B y B r a d W i e n e r s
NEVER A BIG fan of the Grateful Dead, I did my best to appreciate what Jerry Garcia's loss was to those who were when he bought the farm a few weeks ago. Even so, I quickly lost all patience with the bereaved. Seems the thing I liked most about the Grateful Dead--their laughter in the face of life--was lost on many of their adherents. Sure, Deadheads have been deep on gratitude, but they're shallow on humor--and we all knew the jokes were ready years ago. So when I was finally pushed one more time to fully appreciate the significance of losing Jerry, I said yes, I know who Jerry was--hell, if it weren't for him, I don't know how else we could ever explain Jimmy Buffett and the millions who turn out every year to hear him play, buy his records, and drink tequila and Corona Extras in his honor. In fact, with Jerry's passing, Jimmy Buffett may yet eclipse Captain Trips and the Dead as a cultural phenomenon.
The Garcia-Buffett analogy is also difficult for some because Jimmy Buffett, his music, and his fans are so regularly maligned. But consider the parallels: Jerry Garcia and the Dead promote a lifestyle that eschews square life and questions authority. Their music is favored by recreational drug users the world over. Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band promote a lifestyle that eschews square life, questions authority, and is favored by drug smugglers the world over. Jerry Garcia and the Dead have produced 24 albums (30 if you count Garcia's "solo" work) but managed only one Billboard Top 40 single; Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band have produced 20 albums (if you include two anthologies Buffett assembled) and has managed only five Top 40 singles. Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheads and know all the words to their songs. Jimmy Buffett fans are called Parrotheads and know all the words to his songs, as well as when to form a shark fin with their hands on top of their heads. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead have spawned a multimillion-dollar souvenir industry; Jimmy Buffett is a one-man, multimillion-dollar tourist trap. Until Jerry Garcia's passing, the Dead toured nearly every year, playing anywhere from a dozen to more than 100 gigs; Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band tour nearly every year and are presently on a tour with 50 dates booked.
There are a few major discrepancies, I admit: Buffett doesn't have his own flavor of Ben & Jerry's ice cream yet, but then again Buffett, not Garcia, has published three books of best-selling fiction. One, Tales from Margaritaville, spent (count 'em) seven months on the New York Times's Best Seller List.
Now there's no accounting for taste, and this cultural equivalency test may prove to some of you that there are an equal number of losers who dig the Grateful Dead as there are taste-challenged Jimmy Buffett listeners. So be it. But as with Jerry's kids, when the Parrotheads swarm on local amphitheaters, the instant community that forms around tailgates and ice chests will be something to see. Friends from previous shows will enjoy reunions. Mayo Dads and Softball Moms, the cult of suburbia, will decamp and set to waving inflated sharks and drinking frozen concoctions with fancy swizzle sticks. Frivolous and obnoxious and white-bread as they come (sound like adjectives one might use to describe Deadheads?), they will be having fun, and the only thing conspicuously absent will be the touch of tie-dyed defiance displayed in parking lots outside Dead shows. In fact, you might say the principal reason Buffett (a man of the '70s if there ever was one) has been so long in the shadow of Jerry Garcia is that the '60s were--still are--so much more righteous.
ARE YOU WITH me so far? Good. Because it only gets more surreal from here (as when Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band cover "Uncle John's Band" on the CD Fruit Cakes). Some of you, I imagine, may still be in shock about the magnitude of Jimmy Buffett--who knew?--and a few may even be a little terrified for the future of Western civilization. After all, we are talking about the man who wrote "Cheeseburger in Paradise."
Given the scope of his appeal and the fact he will now be king of the road, at least as far as traveling theme parks are concerned, I, as your fearless cultural critic, braved hours of Jimmy Buffett on the stereo, recalled with my dad the shows we've seen together (full disclosure: Buffett has, over the years, acted for my dad and me as something of a valence electron in the volatile chemistry known euphemistically as male bonding), dug up the story of Buffett's near-death experience last year off Nantucket, did the literature search, ("Songbird Jimmy Buffett," High Times, December 1976; Jimmy Buffet on the cover of Rolling Stone, 1979; Jimmy Buffett at the White House for the Clinton inaugural; the Jimmy Buffett Scrapbook), and herewith present the various personas that bring Jimmy Buffett close to so many hearts.
THIS ONE DOESN'T take much deep thought: there's no question that central to Buffett's appeal is that he sings songs you can party to, or more specifically, drink to. Drink-along music. There's "Margaritaville," of course, the 1977 equivalent of Sheryl Crow's 1994 hit, "All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun," and if "Margaritaville" seems to have endured better than dozens of other summertime-and-the- juicin'-is-easy ditties, it's probably because of its suggestion that the protagonist was driven to drink, an important solace when one is at the bar.
Buffett averages at least one flat-out drinking/partying song on every album, and plenty of mentions of other hedonistic pleasures as well: reefer, deviled eggs, cheeseburgers. ("The eighth deadly sin," according to a lyric on the new CD, Barometer Soup, is pizza.) One old refrain, not surprising after the diet he describes, finds him "chewing on Rolaids."
BUFFET SINGS THE expatriate blues. The theme of crossing political, geographical, or psychological borders in an attempt to escape one's past or present or future recurs almost as often as drinking as a major thread in his songwriting. True, it doesn't work as well when he writes songs about those trying to get into the United States (for example, "Everybody Has a Cousin in Miami"), but if you are prepared to accept relative worth in Buffett's body of work, the pinnacle of it would seem to be his expat story-songs, touched as they are by a Jim Croce-like poignancy--a sense of being lost, heartbroken, homesick, or all of the above. For example, this lyric: "Called my friends on those cheap nightly rates / sure was good to talk to the old United States / while the lights of St. Thomas about 20 miles west / I can see General Electric's still doing their best." (Who but the truly homesick can feel good about a lightbulb company?) Or how about "My African Friend"? In it, the song's narrator meets and parties with an acquaintance only to wake and find he was either deported or had to hide so as not to be.
FINALLY, JIMMY BUFFET embodies to many that ambiguous cultural concept known as America, just as Jerry Garcia did. "To the kids today the Grateful Dead represents America: the spirit of being able to go out and have an adventure," Garcia told Joe Smith in an interview for Smith's Off the Record. If "being able to go out and have an adventure" is indeed the spirit of America (and it's not a bad start for a revision of the American dream), Buffett and Garcia were--and remain--true ideological brothers.
The problem with this business of embodying the spirit of America, however, is the small minds who can only imagine folks like Buffett and Garcia, both white musicians with a deep line of creative credit advanced them by African American folk and blues players, as all-Americans. To this critic, hip-hop's Notorious B.I.G. and Guru, both looking at platinum sales as I write, are each every bit the all-Americans Jimmy Buffett is. The question is, would those who reacted to Johnny Angel's recent slam on "Margaritaville" by calling Angel an "anti-American, pinko, commie faggot" agree? Of that, sad to say, I'm doubtful.
This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Area Guardian.
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