes in Maryland before popping over for two nights in Pittsburgh. Now they were somewhere in Ohio they’d never heard of before the tour announcement; tomorrow would see them shipping off to Atlanta.

I mentioned to Cliff that this was our first Buffett show. “Strap in,” he said, before gulping down the rest of his Natural Ice beer.

My friends and I had decided the day before to draw straws for a designated driver. After tense negotiations we had agreed that the loser would be allowed to drink before and during the show, but by the end of the concert needed to be stone sober. Jack, having secured the car from his folks and doing the drive up, was excluded. Also, Jack was already well on his way to being an alcoholic. Nobody figured he’d be upright by the end of the night. This means it came down to me, straight-laced Bill, and Troy, the star athlete at our school. We eyed each other intently. Jack slid the straws between the fingers of his balled fist. Bill drew first and drew the shorty. Relieved, I slapped Bill on the back, offered condolences, and pulled the Coleman out of the trunk.

I drank way too much Hairy Buffalo. Considering I brought along my lucky Cincinnati Reds 1990 World Series commemorative Big Gulp cup, I’m lucky to be alive today. The last thing I remember was spinning around to Peter Tosh’s ode to weed, “Ketchy Shuby.” I spun my way into a total blackout. My friends had deserted me. Not that I blame them.

I eventually awoke from my stuper right at the end of the show. Stumbling in the darkness, I made my way to Jack’s Volkswagen. The smart move was to just wait there. My backside slid down the side of the car and sat on the dusty ground. Off in the distance I could hear a Caribbean-tinged version of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The irony was not lost, even if my shoes were. What I wanted was a good time. What I got was a bad sunburn and a puke-stained shirt.

Buffett was back at Buckeye Lake the next year, and so was I. This time I decided to take it much easier than the previous year. I ate magic mushrooms and barfed up a barely digested hot dog all over some stranger’s beach towel. But I made it into the show!

Some concerts need to be seen to be believed. Words can’t exactly do them justice. Jimmy Buffett, along with KISS and Britney Spears, puts on such a show. Trust me, I’ve been in attendance for all three. Even if you can’t stand the music, and I’m aware that there are a lot of you, it’s hard to say no to a culture that’s built around the pursuit of pleasure. For a few hours, you’re no longer the person you present yourself as at work, or at church or at PTA meetings. You’re not concerned with what the neighbors think or what your parents might say. Shit, for all you know, they’re at the show, too, rockin’ out on who knows what.

There’s a certain type of freedom that comes with not giving a fuck. So what if you look ridiculous wearing a pineapple hat or alligator-shaped shades? You are in a judgment-free zone. My friend Jack? He wore a shark suit that first year. Head-to-toe shark suit. Now he’s a CPA in Pennsylvania, going through another divorce. He still has the shark suit. It’s stuffed away in some box marked “crap” in his attic. Hasn’t seen the light of day since those ‘90s shows. But he’s not throwing it away. Not yet.

Jimmy Buffett and Cast of Escape to Margaritaville Celebrate Broadway Opening
Jimmy Buffett and Cast of Escape to Margaritaville Celebrate Broadway Opening

Credit: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Escape To Margaritaville

“Margaritaville” is still Jimmy Buffett’s highest-charting single. It was the song that made the singer an icon; a 3:20 ditty (radio edit) that launched an empire of restaurants, merchandise, a short story collection, and frozen foods (I’ve tried the coconut shrimp, by the way. Not bad. Not good, either), liquor, and now Buffett’s own brand of marijuana.

Often forgotten when discussing Buffett and his dominance in marketing and selling his unique brand, is that the dude is a gifted songwriter. Sure, his voice may be an octave or two below angelic, and his guitar playing is rudimentary folk, at best, but he makes for a great Jimmy Buffett. His songs resonate because they’re true. You may not drink to excess, or even enjoy the beach, but you’ve fucked up a good thing before. I know I have. So has Jack. You just keep hanging on. Hanging onto friends, memories, shark suits. You hang on till everything eventually fades away, including yourself. The waves continue to crest and break. Unaware you were even once there.

I quit drinking over seven years ago. The reasons are all the same: too many regrets, too many apologies. Life becomes a never-ending hangover. I’ve seen friends and lovers come and go. Some come back, but most stay gone for good. For two weeks, I was a resident of the Stardust Inn Motel in Barstow, California. Rockbottomville, as I like to call it. Songs about fuck-ups resonate with me

My career in drinking coincides with my appreciation for Jimmy Buffett. The two go hand in hand. Yet, my sobriety has in no way diminished my love for him. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I understand the music better now than when I was bellied up at the bar, quietly slurring along to the jukebox. What I eventually began to understand, what became crystal clear in the bright daylight of detox, and what the narrator of “Margaritaville” finally gets after two choruses, is that it was “my own damn fault.” The hangovers, failed relationships, lost shakers of salt…all of it.

Drunks tend to be complainers. Resentful beings who can point fingers at everybody but themselves. Sooner or later there’s nobody left to blame. It’s last call and you’re the only one left. You look at your reflection in the unwashed mirror behind the bar. My own damn fault.

It’s doubtful that Cliff and Trish still hit the road in summer, even if I’d place their age right at Buffett’s (he’s 74, and was born on Christmas!) who is still going strong. The conversion van has probably changed hands more than a few times. Perhaps Cliff Jr. took over permanently for the old man, or perhaps he had his own plans, his own Patipada. Honestly, I have no clue. After that slug of beer, I never saw Cliff or Trish Potter again. Eventually, they blended into the horde of partygoers and I wound up in the dirt.

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