09 September 2023

Good For the Soul (RIP to a Storyteller)

America has been so over-celebritized for so long that it's daily news that some star passed away. For me, these trigger a brief thought of condolences for their family. We've all gone through loss. Some celebrity deaths hit me if I've connected with their work. A rare few get gut-punch deep. Prince was that way. He left this rock much too young. Nanci Griffith, John Prine. Jimmy Buffett was another hard hit.

I'm not a Parrothead. I never saw Buffett in concert. Should have. Didn't. I only own one of his full albums, but I've had it forever. 

If you were a Louisville East End kid in my day, you had Buffett's Songs You Know By Heart. By social necessity, if no other reason. If any party lasted long enough, this CD got played. It just did, no matter that the songs were already a decade old then. 

It worked as party music, but somehow, in a way no kid would yet understand, you connected with this Gulf and Western sound. Here was Buffett going on about Caribbean islands and open seas while we stared at a brown river too dodgy for swimming. Shrimp boil? We fried cod, thank you very much. It got flown in. And yet we cracked beers and listened along as if that surf pounded at our feet. 

Maybe you're a Parrothead, maybe not. It's a safe bet you know a few, and you know they're never outgrowing it. I play Buffett when the mood is right, or the latitude. It's done by iTunes in these too-modern days. I understand why he connects with so many, now. It's more than his embrace of a joyful noise. Buffett was a storyteller of high order. 

A sailor wants a cheeseburger. He's between ports and eating sunflower seeds, and that cheeseburger craving has a hold of him. We never hear that he gets that next burger, though we're rooting along the quest. Another guy flies to the tropics to sort out his life. He and a chum get drunk on rum, and he grows to accept the good and bad as it comes. A musician stuck in the snowy north is stuck with his band getting drunk on boat drinks. All he wants is out, out, out, anywhere warm. Or two guys rob a gas station for $15, a can of STP, some cashews, and a Japanese TV ("We're wanted men / we'll strike again / but first let's have a beer"). They're busted at a Krystal.

I love stories like this. Big-hearted, well-constructed, full of adventure, evoking a sense of place and something larger at work in our world. Buffett sang a lot about time and timelessness and how ordinary folks fill that up. No one has done troubadour like Buffett, often hilarious ("Why Don't We Get Drunk" and "My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don't Love Jesus"), often touching ("He Went to Paris" and "A Pirate Looks at Forty"). Sometimes it was just pure turn of phrase ("If the Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me"). Small wonder he was also a heck of a writer. His 1980s short story collection is beach read gold (it is back in print, FYI).

Buffett played dive bars and knew drugs and drug smugglers. Hell, his sound was too genuine for Nashville. Music City might've known how to package him if he'd settled on a mainstream warbler style or even a bad boy image. Buffettism refuses the choice. In a Buffett song, and in all of us, there blends a little good and a little bad, someone looking backward and a little forward but dealing in the now. Making the best of it. As "Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit" puts it: Drive-in / Guzzle gin / Commit a little mortal sin / It's good for the soul.

And what a soul. Even to casual fans, his loss comes as a mortal slap. Buffett was Peter Pan. Did we really expect him to grow old, even when he often sang about precisely that? And if his time came, ours will, too. Like a Buffett character, we're left bare and staring at the horizon and what's inevitable beyond. Until then, we're meant to fumble around and relish what time we're given. 

Buffett's signature way of taking fun seriously are why he still resonates after I've long put away other things of youth. His storytelling works anywhere, even Louisville, because we all dream of a perfect someplace else where the party goes on and on.


  1. Buffett is just about the only music my wife and I listen to. And it's been that way since, ohh, about 1994. So the last week has been pretty hard on us.

    I agree that Buffett's mastery at its best is as story teller. One of the most incredible jobs he ever did at story telling (at least if I am the one voting) was his idea to adopr Herman Wouk's iconic Caribbean novel "Don't Stop the Carnival" into a musical. The musical itself never went very far -- an engagement in Miami and another in the Bahamas -- but Buffett recorded the score in an album, with the Coral Reefers playing all of the parts. The album was great, but it was too strange for Buffett's fans (well, except me). It is almost unavailable now. BUT -- if you are interested I have a treat for you -- back in 2014 I wrote a SleuthSayers piece on Wouk, the book, and Jimmy's adaptation. Here it is -- AND I checked before I posted -- the link at the end of my 2014 post still works and delivers up the complete album. Enjoy while we all sheds some tears.


  2. People half seriously say, "You're from Florida? You know Jimmy Buffett?"

    No, but I wrote a 1991 story for The Great Filling Station Holdup (editor Josh Pachter). I picked a song from his first album, Truckstop Salvation. That album was not like those that followed. It was more serious. I'm not sure what to call the musical genre. But it offered a great idea for a story. The results pleased me. I like to think Jimmy liked it.

    So yeah, Bob. Buffett lives on.

    1. I have no idea where 1991 came from. I meant to say 2021 story.

  3. First, my brother is an epic writer! Great homage to a cool soul, Bob. Second, I’ve been surprised by how much Jimmy Buffett’s passing has impacted me. It genuinely hurts. Like Bob, I was a casual, good-time fan. I once grew a pencil-thin mustache, love the Keys, and I actually blew out a flip-flop (and fell in a pool!). But it’s like Peter Pan has died, left us with a big bottle of rum, some smuggled contraband, and questions that bother us so. How are we supposed to figure all this out without some slightly buzzed, surprisingly deep, wink-and-nod advice from our friend Jimmy?


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