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It turns out that the hardest part about preparing a writeup for Margaritaville isn’t the research or the writing. When it comes to Jimmy Buffett’s classic tune, the writing comes smoothly, and the research is definitely enjoyable. No, the hardest part is deciding whether to classify Margaritaville as a place, idea, or thing.

I mean, are we talking about Margaritaville the song, which went on to become the anthem for Buffett and his beloved Parrotheads, the cheerful takeoff on the Grateful Dead's Deadheads? Or are we talking about Margaritaville the place, which in real life would be Key West, Florida, Buffett’s island home when he wrote the song? Or are we talking about Margaritaville the merchandising powerhouse, which Buffett has built into a theme park-style empire including restaurants, stores, bars, books, Parrothead T-shirts, and even a radio station on Sirius Satellite Radio, Radio Margaritaville?

Well, Margaritaville is all of these things, and places, and more, which leaves us with only one possible answer. It’s an idea. Because, as Buffett’s own website, Margaritaville.com, says so well, “After all, Margaritaville is a state of mind.”

Margaritaville: The Song

There probably is no other song that is so clearly identified with an artist and an attitude than Margaritaville. Released in January, 1977, Margaritaville was a surprise hit, reaching Number 8 on the Billboard Singles chart and pushing Buffett’s album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, to Number 12. Since that time, the song has sold more than 50 million copies in various compilation and live releases through the years, Buffett’s most successful single by far. And the song has become a veritable life’s blueprint for Spring Breakers, burnt-out professionals, and anyone else who’d like to trade the rat race for a beach bum’s life.

But the song, and Buffett, did not have such an auspicious start. Buffett had been trying for years before the song was written to jumpstart an ill-fated country career. Although he had come to Nashville in 1969 to pursue a record deal, all he had to show for his Tennessee time by 1973 was two albums that received a lukewarm reception, at best. Fortunately, the second album, A White Sport Coat and Pink Crustacean, contained a hint of things to come, with songs like The Great Filling Station Holdup, Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw)?, and Cuban Crime of Passion.

Buffett’s developing style of part beach-bum, part reggae slacker, and part screw the establishment didn’t play too well in Nashville’s buttoned-down, Red-state atmosphere, so he headed south to Miami for his next album, 1974’s Living and Dying in 3/4 Time. This album contained the single, Come Monday, Buffett’s first top 30 hit, and one that would become a favorite of Buffett fans for decades. Typical for Buffett, though, he was totally unaware at the time that the song had done so well. “I was in Europe when I heard Come Monday being played in the London Airport. I figured something was happening, and called home to find out we were on the charts.”

Then Buffett met Norbert Putnam, who would eventually produce Margaritaville and several other Buffett albums. The two began work on Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes in the summer of 1976, generally showing up at Miami’s Criteria Studios by 11 a.m. to work on whatever song Buffett may have written that morning, then leaving by 4 p.m. to head to Buffett’s 33-foot sailboat to listen to a tape of the day’s work. According to Putnam, “for that album, we were trying to get the rhythms and the vibe to match the rhythm of the ocean waves against the boat. Sounds crazy, but it was working. We were getting a vibe for the record.”

They may have been getting a vibe, but they didn’t have a hit single. Then, during the second week of recording, Buffett told Putnam that he had finished a song he had been working on for a while. It was called Margaritaville. And while Buffett wrote most of the other songs on the album in the morning before the recording sessions began, Margaritaville took him a couple of weeks to put together. As Putnam explains

He had this one kicking around for a while. He’d tell me about it, that it was a day in his life, and I’m thinking “Oh, like the Beatles – A Day In the Life.” I didn’t know what to expect. It was called Margaritaville, and I wasn’t crazy about the title, either. I was thinking that it had these sort of jazz-hipster overtones like “coolsville” or something like that. But when he played it, me and the band knew instantly that it was the song. This was the single. This was it. It wasn’t a song – it was a three-minute screenplay.

Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band recorded the song in a single day, using a mix of Buffett's own band members and some studio musicians brought in by Putnam to give the song the finish it needed to make it as a popular single. The rest is history. And even if you’re not a Jimmy Buffett fan, my guess is that the lyrics to Buffett’s “three-minute screen play” about a burned out beach bum who eventually realizes that his wasted summer in Margaritaville is “his own damn fault” are burned on your brain the same as any Parrothead.

Jimmy Buffett

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp
They're beginnin' to boil

Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
But I know it's nobody's fault.

Don't know the reason,
Stayed here all season
With nothing to show but this brand new tattoo.
But it's a real beauty,
A Mexican cutie, how it got here
I haven't a clue.

Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
Now I think -- hell, it could be my fault.

I blew out my flip flop,
Stepped on a pop top;
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home.
But there's booze in the blender,
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.

Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
But I know, it's my own damn fault.

Copyright © Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville 1977-2006

But wait, there’s more. In addition to the three well-known verses above, Buffett apparently penned a fourth verse, which was discarded to make the song more “radio-friendly.” Buffett often adds this “lost verse” when performing the song in concert however, and recordings are generally available floating around the Web.

Old men in tanktops,
Cruisin’ the gift shops,
Checkin’ out chiquitas, down by the shore.
They dream about weight loss,
Wish they could be their own boss,
Those three-day vacations can be such a bore.

Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt.
(salt, salt, salt . . .)
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
But I know it's my own damn fault.

Margaritaville: The Island

The story goes like this. Jimmy Buffett traveled from Nashville to Miami in 1974 to make a booking date, but when he got there, no job. Not really wanting to go back to Nashville’s string bowties and Grand Ole Opry, Buffett crashed at the Miami house of an old friend, Jerry Jeff Walker. A weekend drive down overseas highway A1A took him to the town of Key West, a place that would ultimately become the biggest influence on his musical career.

Now, Key West in the early 1970’s was not the tourist-friendly, sometimes gay mecca that it is today. No, the island town at the tip of the United States, former home to Ernest Hemingway, still retained much of its earlier roughness. Smugglers, shrimpers, and servicemen, not tourists and vacationers, populated the island back then, and boarded store fronts lined iconic Duvall Street. Any run-down building in town served alcohol, whether legally or not, and the drug market, supplied by local smugglers, was everywhere.

Such was the world that Buffett found in Key West, and he liked it. He settled in, and, after a brief stint at drug smuggling himself, he returned to songwriting, penning not only Margaritaville, but other favorites such as The Wino and I Know, My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus, and I Have Found Me A Home. As Bob Anderson, one of the Coral Reefers, said about Buffett in a 1986 High Times interview, “Every outlaw has a good story, and Buffett has an eye and ear for them.”

Another Coral Reefer, Greg “Fingers” Taylor, remembered the early times in Key West like this

In 1974 Buffett called and was ready to start the Coral Reefer Band. I went down to Key West. We put together the band and went on the road. Between 1974 and 1982 there was nothing but serious roadwork, especially in the seventies. On the first three albums there were essentially studio musicians in Nashville, but by the Changes in Latitudes album the band was good enough and we were enough of a unit that we went to Miami and did it as a band album. That was the one the hit came off of, Margaritaville. Some of my favorite rocking crazy stuff came off that album. It was a change from that Nashville play-it safe sound. I like the first albums, but they don't have the energy that “Changes” had.

Much of Buffett’s music afterwards was heavily influenced by his Key West home, where he lives and records to this day. As Buffett noted after the release of his album A1A, “I never planned to make a whole series of albums about Key West. It was a natural process.” Whether planned or not, the island and its inhabitants formed the essential basis of Buffett’s career.

Margaritaville: The Commercial Enterprise

Showing himself to be a savvy entrepreneur, Buffett expanded his Margaritaville creation into an entire franchise. Product licensing tie-ins to the Margaritaville name include

  • Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Restaurants: Casual seafood and Caribbean-themed restaurants and bars with locations in Key West, New Orleans, Orlando, Cancun, Montego Bay, and elsewhere.

  • Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Stores: A chain of stores selling Buffet and Parrothead-themed merchandise. Typically connected to a Margaritaville Restaurant & Bar.
  • Books: Buffett has written three Number 1 bestsellers, Tales From Margaritaville and Where is Joe Merchant? Both spent over seven months on the New York Times Best Seller fiction list. His book A Pirate Looks At Fifty went straight to Number One on the New York Times Best Seller non-fiction list, making him only the seventh author to have reached number one on both lists. The other six authors are Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Styron, Irving Wallace, Dr. Seuss, and Mitch Albom. Pretty good company.
  • Radio: Buffett recently created a radio channel on Sirius Satellite Radio, called Radio Margaritaville. Not surprisingly, the station plays many of Buffett’s tunes, but also plays a number of similar beach or Caribbean-styled artists, such as Bob Marley, The Beach Boys, UB40, and Toots & The Maytals.
  • In 1994, Buffett was forced to litigate to maintain his rights to the term Margaritaville when Chi-Chi’s, the popular restaurant chain, began using Margaritaville for a section of its restaurants. It also filed a trademark application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for Margaritaville for restaurant services.

    Buffett opposed Chi-Chi’s application based on a section of the trademark statute which prohibits registration of a mark that falsely suggests an association with a known person. Buffett’s argument was that Margaritaville was his creation, that the public had come to associate the term with him, and that he had not given his consent to use of the term by others. His evidence included not only the song itself and the sales and publicity it generated, but also news articles referring to him as "Jimmy (Margaritaville) Buffett" and "The Poet of Margaritaville."

    Buffett won his case before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which found that Margaritaville had indeed become so closely associated with Buffett that the two were essentially indistinguishable, thereby leading customers to believe that Buffett was involved with Chi-Chi’s services, when in fact he was not.

    On a more personal note, I’ve only been to a Margaritaville bar and restaurant once, in Montego Bay, Jamaica. My wife and I had been vacationing there, with return tickets for September 11, 2001. We wound up getting stranded in Jamaica, and while it sounds like a fun time, it wasn’t. We were stuck in a foreign country when our own had been attacked, and we were unable to make any kind of regular contact with friends or family. When air travel finally resumed, five days later, and we got past the heavy security at the airport, the Margaritaville Bar and Restaurant looked like an absolute paradise. We were just so glad to be in a place that seemed like home. The food tasted better, the drinks were sweeter and stronger, and my memories of that one trip to Margaritaville are wrapped in this hazy, warm glow.

    But then, aren't they supposed to be?

    CST Approved

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