From Troubadour to Titan, Barefoot and Bombed

By Christopher John Campion
Ryan White Inger Klekacz

“Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way”
Ryan White
Touchstone, $26.99

So I’m doing this gig a few months ago, a happy-hour thing, playing mostly to an indifferent crowd but not taking any offense because it’s not one of my regular joints and these people don’t know me and didn’t have any idea I was even going to be there. Out of nowhere this Lee Trevino-like fat drunken slob, who is sweating the outline of a bra into his green polo shirt and looks like he just got fished out of a water hazard at Augusta, staggers up to the bandstand, scowls at me for 10 seconds, and slurs, “What? No Buffett? How ’bout a little ‘Margaritaville’?”

Guess he didn’t care for that steady diet of Replacements, Stones, and Elvis Costello I’d been feeding him.

Now I’d love to tell you this was an isolated incident, but I do 250-odd gigs a year (emphasis on the “odd” sometimes), and when I’m playing a place that requires cover tunes this occurs a lot. The requester doesn’t always come in such an unlovely package or even demand that particular song. There are a couple of other songs with the same gestalt. Sometimes it’s “Brown Eyed Girl” or “Sweet Caroline” or, the latest catnip to morons, “Wagon Wheel,” released a few years ago by the band Old Crow Medicine Show and subsequently by Darius Rucker, formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish fame (or infamy, depending on where you fall on that). The song has been characterized as a “Dylan sketch” rescued and completed by the boys in the O.C.M.S. My theory is that ol’ Bob chose not to finish it in an attempt to spare us all.

Out of the great modern songbook, why are these the most requested songs in a pub on any given night? That cosmic question I cannot answer. What I can tell you is that I’ve seen the most wistful of people transformed into effervescent ambassadors of joy within an instant of hearing any of those tunes, but only one of them ever birthed a business empire. 

In Ryan White’s superb new biography, “Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way,” he explains exactly how that happened and why, but not before he takes you on a chronological quest through the singer’s life and wild ride of a career. 

It begins with an origin story about his sea captain grandfather, who instilled in the young Jimmy a nautical fascination and insatiable thirst for adventure that would go on to inform his whole life and work. (Hence the title of his 1978 album, “Son of a Son of a Sailor.”) Then, in the early 1970s, after rolling craps trying to get a music career going in Nashville, he took a trip to Key West for some gigs with the notorious and always colorful fellow folk hero Jerry Jeff Walker, and that led to him fall in love with the place and make it his base of operations for the launch of his career. 

From there Mr. White introduces us to a coterie of characters orbiting in and around the Chart Room Bar who became Mr. Buffett’s friends, collaborators, and co-conspirators, each more eccentric and lovable than the next. 

At the time the only people down there were misfits of the highest order: smugglers and pirates, barflies and beach bums, artists and dope dealers — everyone living off the grid when there wasn’t even that much of a grid to be on. These were the people who would become Mr. Buffett’s audience and go on to be the inspiration for many of his compositions. 

The author does a beautiful job of capturing the carefree nature of the time period through some rhapsodic passages and a number of interviews, with his subjects unfurling robust and ribald 2 a.m. tales of misbegotten mischief born of the bottle, thus giving us more insight into the Buffett world, the beginnings of the mariner-poet persona, and his method of controlled chaos.

Jimmy set about steadily building a fan base, playing every coffeehouse, canteen, college student union, and bucket of blood that would have him — an intrepid troubadour, perfecting his craft of storytelling, singing, and songwriting. He made records that didn’t do great business, but all the while through his persistent touring his career kept inclining, and along the way he put together his now-beloved Coral Reefer Band and had the breakthrough hit with “Margaritaville.” And that’s when things really ratcheted up into high gear.

They say in life you’re judged by the company you keep. Well, in Mr. Buffett’s case that would be people like the Eagles, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jack Nicholson, all of whom come into play here. It’s a veritable who’s who of the paradigm-shifters and ruling personalities of the period. 

His tours became a rolling bacchanal of excess and individual exploits (his and the Coral Reefers’), but the truly remarkable thing is that in most biographies like this, this is where our hero changes, becomes a megalomaniac, lonely at the top, paranoid — you know, an a-hole. But not Mr. Buffett. He stayed the same guy: egoless, out for a good time, concerned with putting on a good show for his fans, and caring deeply about the people who worked for him. And he never took himself all that seriously. I’ve read a lot of these books, and that is rare, my friend.

Things got even more interesting when the Mexican chain restaurant Chi-Chi’s tried to co-opt the name Margaritaville for its own revenue-generating purposes, and Mr. Buffett lawyered up and blocked the effort in court, proving he was synonymous with the term. He parlayed that into an entrepreneurial enterprise of staggering proportions through a chain of restaurants of his own by that name, coupled with a burgeoning lifestyle brand.

As with all of these biographies, I have a feeling it will be read mostly by Mr. Buffett’s fans, a treasured keepsake for the Parrot Head set (what his rabid fans call themselves), but I’m here to tell you that you don’t even have to be an admirer of his music to enjoy this book. 

He was constantly told by radio programmers throughout his career that he was “too country for New York and L.A. and not enough country for Nashville,” so he just kept going, built his own audience, and became his own genre. So his is a uniquely American story that carries with it the most important message, whether your pursuit is art or commerce, and that is to always be your authentic self and keep working. 

I just removed from my being all the resentment of having been asked to play “Margaritaville,” closed my eyes, and listened to it with fresh ears — really nice tune. 

Christopher John Campion, a regular visitor to Amagansett, is the author of “Escape From Bellevue: A Dive Bar Odyssey,” published by Penguin-Gotham.

Jimmy Buffett lives part time on North Haven. 

Jimmy Buffett and the producer Norbert Putnam in May 1979 on Montserrat, where they recorded the album “Volcano.” Tom Corcoran