Although I have lived in West Palm Beach, and I once saw Jimmy Buffett riding his bike near the ocean on Palm Beach Island, I claim absolutely zero personal insights into the philosophy and lifestyle of Parrotheads.
However, I saw a tweet by Ross Douthat pointing readers to an excellent New York Times profile of Buffett linked to the 2018 success of the jukebox Broadway musical celebrating his life. The headline: “Jimmy Buffett Does Not Live the Jimmy Buffett Lifestyle.” In a way, this feature by Taffy Brodesser-Akner can be read — I think this is what Douthat had in mind — as a kind of meditation on the long, warm Buffett obituaries that are running wherever Baby Boomers get their news.
At first glance, there is next to zero religious content in this feature. Then I took off my journalism-commentary glasses and read this feature through the eyes of the Denver Seminary professor that I was, briefly, in the early 1990s. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.
Now, read this large chunk of the Times feature and start looking for hints at the role that Buffett played in the lives of his, well, disciples.
One day he realized that even if you were the supply, you could also be the supply chain. “It’s up to you to figure out how to take advantage or to manage whatever you’re going to do,” he said. “Margaritaville” was a hit in 1977. But more important, on that day, Margaritaville® was born.
He established Mailboat Records, his record label, in 1999. He went from making $2.20 per album to making $6 an album, he told me. He built his own tour buses, because it costs five times more to rent equipment than to own it yourself. He then rented out that equipment to other acts. And he took charge of his merchandise. He didn’t do it because he was greedy. He did it because he could do it better than the people who were ripping him off with concert T-shirts that spelled his name as Buffet.
He sold his fans quality, spell-checked T-shirts. He played clubs all over the country, but it was the crowds in landlocked areas that seemed to love him most. In Pittsburgh, he and his Coral Reefer band mates noticed that fans had started wearing Hawaiian shirts, just like they did, to the shows. One night, in Cincinnati, his bass player Timothy B. Schmit (also of the Eagles) likened them to Deadheads, the way Grateful Dead fans would follow that band. And so they were christened Parrotheads, just as a joke, but then fans began to wear feathers and beak masks to shows. “In their minds they wanted to go to the ocean,” he said. He understood he was bringing the ocean to them. He was no longer just a singer. Now he was a guru.
So how could he serve his acolytes better?
Please do not see the following observation as any kind of attack on Buffett and his fans. I am trying to spotlight the Big Idea that runs through this entire Times piece.
The basic idea is that the singer-songwriter was a kind of guru-priest who was looking at the humdrum lives being lived by millions of Americans. He saw this and, looking out from the center microphone on stage during his never-ending tours, he had compassion on them.
After all, he had seen this relationship before. When fans sang along in the crowd, it created, as noted in the Times feature, a “unified hum, reminding Mr. Buffett of the recitation of prayers in church during his altar boy days.”
It the goal was to end up in the sunshine on the beach, maybe even for eternity, why not start now? And why shouldn’t he provide some of the sacred goods and services that would help people find their own oceans, even if they were hopelessly locked inland by the ties that bind?