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The Freedom of Music: Parrothead Party

September 18th, 2011

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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

Summer is in the rear-view mirror, labour day a few weeks past and the kids back to school. The work week, just weeks ago shorter, whether by shaving a few hours off the Friday or grabbing a day off mid-week to enjoy the few months of warm sun we Canadians get, is now back to full. sidebar-1

In July I made the long drive to New York, spending a day at some favourite haunts, and returning two days later for a concert in Toronto. Arriving at Ontario Place half hour before curtain-up, the parking lot was full of people in colourful shirts, bird hats and sandals. The beer was flowing freely, and at the entrance to Ontario Place there was a massive stack of plastic beer cups, confiscated on the way into the park.

Jimmy Buffet was in town, and a Parrothead Party was on.
For the uninitiated, Jimmy Buffet is a singer who’s songs are a mix of folk, rock, country and calypso. It is somewhat unique, and being based on Caribbean sounds, it runs on themes of drinking, sailing and the beach (his 4 CD boxset was subdivided into 4 types of songs: Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads). His songs are very well crafted – Buffet is writer enough that he has written a book of short stories, two novels and an autobiography each of them good – and their summer themes resonate with his fans.

The fans show up en-masse at his shows in beach attire: Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts and hats decorated with colourful parrots or drinking paraphernalia (socks are virtually verboten). His concerts are an event as much as a show, and the fans are as much a part of the show as they are with any performer. Buffet, for his part, is the consummate performer, always playing his big hits, offering a minimal amount of new or unknown material. He is known to say mid-show, it’s his job, and a great job it is, to play the songs the fans want to hear.

In a list this summer of top ten boating songs by the American recreational boating industry’s awareness program, Discover Boating, Jimmy Buffet had two of the top five songs:

  1. A Pirate Looks at 40 – Jimmy Buffet
  2. Come Sail Away – Styx
  3. Redneck Yacht Club – Craig Morgan
  4. Southern Cross – Crosby Stills & Nash
  5. It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere – Jimmy Buffet and Alan Jackson

Of those five songs two are Buffet songs and another, Southern Cross, has been a concert staple for years. And the second Buffet song, It’s Five O’CLock Somewhere is really a drinking song. A Buffet fan could easily produce better sailing songs: Son of a Son of a Sailor, Fins or One Particular Harbour.

That aside it’s true, as far as it goes, that if your throwing a beach party or cruising in a boat, Jimmy Buffet is the perfect companion. But you don’t maintain a 40-year career singing Margaritaville every night. Buffet is a craftsman when it comes to song writing, offering up some of the nicest songs wrapped around the poetic ideas of travel, beaches and blue water. Take, for example, the number one song on the above list.

A Pirate Looks at 40 is the story of a modern day pirate, sailing the seas in search of a reason d’etre:

Mother mother Ocean, I have heard your call.
Wanted to sail upon your water, since I was three feet tall,
You’v seen it all. You’ve seen it all.

Watched the men who rode you, switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen.
Most of ’em dreams. Most of ’em dreams.

Yes I am a pirate, 200 years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder
I’m an over 40 victim of fate
Arriving too late. Arriving too late.

I’ve done a bit of smuggling,
I’ve run my share of grass,
I’ve made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast.
It‘s never meant to last. Never meant to last…

Mother mother Ocean, after all these years I’ve found.
Occupational hazard be my occupations just not around
Feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown.

It’s pretty, it’s poignant, and it’s great song writing. Buffet’s catalogue is full of great songs, always in the storytelling tradition. He Went to Paris chronicles a life lived, happily and tragically; Son of a Son of a Sailor chronicles his family tree; Jamaica Mistaka tells the true story of his sea plane being shot down, mistaken for a dug runner, by Jamaican Authorities.

False Echoes is among Buffets finest pieces. By the mid 1990’s, his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s, the horrible brain disease that robs it’s victim of memory. The song tells the story of his father’s life, beginning with his birth:

The skies over Cuba, pink with the light.
And the waterfront ritual, began to ignite.
All the ships in the harbour, were warmed by the sun.
Twenty-fifth of November, 1921.

On the old Chicamauga, the signal jacks flew.
The signals they spelled out, caused a great bally hoo.
Every ship in Havana, then hoisted away.
All the pennants were flying, for my dad’s first birthday.

In the chorus, Buffet returns to the here and now, his dad suffering mid-stage Alzheimer’s. If you have ever had a loved one suffering with it, you‘ll recognize the stage where long term memory seems so vivid and now, short term memory, gone:

Enduring echoes, call out from his past.
Time ain’t for saving, no time’s not for that.
Chasing false echoes like a lost legionnaire,
He waltzes on memories, while he fades like a flare.

Jimmy Buffet is the ultimate summer concert experience, but when your looking for music that going to touch you deeper, that’s actually Buffet’s strength. Wanna know how to sustain a 40 year career? Bring them in the door with Margaritaville, then give them Pirate Looks at 40. Great song writing will work every time.


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