Beloved beyond his “Parrothead” majority for the plush, tropical island vibe of 1977’s “Margaritaville,” the music and words of Jimmy Buffett forever had a lonely, laissez-faire literary éclat. Yes, there was a ready sense of escapist humor to his smartly snarky turns of phrase, touched by the scent of cannabis and the taste of Mezcal. However, just below his hazy clouds and boozy romanticism laid the heart of a ruminative, cuttingly counter-cultural short story writer. Think Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” laced with sinsemilla topped by a cocktail umbrella and accompanied by a loping, country-ish musicality or a chanson’s lilt, and you’re there.
Here are Jimmy Buffett’s dozen most memorable musical moments that aren’t “Margaritaville”:
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“A Mile High in Denver” (1970)
Buffett’s first album on Andy Williams’ Barnaby Records label may not have been his favorite recording, or one that sold very many copies upon initial release. But, together with songs such as “Truckstop Salvation” and “Captain America,” Buffett’s feel for Nashvillian melody was in full flower on “A Mile High in Denver.” Soon to be his signature, Buffett’s “Mile High” presents his take on restless character-driven lyrics and funny twists on familiar tropes that pair warm stoner soliloquies with his vision of a Colorado mountain range’s naked trees topped by frost.
“He Went to Paris” (1973)
Taken from his “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” (a goofy, shrimpy riff on Marty Robbins’ “Pink Carnation”) album and recorded at Tompall Glaser’s studio in Nashville, Buffett pushes the talents of his Coral Reefer Band’s Greg “Fingers” Taylor and Michael Utley’s yawning pedal steel predilections, writing poetically of the struggles of a man settling for a life where “some of it’s magic, and some of it’s tragic.”
“Come Monday” (1974)
A tickling electric piano and a lush set of strings give way to one of Buffett’s sweetest melodies and a simple admission of the self with clumsily romantic phrases such as “I got my Hush Puppies on / I guess I never was meant for glitter rock ‘n’ roll / And honey, I didn’t know that I’d be missin’ you so.” This Don Gant-produced track became Buffett’s first Top 40 hit single.
The greatest Tom Waits song ever written by Jimmy Buffett starts with “She’s got a ballpark figure / He’s got a ballpoint pen / They travel around for weeks at a time / Writin’ down descriptions of the places they been,” and just keeps its way toward film noir theology.
“Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” (1977)
Produced by bassist and string arranger Norbert Putnam, the sound of Buffett’s 1977 album that contained “Margaritaville” was diamond-clear and warm, with a pronounced percussive crispness to match the singer’s rhythmic intonations. Yet it is the development of a convivial chill, eternally stoned character for himself (rather than portraying fellow ne’er do-wells) that makes tracks such as “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” hum. Here, a genial Buffett “runs into a chum with a bottle of rum” and doesn’t leave the bottle or the road until album’s end. Then the next album. And the next.
“Son of a Son of a Sailor” (1978)
The fluid nature of time, fatherhood and music meet in one place. It’s one of Buffett’s most elegantly simplistic bits of prose and melody.
While 1979’s “Volcano” album seemed to stretch at the seams of his boozy, woozy, self-defined screwup persona, “Survive” — co-written by Buffett and longtime Coral Reefer Mike Utley — is an emotional ballad that touches on his usual topics (smoking, joking, long distance love, maddening crowds) with his usual humor, but adds one more poignant element to the mix: earnestness. It works so well, you wish that Buffett would have tried naked sincerity more often.
“One Particular Harbour” (1983)
Co-produced by Buffett (a first) and co-penned by Bobby Holcomb, “One Particular Harbour” takes the singer-author’s island tropes and ticks to another, more energetic and anthemic level – something decidedly un-laid back.
“Gypsies in the Palace” (1985)
Written with in-demand ’80s songwriter Will Jennings and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey (who lends his vocals to the track as well), Buffett tells the story of two sneaky self-made entrepreneurs (one named “Snake”) who make a beer-bonging mess of a rock star’s home while he is on the road, only to find that they left it in better shape than he did when he gets home. Humorous in the vein of “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” Buffett gave his “Gypsies” a soulful rocking edge, a lively tonic to his usual chill tunesmithing.
“A Thousand Steps to Nowhere” (1998)
Writing a Broadway-style musical should have been a no-brainer for Buffett, especially as he based 1994’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival” on battle novelist Herman Wouk’s 1965 book of the same name, and hired Wouk to write its book. After it bombed, famously, in 1997 during its Miami preview run, Buffett turned the show into an album in 1998, and brought his heightened reality-driven lyrics to new heights on brash tracks such as “A Thousand Steps to Nowhere.” If this vividly picturesque track of Buffett’s is any indication, Broadway producers should look to a revival, pronto.
“Simply Complicated” (2004)
For a friendly guy, Buffett was often an island unto himself when it came to celebrity playmates. So, along with the aforementioned Glenn Frey co-write, the latter-day Buffett hooked up with R&B vocalist and composer Bill Withers for this decidedly politically-incorrect track touched by an upbeat Cujunto arrangement and plucky rhythms. A curiosity indeed, but worth noting for Buffett’s desire for diverse collaboration so late in the game.
“Live, Like It’s Your Last Day” (2020)
By the time of “Life on the Flip Side,” his 30th studio album, Buffett had not given up the ghost of poetically-driven good times and silly, spaced-out rumination. With Mac McAnally as his cowriter, Buffett embraces the beyond with “cats having nine lives and eons to play,” “cosmic clocks” ticking and tock-ing and the need to “grab one last cheap thrill… Sing karaoke and sip some rosé” before it’s all gone. Bravo.
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