Graham Reid | | 11 min read
Easy-going Jimmy Buffett always gives
the impression he's in walkshorts and a Hawaiian shirt, and is just metres
away from the ocean filling in time until cocktail hour with his
Coral Reefer Band.
Buffett – often in shorts and bare
feet -- has performed in all kinds of places, most often within hearing
distance of an ocean (his Live in Anguilla CD/DVD of two years
ago shows him and the band singing and impromptu set on a beach to a
dozen or so people). But he's also played the White House for Bill
Clinton and more recently was at the 09 Festival in the Desert in the
Buffett is also a successful author –
one of the few whose fiction and non-fiction books have topped the
New York Times bestseller list – and considers himself “a
toymaker” who makes songs for others to play with.
Certainly people have adopted the idea
of songs like Margaritaville (also the name of his restaurant
chain), Cheeseburger in Paradise (ditto) and One Particular
American singer-songwriter Buffett attracts the envy-crowd because he's got the boat and the island getaway – and a few private planes, among them a glamourous Fities Grumman Albatross seaplane.
But unlike those CEO money guys, Buffett
actually gets to enjoy them. He has homes in St Barts in the
Caribbean and Florida, counts presidents and rock-star types like
Bono among his friends, and travels with world singing about tropical
sunshine, the ocean and the stars, good times and “wasting away in
His shows are quite deliberately
escapes from the mundane and the problems of the world (“Iraq, Iran
and Afghanistan, we got a lot to drink about” as he sings). He
provides a precious release for the duration of an easy-going show
where he celebrates the world's absurdities along with its natural
beauties. In Buffett's hands a song can celebrate the natural beauty
of Marilyn Munroe in a swimming pool or blue crabs in a rock pool.
And, in the case of his Beautiful Swimmers posted, both.
In the absence of
chart hits or interest from radio, Buffett has just kept on keeping
on, singing “turn up the heat and chill the rose” and inviting
you to taking a holiday from life, if only until the end of the
In early 2011 in
advance of shows in Australia and New Zealand he spoke from Hong Kong.
I tried to catch you in LA the other day, but now you are in the East, do you fly one of your own planes those sort of distances?
I would but it is down for routine
maintenance and it is a long trip so, no. One day I will though.
I think promoter Michael Chugg told me
recently there were something like 32 people in your touring party
anyway, so maybe that's too big a big crew.
That's about half about what we would
normally tour with in the States so this is kind of the scaled-down
international show which we use when we play Europe and in your part
of the world, and here. It's a great band and a fun band.
I know your stuff and will talk to you
in a minute about that, but first of all I'm going to wish you a
happy new year. You must be glad the old one  is behind you.
The Gulf oil spill and the earthquake in Haiti. You were very
involved in fund-raising for those causes.
Yeah, as we get this old you kind of
meet things head on and deal with them the way they are. Life's short
and you breathe in breathe out and move on. Hopefully things are
getting a little back to normal over there. But then you come here
and look at the floods in Eastern Australia and you have to think 'My
God!' So when we come to town we figure people need a break and so we
give it to them.
You opened another Margaritaville in
Pensacola last year and this when there is a down-turn in the economy
if nothing else in your region. Is the practical version of that
couplet, 'What's up with recession, I refuse to participate'?
Yeah. This is not the first bump in the
road that I've seen out there and fortunately when you come down to
it the time we've spent over all these years doing this prepares you
for things like that, plus also guarantees when times are kind of bad
and money is tight the people want to spend it wisely and they think
we're a pretty good bet. They know they are going to get the best
bang for their buck and a good show and that comes from years of
having done it, being easy to work with, having a great band and
crew, and generally doing what entertainers are supposed to do –
which is make people feel happy when they take their money.
I can't remember who said it, but
someone noted it was pretty easy to sell misery to teenagers. But we
do need this respite from the world around us.
Absolutely. We're still at the top of
our game and I just turned 64 so I don't see any career change at
this point for me.
I know that to some extent you have to
be a businessman to some extent, but you must be aware that the CEOs
who come to your shows really want to be you. You get to fly around
the world to and can go around in walkshorts.
Well I guess so. It's kind of an
enviable position to be in but I don't see myself doing much
different than I did 40 years ago. Things kinda worked out you know?
A little hard work and a little luck, it still is amazing. The great
things is [our audience] runs from those guys who do seem to come out
and have a good time right down to the average fan whose been to 35
show. The whole gamut. The fact is we've done this for so long –
and there are people still getting turned on to this. I was totally
surprised to the reaction to ticket sales in Australia and pre-sales
in New Zealand.
I thought we could sell some, but we
haven't been in 20 years so I didn't know. I did know it would be fun
to do the show anyway.
I wrote about you recently and said
that Jimmy Buffett was somebody that people either got, or didn't.
And that I felt sorry for those who didn't.
Well thank you for that.
It is possible for your career to have
gone right past a whole lot of people because you've never been a
hit-single kind of guy.
Yeah, your absolutely right, you get it
or you don't. But what happens in these times is that we were pretty
much trained to be good performers – and that goes for not only me
but who is still out there over 60 or 70, and we are a huge amount of
who is selling tickets. All of sudden people have discovered that
touring is where the money is. Duh!
It was a way of survival for me for a
while because I wasn't one of those recording acts, so the road has
always been what I counted on above anything else. So I find myself
in a pretty comfortable position alongside compatriots of mine who've
been doing this a long time. Because we've been trained and know how
to put on good shows.
I'd say in the last 20 or 30 years,
because of the way the business has been run, that wasn't something
that was really concentrated on very much. You could be a success by
being on television but that didn't rely heavily on what you did when
you go on that stage. And now that it does there are a whole lot of
people trying to catch up with being good performers – because they
didn't have to be for so long.
There are still good ones out there.
One who comes to mind is my friend Jack Johnson . . . “white
acoustic guy with a three-piece band from Hawaii” But if you'd try
to sell that to a record company they would have laughed at you. But
look how well Jack has done simply by remaining true to what he
believes in. And I'm happy I've helped and advised him on some things
because I like to see that, and I like to see it for the next
You can find your audience a lot easier
now because of technology than we ever could. But on the other side,
you better be ready for 'em or else they won't be there very long.
The other thing too is that when I look
at people like yourself and Willie Nelson I get a sense that what I'm
seeing is what I would get if I ran into you after a show in bar,
you'd be happy to have a drink. There's a persona and there has to be
to an extent, but it is a real person standing on stage.
That true, authenticity can be seen by
an audience – if they are looking for that. I think of myself as
not having changed too much, I was lucky enough to be able to do it
until now and it is pretty easy and still exciting. Like playing back
in the Pacific. Time goes fast and I said to Chuggy 'what's it been,
seven or eight years?” and he say “twenny maaate”. So we're not
down here gettin' rich, we're down here to have fun.
I've got to tell you, your book A Pirate Looks at 50 saved my life when I was holed up in a brand new airport in Taipei and the authorities wouldn't allowed to leave for a whole day until my flight.
Yours was one of the few English language books in the shop.
I started to read and fell in love at that passage where you spoke about the romance of that famous PanAm poster of the seaplane and the Hawaiian girl.
We had that poster and it just speaks of another era.
I also remember where you say a songwriter is like a
toy-maker who makes toys and then other people get to play with them
and have them in their toybox. That's such a nice image. People
adopted the idea of Margaritaville, Cheeseburger in Paradise, One
Particular Harbour . . . whatever those things meant to themselves.
Yeah, and that's what songs are
supposed to do. As a toymaker I don't ever think these songs belong
to me. You are kind of like Geppetto, but once Pinocchio gets some
strings on him he's a whole different animal. So they belong to the
people out there. I know that from performing for so long and that is
truly where the great connection lies. You put it out there and
people take them and they become the background music in these
people's lives. In these places and times that can be so frightening
people need to relax or feel a little better about themselves.
You can go see a scary movie and listen
to a depressing song, I happen to not like either genres. I'm such a
happy guy and that is what is reflected in the songs. And I'm glad
people can take that, and that means more than any awards or judged
by statistics or numbers. The fact that we're still here and people
go away happy, that's the best award you you can ever get.
And we're always going to have a lot to
drink about, which to some would sound glib I am sure.
You never run out of things to write
about. People say the well runs dry the older you get but that's not
happening to me, you just got to look out there.
One of your most gorgeous songs is a
very recent one, Beautiful Swimmers.
I love that song. I thought it was
challenge to put Marilyn Munroe and blue crabs into a song because
they are two of the most beautiful things on earth to me.
This music has been a passport for you,
but that Festival in the Desert must have been a very different
experience. I always think of you as a beach guy, and here you are in
the sand – but it is the desert of North Africa.
That was a musically changing
experience, but it's like what Mark Twain said, you got to light out
into the territory. And that truly was it for us. That's how it
happened, if you go out there you can still find adventure.
And you get to meet and play with
people like Toumani Diabate, which must be another discovery.
There you go! You throw technology into
it and you can throw Toumani Diabate onto the album via ProTools and
five years ago that would have been damn near impossible. You'd have
to go back to Africa, find him and make a record and get out of
there. And also create a solo with Sonny Landreth. But you've still
got to go out there and find them.
How much time do you spend on your
business, the Jimmy Buffett franchise.
I learned many years ago you better take care of business. As musicians you're kinda schooled in not doing I because somebody else took care of it, because the business wasn't about the artist making money or having longevity. We were the disposable commodity. Once I figured that out and spend a year under the tutelage of a gentleman in Nashville who kind of taught me what the music business really was, I never forgot it.
Like it or not if
you are captain of the boat so you better know where the navigator is
going. I've done nothing but run things like a ship anyway because
that's the only thing I know anything about, so if you apply that
analogy of how you run a boat that's the way we run this business.
You have to pay attention. There are certain times to play and
certain times you need to have your eye on the compass.
When was the last time you wore a suit?
Last night actually. I wore one, and a tie. I don't know what got it into me. I thought, I was in Hong Kong and I decided to dress up for the evening. But that was the first time in a long time. It's at my leisure though.
And I look pretty good in one actually.