I love living in the Florida Keys, but there is one severe drawback — every time I have to divulge where I live to someone from the rest of the world, I invariably get this response: “You live in the Keys? You must love Jimmy Buffett!”
Well, no, I don’t. Not even a little bit.
Buffett seems like a nice guy. He’s spent a lot of his time and money on some worthy causes here in the Keys. Although I find his music warbling out of every other bar in Key West, I can tune it out easily enough. Who couldn’t? After all, it’s some of the most inoffensive mainstream music ever made.
It’s not Buffett or his music that bothers me — okay, the music sucks too — but it’s his legions of adoring fans, who, as you probably know, call themselves “Parrotheads.” I see a whole mess of Parrotheads on vacation in Key West in any given week, bouncing around Duval Street. They come in all shapes and sizes, but there seem to be two distinct species. One is the frat boy. The connection there is obvious — party-time drinking songs are always going to find an audience with frat boys. The other group consists of Buffett-wannabes: men around his age who cling desperately to the notion that somehow, they embody the casual, devil-may-care lifestyle their hero celebrates in song. These guys all look remarkably alike: mustaches, majestically feathered hair, tropical-print cruise shirts, thick gold necklaces, too-tight shorts, and deck shoes. They’re hearty, healthy looking men, and at home, many of them have pet cockatoos.
There’s no reason I should let these people bother me. They are, after all, almost universally friendly. “Have you ever seen Jimmy here? Is it true he just drops in to play sometimes?” they ask, after asking for directions to the Margaritaville Cafe. They’re often drunk but always well behaved. They’re clean, and they tip well, and they are very unlikely to come into my own favorite watering holes, which are too dark and small for most tourists (I’m not naming them), Parrotheads stick to the aforementioned Margaritaville Cafe, Sloppy Joe’s, the Hard Rock Cafe, and Hog’s Breath.
I dunno, though. I just don’t like them. And I think I know why: They think they’re rebels, and that Jimmy is a cultural critic. This comes right out of his own lyrics: “We’re the people our parents warned us about” — I see that one on out-of-state t-shirts and bumper stickers. “I’m a cultural infidel,” sings Jimmy on another song.
Oh, okay. Look, Parrotheads: Your man Jimmy preaches fun in the sun, lazin’ on the beach, kicked back, good ol’ American drinking good times. Hedonism, basically. As my friend Jean says, hedonism might have been countercultural in the Puritan infancy of this country, but today it’s the furthest popular thing from the counterculture: it’s pop culture. Mass media promotes hedonism and self indulgence at every turn. You people are the ones my parents warned me about? Heh-heh, sure. My parents, products of their time, feared only two things: communism and drugs. I remember my brother and I getting all excited when we heard “Riders on the Storm” on the radio for the first time (we thought the rain and thunder effect was awesome). Our dad looked at us squarely and said, “I don’t want you listening to that song. It’s about drugs.”
Buffett songs about drinking? If anything, it was a relief for parents to hear drinking songs in the 70s, after the psychedelic era introduced LSD and pot into the popular lexicon. I remember Dad almost choking when he found my brother and me listening to Axis: Bold As Love and Disraeli Gears. Somehow, when I moved on to the Dead Kennedys, a group that blatantly attacked their political and social beliefs, they didn’t flinch: Too drunk to fuck? Just so long as it isn’t drugs.
I should confess something now: my current roommate is a Parrothead, and so was my last one. The current one falls into the mustachioed sun-worshipper category, while the former roommate is a recovering frat boy who wears cruise shirts (“I’m from California,” is his excuse). Both are great guys. Neither can fathom my distaste for their idol (both of them also like the Eagles, which tells you something right there). Importantly, neither one of them is what I’d call a “serious” music fan. Scott, my current roommate, has been without a stereo for months, after his old one stopped working. He keeps “meaning to” buy a new one, which is well within his means. He has a CD player in his truck, but his commute to work is about 8 minutes. I ask you — could you go several months without your music? I went to Belize and Guatemala for a month a couple of years ago, and the only downside was being away from my CDs. Jeff, my former roommate, has a favorite saying: “I never really got into that.” We watched a documentary on PBS about the evolution of rock music, from delta blues to rockabilly, pop, psychedelia, punk, new wave, hair metal, thrash, hardcore, grunge, and every subcategory in between, and his response to almost every one was, “I never really got into that.” Translation: I like my Buffett, and my Buffett only.
Oh, one other objection to Parrotheads: they’ve got their own language. Like fans of other cult acts (Phish, in particular), Parrotheads have their own wacky lexicon, most notably “Fins up!” in reference to yet another gimmicky party song. I recall driving back down to the Keys after visiting Mom one Thanksgiving. Every tenth southbound car had “Fins up!” scrawled across the rear window: Buffett was in concert in Fort Lauderdale. I also see “Fins up!” t-shirts down here. These people actually purchase foam-and-fabric dorsal fins that strap on to their heads, and they wear them to his concerts. That’s almost as bad as the Cat in the Hat hats that Phish-heads wear, but at least you can score weed and shrooms off those guys.
So what’s so wrong with millions of vanilla people digging the mild, milquetoast tunes of a happy, middle-aged balladeer? Why must I take offense just because some people think lines like “Please come back to Jamaica, we made a big mistake-a” are funny?
Well, I do have one serious objection about the music: it’s inauthentic. Scott kindly exposed me to several Buffet tunes during a five-hour drive to Naples. Not the “hits” that everyone knows, but gems from his more recent releases. They all feature the same formula: plenty of steel drums, a vaguely reggae-esque beat, and general tropical flavor. Buffett uses very good Caribbean session musicians, and it shows. But there’s the rub: why listen to a watered-down, Americanized version of reggae or salsa? Scott played the Buffett songs, then I popped in a Desmond Dekker CD. “This is the real thing,” I was thinking, hoping he’d make the connection. He grooved to it for awhile, but soon his eyes glossed over and he longed for more Buffett. I tried serious roots reggae: Tosh, Burning Spear, Israel Vibration. He liked them all (reggae is the music everyone likes but nobody buys, Bob Marley’s “Legend” CD notwithstanding), but I could tell they served merely as a distraction, a reasonably pleasant occupation of non-Buffett time.
I could pop psychoanalyze and conclude that Parrotheads lack self-esteem, and therefore seek lifestyle guidance from their mentor. I could bitch that they wouldn’t know good music if it bit them on the ass, but that’s trite. I could say they are representative of the dumbed-down, homogenized, corporatized world we now live in, but I’m not given to blanket societal criticism.
I can’t do anything, of course. Parrotheads are happy. It’s well and fine to play the sun-and-fun loving Peter Pan when you’ve got a livable income and health insurance, and they do. Why would they want to get bummed out by actually listening to the lyrics of Black Uhuru or Billy Bragg or The Clash or The Circle Jerks? The world is one big party, dude.