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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

The Captain & The Kid - Jimmy Buffett & Me

The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is turn my phone on and check Twitter.

I don’t know why I do, but for the last few years, it’s been a fixture of my morning routine, besides tea, of course; always tea. When I check Twitter, it’s always the usual doomscrolling in search of an interesting tidbit of news I can ponder on for the rest of the day, or tell someone who may or may not care. When this past Saturday rolled around, I didn’t have to search very far - in fact, it was the first thing I saw:

Upon reading the above Tweet concerning the passing of one Jimmy Buffett, I stopped scrolling, clicked on the post, and then locked my phone, putting it down on the bedside table. I was stunned. The effervescent beach-bum balladeer had passed away. The man whose laid-back style and carefree trop-rock sound had soundtracked my life for virtually my entire twenty-one-year existence was gone. At seventy-six years old, no less - that’s no age to go, not least when you’re someone who, on the surface, has lived life how it’s meant to be - to the fullest, doing whatever you want, when you want. Of course, as someone with ounces of business acumen only Uncle Warren could beat and with a fifty-plus year-long music career full of rich tales and countless albums, he was someone who had more than earned the chance to do whatever he wanted.

With that in mind though, Buffett wasn’t someone who just sat back. He was consistently involved in areas that normal folks would consider outside the usual realm of responsibility for a musician. He was a restauranteur, a hotelier, a best-selling author on several occasions, and he even had his own beer. Hell, for the last couple of years, he ran his own cruise line - and that’s putting it all in simple terms. In amongst all of this, he still toured consistently every year, bringing that laid-back signature style to tens of thousands in amphitheatres and arenas across the US, as well as to several more thousands over the airwaves and on TV, with the advent of Radio Margaritaville and live-streaming shows online.

On a personal level, Buffett was someone rarely heard of in England. Radio coverage is rare on any station here, and if it is, it’s either Margaritaville or It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere. For live performances, he’s technically only been here three times. The first at the Concert for Montserrat back in 1997 at the Royal Albert Hall. Flanked by Robert Greenidge and Ralph MacDonald, he launched into a reworked version of Volcano, featuring lines such as ‘So I took a plane to London town/Brought along some island sound/Gotta make some noise, gotta raise some hell…’. The shots of the crowd from the broadcast display surprise or maybe disgust at Buffett’s raising-of-hell, and perhaps in response to this, he wasn’t heard of in London again for twelve long years. A show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in July 2009 marked his second appearance, to a crowd who weren’t so stuffy, and sang in full voice across the set. This isn’t a show I went to personally, being seven at the time, and because we were simply unaware of its occurrence. However, the next time he came to England, if there was a ‘next time’, we vowed to be there.

On a cold December morning in 2018, both my parents were doing the school run, which was an oddity. As we entered into the village where my school was, my mother scrolled through Facebook, and proclaimed that Jimmy Buffett was coming to London next year. We’d only been talking about the chances of this happening a few weeks prior when he had done his run of shows at La Cigale in Paris, which we also vowed to do at one point, and there was a picture of him and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits near Hyde Park. The day of reckoning came and we snapped up the best tickets we could, a few rows back in the stalls of the London Palladium. A few months later, and we’re standing outside the stage door of the Palladium where a small crowd has gathered, anticipating something. Soon enough, a black van pulls up next to us, and out gets a burly security guard, and the man whose songs had soundtracked all of my life - Jimmy Buffett. He was real. We were a few too many people behind to get to say hello, and even when my mother thought she could even get a small chance to say hello, the burly security guard simply shoved her out of the way. Nonetheless, we managed to snap an odd couple of photos of the man himself, including my favourite photo I think any one of us has ever taken:

I don’t know what it is about that photo as to why I love it so much - the fact it’s Jimmy Buffett, the amazing facial expression, or the moment of being there - but it remains a photo that captures the spirit of that day. We sat in the pub across from the Palladium for a few hours before the show started, the Argyll Arms, which was already full of people donning Hawaiiian shirts and the typical Parrothead garb that American concertgoers would be used to. Inevitably, we got talking to people, but only a handful of them were British. Most seemed to be Americans who had followed Buffett over from the ‘States to three total dates in Europe, London being the middle one. This was testament to how unknown Buffett was in England, where a theatre show didn’t seem to draw a large crowd.

A few hours passed, and the queue to get into the Palladium moved slowly. We finally got into the theatre, bought our now priceless merchandise, and sat in our seats. Before Buffett came on was Hawaiiian ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro as the special guest, now all grown up compared to the original glimpse we’d gotten of him on the Live In Angulla CD/DVD set from 2007 when he was a member of the Coral Reefer Band. He was truly excellent, even if his set was only half an hour.

After a short interval came the main act - the man who we had been waiting to see for the best part of twenty years. Buffett’s set was fantastic, slotting in some lesser-played tracks across the set compared to the ‘Big 8’, including a cover of Everybody’s Talkin’, Jamaica Mistaica, Oldest Surfer on the Beach and the Grateful Dead’s Scarlet Begonias. It wasn’t so much the setlist that I was enraptured by, but more to do with the entire occasion. This was something that had been on my personal and familial bucklet list for years, and the feeling of warmth and surprise at seeing him and the rest of the fantastic Coral Reefer band on stage is something I’ll cherish forever. If you’re interested, at the time, I wrote a review of that Palladium show, for more details.

It isn’t just the live experience that summed up Buffett, though. His studio output across the years was enviable - he was a man beyond a hit single, and beyond a select few tracks that people think of. He most definitely is not just the man who wrote ‘that song about cheeseburgers’ as I’ve read on some social media comments these last few days. His post-Margaritaville output may have shifted to fit the laid-back, beach bum persona that he had cultivated, but his work remains rich and vibrant, straddling so many different genres and styles. Everything from fun rock and roll (Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost) to rap sections (Overkill) and the more traditional waters of the honest and observational singer-songwriter (Woman ‘Goin Crazy on Caroline Street) and his classic trop-rock sound (Lage Nom Ai) is typically Buffett. There is so much more to Buffett’s output than his own string of hits and collaborations with others, most notably Alan Jackson, and there perhaps isn’t an artist out there with as diverse of a discography as him.

Picking a favourite out of them is difficult, but it’s his honest singer-songwriter tracks, in the vein of Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Jeff Walker and James Taylor, that sit the best. Those early to mid-seventies albums - A White Sport Coat And A Pink Crustacean, Living And Dying In ¾ Time, A1A - are full of this sort of thing. It doesn’t get better than the likes of They Don’t Dance Like Carmen No More, The Wino And I Know and Nautical Wheelers. Whichever Buffett album is your poison though, they’re all a treasure of trove of magical songs only a cultured songsmith could curate.

Then there are songs I’ve loved for many years for personal reasons. Autour Du Rocher has been present there for a long time, given how influential the Live In Anguilla set was ever since I watched it for the first time as a kid. Both That’s What Living Is To Me and King of Somewhere Hot have been favourites for the exact same reason. Banana Wind is one I had on an MP3 player as a child, and is a song I’ve called ‘Lazy River music’ for at least 12 years. That stems from it being one I associate with both relaxation and my mother’s insistence to remain in the Lazy Rivers at both Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks.

Wherever I’ve been in life, Buffett has gone with me. Whether it was as a fixture in the endless rotation of music in the family car, or in the flesh when I saw him at the Palladium, there’s no denying his influence. No other artist has singlehandedly soundtracked my life like he has, and it’s still hard to come to terms with the fact he’s gone. Everyone will have their stories of the personal resonance they feel with Buffett, and these are just mine.

Thanks for being part of our lives, Jimmy. Sail on, sailor - there’ll never be anyone quite like you.

He's somewhere on the ocean now

A place he outta be

With one hand on the starboard rail

He's wavin' back at me

The Captain And The Kid, Down To Earth, 1970.


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