It was once said by somebody, and then repeated ad nauseum, that Brian Wilson invented California. Or, at least, the California of our dreams: sunshine, surf, cars, girls, rock ’n’ roll; the bronzed surfer boy, cradling his longboard in one arm and his sun-kissed, golden beach bunny in the other, getting ready to drop in on some tasty swells at Doheny or Rincon before throwing on a Pendelton and cruising down to the hamburger stand in his flathead deuce coupe or ’62 Impala SS with the 409-cubic inch scalloped head W-series. (Or perhaps, her T-Bird.)
In much the same way, Jimmy Buffett invented Florida. Or, at least, the Florida of our imaginations: rum, sand, humidity, boats, weed, weirdness. The mellow, easygoing, long-haired, middle-aged beach bum, waking up in the late morning from yesterday’s drunk and shuffling barefoot down to the bar to battle a serious hangover with a little hair of the dog and a dozen oysters under the shade of the palms.
Granted, that laid-back coastal lifestyle, with its emphasis on freedom, of living life on your terms, at your own pace, come hurricane or high water, which you could describe as the “Jimmy Buffett lifestyle,” predates the man himself. He didn’t invent it, but he is its greatest mythologizer and popularizer of such behavior and the man to most successfully live it, at least remuneratively.
Based on attendance at my local church, it seems like Jimmy Buffett has more disciples in Florida than Jesus Christ. I live in a beach town on an island off the Atlantic coast in South Florida. The boat-to-person ratio is pretty close to 1:1. It’s probably the only coastal town in South Florida where you can still buy a house for under a million bucks, which is why a lowly scrivener like myself can live here. Because of that, there’s still a lot of the old, weird Florida beach culture here. The kind that proliferated in the mid-twentieth century but is getting harder and harder to find, squeezed out by gentrifying boomer retirees looking to live something of the life Buffett sang about in their golden years. One of my preferred local watering holes, the Square Grouper, is named after the local slang term for the bricks of drugs thrown overboard by smugglers commonly found floating in the water around here. Across the street at the Jetty Bar, you can walk right up from the beach and order frozen rum runners in plastic to-go bottles and take them with you. And then there’s Archie’s, established in 1947, where back in the day local navy frogmen (we now call them SEALs) from the nearby Naval Combat Demolition Unit School would come kick back and de-stress by having a couple of cold ones and punching the shit out of a couple rednecks.
My house is two blocks off A1A, 1,000 feet from the beach. Half of my neighbors are interesting enough to have been characters in one of Buffett’s songs. One of them splits his time between here and the Caribbean and keeps an illegally-acquired AK-47 and 700 rounds of ammunition on his yacht just in case he runs into any frisky pirates. In fact, he’s the type of guy who deep down wants the pirates to give him a go. Dying in a blaze of glory like William Holden in The Wild Bunch defending his boat is his preferred way to bite it. I’m sure he and Jimmy would have hit it off famously.
You can’t help running into these types of guys around here. The type for whom, as long as you can keep the lights on, the boat gassed up, and the bar tab paid, life is just about perfect. To be fair, I’m pretty much one of those guys at heart. I’m probably the biggest degenerate employed by a think tank on the North American continent. I am, essentially, Florida Man. So when I woke up to the news on Saturday morning that Jimmy Buffett had died (of skin cancer we were later told, one of the most Florida ways to go out), it hurt in a gut punch way a celebrity death rarely does, and I decided to honor him in the most appropriate way I could think of: by strolling over to the beach at 10 a.m. with an extra-tall screwdriver in a Yeti mug, a six pack of Pacifico and some cut up mango.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his music — his great seven-album run from 1973’s A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean and 1979’s Volcano, on which the bulk of his legacy was built. It’s where you can find the songs everybody knows, the ones that solidified the image of coastal Florida and the Keys in the public consciousness. By which I mean all of the cuts from the greatest hits record Songs You Know By Heart, a record I believe every Floridian should be issued at birth. You know, “Margaritaville,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” “Come Monday.” But also overlooked gems, like the titular track from 1976’s Havana Daydreamin’, “Banana Republics” from 1977’s Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, and “Tin Cup Chalice” and “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season” off of 1974’s A1A.
Jimmy Buffett is Key West’s favorite adopted son, and for good reason. He managed to capture the spirit of the place when it was just full of Conchs (what Key West natives call themselves) and Cubans, a refuge for fishermen, bootleggers, dope smugglers, alcoholic writers, fighter pilots, ne’er do well European expats and other dropouts ill-suited to mainland life, before it was overrun in a good way, by gays, and in a bad way, by pasty asshole tourists from Ohio who can’t hold their liquor. That place is gone now, for the most part, but it will always live in his songs, which means it will live forever.