Web posted on: Friday, June 12, 1998 2:43:39 PM EDT
For Parrotheads, for armchair adventurers, and for anyone who appreciates a good yarn and a hearty laugh, here is the ultimate backstage pass -- a look into the wacky life of singer Jimmy Buffett through eyes of the man who's lived it.
This first chapter contains profanity that may be offensive to some readers.
Time on the Water
My Life (In Four Hundred Words or Less)
When I was growing up in Alabama, the beginning of the new school year was a bad time. It meant the end of summer, which is my season. I packed away my shorts and T-shirts, put on socks, shoes, and my parochial-school uniform, and dragged my ass to class. To make matters worse, the first thing the nuns would make us all do on the first day back was to write about what we had done that summer. Having to recall it all while sitting in the antiseptic atmosphere of a classroom was like staring at the goodies in a bakery window with no money in your pocket. However, the bright side to the ordeal was that it reminded me of what lay ahead the next summer, and I carried those longings through the winter and spring until the last bell of the school year rang and I charged back to the beach. I don't know why the idea of trying to put fifty years of living into the same format occurred to me, but it did, and since I am way too familiar with the format, here it is. In four hundred words or less, this is what has happened from early adolescence until now.
I broke out of the grip of Catholicism and made it through adolescence without killing myself in a car. I flunked out of college. I learned to play the guitar, lived on the beach, lived in the French Quarter, finally got laid, and didn't go to Vietnam. I got back into school, started a band, got a job on Bourbon Street, graduated from college, flunked my draft physical, broke up my band, and went out on the road solo. I signed a record deal, got married, moved to Nashville, had my guitars stolen, bought a Mercedes, worked at Billboard magazine, put out my first album, went broke, met Jerry Jeff Walker, wrecked the Mercedes, got divorced, and moved to Key West. I sang and worked on a fishing boat, went totally crazy, did a lot of dope, met the right girl, made another record, had a hit, bought a boat, and sailed away to the Caribbean.
I started another band, worked the road, had my second and last hit, bought a house in Aspen, started spending summers in New England, got married, broke my leg three times in one year, had a baby girl, made more records, bought a bigger boat, and sailed away to St. Barts.
I got separated from the right girl, sold the boat, sold the house in Aspen, moved back to Key West, worked the road, and made more records. I rented an apartment in Paris, went to Brazil for Carnival, learned to fly, went into therapy, quit doing dope, bought my first seaplane, flew all over the Caribbean, almost got a second divorce, moved to Malibu for more therapy, and got back with the right girl.
I worked the road, moved back to Nashville, took off in an F-14 from an aircraft carrier, bought a summer home on Long Island, had another baby girl. I found the perfect seaplane and moved back to Florida. Cameron Marley joined me in the house of women. I built a home on Long Island, crashed the perfect seaplane in Nantucket, lived through it thanks to Navy training, tried to slow down a little, woke up one morning and I was looking at fifty, trying to figure out what comes next.
That might be all some of you want to hear, but for those who want to read a little more, continue on, for though I got most of it all into four hundred words, there is a lot more meat on the bone.
Time on the Water
We sailed from the port of indecision
I wasn't born in a trunk, I was born in a suitcase. But a trunk is where I've kept the scraps of my life for the past fifty years. My many attempts to begin a journal have all fizzled out after a few pages of notes. I have a considerable collection of notebooks, cocktail napkins, memo pads, legal tablets, sparsely filled binders, and mildew-spotted pages that sit in a cedar-lined steamer trunk in my basement on Long Island.
Almost five years ago, when I had the harebrained idea of doing a musical version of my friend Herman Wouk's "Don't Stop the Carnival", Herman would send me pages of thoughts on the matter from his journal. He had kept a daily journal since 1946. To say the least, I was quite impressed. I envy those who have the discipline to keep a chronological record of events. I do not.
My plan has always been to keep adding to that mess in the trunk and, if I make it to my eighties and am still functioning in the brain-cell department, to retire to a tropical island, buy an old beach house, hire several lovely native girls as assistants, ship in a good supply of rum and red burgundy, and then spend my golden years making a complete picture out of the puzzle pieces in the old steamer trunk. That to me is the way any good romantic would look at his life: Live it first, then write it down before you go.
Any attempts at autobiography before the age of eighty seem pretty self-involved to me. There are a lot of smart middle-aged people but not many wise ones. That comes with "time on the water," as the fisherman says. So the following pages are another stab at completing a journal inspired by the trip that my wife planned for me to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, on December 25, 1996. I am glad to report that my first fifty years were, overall, a lot of goddamn fun. I just followed my instincts and kept my sense of humor. This journal narrates the trip itself as well as stories that the trip dredged up out of my past. I hope you enjoy the ride.
Questions and Answers
Now he lives in the islands
Fifty. A mind-boggling thought for a war baby like me. Fifty is not "just another birthday." It is a reluctant milepost on the way to wherever it is we are meant to wind up. It can be approached in only two ways. First, it can be a ball of snakes that conjures up immediate thoughts of mortality and accountability. ("What have I done with my life?") Or, it can be a great excuse to reward yourself for just getting there. ("He who dies with the most toys wins.") I instinctively choose door number two.
I am not the kind of person to spend my fiftieth birthday in the self-help section of Borders bookstore looking for answers to questions that "have bothered me so," as somebody wrote once -- those questions that somehow got taken off the multiple-choice quiz of life. It seems that here in America, in our presumably evolved "what about me" capitalistic culture, too many of us choose the wrong goals for the wrong reasons. Today spirituality and the search for deeper meaning are as confusing as the DNA evidence in the O.J. Simpson case. There is a labyrinth of choices, none of which seem to suit me. Granted, I have been too warped by Catholicism not to be cynical, but there are still too many men behind too many curtains for my taste. The creation, marketing, and selling of spirituality is as organized as a bingo game. By the time most of us war babies reached high school, we were pretty much derailed from the natural order of things. We were supposed to grow up, and that's where my problems started. Parents, teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors bombarded me with the same question: "What are you going to do with your life?" I didn't even want to think about that when I was fourteen. My teachers called me a daydreamer. They would write comments on my report card like, "He seems to live in a fantasy world and prefers that to paying serious attention to serious subject matters that will prepare him for life."
The life they were so hell-bent on preparing me for bored the living shit out of me. It seemed way too serious. I saw more meaning in the mysteries of the ocean and the planets than in theology or religion. I was too busy figuring out ways to skip school, go diving, and get laid. My heroes were not presidents; they were pirates. Emerging from adolescence with a healthy "lack of respect for the proper authorities," and a head full of romanticism and hero worship, I was able to come up with an answer.
Q. What are you going to do with your life?
I have been called a lot of things in these fifty years on the good old planet Earth, but the thing I believe I am the most is lucky. I have always looked at life as a voyage, mostly wonderful, sometimes frightening. In my family and friends I have discovered treasure more valuable than gold. I have seen and done things that I read about as a kid. I have dodged many storms and bounced across the bottom on occasion, but so far Lady Luck and the stars by which I steer have kept me off the rocks. I have paid attention when I had to and have made more right tacks than wrong ones to end up at this moment -- with a thousand ports of call behind me and, I hope, a thousand more to see. My voyage was never a well-conceived plan, nor will it ever be. I have made it up as I went along.
The Fifty-Year Reality Check
A List of Things to Do by Fifty
Learn to play the guitar or the piano
Just Getting It on Paper
My writing style is a rather unrefined stream of consciousness; I don't know when to stop telling the story. I have always begun a writing project with a loose idea of a story but without actually knowing where I'm going or how I'm getting there.
I started out wanting to be a Serious Southern Writer. My mother had made me a reader and stressed the legacy of my family's Mississippi roots. William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor were household names -- Mississippians who had made people take notice. I have a feeling my mother hoped way back then that she might have had her own serious writer in the making.
Then, just as I was about to get serious about journalism, along came that "devil music," and my whole life and direction changed course. Music replaced literature, and nightclubs were more fun than libraries. Yes, that rock 'n' roll had a definite effect on what kind of writer I became. By the time I had spent a few decades on the stages of the world, I knew I might still write one day but that I would never be a Serious Writer. There was this strange stigma I associated with Serious Writers, seeing them as tortured, lonely individuals whose somber fatalistic existences were accentuated by drunkenness, isolation, and depression. Well, I knew I wasn't one of those people. I was too warped by the court-jester -- like behavior that's essential to being a good stage performer. I knew that whatever I wrote, it would have a heavy layer of humor. By the time I expanded my horizons from three verses and a couple of choruses to short stories, and then prose, my sense of humor naturally came along for the ride.
Besides, I don't have the talent to compete with the Great Serious Writers. Anyway, writing is not a competition to me. Writing is fun, and I am simply a storyteller. I also really enjoy the self-discipline writing requires. It's a great challenge, like learning celestial navigation or becoming a seaplane pilot. Anyone bellying up to a bar with a few shots of tequila swimming around the bloodstream can tell a story. The challenge is to wake up the next day and carve through the hangover minefield and a million other excuses and be able to cohesively get it down on paper.
Happy Birthday to Me
During my forty-ninth year, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to give myself for my fiftieth birthday. Reaching this landmark was a shock to a lot of people, including me. What immediately came to mind was a trip around the world. Something on the scale of Mark Twain's epic adventure, which he chronicled in "Following the Equator". I had no intention of producing a six-hundred-page book about my trip like Mr. Twain, but a journey of that proportion would certainly warrant a few words. It is no secret to Twain's fans that "Following the Equator" was not written in celebration of some milestone in his life. He did not sit down and ponder the idea of it as some grand scheme, thought out and planned to the last detail. No, he needed money and was offered a lecture tour.
Through benefit of my middle-class work ethic and thanks to the wonderful loyalty of my Parrothead faithful, I could afford to go on a trip around the world, and as I have stated from the stage on more than one occasion, "Just remember, I am spending your money foolishly."
First of all, I would need a plane. Twain went on a steamship, but I knew that was out of the question. If it were just me, I would pick up an updated copy of Ford's freighter-passage schedules, find myself a selection of tramp steamers, and connect the dots of their rum lines to circle the Earth. No, that would have to wait.
When the Buffetts travel, we resemble some kind of misguided caravan, a cross between the Clampett family moving to Beverly Hills and Sesame Street on tour. Besides the human contingency and BSE (baby-support equipment) and favorite foods and fishing tackle and surfboards and computers and flight bags and guitars -- and the list goes on. My Citation II jet was too small for such an undertaking. No, this trip would require a unique airplane, and I just happened to have one -- a Grumman Albatross that I had bought after my recent crash. One of the reasons I bought her was to travel. I had fantasies of packing up the family in the big old romantic flying boat and heading for parts unknown. However, the fantasies and affections that surrounded this big strange bird were mine and mine alone. Jane, my lovely wife of twenty years, was a veteran of some pretty wild and crazy adventures in our days together, but this airplane was not her style. She had let her lack of adoration for the plane be known after her first 147-mile flight from Palm Beach to Key West. I knew I would never get her to even consider going around the world in my Grumman Albatross at 155 knots. She had other, more logical plans for heading south, like airliners with big comfortable seats.
My next fantasy was to do it in "big iron" and have somebody give me the plane as a birthday present. Fat chance, but remember, when reality looks too ugly, just fantasize. It can't hurt. For those not familiar with the term, "big iron" means a large, fast, and very expensive private plane, like those owned by big corporations, movie companies, and the occasional lucky son of a bitch who happens to invent the pop top or computer chips. My personal favorite fantasy planes in this category are the Gulfstream G-IV and the Dassault Falcon 50. They are as close to the starship Enterprise as we can get without going to the Paramount set, and they cost more than the gross national product of most of the countries I wanted to visit on my circumnavigation. Jane told me that if I even thought about chartering such a thing, she wouldn't go. My wife has the looks of Catherine Deneuve and the mind of Mr. Spock. Those who know her know what I am talking about. She has always been the voice of reason in my Peter Pan existence. "Jimmy, why would you rent a G-IV? You already have a goddamn air force. You could put that money to a lot better use." Ouch -- the truth. Once again she was making way too much sense. My grand scheme was listing to port. What blew it out of the water was more good advice from another source wiser than me.
Older and Wiser Voices
For whatever reason, I have always had a connection to older people. I think that it must come from my relationship with my grandfather. He was a sea captain and possessed all the attributes one would associate with that calling. Growing up, I was much closer to him than I was to my father. Like so many other patriarchs of his era, my father had come home from World War II with a purpose. His generation had saved the world from Hitler and had dropped the atom bomb on Japan -- the ultimate punishment for bad behavior. They had survived the Depression and were bound and determined that their children would never have to endure the hardships they had endured. A noble sentiment indeed, but there was a problem. They wanted to provide their children these opportunities on their terms, but the winds of fate had chosen my generation to be the first one that collectively said, "Wait a minute, don't I have something to say about this?" It was the sixties, and the rest is history.
My father's ambition was for me to go to the naval academy and become a Navy officer. This was a pretty serious plan for a ten-year-old who was still playing pirate, and I wasn't much interested. He and I remained at odds about who and what I was to become through the turbulent years of adolescence and beyond, until it became apparent that I had plotted my own course.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was my Long John Silver, full of tales from the high seas and far-off worlds that ignited my imagination. My history is full of references to him and his influence on me. He was the first in a long line of older and wiser voices that have helped me along the way. The most recent of my wiser voices is a legendary flying-boat captain named Dean Franklin, who befriended me when I first started getting interested in flying boats. He had been the chief pilot for Chalk's Airlines, the flying-boat company in Miami that had gotten me launched as a seaplane pilot, and he had taught Howard Hughes to fly.
My latest visit to Dean's office was not the first time I had gone there to test out a harebrained scheme involving long-distance flying. One day I had come up with what I thought was the ultimate scam. I had bounced into Franklin Aviation and announced to Dean that I wanted to buy a Grumman Goose, completely refurbish it, fly it around the world, and make a documentary called Jimmy Buffett's Ten Best Bars in the World. I would fly to places I have been from Hawaii to Tahiti, through the Orient, across North Africa, back to South America, and up the Antilles. I would play in these bars, spend a few days hanging with the locals, and get it all on film. The financing for the project would have to cover the purchase of the Goose. I had spent a good twenty minutes rattling on about this wild idea with the overexuberance of the Tasmanian Devil, and when I had finished, Dean had just looked at me across his desk and laughed that now familiar laugh. He had sat framed against the collage of flying photos on his wall, then stood up and looked at a wall map. He had stared at it for about ten seconds, then began shaking his head and laughing as he turned around and said, "Jimmy, it's a long goddamn way around the world." The words stopped me in my thought process like a good pair of disc brakes. I never did buy a Goose, and flying around the world remained a dream.
On this particular day, when I walked into Dean's office, he picked up my scent like a wise old bird dog. "I guess now that you got a plane that can actually go around the world, you want to do that damn bar tour." He had read my mind, and I could tell by his tone that he still didn't think much of the idea. "Son," he said, "it's still a long goddamn way around the world. Why don't you just do the Caribbean for starters? Think of the money you'll save on fuel, and there's enough adventure in these latitudes to keep you busy." Older and wiser voices can always help you find the right path, if you are only willing to listen.
Down to the Banana Republics
Down to the banana republics
With my fantasy of an around-the-world ride on the Albatross lying in pieces on the ground, I thought about other options. Europe was out of the question. Winter in Paris -- are you kidding? We had already decided not to go to Aspen, where we had lived for a long time and where my first daughter was born. It had been great, but it was time to do something different and stay warm for Christmas.
Next came the idea of a trip halfway around the world to the Orient. Well, let me tell you that it is a long way halfway around the world, and then you come back. You could look at it from any direction and any angle, but the fundamental problem was that it was a fourteen-hour trip over and a fourteen-hour trip back. I pictured myself in a ticket line in Hong Kong or Singapore being crushed to death by a stampeding sea of standby passengers. And to see everything that we wanted to see, we'd have to be on a tight schedule and have it all planned out in advance. It was beginning to look like a summer tour schedule in disguise, and I didn't even get off the road until October. I was not ready to launch this kind of an expedition on Christmas Day.
Then there is the big problem of how we travel. Combine that with the distances involved and I started having flashbacks to Joe Cocker's infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour back in the seventies. Dean's words came back to me: "Why don't you just do the Caribbean?"
And that is exactly what we decided to do. The Orient wasn't going anywhere, and so what if Hong Kong wasn't British anymore by the time I got there? We settled on Christmas at home, and then we would take off for Central and South America and the Caribbean. I could write about it, and finish a book that I had due and didn't have a clue as to how to wrap up. There would be fishing and surfing in Costa Rica, mystery in Machu Picchu, and beyond the equator the Amazon jungle and the opera house in Manaus. Those of us who liked big, noisy airplanes (boys) could go on the Albatross. Those who didn't (girls) could ride in the Citation.
And so it came to pass that in the advent of his fiftieth birthday, one James William Buffett decided to venture down to the lands of single-digit latitudes and look for a little adventure.Copyrightę 1998 by Jimmy Buffett. All rights reserved
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