Jimmy Buffett, whose “Margaritaville” was inducted into the National Recording Registry this year, died yesterday at age 76. He was surrounded by his family, friends and his beloved dogs, his family announced on social media. There was no mention of the cause.
It was a shock to his millions of fans across the globe, as the vibrant, still-touring Buffett was not publicly known to be ill. He had performed in concert as recently as May.
I interviewed him in late March for the NRR honors. The man was both the picture of health and tickled by the recognition, as his laid-back songs were not the type that tended to get awards, he chuckled.
So he happily joined us via a streaming platform and told the familiar story of how he wrote the hit that changed the last four decades of his life and helped make him one of the wealthiest entertainers of his generation.
It was the early 1970s and he was day drinking in Austin, Texas, after a rough night out with his friends Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. He ordered a margarita – on the rocks with salt – and it hit the spot.
“I started writing it right there on a napkin like you hear about,” he said. A friend took him to the airport for his flight back to Miami, from which he’d shuffle a rental car back down to Key West for a friend who was in that business. (He also needed the free transportation.) A traffic jam ensued on the Seven Mile Bridge and, stuck for an hour or so, he finished the song.
“I got to Key West and I was working in a little club on Duval Street called Crazy Ophelia’s. And I went in and I had to work that night and I played the song. People liked it! I went, ‘Wow, this is pretty good.’ And you know, it was fresh, it was probably, you know, six hours old …. It was maybe even four years before it got recorded (in 1977). It was just part of my repertoire that people liked as I was going around as a performer.”
He was very familiar with the Library, having performed here in September 2008 when his friend Herman Wouk was honored with the Library’s first Lifetime Achievement Award for the Writing of Fiction (today known as the Prize for American Fiction). In one of those “only at the Library” moments that demonstrate the sweep of the place, Buffett spoke, and then sang, just before Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke and read from Wouk’s writing. (Imagine that advertising card: “Tonight Only! Herman Wouk! Jimmy Buffett! Ruth Bader Ginsburg!”)
This March, ours was a simple, half-hour interview. He wore a baseball cap, an upbeat smile and a camo tee shirt. It came with a sweet nostalgic undertone, at least for me.
How I had idolized this man when I was a teenager! How I had memorized every line of every song!
Buffett was nearly two decades older but, like me, grew up in Mississippi, him down there on the Gulf Coast. I was a seventh generation Mississippian, living outside a small town in the middle of the state. I was very much into music and very much into not living the rest of my life outside a small town in the middle of Mississippi.
And there he was! A Mississippi kid, living the dream in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean! Writing romanticized, chilled-out songs about the seas, the islands, roaming the planet, another life in another world.
I must stress this was before “Margaritaville,” before he was on the cover of Rolling Stone, before Parrotheads, before the restaurants and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” I was “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.” I was “A1A.” I even wrote to rare record shops, getting a copy of his first album, “Down to Earth.”
After college, I took a job at a newspaper on the east coast of Florida, right by the ocean, in no small part because my hero, Jimmy Buffett, had gone to Florida, too. I eventually became a foreign correspondent and roamed the planet, my wanderlust having been kindled by listening to Buffett as a teen.
And so here we were this March, both of us now old guys.
We played back home for a minute or two. Because it’s a very small state it turned out we had mutual friends. He said that when in Washington he often ate at the Bethesda Crab House. It’s a mile from where I live, we eat there as well, and I said I’d keep a lookout for him. The man is worth some $600 million, thanks to his ceaseless touring and ever-expanding merchandising of “Margaritaville,” but you wouldn’t have known it that day. We might as well have been two Magnolia State refugees who happened to bump into one another on adjacent bar stools at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.
He was working on a new album about his time as a busker in New Orleans and urged me to buy it when it came out. He was planning a concert in the D.C. area and told me to come on out and introduce myself. It had the gist of sincerity to it, not just a “let’s have lunch” pleasantry that people say but of course don’t actually mean. (And, even if it was, it was kind of him to say so.)
So, like the rest of you, I was stunned and saddened this morning when I heard the news. The cover of the “Changes in Latitude” album popped up before my mind’s eye. “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season” played in my head, his soft tenor opening the lyrics:
Squalls out on the Gulf Stream
Big storm’s coming soon
Passed out in my hammock
And God, I slept till way past noon
Fair winds and following seas to you, Jimmy Buffett.
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