In one of his best songs, Todd Snider calls himself “a tree-hugging, peace-loving, pot-smoking, porn-watching, lazy-ass hippie.” Snider is all those things, to be sure, but he’s also one of America’s best songwriters – skilled at shambling country-folk tunes about poor folks, right-wing crapulence and his own screw-ups.
With the publication of I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like, Snider is now an author as well. The book, a collection of remembrances from more than 20 years as a touring singer-songwriter, features appearances from several of Snider’s musical heroes. In this exclusive excerpt, it’s Jimmy Buffett, for whom Snider served as opening act in 1995. The scene below was probably a bit painful for Snider to write about – as you’d expect for an incident where the “Margaritaville” guy launches a pineapple at your head. But, like many of Snider’s stories, this one is funny and sweetly endearing as well as a little embarrassing.
Charleston and Byron came to the door, knocked, and said, “Jimmy wants to see you.”
Charleston and Byron were bodyguards.
Jimmy was Jimmy Buffett – still is – and Jimmy Buffett was my boss. And he wanted to see me.
Because he wanted to throw fruit at me. And not in a playful way.
Why fruit? Because it was Jimmy Buffett’s dressing room, at the dome in Miami. Fruit was handy.
Fruit hurts, it turns out. It hurts your feelings and fucks up your western shirt. I had on a western shirt, and Jimmy said it looked like shit.
“Nobody wants to see some jackass in a cowboy outfit!”
Anyway, Jimmy was explaining to me about the Internet. I’d never heard of it. This was the summer of 1995. I didn’t have a computer. I thought computers were for scientists. I wasn’t a scientist, and I’m still not. I’m a folk singer. And if you’ve heard of me, Jimmy Buffett has something to do with that. He took an interest in me when a bunch of other people didn’t. He signed me to his record label, which meant a lot to me.
I’d been a fan of Jimmy’s since I was very young, had all the records, and had seen him play at least six or seven times.
And he took me out on tour with him, which involved putting me in front of fifty thousand people that night in Miami.
Fifty thousand people was 49,912 people more than I was playing for on the night Jimmy took an interest in me.
And now Jimmy was angrily explaining the Internet. “There are people on the Internet who are mad because you’re not playing ‘Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues’ at our shows,” he said. So now there’s an Internet. And it’s kind of aggressive. “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” was on the radio, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Another song, “Alright Guy,” was the one we had made a video for. We went to Atlanta, and we had goats, midgets, fireworks, models, walkie-talkies, and a director with a beret.
But all the goats and berets in Atlanta didn’t make radio people play “Alright Guy.” Instead, some of them started playing “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues.” I don’t know why people liked it, though I liked it and still do. Jimmy wanted me to make a video for it. I said I would do that if the video could be just me smashing a car. Just smashing the fuck out of it. No singing, no close-ups of my face, and no guitars, unless we were using them to help us smash the fuck out of that car.
Jimmy didn’t like my car-smashing idea, which meant nobody liked my car-smashing idea. And Jimmy was my boss. We didn’t wind up making a video. But they were still playing “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” on the radio sometimes, which is why the Internet was mad at me and why I was dodging fruit twenty minutes before I was supposed to go onstage in front of fifty thousand Parrotheads. (I don’t mean “Parrotheads” as a slur, like “midgets.”)
Jimmy had written down five of my song titles on an envelope.
“I want you to play these tonight,” he said. And by this point, he wasn’t throwing the fruit.
“I want you to play these every night on this tour,” said Jimmy Buffett, one of the most popular singers ever.
And after more than two decades of traveling and singing, he was giving me tips. This guy who’d done all this, and he was showing me how to do it. He was telling me the songs of mine that would be best for me to play on a tour like this, in front of his crowd. His hard-earned crowd, I might add.
Too bad for Jimmy that I was going through my sunglasses at night phase. Really. Shades inside, at night, walking into the same places I’d been hanging out at for three years. Here were my reasons, such as they were: “Hey, guys, I just happen to wear shades inside at night now. Oh, it’s not ’cause I have a record contract. It’s totally unrelated. I don’t know why you’re trying to take it there. We all used to just be cool and wear whatever we wanted. I’m not changing, you’re changing.” So I explained to Jimmy. “You would have never let anybody tell you what to play,” I told him, “and I’m not going to ever let anybody tell me what to play.”
“You’re an ungrateful prick!” Jimmy yelled, hurling grapefruits at the cowboy outfit in question, citrus smacking against pearl snaps.
The grapefruits weren’t the worst of it. The pineapples were the worst of it.
“And an idiot!”
Smack. Orange and yellow. Seeds and pulp and pricklies. Where were Charleston and Byron when I needed them?
Finally, he stopped. And we stared at each other. And I said, “Can I go?”
Jimmy Buffett put both hands over his face and sighed, really big. Looking back, I think maybe he was mad at himself for letting me get him mad. Why would he give a shit?
By the way, Jimmy taught me the phrase, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized he was trying to tell me something about the way I behaved. I thought he was just telling me about the world.
I turned and walked out of the room, and then I walked down a corridor where Bob Mercer was standing in front of my dressing room door.
Bob was like a dad to me until the day he died, in 2010.
At the time he was the president of Jimmy’s Margaritaville Records. This did not make him Jimmy’s boss, but it did make him one of mine. Beautiful guy. I’ll talk more about Bob later.
In his British accent, Bob said, “What was all that shouting I heard, Sunshine?”
Bob called me “Sunshine.” He called a lot of people that.
I said, “I’m going home. I’m quitting the tour.”
He said, “Hilarious,” and I kept walking.
I went out the back into the parking lot, walking through the tailgate parties that were winding down. The show was scheduled to start in ten minutes. When I got to the edge of the parking lot, I started to leave the venue. But I didn’t. I walked to our van and smoked a joint and leaned against it, trying to think how I would get home. And then up walked Bob.
“God, I love shit like this,” is what he said, only he didn’t say it. He didn’t have to say it. It was all over him like a plainly lettered sign. He loved shit like that. Chaos and confrontation and reckless behavior made him calm. He was the eye of my life’s hurricane.
Bob said, “You two are a lot alike, you and Jimmy.” He really did say this. “Is there any way I can talk you back inside to do your set?”
I said, “I don’t think there is a way.”
He said, “I’ll tell you something that you don’t know. Jimmy just found out his father is deathly ill. He found this out about four hours ago. His dad – and Todd, he’s very close to his dad – has only two months to live. Absolute maximum.”
So Jimmy Buffett – my boss – could have used a friend that day. Instead, he got Mr. Sunglasses at Night.
“Is it not cool for Jimmy to make a song request?” Bob said. “I’ve seen you take ’em.”
Of course that’s true. I hear that logic now. At the time, I was just mad and shocked.
I said, “I don’t think so, Bob. Am I still going to have a job tomorrow if I don’t?”
He said, “Sure,” so I said, “I think I’m leaving.”
He went inside, and then out came Shamus, our sound man.
Shamus was crying. “I’m crying,” Shamus said. “That’s why they sent me out. They said you wouldn’t be able to look at me crying and still go home.”
It was actually kind of hard to see him crying, ’cause my shades were smudged.
No, I could see him. And he was right. He was right to cry, because I was about to blow a good time for everybody. I wasn’t the only one giving his life to this. There were five of us. But I was apparently the only one willing to chuck it all. Seeing Shamus that way made me realize that I wasn’t willing to chuck it all for everyone else, only myself.
“Okay,” I said to Shamus. We walked into the venue, back down the hall, out to the stage, where Bob and Jimmy were waiting to see if I was coming back.
I saw Bob first. He was grinning. Then Jimmy stepped toward me, not smiling but not angry, either. Before I could apologize, Jimmy, my boss, said, “I’m sorry, man.” That’s an apology Jimmy Buffett did not owe me. Anybody dumb enough to not receive a gift from Jimmy Buffett with grace should be pelted with fruit.
“I’m sorry, Jimmy,” I said.
And he said, “I had a weird day.”
Jimmy walked onstage into the spotlight, and the crowd roared. Into the microphone, he introduced me to all these people as his new buddy and son and as the guy he was bringing into his record company. He gave me a glowing introduction, effectively handing his people – fifty thousand of them, remember – to me. He told fifty thousand people that I was a good singer and song maker.
While he was doing this, I huddled with the band. And said, “When he says my name, let’s do the intro to ‘Margaritaville.'”
“Margaritaville” is Jimmy’s best-known hit. He wrote it himself, and it was his first big, popular song. It’s about a hard-luck guy who finally realizes that he’s responsible for his own undoing. And people just love it. We love the melody. We love the arrangement. We love the part where the guy cuts his heel on a beer can pop top. We love it enough that we buy Margaritaville kitchen appliances and visit Margaritaville chain restaurants across the country. Many of us even take vacations to Key West, where we look for the guy in that song. In lieu of that, some of us become the guy in that song.
You might think everyone’s heard that song. But statisticians estimate that there are a million people in the United States alone who have not. Statisticians also estimate the US deaf population to be right around one million people.
Deaf people. You can’t tell ’em anything. Well, you can, but you’ve either got to talk real loud and slow or use those gang signs. Jesus Christ, a guy could get shot.
That said, opening for Jimmy Buffett and coming out with “Margaritaville” is a fucking terrible idea. In show business, we call that “stealing someone’s act.” It’s a great talent of mine, but this was not the best time to employ it.
Let’s recap. Before going onstage, I’d defied my boss’s orders and threatened to walk out on the one good chance that anyone ever handed me. By anyone, I mean him. And now I was about to do something unforgivable, to perform his closing song as my opening number. Today, if someone did that to me, they wouldn’t get a second number. That’s why Celine Dion never opens for me anymore.
It would be like opening for late-seventies Steve Martin by walking out with a plastic arrow through my head and hollering, “I’m a wild and craaaaazy guy!”
So we went with it.
Just after Jimmy Buffett told fifty thousand people to give me a chance, me and my band kicked into “Margaritaville.” And I’m pretty sure every last one of those fifty thousand people immediately recognized the well-worn opening riff and thought to themselves, “Uh, this isn’t gonna be good.” Jimmy wasn’t even all the way off the stage yet when he turned around and looked at me, dagger eyed.
But Jimmy didn’t know I had a plan.
Just as the opening riff faded, and it was the singer’s turn to sing, “Living on sponge cakes, watching the sun bake,” my band kicked into a song of mine off our album, a rock song called “This Land Is Our Land,” based on the chords to Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Because Woody Guthrie already had a song called “This Land Is Your Land,” I based my tune on “Sweet Home Alabama” so no one would think I was being derivative. Or something.
As soon as Jimmy heard the lick change from his to mine (or kind of mine), the daggers disappeared, He laughed out loud, grinned out louder, and threw up his hands to signal a touchdown.
We played great that night, and the tour went on, and Shamus stopped crying a few days later. I think I might have slipped that old “Seattle” song back into the set, too.
By the way, I am sad to inform you that Jimmy’s father passed away . . . in 2003, at the age of eighty-three, eight years after he only had two months, maximum, to live.
Which brings me to the point of this story: Bob Mercer was hilarious.