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From beach bum to businessman

MUSIC | Jimmy Buffett’s music became escapist fantasy for his maturing fan base

Jimmy Buffett Aaron Richter/The New York Times/Redux

From beach bum to businessman
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The first single from Jimmy Buffett’s 1977 album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes was “Margaritaville.” All things considered, it was his biggest hit.

True, his 2003 Alan Jackson duet “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” (subject: the pain-nullifying properties of rum) sold more copies and went No. 1 country. But it probably wouldn’t have if “Margaritaville” (subject: the pain-nullifying properties of tequila) hadn’t been priming the pump by that point for nearly 40 years, a period during which Buffett became the devil-may-care poster boy for sun-baked, hungover indolence and during which his steel-drum-laced Gulf Coast ­country-pop became its soundtrack.

It was, incidentally, the sun that finally got him. He died from a rare form of skin cancer in September at the age of 76.

His layabout musical persona wasn’t exactly a pose. For the first dozen-or-so years of his career, the line between the life that he lived and the life about which he sang was either thin or nonexistent. And not just where the partying songs were concerned. “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” the title cut of one of his six platinum-selling albums, summarized his real-life lineage.

But by the early-to-mid-’80s, the business acumen of his second wife Jane and his manager Irving Azoff had combined with his respectably selling recordings and his more than respectably selling tours to make him financially more secure than his 1983 deep cut “I Used to Have Money One Time” would’ve led anyone to suspect. Determined not to drink, snort, or smoke his hard-earned wealth away, he began the transition from beach bum to businessman.

He did so quietly at first, not wanting his fans to notice the man behind the curtain. But as those fans themselves matured and began enjoying his songs more as escapist fantasies than confessions of the heart, an implicit artist-audience understanding developed that allowed Buffett greater transparency. The million or so “Parrot Heads” who bought his 1992 box set Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads did not, apparently, feel as if they’d been had.

Neither did the many customers of the casinos, restaurants, hotels, and, yes, retirement communities that Buffett owned or otherwise gave his blessings to en route to becoming one of the Top 20 wealthiest entertainers in the world. His novels and other published works sold well too. Yet it’s as a singer and a songwriter that he’ll be remembered.

His final album comes out in November. It includes an appearance by Paul McCartney on a song called “My Gummie Just Kicked In.” Its ­subject? The pain-nullifying properties of cannabis. Whatever changes in ­latitudes Buffett may have undergone over the years, his attitudes seem to have stayed pretty much the same.

Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.



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