IT’S BEEN NEARLY 20 YEARS since Jimmy Buffett bided his time wasting away in Margaritaville. Today, rock’s romantic poet-pirate has become a virtual one-man theme park. Buffett’s concert tours are consistent top-grossers, and his cult following, dubbed Parrotheads, is so large that it rocketed the singer’s recent album, Banana Wind, to No. 4 on the chart. When Buffett, who comes from a long line of Gulf Coast seafarers, is not performing party songs and escapist fantasies for his fans, he is writing novels and speaking out about the environment. Most recently, Buffett collaborated with the writer Herman Wouk on a musical version of Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival.
In your 20s, you sang about a pirate looking at 40. How does it feel to be a pirate looking at 50?
I really haven’t changed much. The difference to me is surviving this long with a career…. [Erupts into a coughing fit] Hang on a second, I just came in from working out. Speaking of turning 50, I think it’s all coming up right now.
Do you ever tire of playing the old hits?
[Laughs] Well, the set list I’d like to do would be a hell of a lot better than what I believe is required by the paying public. But that’s who you play for, so I do a certain amount of songs that I know people want to listen to, and then after those, there’s a little time left to do other things.
How does your 1996 audience differ from the one you played to back in ’76?
It’s amazing. The audience has sort of regenerated itself. People my age bring their children now. I looked around one day and said, “Jesus, I’ve turned into family entertainment!” But not really. I think I’m a far cry from a Disney act.
You still do “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw,” don’t you?
Well, yeah, I still do that song, and some people don’t want their kids to hear it. But when people don’t want their kids to hear it, they’ll stick their fingers in their kids’ ears, and if they don’t care, they won’t. And that’s about all the censorship I want.
You juggle several careers. How do you keep ’em separated?
Whatever I do, whether it’s a story or a song, I write a page a day. It’s just a habit I have. It’s pretty interesting what you accumulate. During the summers on the road, once the show is up and running, there’s little else to do. We don’t sound-check every day like other people do – hell, I know what the places sound like anyway. So I have a lot of spare time.
One song on your new album, “Overkill,” has a rap part. What are your feelings about the genre?
I don’t consider it very much. [Laughs] Actually, I feel sorry for the rapper as an artist, because I don’t think it does much for an artist’s career. I think it’s a money-driven thing by the record companies. I mean, it’s cheap. You don’t have to have a band, and you don’t have to invest a lot of money, and I don’t see a lot of people nurturing these kids in any way, shape or form. But I can understand it. Everybody has to have a voice. It’s just that music and anger are things that I don’t equate. My slice of the pie is escapism.
In “Bob Roberts’ Society Band,” you say, “They don’t play grunge, and they don’t play loud/It’s the magic of the music that still draws a crowd.” Do you feel alternative rockers just don’t party enough?
I just don’t think they have much fun. I believe that the ability to laugh at ourselves diffuses issues better than attacking them with a sledgehammer. I’m a Mark Twainer from way back, and satire is my favorite kind of writing. A lot of music today just gets a little too serious for its own good. I mean, we’re descended from court jesters, not philosophers.
Your song “Jamaica Mistaica” is based on a mishap you had recently down in the Caribbean. Tell us about that.
I was with [Island Records owner] Chris Blackwell and [U2’s] Bono. I had my seaplane, and I wanted to land it near Chris’ house. But the winds were too bad, so I landed it at the airport. Chris had a hotel on the other side of the island, where it was very calm, so we just decided to go for a picnic there. We flew the plane in, got off, and as the plane took off to go get fuel, we were surrounded by a Jamaican SWAT team. I thought it was a joke until I heard the gunfire. They thought we were a dope plane. I mean, we looked about as much like a dope plane as I look like somebody who’d be on the Pat Robertson show.
Did you ever do any smuggling yourself?
Nah, I was around a lot of pot and came close, but luckily music became the option.
Given your lyrics, folks might think you were the world’s biggest partier.
I was! I had a great time! Then people start dying, you know. And having nervous breakdowns. And then you go, “Wait a minute here.”
How do you deal with that stuff with your kids?
Well, I don’t want to encourage them to go out and smoke pot, but I can’t stop them if they do. I just try to give them a base to figure out right from wrong.
Could you describe your typical Parrothead?
There are people out there looking for a good time for a few days a year. We come to town, and we’re the carnival or the Mardi Gras. People blow off steam and then go back and be basically lawabiding citizens. But to see them on those two days, you’d go, “My God, this is the most drunk and boisterous maniac crowd you ever saw!”
Do Parrotheads have much in common with Deadheads?
Yeah, definitely. In fact, one thing I regret is that before Jerry died, we’d talked about doing a Parrothead-Deadhead show. I’m sad that won’t happen now.
Do you ever feel people just don’t get it?
It used to hurt my feelings, because people would review me and say the crowd was amazing to watch but the music sucked. And I’d go, “How can you say that?” Unless you walk on a stage and test your own ability to command the attention of 25,000 people, you don’t have any clue as to what it feels like. So I quit reading everything. If they don’t get it, it’s fine, because enough people do. I’m not trying to sell it to anybody or force it down anybody’s throats, but if you like what I do, then you are welcome.