Jimmy Buffett Departs With the Summer

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Bob Greene headlined “Jimmy Buffett Departs With the Summer”:

There was always a sly grin, a sweetly sardonic message, in just about everything Jimmy Buffett sang or did. So if he had to die, of course it would be at the beginning of Labor Day weekend—summer’s end, the annual last breath of looseness and laughter.

Except his own life, and his work, was based on the intoxicating premise that summers go on and on, that if you love them fiercely enough you can will them never to stop. A gauzy and unreachable fantasy? Absolutely, for most men and women in the workaday world. But Buffett both sensed and shared their yearning and turned it into a gloriously pleasurable touring career, and a marketable concept that transformed his easy-to-embrace dream into a business empire.

Because he instinctively understood his audiences’ longings, and knew that they echoed his own, he was able to distill that longing into seemingly simple words that reached listeners like notes stuffed into a bottle cast out to sea. From his song “Fins”: “She came down from Cincinnati, it took her three days on a train / Looking for some peace and quiet, hoped to see the sun again . . .”

He recognized that the specific logic behind people’s secret hungers didn’t require elaborate explanation: “Don’t know the reason, stayed here all season,” he sang in “Margaritaville,” and not knowing the reason seemed reason enough. Although if you listened closely to the words he and his band sang from all those outdoor stages, the urgency of an escape was evident: “I’m gettin’ paid by the hour, and older by the minute . . .”

The rearview mirror, ever crooking its finger to pull in the driver’s gaze, is something Buffett was acutely aware of and doggedly did his best to resist. From “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”: “Oh, yesterday’s over my shoulder, so I can’t look back for too long / There’s just too much to see, waiting in front of me . . .”

Life’s pleasures, in the musical world Buffett created, didn’t need to be extravagant: a lost shaker of salt, shrimp on the boil, the feel of an acoustic guitar’s strings on your fingertips as you sit on the front porch swing. Too rudimentary, in a society conditioned to glitter and glitz? Hardly. How can you not smile, and salivate, when you hear the words: “Making the best of every virtue and vice, worth every damn bit of sacrifice, to get a cheeseburger in paradise”?

Heaven on earth with an onion slice, Buffett declared, and who is to doubt him? He saw the grayness in 9-to-5 life, the preposterousness in many of the things we tell ourselves are so essential, and reminded his audiences: “With all of our running and all of our cunning / If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”

Buffett has departed at 76, and summer is ending, but be of good heart: It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

Bob Greene’s books include “When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams.”

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