Jimmy Buffett: Misadventures in Paradise

Keeping up with famed Caribbean rake in the land of sunshine, greenies, fins and bikinis

Jimmy Buffett performs at Mountain Aire in Angels Camp, California on June10th, 1978. Credit: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

He is dedicated as ever to certain indecencies and shall we say reversible brain damage. . . …he was among the first of the Sucking Chest Wound Singers to sleep on the yellow line . . .this throwback altarboy of Mobile, Alabama, brings spacey up-country tunes strewn with forgotten crabtraps, Confederate memories, chemical daydreams, Ipana vulgarity, ukulele madness and, yes Larry, a certain sweetness. But there is a good deal to admire in Buffett's inspired evocations from this queerly amalgamated past most Americans now share. What Jimmy Buffett knows is that our personal musical history lies at the curious hinterland where Hank Williams and Xavier Cugat meet with somewhat less animosity than the theoreticians would have us believe.
—Tom McGuane, from the liner notes to A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, 1973.

Six years after White Sport Coat put Jimmy Buffett on the musical map, he still resides in his curious hinterland, but he's moved it farther south. On this radiant summer afternoon, Buffett's bar-hopping in the Caribbean and taking on a glow that rivals the tropical sun. But his reverie is abruptly shattered by a chance remark:

"You know, Jimmy, you really oughta drink a lotta pineapple juice. It'll make your come taste sweet!''

The blond, bronze, pigtailed woman who says that to famed Caribbean rake Jimmy Buffett almost falls off her bar stool laughing as he blushes a pulsating scarlet through his tan. Joining in the merriment are assorted loungers, loafers, aging hippies and members of Buffett's band — the Coral Reefers — who are scattered around the veranda of L'Entrepont, a harbor-side bar on St. Barthélémy island. Buffett, fighting to regain composure, declines the pineapple-juice advice and signals for another ''greenie'' (Caribbean for Heineken).

In the interest of various individuals' marital harmony, it should be noted that Buffett, 32, does not know the woman in question, although she, like most members of this expatriate community of young Americans, takes a proprietary interest in Jimmy. He is theirs — he used to run a little marijuana through the islands himself, and he lives the life he portrays in his sun-drenched, saltwater-dappled songs of Caribbean romance and adventure. Caribbean romance and adventure. And the local drug smugglers — Lord, they swear by the man and would no more make a run in their boats without Buffett cassettes on board than set sail without a few cases of greenies. And now, through a curious coincidence, Buffett has dropped anchor at St. Bart's, a smugglers haven. From L'Entrepont, I can see about two dozen seaworthy vessels besides Buffett's own 50-foot ketch, Euphoria II.

St. Bart's is a tiny, splendid island. Its populace is packed with sunbaked American and European hippies with lots of money and no visible means of support. They sit around all day at places like the topless and sometimes bottomless beach over by the Hotel Jean Bart, drinking pineapple juice and greenies. At night they slip their boats out into the opalescent waters to take care of business. No wonder Buffett is taking a break from recording his new album, Volcano, at George Martin's AIR Studios in Montserrat to rest and relax in St. Bart's. Ever since Jimmy tired of Key West's growing commercialism and left there in 1977 for Aspen (subletting his house to Hunter Thompson), he's been looking for a foothold in the Caribbean, and St. Bart's seems to be the ideal spot.

When I'd called him from New York about our meeting in Montserrat, he'd suggested this stopover. His directions sounded simple enough: ''Fly to St. Maarten and charter a boat or plane to St. Bart's. Wait for me at Le Select Bar.''

Still, I've been a little gun-shy of Buffett's sense of time and space since the first time I didn't interview him. It was in 1972 in Austin, Texas. Buffett was playing solo at a little folkie joint called Castle Creek and in those preplatinum days he and I were on the same pay scale and social stratum. He put on a brilliant show and I decided to give the boy a break and splash him across the pages of this magazine. He peered at me through a haze of Lone Star beer and agreed to meet me the following afternoon. Five years later, we finally got around to the interview.

Times have not changed. During his recent summer tour, we made an abortive attempt to meet in Charlotte, North Carolina. I got there all right, only to discover that Buffett had mistaken Charlotte for Charleston, West Virginia. What I mean is, his songwriting is a little sharper than his grasp of geography. Still, I took him at his word this go-around and, after landing safely at St. Bart's grass airstrip, set off for Le Select Bar.

Le Select is a legendary bar in the Caribbean, a real crossroads for smugglers and other exotic charlatans. It's a tawdry, open-air, whitewashed-stone joint with outhouses that would make a sewer rat gag, but the clientele makes the place, I suppose. Naked hippie children crawl across the floor, hard-eyed hippies whisper conspiratorially in English, French and Spanish at the bar, dogs wander in and out. I settled in for a series of beers and, after the regulars huddled and decided I wasn't from Interpol, one of them volunteered the information that Buffett might well be on the island.

''Big party last night,'' one of them whispered to me. ''Everybody on the island was fucked up. Lots of acid. Buy you a greenie?''

Four hours later, I began to wonder whether Buffett had perhaps …forgotten he'd promised to meet me. I mean, a guy who claims that his two major influences are the pirate Jean Lafitte and Mitch Miller might have something else on his mind other than meeting a reporter.

''I enjoy this life as a jester/Seems to keep me moving around,'' Buffett sings in ''Stranded on a Sandbar,'' one of his new songs, and that's a pretty fair self-assessment. Much like Jerry Jeff Walker (who first introduced Buffett to Key West and the Caribbean way of thought), he's a rambling, good-timey troubadour who can also rock out when the spirit seizes him. His recent success seems both accidental and incidental: a journalism major in college, a failed Nashville songwriter, a former reporter for Billboard who writes witty and unconventional songs. Any guy who's penned such minor classics as ''Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw)'' and ''My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don't Love Jesus'' is maybe operating with his own particular vision of the universe.

Two more greenies, I decided, and then I'm leaving. Head for the beach by the Hotel Jean Bart for a couple of days, then fly back to New York and tell the boss, ''Sorry, no story there. Didn't work out.''

Unfortunately, my route to the beach takes me by L'Entrepont and Buffett, spying me, flaps off the veranda in his ragged cutoffs and T-shirt. ''Hey, where you been?'' he asks solicitously as he hugs me. ''We saw your plane come in. Siddown. Have a drink. Man, have you ever seen anything like this? The Coral Reefers are getting a tan for the first time in their lives!''

How can you get mad at a rogue like that? All you can do is slip into his Caribbean mind-set and wait to see what happens.

''Listen,'' says Buffett, ''the album's going great. We'll go out to the boat after a while and listen to some tapes. Russ Kunkel is drumming on it and he's perfect for the group. On Monday James Taylor's coming down to do some vocals with me and he's bringing a couple of his brothers. How you been?''

Beaming almost paternally, he looks around the table at his Coral Reefers, scatters a sheaf of greenbacks across the table and says, ''Let's go out to the boat.''

Buffett pads barefoot down to the quayside, where his rubber dinghy is tied up. He cranks up the outboard engine and we thread our way past anchored yachts in the lowering light and board Euphoria II, a lovely, spotless craft. In the cabin, Buffett pops open fresh brews, puts on a cassette of rough cuts from Volcano, and sits down beneath a framed picture of himself in the Oval Office with Carter and Mondale. ''That photo does wonders for customs inspectors,'' he says wryly, as ''Survive'' comes over the speakers. ''Eat your heart out, Billy Joel!'' he shouts. ''Aw, I'm just kidding,'' he adds, although it is a Joel-like piano song.

''Survive,'' I say to him, is really a departure from previous Buffett songs, which tend to gather themselves in two distinct camps: sensitive ballads or clever wordplays. That pattern was set with his first ABC album. A White Sport Cant and a Pink Crustacean, which was one of the unheralded sensations of 1973, alternating ballads like ''He Went to Paris'' with funny, goofball songs such as ''Why Don't We Get Drunk.''

''I know what you mean,'' Buffett agrees. ''Hell, I sat down one day and listened to Billy Joel's 52nd Street. I like Billy Joel, I think he's a good writer. But I just sat down and said tomyself, 'Well, goddamn. I can do one of those if I want to.' That really made me get off my ass and look seriously at this whole project. So that's the way I made Volcano. I went back and listened to A White Sport Coat… and A1A, which was probably my most popular album, and I just said, 'Shit, I can write a Billy Joel song.'''

Volcano is a long way from Buffett's first album — the 324-copy-selling Down to Earth, released in 1970 by Barnaby Records (he didn't care; Barnaby gave him $500 to buy a new guitar). Another Barnaby album and a series of records on ABC solidified his position in the early and mid-Seventies as the perfect composite of a rocking folkie: wittier than John Prine or Steve Goodman, sunnier than Jerry Jeff Walker and harder edged than the wimps (who know who they are). He left a failed marriage in Nashville for the good life in Key West with Jerry Jeff (with whom he wrote ''Railroad Lady'' on 1973's White Sport Coat, a song that became a country classic after Lefty Frizzell recorded it).

His commercial success was moderate, although his cult following was fanatic, and he soon drew exalted admirers like James Taylor and the Eagles. The breakthrough year was 1977: Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes sold platinum, ''Margaritaville'' went gold, Irving Azoff signed him to Front Line Management and he toured with the Eagles; 1978's albums, Son of a Son of a Sailor and the live You Had to Be There sold well. But Azoff himself has guaranteed that Volcano will be ''Buffett's biggest album ever. I'll be greatly surprised if it's not Top Five.''

''Volcano,'' the title song, comes on the boat's cassette deck and Buffett smiles at its Caribbean cross-rhythms. ''I'm really proud of this,'' he says, fetching more greenies from his any refrigerator. ''Actually, Keith [Sykes, a Coral Reefer] and I sort of wrote this together. The Reefers went to a little bar in Montserrat one night and heard this great 'woop-wop' band and told me about it. So I went to the bar, the Cafe La Capitain — there are bars and then there are bars and this one's a classic.''

Was the woop-wop band sound similar to reggae?

''Oh no,'' he replies seriously. ''Down in Montserrat they don't particularly like Rastafarians. It's a misconception that all Caribbean music is reggae. Most of the down-island stuff is more calypso, happy, good-time music. This band was more like a calypso kind of maranga. It had a guy who played a long blow pipe and a banjo-uke player. The next day, I had about four working titles for the album, but none of them really grabbed me, and I was wondering, 'What the fuck can I call this record?' Then I looked out the window at the volcano [Montserrat has an active volcano] and I went ding! I'm gonna call the album Volcano. So I said, 'Now we got to write a song called ''Volcano.''' I went to the studio and Keith was fooling around, playing a little Caribbean shuffle, that little da da da. He said, 'You know, they play everything in F down here.' I said, 'Well, hell, why not? I've never written a song in F.' So we wrote it and I said, 'Well, hell, let's go get the guys from the bar, we need the woop-wop sound to make it authentic.' I had already written the chorus, 'I don't know where I'm a gonna go when the volcano blows.' So we got the woop-wop band to come in and play and it was perfect. It just felt so goddamned natural.''

Buffett rewinds the tape and plays ''Volcano'' again to make sure I catch the references to Three Mile Island and the Ayatollah. ''You're serious, for once,'' I observe.

''Hell, it wasn't planned,'' he assures me. ''I had this nice melody and I wanted some clever lyrics. What I do best is write catchy lyrics, and with Three Mile Island and everything else that's happening it just worked out perfect. ''When I played it back for the locals, they got off on it. Even the cooks at AIR came out of the kitchen to listen, so I knew that I had hooked a little bit of authenticity. It was fun for once to take some shots at real things like Three Mile Island.''

He turns the volume up and we go out on deck to watch the moonrise, which apparently is a big deal with St. Bartians. The pungent odor of marijuana wafts over the harbor and we can hear a Buffett tape blaring from a nearby yacht. We stretch out on the teak deck and Jimmy takes a long toke on a joint. ''Ahh,'' he says, ''when the moon comes up you're gonna hear this bay bowl.'' Amazingly, when the china white moon rises, there are wolflike howls emanating from various boats. You can see distant hands cupped around glowing joints and hear glasses clinking.

''Is this paradise for you, Jimmy?'' I ask lazily from my prone position on deck. He replies, laughing softly: ''It's close, eh?

''I may buy land here,'' he says. ''There're two acres for sale next to David Rockefeller's house. Shit, I may buy them. Why not?'' Hard to argue with that.

''Let's get some pizza,'' he says. ''There's a great place here that just serves champagne and pizza. Ahh, I can't stand it. What a tough life.''

We cruise back, tie up the dinghy at the dock and start hiking up the hill from the harbor, past Le Select, from which issues Buffett's song ''The Captain and the Kid.'' The Select regulars, who are beyond cool, look out and holler ''Hey, Jim, howzit?'' It seems they will do anything to prove how hip they are and how it's not a big deal that Jimmy Buffett hangs out on their island. They passed their ultimate test a few months before, when the Rolling Stones discovered St. Bart's and moved in for a spell. Cool prevailed.

Buffett gives the regulars a perfunctory wave, plucks a jasmine flower and sniffs it. ''Oh,'' he says, ''just think. I could be recording in New York City. Match this, 55th Street.'' ''Fifty-second Street,'' I correct him. Buffett laughs.

I decide that I like him: ''Yer all right, Buffett. I understand you're accidentally rich.'' He laughs again. As we enter the Momo-Pi-Polo tavern, all the locals gather around us, except for two swarthy guys in the corner, who seem to be closing a major dope deal. And the waitresses cannot give Jimmy enough attention.

''Last night,'' Buffett says with a sigh as the first bottle of champagne arrives, ''we drank 25 bottles of champagne in here and never got around to eating. And that was just the beginning. Lord. I got to settle down. I got a record to finish.''

''Horseshit,'' I say. We toast each other. Blond American hippie women pop out of the woodwork. Good Christ, St. Bart's should be declared illegal. ''A long night tonight, eh Jimmy?'' I ask. He just rolls his eyes.

About $200 later, we leave Momo-Pi-Polo. ''Tell you what,'' Buffett says, ''while you're here, I really oughta show you Le President. It's a wild disco out in the hills, a great place.'' We locate Buffett's rented Mini-Moke, a bastardized open-air Jeep. He revs it up to about 75 mph and off we roar down a dirt canyon road.

The owner of Le President welcomes him with open arms and starts playing calypso disco; local versions of ''Stayin' Alive'' and such. Within a half-hour, the place fills up with Anglos. Jimmy tires of the excessive attention before I do and we retire to the bar to talk some more about Volcano.

''I booked studio time as soon as I heard George was building a studio in the islands,'' he says. ''I've always wanted to record down here. The energy's incredible. We've done eight tracks in 10 days — we freaked out those British cats at AIR'cause we worked so fast and drank so much. I'd wake up Fingers [Greg ''Fingers'' Taylor, the Reefers' harmonica player], he'd knock off a hot solo and go back to sleep.''

Tales of Buffett's past drunken adventures abound, usually about his days as a down-and-out singer/songwriter in Nashville and Key West. Parties just seem to spring up around him. Tom Corcoran, a Key West photographer and writer who's been with Buffett since the beginning, shakes his head in amazement when I later ask him to tell me the most outrageous thing Buffett had ever done.

''It'd take days to think of it. Back when he literally didn't have a buck for dinner, my wife and I'd have him over for spaghetti and we'd start out with a few beers and things would just build from there. We wrote a few songs together before things got out of control. You know about the Buford Pusser [Walking Tall] incident? I think that was in Nashville. Jimmy came out of a bar and had no idea where he was, so he climbed up on top of a Cadillac to look around and try to get his bearings. Only problem was, the Cadillac belonged to Pusser, who happened along and damn near killed Buffett.

''There is one thing,'' Corcoran continues, ''that he's never told the press. He became a hero in the Caribbean a couple of years ago, when he saved two shipwrecked sailors. We were sailing from St. Maarten to Anguilla, where we spotted a bar. We decided to drop in for some Heinekens. But before we reached the island a freak storm hit us, the temperature dropped thirty degrees and the winds hit gale force. We had run out of fuel and had to just ride it out. Finally the storm passed, and the wind just died, which never happens in the Caribbean. We were dead in the water. ''Then we spotted these two old fishermen — the Vanderpool brothers — who'd been wrecked by the storm and were hysterical. Buffett got 'em on board and we calmed 'em down. Still, no wind. Finally Buffett said, 'Goddamnit, we'll go ashore and trade these two guys for some beers and some fuel!' So he and Groovy [Buffett's captain] put on their bright yellow foul-weather gear, grabbed a hand-held VHF radio, rowed the dinghy ashore and went into town. Buffett announced he had the Vanderpools.

''The locals just freaked. They gave him some fuel and a lot of beers, we took the Vanderpools home and the whole island turned out for a celebration. They paraded Buffett through town in the back of a pickup truck, with everybody cheering. He's amazing. He turns a shipwreck into a party.''

Now, however, Jimmy Buffett may be slowing down a bit. There have been major changes in his life. His marriage to the smart and lovely Miss Jane (whom he doesn't deserve) and the birth of their first child this year seem to be stabilizing him. He's selling Euphoria II for a smaller sloop, and he's gotten a bit more businesslike in the wake of hits like ''Come Monday,'' ''Margaritaville'' and the platinum success that followed his switch from a Nashville management firm to Azoff's sleek Front Line organization.

Even so, it's sometimes hard to tell just who's doing the managing. I was sitting around one afternoon with Buffett, shooting the shit over coffee, when he slowly started getting steamed up. He picked up a phone and called Azoff — collect — in Los Angeles.

''Goddamnit, Irving!'' he yelled. ''I told you not to wire money down here. It never arrives! Now this is what I want. Call somebody at Bayshore [Studios] in Florida — the Eagles are there — and have him fly down here today, with $2000 in cash. And 12 ping-pong balls.''

There was a short silence. ''Yes, twelve ping-pong balls. There's not a goddamn ping-pong ball on this island.'' He hung up, laughing. ''Hell, let's go get some beers and go water-skiing. Tonight we'll be able to play a little ping-pong.''

I buy us another round in Le President and ask him, ''Buffett, do you think you're growing up? This new album, from what I can tell, shows a lot more depth in your writing — no more 'Cheeseburger in Paradise' kind of stuff. Are you really maturing, or is your vision of the Caribbean just changing?''

He laughs nervously. Serious questions make him tense. ''Well,'' he finally replies, ''I think it's a bit of both. Probably more of me changing. I've always written in the Caribbean; I can still tap it for a lot of material. I won't get tired of it as long as there are those goddamn five-block lines for gasoline in Santa Monica and the Ayatollah is declaring everybody on his shit list. It's an escapist situation here, but I think I can take it to the point where I'm maturing, and apply that to where I would like to be as a writer.

''I am pleased with this album. I wrote just about all of it on the boat. I came in totally prepared for once. I caught a lot of flak over the last LP, the live one in 1978. People either loved it or hated it. I figured, 'Goddamnit, it was cut live and that's the way we are live.' It didn't get much airplay. But I don't care. It sold well.

''After that, I wanted to lay back and maybe return to a Changes in Latitudes… or A1A kind of thing, to settle back into that kind of writing. I had six months to work, so I came down here to just sit on the boat and get into a schedule and write every day. I think this is the best fuckin' record we've done. It's like bringing that feeling of the past to what's happening today. There's something for everybody, from 'Fins' to 'Sending the Old Man Home.' It's clever stuff.''

Buffett drains his greenie and seems embarrassed at talking so much. I suddenly feel the unmistakable nudge of a large, firm and braless female breast on my right arm. The nudging becomes insistent. I look to my right. The breast is attached to a rather attractive, although hopelessly drunk, young woman. ''Please introduce me to Jimmy,'' she whispers.

Buffett, whose radar is pretty good, calls for the check. We shower the bar with money and depart. He is silent as he races the Mini-Moke up the road, scattering gravel and dirt. ''Let's check out the club at the Jean Bart,'' he says.

''Buffett,'' I ask, ''what's this business where you once said Mitch Miller and Jean Lafitte shaped you?''

He roars with laughter. ''Well, well, well. Did I say that? Mitch Miller, for sure. In the old days. Sing Along with Mitch. Who didn't? I remember that very well, because I was ten or eleven at the time. But Jean Lafitte was my hero as a romantic character. I'm not sure he was a musical influence. His lifestyle influenced me, most definitely, 'cause I'm the very opposite of Mitch Miller.''

And what of Tom McGuane's Buffett-related line about the hinterland where Hank Williams and Xavier Cugat meet?

''That's a great sentence McGuane [Buffett's brother-in-law] wrote. I think it's still true, even more true now. I never thought of myself in those terms till he wrote that. But it was pretty much descriptive of what I've wanted to do. That is what my progression has been through all the albums. Volcano is about as representative of that statement as anything I've done. A good mix.''

''But what about the song 'Fins'?'' I press. ''That's totally off the wall and can be interpreted as being either sexist or feminist — about lounge lizards hitting on young girls.''

"I know," Buffett says. "I cover all the bases on that one. It's just one of those things that come about on the road. 'Fins' was an in thing with the band, just a term for checking out chicks. A 1979 version of 'Girlwatchers.' But I think it's got a little more class. It's really about land sharks who live in bars and feed right after dark. My audiences picked up on it and started 'finning.'''

Buffett demonstrates finning by taking his hands off the wheel and wagging them above his head: ''Fins up! Or,'' he says as he lets one hand wilt like a limp penis, ''Fins down. Finettes. Fin soup. Fin pie. Fins everywhere.'' He skids the Jeep into the parking lot of the Hotel Jean Bart. The hotel's club, the Frigate, is supposed to be closed but Buffett raps on the door anyway. A bouncer inspects us through the peephole and we enter yet another disco. This one is totally out of hand. The crowd is composed of drunken tourists who remove bits of clothing while they dance, and sharp-eyed local guys who lean coolly against the bar, evaluating the night's prospects and biding their time.

''Fins. Land sharks,'' Buffett murmurs as he goes off to find the men's room. I dance with an American who, after about 30 seconds, asks me if she can meet Buffett and then tries to perpetrate some kind of sexual act right there on the lighted dance floor. I can sense the locals at the bar toting her up.

''See you around, darlin','' I say as I rezip my pants and head toward the bar. ''As a fellow journalism-school graduate, Buffett,'' I say, ''I advise you that this place is getting weird and they're gonna be after you pretty soon.''

''I know,'' he nods soberly. ''About time to head for the boat.'' ''But lemme ask you something,'' I interject. ''When did you first take on the Caribbean as your personal friend?''

''I think it's always been there,'' he says. ''I once read a great passage in The Commodore's Story to the effect that 'if you ever grow up on a body of water, you know it's connected to another one.' My grandfather [a sailing master] told me sea stories, tales about the Caribbean and how exotic it was. That was a lure. I grew up on Mobile Bay and I knew it would connect to white, sandy beaches and palm trees — which don't exist around Mobile Bay. You know that you can gain the access if you have the courage and the spirit of adventure within you to get out on the water. It does link you to any other place.''

His eyes take on a faraway look: ''Time to go back to the boat.''

The next time I talk to Buffett, he says he is en route to Hawaii to open an Eagles show there. I can't help recalling Miss Pigtails in St. Bart's and her pineapple-juice instructions. But Buffett is with his wife, and I don't have the heart to remind him that Hawaii is one big pineapple field. I mean, fresh squeezed probably does the job better than the canned variety…. . .