RIP Jimmy Buffett. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images
Jimmy Buffett died Friday evening. He was 76.
The world was worse for it — things were a bit less bright, less funny, and certainly a bit less relaxed.
In the wake of his death, the obits and tributes flooded in for a musician and lifestyle magnate more loved than just about any other. The large publication remembrances seemed to all hit the same checkpoints — these are how deaths are officially recorded — struggling musician, found Key West, found his sound, made songs for Boomers in hammocks, built a Margaritaville empire, and became a Brand.
There is nothing wrong and nothing incorrect about that narrative. But, like any life, there’s much more to Buffett’s story than can fit in an obit, no matter how many words it’s afforded. Jimmy Buffett, in short, was much more than Margaritaville.
Tweet may have been deleted I hate to paraphrase myself, but here we are: “If all you know of Buffett are campy hits like ‘Margaritaville’ and ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise,’ then I’d argue you’ve got a bit to learn.”
Full disclosure, I’m a big fan of Jimmy Buffet. His music, his lifestyle, his everything. I woke up to more condolence texts from friends than I care to admit on Saturday. But as a fan, I think it’s my duty to share what more there is to Jimmy than Margaritaville.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with Margaritaville. There’s nothing wrong with “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” There is nothing wrong — in fact there is quite a bit right — about a big blender full of frozen concoctions. The aspirational image of Buffett Core — a chill, Hawaiian-shirt, drink-in-hand, sunshine-and-sailing life — it appeals to me. How could it not?
But as broad as “Margaritaville” could be, Buffett was also a sensitive songwriter, an artist intent on telling fully fleshed-out stories through distinct characters. Take, “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” my favorite Buffett tune. I wrote in May:
It’s a perfect distillation of a certain American malaise. It tells the story of a man with no direction who believes he was born to float along the seas in some forgotten version of the world. He’s stumbled into and out of small fortunes running drugs and catching a buzz. He’s lost and fortunate and wiling away the days in all the comforts of American excess. It is, I’d argue, a perfect picture of late-stage-capitalism and imperial America in 2023 — and it was written 48 years ago. And if you think I’m overanalyzing this, just know Bob freaking Dylan and Joan Baez covered this song.
Or take “Tin Cup Chalice,” another of my favorites. It’s a small ditty about living a simple life. It’s about sailboats being meant to sail; sun being meant to shine; and humans being meant to enjoy their brief lives. There is so much joy to pull from Buffett crooning, “Give me oysters and beer / For dinner every day of the year / And I’ll feel fine, I’ll feel fine.”
Or take “He Went to Paris.” It tells the story of an old man who has quietly lived a bountiful life — one full of tragedy, moving parts, and moments of splendor. It isn’t subtle. It is sincere. The “magic” and “tragic” of a man’s life is distilled through the man’s story — not through metaphor or sleight-of-hand writing.
Lesser musicians could’ve made “Cheeseburger” or “Margaritaville.” But lesser musicians wouldn’t have come by those kitschy hits honestly. That was Buffett’s superpower — he was sincere and he lived that life sincerely. To wit: You could actually find him in the Keys.
Tweet may have been deleted In May, after I wrote about Jimmy Buffett Summer, I spoke with a person who worked closely with Buffett. The person spoke glowingly of Jimmy — and confirmed that, yes, he was who you hoped he was. Jimmy Buffett was a good man who liked sailing, warm weather, great friends, and good songs. Sure, you could paint him as an empire builder borne out of cheesy songs. And yes, Buffett collected a gazillion dollars through shrewd branding. But the man accomplished the small miracle of making Boomers chill the fuck out — he earned every penny.
I think the world could do with more of Jimmy’s sincerity in his now absence. Cynical folks out there could write off his music as down-the-middle — too obvious. Frankly, I’d typically fit that bill. My three favorite musical acts, in some order, are the world’s best bar band, a supergroup of indie musicians, and a defunct Canadian band fronted by a poet. But, through some backdoor of wanting to drink margaritas in a Hawaiian shirt, I fell in love with Buffett.
Apathy to Buffett’s work reminds me, somewhat oddly, of critiques of the punk band Idles, another of my favorites. Idles writes in-your-face, loud music, that is explicitly and obviously pro-immigrant, anti-dickhead, and pro-diversity. It is loud and angry and, at face value and volume levels, the polar opposite to Buffett’s work. But consider that Idles titled their breakthrough album, “Joy as an Act of Resistance.”
They are telling you how they feel with no buffer. It is hopeful and sincere and mocked as preachy. Forgive me, but I think some things are worth preaching. And so did Jimmy Buffett. There is tremendous power and bravery in saying it plain.
The closing line to his 1978 song “Mañana” is, “And I hope Anita Bryant never does one of my songs.” It has nothing to do with the lyrics of the song except for the fact that it rhymed. But Bryant was a horrible anti-LGBTQ musician who lobbied for laws that would allow anti-gay discrimination in Florida. Buffett, a country-adjacent star who lived in Florida, had the cojones to tell a bigot to pound sand.
It’s far from an isolated lyric. Buffett gave time to genuine beliefs, even amid his free-spirited persona. He wrote the lines: “Religion is in the hands of some crazy-ass people / Television preachers with bad hair and dimples.” He sang about not loving Jesus. He was an artist loved by Boomers — parishioners of the Church of Greed Is Good — and told the world it needs more “fruitcakes,” less of capitalism’s excess, and more gentleness.
You could reduce Jimmy Buffett to jokes about drinking to excess, Margaritaville retirement homes, and hordes of older folks who paid hundreds to see him. But that’s like reducing The Grateful Dead’s community to a merry band of traveling, druggy hippies — it’s not wrong but it’s also not right.
Tweet may have been deleted If Jimmy Buffett’s legacy is reduced to fun summer songs, massive resorts, and, yes, Margaritaville — then there are far worse legacies. Life is meant to be enjoyed and he told the stories of that pleasure.
But the Jimmy Buffett I will hold close to my heart is one that sang with sincerity. A songwriter who told stories of folks watching life sail on by but sitting in the gentle breeze as it did.
Yes, I will play Jimmy Buffett’s songs when I am holding a frozen drink on a boat. But I will also play his music in the quiet moments, the sun slipping down, my only company the stillness of the night. In those moments I will remember to live a life worthy of a song — how it goes will be up to me.
Tim Marcin is a culture reporter at Mashable, where he writes about food, fitness, weird stuff on the internet, and, well, just about anything else. You can find him posting endlessly about Buffalo wings on Twitter at @timmarcin.