As every sailor and music lover knows, the world became a quieter place in September, when the one-of-a-kind songwriter, mariner and balladeer Jimmy Buffett passed away after a bout with skin cancer. The outpouring of grief, appreciation and remembrances on social media was substantial, and nearly everyone seemed to have their own personal memory or tribute. Here’s mine.
I met Buffett in Fremantle, Western Australia, in the Down Under summer of 1987. I was there covering the America’s Cup during what became Dennis Conner’s Redemption Tour, when he won back the trophy he’d lost four years earlier. Buffett was a huge fan of Conner and his Stars & Stripes crew, and had flown to Oz for the duration, often playing sets at their waterfront base. It was pretty cool.
We had a mutual friend in writer P.J. O’Rourke, on assignment for Rolling Stone, where he’d more or less been handed the “gonzo journalist” baton from Hunter Thompson. P.J. knew absolutely nothing about sailboat racing, and we became press-boat mates. I could explain a jibe-set spinnaker hoist or leeward mark rounding, and he could crack me up with his endless array of anecdotes. They included his time roaming through the islands under sail with his pal Jimmy on Buffett’s Cheoy Lee cruising boat. Through P.J., I caught a couple of Buffett’s impromptu gigs in Fremantle dive bars, and was always happy to hang with that crew.
All that said, at that stage, I wasn’t all that much of a Buffett fan. My taste changed in the ensuing years after I caught a couple of his live shows with the Coral Reefer Band (it was always hilarious to see 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley shaking the castanets). But what finally sold me on Jimmy Buffett’s music was when I started to pay serious attention to his lyrics. Specifically, those on one of his earlier records, the one named after the highway running down Florida’s Atlantic shoreline: A1A.
A1A is not only my favorite Buffett album, but it’s one of my favorite records ever. So much so that I’ve come to think of the person, JB, and the album, A1A, as a single entity, one and the same. None of his truly famous hits are on it; there are no paradisiacal cheeseburgers or soothing blender drinks or folks getting drunk and getting down. Instead, there are 11 exquisitely crafted tunes, only about three or four minutes apiece, but with tales, lessons, and wordplay as carefully rendered and nuanced as almost any 300-page novel. If I were marooned on an island and could bring only five CDs with me, this would be one of them.
Buffett’s genre has been dubbed Gulf & Western, which seems pretty accurate, but A1A is known for being part of his “Key West phase,” which also fits. By whatever term, one thing is certain about this collection: Nobody without a deep understanding and affection for the sea, nobody but a sailor, could’ve written them.
Oh, the lyrics, like “Squalls out on the Gulf Stream, big storms coming soon” from “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season.” Or “I’m hanging on to a line from my sailboat, all Nautical Wheelers save me” from “Nautical Wheelers.” Or “Got a Caribbean soul I can barely control” from “Migration.” Or this, from my favorite Buffett song, “A Pirate Looks at Forty”: “Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call, wanted to sail upon your waters since I was 3 feet tall.”
The ode to Mother Ocean. Our very essence, our lifeblood. Damn straight, brother.
Even the spare, inviting cover of A1A is just about perfect. Before he was an author, pilot, restaurateur, real estate mogul, Broadway producer, cultural icon, and just about every other bloody thing under the sun, he was just Jimmy, tanned and smiling in his rocking chair, under a palm tree with the white sand and blue sea behind him. A man in his element. It’s how we all should remember him.
So, RIP, A1A. And thank you.
Herb McCormick is a CW editor-at-large.