Ok, we’ve done the Top Ten for The Allman Brothers Band, Bob Dylan, and CSN/Y. Up now: the best of Jimmy Buffett. This one is being guest written by my good friend Charles Mattis (AKA Caribbean Soul), a Parrothead Supreme, who can take us beyond “Come Monday,” “Cheeseburgers in Paradise,” and “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”
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The Other Jimmy
If you like Jimmy Buffett at all, you probably enjoy his fun, party, sing-a-long songs like I do, but is there anything else to him? Is there anything more thoughtful, perhaps even intellectual about the rest of his music? For me, there is “the other Jimmy”—the one not revealed on the usual top ten lists—and that is the Jimmy I like most. Most of our lives involve varying levels of passion, faith, doubt, dreams, uncertainty, courage—all themes found in the remainder of his work. Jimmy Buffett is a great storyteller, which is one of the primary reasons he has survived 45 years in the music industry despite being a mediocre rhythm guitar player, with a very average voice and without riding a particular genre (“am I country, pop, or rock and roll?”). What most people don’t realize is how seriously he takes his “summer job” with a work ethic that belies his laid back person . . . “I’m still here, I didn’t have to go to rehab and I’m not broke.” No, Jimmy, you are not broke, grossing over $100 million annually (Rolling Stone named him the 7th wealthiest rock star in 2006), with a growing bevy of businesses that hawk the “Margaritaville” brand—he knows what people want in island escapism. Not bad for a former altar boy from Pascagoula.
Now let’s get to what makes the music work, beginning with a few disclaimers. This post is NOT about the music insisted on by the faithful; only one on my list is found in his ten most performed concert songs. This list is about my favorites, which reveal the other Jimmy (i.e., no “Margaritaville” . . . sorry, it’s become too commercial). What drives Jimmy’s songs is his sense of story which he refers to as song lines that include colorful, even beautiful lyrics mixed in a roux of fun, romance, tragedy, whimsy, and adventure: “I travel on the song lines, that only dreamers see, not known for predictability.” The following is from the liner notes off of the Banana Wind album (1996) that I believe partially captures this idea:
“This collection of songs is just a continuation of my story. Stories of ships and sailors, life and death, women and children, love and friendship, seaplanes and paradoxes. Who I am and how I got here and where I am going are the questions whose answers have yet to be written, but the clues are the songs. I know the secrets of some, others I do not. They just appear like a barnacle encrusted bottle with a mysterious message inside, washed up on a deserted beach hiding in the sand, or they can be found in the secret gardens of the French Quarter waiting for the next young dreamer to come along and stake a claim.”
To narrow this list to my ten is quite a task. According to www.buffettnews.com, Jimmy has performed over 615 different songs in concert—from A (“A Little Bit of Rain”) to Y (“You’ll Never Work in Dis Bidness Again”). I have tried to put these together by themes and general ideas, mentioning some of the songs that remind me of the theme; however, many don’t fit one theme and in using this method, there is significant overlap. Finally, my list changes regularly. As Thom Lemmons said in his post about his CSN(and Y) top ten, “on any given day, the list could be different.” I suppose that is the nature of a true enthusiast. That said, let’s cast off the lines, shall we?
Like most artists, Jimmy seems to have a heightened sense of place. He mentions so many different locales in his songs, both those he wrote and those he didn’t (this one is written by Jesse Winchester). Some of his songs chronicle specific trips like “Far Side of the World” (“from Paris to Tunisia, Casablanca to Dakar”), and “Somewhere Over China” (“Shanghai or old Peking, on a plane or a boat in an envelope, real adventure has its ring”). Places on every continent are mentioned in his songs (including Antarctica) and even some locations in space such as the Pleiades, Jupiter, Orion, Milky Way (both the candy bar and the galaxy), the Southern Cross, Mars, and his “Beach House on the Moon.” But if you bring him down from space, you sail closer to the equator (which he refers to as the “little latitudes”) including both the South Pacific and the Caribbean (an entire genre unto itself), and from there you drift toward the gulf coast (“I‘ve got a native tongue, from way down south, it sits in the cheek of my gulf coastal mouth”). After that it gets harder to pin him down with verses stretching from Texas (“I got a Caribbean soul I can barely control and some Texas hidden here in my heart”) to Florida (“I’m back to livin’ Floridays, blue skies and ultra-violet rays”). Many towns along the gulf coast states are in his song lines from Creola to Pensacola, and Thibodeaux to Mobile. To tie down his adventures to one place is really not possible—Key West and St. Bart’s come to mind—but I believe his heart will always return to the central the gulf coast (which is why he performed in Gulf Shores to channel his anger over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Listen to his words about New Orleans (again from the liner notes on the Banana Wind album):
“New Orleans is the mother city of the region, and it was there, not on a distant palm lined stretch of beach, that I had my first Caribbean experience. It did not come to me in dreams or stories, but in the simple stalk of a banana tree growing and flourishing along side live oaks and slash pine in the sandy soil of a French Quarter garden. The banana tree seemed so out of place, and then again it wasn’t. It was a discovery as fascinating to a ten year old boy as the Galapagos must have been to Darwin. It was not the tree itself, but the place from which it had come that set me to day dreaming and thinking about the tropics.”
So, back to the song. Jimmy first played music in Biloxi in the mid-60’s at a place called Trader Jon’s which later blew away in Hurricane Camille, although I doubt his set list included calming, pensive songs like this one. The trademark harmonica of Greg “Fingers” Taylor on “Biloxi” always reminds me of the early days when I first started listening to Jimmy’s music in the 70’s. The strings at the end of the song gently bring it home. These lines say it all and reflect his love for the Mississippi delta: “Down around Biloxi, pretty girls are dancin’ in the sea, they all look like sisters in the ocean. The boy will fill his pail with salty water, and the storms will blow from off towards New Orlean . . . and the sun will set from off toward New Orleans.”
9. School Boy Heart
Jimmy has a wide variety of songs that speak of his personal interests, talents, and foibles. So many of these self- reflective tunes come to mind: “That’s What Livin’ is to Me,” “Window on the World,” “If It All Falls Down,” “King of Somewhere Hot,” “When the Coast is Clear,” “Stranded on a Sandbar,” “Growing Older But Not Up,” “When the Wild Life Betrays Me,” “Its’ Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About,” and “Jimmy Dreams” (“Who knows why you start rediscovering your heart, but you do it again and again”). Even in this list, you can see his self-deprecating humor and depth of self-knowledge. For most, including me on some days, “A Pirate Looks at 40” is the quintessential one in this group (though the pirate is now looking at 70). For today, “School Boy Heart” is my pick: “I got a school boy heart, a novelist eye, stout sailor’s legs and a license to fly, I got a bartender ear and a beachcomber style, piratical nerve and a vaudevillian style.” The song reminds me that human beings are complex creatures, and it is not so easy to label or pigeonhole any of us . . . “something like a swiss army knife, it’s my life.”
8. Lovely Cruise
In all of Jimmy’s songs about boats, you would think I would pick something else. I have sailed quite a bit myself, accompanied by my own playlist of Jimmy’s sailing songs including “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” “Boat Drinks,” and “Nautical Wheelers.” However, the keyboard and a smooth, jazzy harmonica put this song together with great memories for me. It has become a tradition for us to play this song on the last day of our vacations, whether it is a landlocked “cruise” or coming back to port from an open ocean sailing trip, bare boating in the Caribbean: “I’m sorry it’s ended. It’s sad but it’s true, it’s been a lovely cruise.” We have also had the privilege of sharing several vacations with friends and this song reminds me that our friendship continues, even when we go back to our routines. “These moments we’re left with, may you always remember, these moments are shared by few . . . it’s been a lovely cruise.”
7. Gypsies in the Palace
There is no question that Jimmy’s music is filled with humor. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and doesn’t want anyone else to, either. I have always found humor in his bizarre cultural references. What is even more humorous is that those songs move on, while the cultural references are suspended in time. Here are just a few (not in chronological order): Anita Bryant, MTV hosts, 3 Mile Island, Spiro Agnew, Ricky Ricardo, Let’s Make a Deal (“my whole world lies waiting behind door #3”), Juicy Fruit, John Wayne, Pencil Thin Moustache, Stanley Kubrick (and his buddy Hal), Star Trek (“Could you beam me somewhere, Mister Scottie? Any old place here on Earth or in space? You pick the century and I’ll pick the spot”), the Gong Show, Brylcream, the Ayahtolla, television preachers (with bad hair and dimples), Captain Kangaroo, the Village People, Jerry Springer, Howdy Doody, Junior Mints, Miss Piggy—like I said, fun.
There is a long list of songs with humorous lines and stories: “Hotel Room” (“A monogram towel and a bucket of ice, a chest of drawers and a mirror that lies . . . that couldn’t be me in the gorilla disguise!”), “Fruitcakes” (“There’s a little bit of fruitcake left in every one of us!”), “Everybody’s Got a Cousin in Miami,” “Ballad of Skip Wiley” (based on a hilarious character in a Carl Hiaasen novel), “Cinco De Mayo in Memphis” (“Mariachis singing the blues, Southern belles and senoritas, all sportin’ blue suede shoes”), “Cultural Infidel,” “Coconut Telegraph” (“Was he that big of fool? To do a belly buster high dive, and miss the entire pool?”), “Mental Floss.” But “Gypsies in the Palace” gets the nod today.
Jimmy is quoted as saying ““I have heard that some of the great parties of all times have been at my house—when I wasn’t there.” This is a raucous song (think “Hoedown” complete with fiddle) about Jimmy’s friends (including one named Snake) that “take care” of his house while he is on tour. “We’re gypsies in the palace, he’s left us here alone, the order of the Sleepless Knights will now assume the throne. We ain’t got no money, we ain’t got no right, but we’re gypsies in the palace, and we got it all tonight.”
6. Brown Eyed Girl
I am not sure I know any popular artist who has done more covers than JB; the latest count is somewhere around 190. Some of them he has made so popular, most people don’t know they were not his (“Banana Republics” comes to mind). Jimmy collaborates across a wide spectrum of talent—through the years there have been over 280 members, honorary members, and special guests of the Coral Reefer Band. He has even had guests who performed “incognito” with names like Marvin Gardens, Kay Pasa, Al Vacado, and Kitty Litter. And if you ever see a band advertised at a small venue (particularly on New Year’s Eve in Aspen or on St. Bart’s) with the name of “Freddie and the Fishsticks,” you will find Jimmy. He often invites the original performers of the songs he covers to perform with him, but puts his own twist on the music. Some of my favorites include James Taylor’s “Mexico,” Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” (debuted in the movie “Hoot”), and “Southern Cross” by Steven Stills (which could make my top ten list on any given day). But the one that still does it for me is “Brown Eyed Girl.” I prefer it over Van Morrison’s original any day. The addition of the happy steel drums of Trinidad and Tobago provided by Robert Greenidge make it a summer time anthem for me. “Sha la la la la la la la la la la ti da”!
5. Remittance Man
Jimmy likes to tell stories of people who get fed up with their every day lives and head to the tropics to live out their fantasies (“Still time to start a new life in the palm trees . . . if it doesn’t work out there’ll never be any doubt, that the pleasure was worth all the pain”). While giving us ocean breezes and a feel for exotic people and places, it doesn’t always work out well in songs like “Cowboy in the Jungle”—“Now he’s stuck in Portobello since his money all ran out”; and the melancholy revealed in “Banana Republics”: “Expatriated Americans, feelin’ so all alone, telling themselves the same lies that they told themselves back home.”
Most are unaware that Jimmy tells some tragic, lonely, wistful stories in songs like “Coast of Marseilles,” “False Echoes” (“he waltzes on memories while he fades like a flare”), “Pacing the Cage,” and “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On” (for post-Katrina New Orleans). A very close second for me in this general category is “Nobody Speaks to the Captain No More” (“People said he’d be better dead, his glory days are gone, he sits on the shore with his saxophone . . . and plays”); however, “Remittance Man” takes this spot. The song is based on a tale told by Mark Twain in Following the Equator, about a “black sheep of the family clan that broke too many rules along the way.” This man isn’t getting away from it all by choice, but because his family disowns him. They banish him from mother England, forcing him to travel throughout the vast British empire to receive his inheritance a little at a time: “He collects his precious pittance in every port of call.” He would stay in port until his money ran out and then was told where to go next, not being ambitious enough to break loose and make his own way: “He’s a sinner on the mainland, he’s a sinner on the sea, he looks for absolution, not accountability.” A tragic figure, an unforgiven man: “you could claim you were born a prince, but you’re the only one you can convince.” He is driven to lonely wandering and finally looses his mind: “By the harbor lights of Sidney or the Bora Bora moon, he paints he recites his sad confessions, to the seagulls and the loons.” The harmonica cries with the sea birds a mournful song, void of mercy or grace.
4. Happily Ever After (Every Now and Then)
Jimmy is frequently playful with words and phrases: “if the phone doesn’t ring it’s me,” “the weather is here, I wish you were beautiful,” “off to see the lizard,” “a white sport coat and a pink crustacean”—just to name a few.
Jimmy also does not shy away from religious references and seems to have a love/hate relationship with his Catholic upbringing evidenced in songs like “Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost,” “Altered Boy,” and “Bank of Bad Habits” (where he names the 7 deadly sins). He frequently muses about the ways God created, and the ways God may or may not be directly involved in the events of this world.
From “Fruitcakes”: “perhaps the cosmic baker took us out of the oven too early” and “there’s a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning” (a favorite of mine); from “Don’t Chu-Know”: “we’re just recycled history machines, cavemen in faded blue jeans, it’s the unanswered question each one of us”; from “Schoolboy Heart”: “I suspect, I died in some cosmic shipwreck, with all hands spread all over the deck. Then some kind, of unseen and unscrupulous mind, began to pick up what he could find, added ice, shook me twice, rolled the dice”; from “Piece of Work”: “Well, the Lord made me on a long thin limb, made sure I’d remember Him, or Her in the middle of a long dark night, creation crazy, death sheet white.”
In the midst of all of his questions, some that I share as well, comes this song, “Happily Ever After,” which reminds us that we have a choice of looking positively or negatively at life. (“I’ve been in vans and in bands, on and through stages, one thing I can conclude, one has to learn havin’ fun is just smilin’ through those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes.”) I also enjoy the idea of referring to a song he wrote 20 years earlier and what he has learned since then. This song shares a wish, actually more of a prayer: “some people never find it, some only pretend, but I just want to live happily ever after, every now and then.”
3. Delaney Talks to Statues
Unless you are a true Parrothead, you probably don’t know about the novels Jimmy has written (one of only eight authors in history to have reached No. 1 on both the fiction and non-fiction New York Times Bestseller lists), and even a children’s story or two. He has performed various songs about children including Chanson Pour Petits Enfants (a “song for the children, a song for the world”) and Jolly Mon Sing (he wrote the picture book version for his daughter). I have occasionally referred to my own daughter as “Little Miss Magic” and that song is very dear to my heart (“Your mother is the only other woman for me, Little Miss Magic what you gonna be?”). Now that my daughter is grown, dwelling on either of these songs can make me quite emotional, but today, “Delaney Talks to Statues” is my choice: a joy-filled tune that captures the loving relationship between a father and his pre-school aged daughter. “We chase the dogs and hop like frogs, then I do my bad handstand. She’s growing up too fast for me, and asking lots of questions. Some I know the answers to and some I’m looking for suggestions. Fathers, daughters, born by the water. Shells sink, dreams float, life’s good on our boat.”
2. Love in the Library
Another theme from Jimmy’s songs is relationships. Many are humorous (“Frank and Lola, on their second honeymoon in Pensacola”), but he does have what some would refer to as love songs, with very heartfelt verse as is evident by these words from “Lone Palm”: “Love is a wave building to a crescendo. Ride if you will, ride it with me.” Another love song I enjoy is: “I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever”: “Make the whole day a first time love affair. We’ll begin with a kiss, such a warm place to start, let me into your life, let me into your heart.”
As you would expect, someone who loves to tell stories also loves literature (referring to it as his “fiction addiction”). In most of Jimmy’s music, it seems the song is simply the best way to tell a story, and in the case of “Love in the Library,” it is a love story. In his vast collection of songs famous (and not so famous) authors or their stories appear frequently, including the likes of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Pat Conroy, John MacDonald, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Louis L’Amour, Steven King, Agatha Christie and Antoine de Saint Exupery. How many songs do you know that mention the French author, Flaubert? Well, this one does. This is a dreamy song about a romantic rendezvous in a small, gulf coast town library on a hot summer afternoon where “no words were spoken but so much was said.” The line that describes the location in the library when he first sees her is my favorite: “Near civil war history, my heart skipped a beat. She was standing in fiction stretched high on bare feet.” I am sure this selection is heavily influence by the fact that I met my wife in a library . . . yes, even libraries can be romantic. “Surrounded by stories surreal and sublime, I fell in love in the library once upon a time.”
If my list was longer, I would include other themes: Food—“I Will Play for Gumbo”; Drink—“Champagne Sí, Agua No“; Live Music—“Bob Roberts Society Band”; Childhood—“Life is Just a Tire Swing”; Christmas—“Christmas Island”; Fathers—“The Captain and the Kid. But I guess it’s time to head in.
1. One Particular Harbor
So many of Jimmy’s songs are set close to salt water and all that is associated with it: islands, boats/ sailing (earlier category), sea creatures (jellyfish, crab, shark, barracuda, remoras, barnacles), hurricanes, coconuts, limes, reefs, mangoes, frangipani, palm trees . . . . I won’t even try to list them all. To say that water is one category is quite a stretch, but some do come to mind: “Stars on the Water,” “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season,” “Island,” “Back to the Island,” and “Surfin’ in a Hurricane.”
But it’s time to close with my favorite. This is definitely a concert song best heard live, and now makes just about every concert set list. The song begins with enchanting Tahitian words about creation: “A ORA TE NATURA E MEA AROFA TEIE AO NEI,” which loosely translated means “nature (God) lives / have pity on the earth / love the earth.”
Mike said earlier on his blog post of his top ten Allman Brothers list that started this whole thing, “Often, my favorite Christian music isn’t ‘Christian music.’” I also have my favorite non-Christian, “Christian” songs, and this one tops the list, particularly the way it seems to welcome a vision of the kingdom in its fullness and a glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth. To me, one of the joys of my relationship with God is finding him in all of the unexpected places. God is as much at work in the rest of the world as he is in me, and is at work in those who claim him and in those who don’t.
Maybe it’s a contrarian view, but I see spiritual urges throughout this top ten song list: honesty about life and what it means to be human; questions of pleasure, over indulgence, and responsibility; an appreciation and respect for nature and the created world; the joy and challenges of living life in community; celebrating differences in people and respecting different ideas; the bonds of love found in family and friends; the heartaches of life revealed in loss and an unawareness of grace; thoughts of beauty and love traced ultimately back to God. “One Particular Harbor” is a song that reveals hope and salvation, a place of peace we all long to be forever. When the joyful pans crescendo and then Nadira Shakoor’s high soprano descant soars triumphantly over it all, it’s as if the angels decided to join in.
Actually, Mike knows he can play this one at my funeral: “There’s just one particular harbor, so far and yet so near, where the children play on the shore each day and all is safe within.” If that’s not a song about heaven, I don’t know what is.