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James T. KeaneSeptember 06, 2023
This July 29, 2016 file photo shows Jimmy Buffett performing on NBC's "Today" show in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Of course he died on Labor Day Weekend.

No one who has heard the opening verses of Jimmy Buffett’s first Top 40 hit, “Come Monday,” could miss the connection between that holiday and Buffett, who died on Sept. 1 of complications from aggressive skin cancer:

Headin’ out to San Francisco
For the Labor Day Weekend show
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

Come Monday, it’ll be alright
Come Monday, I’ll be holdin’ you tight
I spent four lonely days in a brown L.A haze
And I just want you back by my side

Setting the unfortunate slur against Los Angeles aside, note that in tone and structure the song is a bit of a departure from the Buffett songs mentioned in the many obituaries and tributes to the singer that circulated this week after his death. Those songs were inevitably the earworms that celebrated the party-hearty beach culture and a certain sand-between-the-toes life of leisure.

Take a closer look at Buffett’s catalog and you’ll find plenty of songs that don’t require a bucket of rum or a Monday-morning penicillin prescription.

And yes, many of the songs I sang along to with glee at the half-dozen Jimmy Buffett concerts that I attended in the 1990s were exactly that: catchy pop songs that were more happy-hour staples than musical masterpieces. There is a reason the title of Buffett’s greatest hits album is “Songs You Know By Heart.” Media reports after his death focused on tunes like “Margaritaville,” “Fins,” “Boat Drinks” and “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” presumably because no one wanted to type out the words “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw).” More on that in a bit.

But “Come Monday” is not the only Buffett classic that departs from the celebration of carefree hedonism that many obits played up. Take a closer look at Buffett’s catalog and you’ll find plenty of beautiful, sometimes-haunting songs that don’t require a bucket of rum or a Monday-morning penicillin prescription.

Many Parrotheads who first fell in or out of love before the age of cellphones and social media might have a special fondness for “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me,” a wistful, almost sorrowful breakup song that Buffett himself said “is as close as I can get to a sad song.” It closes with the furthest thing from the lyrics of a beach anthem:

If it takes all the future
We’ll live through the past
If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.

Buffett always played one of his best songs—also one of his biggest hits—during the second set of every concert: “A Pirate Looks at 40.” The song has unfortunately been covered endlessly by some real cads in recent years, a painful thing to see and hear—but the lyrics and tune still slap almost five decades after its release. (Bonus points in my book: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez did a duet of the song at the 1982 Peace Sunday rally for nuclear disarmament in Pasadena, Calif., a year after both turned 40.)

Yes, I know, it’s a song about selling weed and getting drunk and chasing women, but somehow the sum is greater than the parts. John Prine could have written this song. If Paul Simon were from Key West rather than Newark, he would have crafted this instead of “The Boxer.” Ernest Hemingway had this song in mind when he…O.K., too far. But it is a great tune—and another that closes with a rueful coda rather than a call for a bong hit.

If Paul Simon were from Key West rather than Newark, he would have crafted "A Pirate Looks at 40" instead of “The Boxer.”

“He Went To Paris,” a song Buffett didn’t often sing in concerts, has earned praise over the years from everyone from Bob Dylan to Waylon Jennings (whose sandpaper baritone and outlaw persona were perfectly suited for his cover of the song), and there is a reason why: It’s not the story of a beach bum in flip-flops, but of a one-armed veteran of the Spanish Civil War whom Buffett met after a show. In the song, the widowed, wounded old vet is “writing his memoirs and losing his hearing/ But he don’t care what most people say.”

Now back to “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw),” a song that Buffett more or less stopped singing over the last 15 years. It’s crass. It’s over the top. And…it was always meant as a satire. The Mississippi-born singer who grew up Catholic wrote the song under a pseudonym (“Marvin Gardens”—that’s $1,200 with a hotel) and intended it as a spoof of so many country music standards of the 1970s that used euphemisms and other dog whistles to celebrate exactly the lounge-lizard mentality that his song simply says out loud.

Though one wasn’t likely to hear either of those last two songs live, every fan will tell you that the best part of Jimmy Buffett’s music was always the concerts—and those concerts were intergenerational affairs. Several of my office mates who are fellow Parrotheads agreed. “My first Jimmy Buffett concert was with my Catholic high school girlfriends,” Heather Trotta, Vice President of Advancement at America, told me. “What I distinctly remember is that many of the fathers were there with us. They blurted out the songs right alongside us.”

The best part of Jimmy Buffett’s music was always the concerts—and those concerts were intergenerational affairs.

That appeal to multiple generations continues today. “Just yesterday, we were at the pool and they were playing Jimmy Buffett songs,” Ms. Trotta said. “Children as young as 8 were singing the tunes, up to people in their 70s and beyond.” Another often-overlooked element of Buffett’s oeuvre mentioned was that for all the ballyhoo about getting wasted on the beach, he was also clearly a devoted father. “I appreciate that Jimmy wrote songs with his children and about his children,” said Ms. Trotta. “He seemed like such a family man despite all of the debauchery.”

Why did Jimmy Buffett’s death inspire such an outpouring of tributes, of nostalgic trips to yesteryear’s moments of bliss? More than anything else, it was because we all associate Jimmy Buffett with good times and good places—with, dare I say it, changes in latitudes and changes in attitudes. I don’t want to be 22 again, but I sure do want to be barefoot in a conga line at the Hollywood Bowl singing “Volcano.”

“For me, his music brings back my times when I worked on cruise ships in my 20s,” said Barbara Meehan, America’s Human Resource Consultant and another Parrothead. “It always relaxes me and brings me back to that Caribbean vibe. I am grounded by being around the ocean and boats. When I can’t get there physically, his music brings me there in my mind and soul.”

Ms. Trotta made another point: “Jimmy Buffett is a good example of not taking life too seriously.”

Perhaps Jimmy knew better than anyone that despite all of our running and all of our cunning, if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.

Update: Click here to hear Jimmy sing "We Are The People Our Parents Warned Us About," the first line of which is "I was supposed to have been a Jesuit priest/ or a Naval Academy grad."

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