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Caribbean Soul

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

On the day that Jimmy Buffett died, I found myself on a continental divide, but unlike in one my favorite Buffett songs, this was a debate over the quality of his music, and I found myself at odds with many of my friends. I don't have much of a daily commute, and even when I am in the car I don't listen to the radio, but apparently many stations had been flooding the airwaves in tribute, and while they understood the homage being paid, the general consensus was they were ready for the moment to pass. I normally love to talk about music, especially when, for instance, people say, "Oh, well, you just don't like country music," and I immediately launch into a diatribe about the country music I grew up with versus what passes for country music today. But when pressed to defend Jimmy in the wake of his passing, I found myself struggling to defend my position without resorting to nostalgia-laced arguments and mentioning he was born in my hometown.


I've always poked fun at my wife because so much of her musical taste is guided by nostalgia. How else can someone listen to track after track of Harry Chapin or Kenny and Dolly Christmas? For her, if there's a positive memory associated with a song or an artist, all other measures of quality cease to matter. But the more people I talked to about Buffett, the more I realized I was guilty of the very thing I always gave her a hard time about. After all, if I'm being honest, there are entire albums of his that don't make an appearance on my Buffett playlist. And that's just on Spotify. I hadn't realized until he passed that in my business, despite being located right on the beach, I didn't even have a Jimmy Buffett Pandora radio station. Now to be fair, I'd been burned years before by my father-in-law who played the same Jimmy Buffet concert on a huge TV for roughly five years straight in a previous beach business I'd worked in. I haven't been able to verify this, but I'm pretty sure the Michael McDonald scene from 40 Year Old Virgin as based on one of my blow-ups over this. If my wife's musical taste is pure nostalgia, my father-in-law's is pure loyalty. If it's Buffett, it must be good, and more is better. When I finally did create a Buffett Pandora station recently, I loved the first classic it dialed up and gave it a thumbs up, but right on cue, I hated the next song, some cute pop-country tune with steel drums and dumb lyrics, and clicked thumbs down. And that's how the day went. Thumbs up, thumbs down, which seems in line with my relationship to Buffett's music. But man, the ones I love? Those songs are like reminiscing with an old friend about shared memories and good times.


When I was in graduate school, I lived in an apartment called the King's Palace, and I challenge anyone to find a building that falls so short of its name (don't bother, you can't win this one. King's Palace was torn down twenty years ago and probably at least twenty years too late). To make matters worse, I was teaching full time, taking a full graduate course load, and I was working on a Master's thesis. This is arguably the low point of my life. I was beyond stressed and tired all the time, even rear-ending a Ford Taurus on my way home one afternoon as the sun blinded me at a stoplight just a block from home. Lucky for me, I was only doing 4 mph once my foot slipped off the brake, and the bumper I knocked off was held on by Duck tape. Standing there in the Circle K parking lot, we agreed to pretend it never happened and went our separate ways. I might have offered to buy her a box of Cane's, which happened to be across the street and probably resulted in an NSF charge.


The only reason I bring any of this up is because on so many of those long, anxious nights when I was up late, bleary-eyed and miserable, Jimmy was what got me through. My brother had recently given me a desktop PC, along with a sweet set of computer speakers, and he had burned the entire Buffett box set for me. And that is how I survived. By escaping the to the islands in my mind. Sometimes the escape itself was almost tortuous. There were so many nice things happening out there, and I definitely wasn't seeing too clear, not from inside the King's Palace or the classroom I found myself in daily. I definitely imagined myself taking a Pascagoula Run to a faraway island for a well-deserved overdue binge (yes, on boat drinks). Hell, I'd even gone to Paris and lived there for a summer, and I had sat there on the coast of Marseilles (Nice actually, but you get it). It was there that I knew no matter what country I'd been born in, I would have migrated to the coast at some point--that I too had a Caribbean soul I could barely control. But then I'd be forced to turn off the music and snap out of my Havana daydreamin', only to wake up seemingly minutes later where my first look was traffic along Airline Highway at 5:30 in the morning where I battled fatigue and felt about as far from the islands as any place on earth.


In addition to barely surviving grad school, in my final semester I somehow survived what should have been a fatal car accident. When I woke up in the ER, I knew I should be dead and spent the next few days in recovery making a short list of things I wanted to do with what felt like borrowed time. I'd been lucky enough to grow up spending lots of time on the water, but I was not the son of a sailor. I'd started canoeing quite a bit, but I'd never kayaked. I decided it was time to get busy pursuing both of these sports, and I did. Before I knew it, there I was, hanging onto a line from a sailboat while I learned and eventually bought my own boat. Unfortunately, that one particular harbor where I kept her was several hours from my home, but still, it felt like I was starting to live my life like a song. I bought a sea kayak, trained on the lakes near my home to prepare, then starting kayaking to Horn Island on a regular basis. Sure I had a work week like everyone else, but I had summers off where I got to live life in three-quarter time. And when I couldn't be off paddling or sailing out to the islands, when I really wanted to be in that state of mind, Jimmy could take me there. One night it almost got my brother divorced as we commandeered the juke box where we were shooting pool, playing every Buffett song that machine had, and apparently his wife was one of those people I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Of course, that was an early sign of a doomed relationship, like the time a girlfriend of mine chastised me for how much ketchup I was using.


But I digress. Anyone who's read Horn Island Dream can see Buffett's influence at the end, and as I wrote about previously, through a mutual connection, I've been told a copy was put in Buffett's hands and that he was "moved." At that moment, that was pretty much all the success I ever cared to have (though I would not have turned down his call if he had indeed dialed the number I scribbled inside). Many years later, on the day that South Toward Horn's publication date was announced, I hopped on my boat and went and had a cheeseburger at Paradise, literally (for those unfamiliar, it's possibly the South's best beach bar and home to the best Bushwhacker you'll ever taste) and though I didn't set out to do it in tribute, it's one of those beach boat ballad bar moments -- like the Buffett equivalent of a Godwink. A week or so later, I needed to ship out an advance copy of South Toward Horn, and as it was a beautiful day and I have a mail place just outside my neighborhood, I decided to hop on my beach cruiser to run the errand. I pulled up my Buffett playlist, purposefully selecting random. This was to be the first such copy of the book I would send out, and the moment felt symbolic. This time I was acting in tribute, and I wanted to see what the universe had in store. By the time I reached the end of my driveway, I heard the harmonica intro to "Biloxi," and I smiled, thinking, that's what these people don't understand. They've never taken the long way home from the islands and listened to Jimmy as the sun sets from off towards New Orleans and sets fire to the western sky.


Of course, right after I sent the package off and hopped back on my bike, "Bama Breeze" came on and I stared down into the basket so desperate to hit fast forward that I almost careened into a car and had to remind myself there was no need to have another wreck just so I can create a new bucket list. That's not the way I want to go incommunicado. I think I'd rather live at least as long as Jimmy did, and while he never did call me up on the coconut telegraph, I feel certain he went to his grave knowing his music inspired a lot of people and will continue to bring joy to people like me well beyond his final days, even if I do have to skip a song here and there.

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4 Comments


satyn
Oct 27, 2023

Excellent! You know, as I continue reading South Toward Horn, memories come to me of many visits to the Coast and the Islands. Things you mention in The book evoke real life recollections of times I spent in Pascagoula with our family. Even . though it is a work of fiction, and as wonderfully enjoyable it is to read it, reading it through eyes of having been there makes it even more wondrous. Great job, cousin!


Your cousin, Janet

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wes9519
Jan 10
Replying to

So glad you enjoyed and that it brought back fond memories. It's embarrassing to admit, but it took me a while to figure out how to respond to comments through this app . . . please don't think it was because I didn't appreciate the feedback!

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danamcbride4
Oct 27, 2023

I loved Jimmy Buffett and was sad for days after he passed. His music is pure happiness. Most Saturdays at The Toad, I had either Jimmy playing or beach music. He is missed! Great blog! 🤗

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wes9519
Jan 10
Replying to

So glad you enjoyed! His passing hits home a little harder than most!

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