Monday, November 27, 2006

Take the Weather with You

Jimmy Buffett saved my life.

He doesn’t know this. And, technically, he wasn’t the only one pulling on the lifeline. There were some good folks in a little community playhouse. And John Jay Osborne. And a guy who ran a literacy program for inmates. But the guy who had the rope and was captain of the team was Jimmy. And I’ve never said thank you.

I’m one of those guys who took a unfortunate career path early on in his life and, despite some other turns that led off the major road, never found my way back to what I was supposed to do. If you read us regularly at all, you may have noticed an occasional sour or cynical outlook in my perspective that is the chief result. (Just shake your head and say you don’t know what I’m talking about. An astounded look would be good, too.) But, a couple of decades back, when the realization first set in hard, I was heading for a place where I didn’t want to go or to drag the people I loved with me. I needed someone to get my mind off it all from time to time, to show me the bright, the solemn, the scope of life so I’d remember that I wasn’t the first or the worst and that life still had gems even when most annoying or destructive.

You can guess who that was.

I had already been a fan, “A-1-A,” “Living and Dying in Three-Quarter Time,” “Margaritaville.” I bought up all the Jimmy I could fit into a cassette and kept buying even to today. I did my own mix jobs, got the 4 CD set, tortured The Boy when we drove into The City. Eventually things turned around. I gave up a tenured teaching position, something Jimmy might approve of, and got into things no better but more diverse that let me travel and establish a national reputation (at least part good) in my very truncated field. A Jimmy success story.

I’ve bought his CDs as he’s put them out over the years, done a couple of concerts, bought shirts at his New Orleans store, eaten at “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” but recently he hasn’t had the same effect. Maybe it’s because my need for his mix of humor, pathos, and insight, always blended together in one nice drink per CD, had diminished. Maybe he had become like Sorkin with “Studio 60,” churning things out almost by formula, still interesting and entertaining, but lacking the old spark, the old “a-ha!” or “oh, jeez” moment. Maybe we’d just grown apart, like old friends who go separate ways do, even if he doesn’t have a clue who I am. So, when I bought his latest “Take the Weather with You” the other day, I did it more from loyalty than high expectation.

But right now, I’ve hit another place on the career road that seems more dead end than open road, and, reason or not, this latest CD seems more like old times, like walking into a bar and sitting down with a long-lost who has a pitcher he’s eager to share. He says in the liner that he started this one while in Patagonia, the southern tip of the world, and, indeed, in true Jimmy fashion, there’s a raucous song linking the crap going on the planet today and a “Party at the End of the World.” Jimmy may love the South and get down with Nashville types, but his heart and interests are too broad to be modern Republican, as he makes clear in “Nothin’ but a Breeze”—“Me, I want to live with my flip flops in Dixie and my head in the cool blue North.” This last song also tips his usual hat at the Baby Boomers who have seen their lives in his “A Pirate Looks at 40” and “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” aware of aging with that melancholy acceptance that we all eventually have to face up to:

“One day soon, I’ll be a grandpa.
All the pretty girls will call me Sir.
Now where they’re asking me how things are,
Soon they’ll ask me how things were.”
[Jimmy’s rich and famous to pretty girls. We old, poor guys are already there.]

There are some just so-so songs, at least right now (we’ve all had that experience of having a song hit us many plays later), including one on Cinco de Mayo in Memphis and one on a place called Reggabilly Hill, which, by their topics, tell you they probably aren’t that so-so after all. His last few CDs have been nothing but these kinds of songs to me, as I mentioned, but, sprinkled into this mix of some with real meat, they make nice seasonings nonetheless. He does another tribute to Elvis and covers Merle’s “Silver Wings” with a tropical beat that Merle probably only envisioned in a state that did not allow writing at the time. He nails our “connected” world in “Everybody’s on the Phone”—“I’m a digital explorer in analog foam”—that ends exactly the way some of my cell calls with The Boy do. The title base, “Weather with You,” lets you in that you take your own “WWY” wherever you go, and he pulls another ju-jitsu move with “Whoop De Doo,” which isn’t funny but turns out to be a lament over a lost love (like his famous title, “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me” on an earlier CD.). His “Hula Girl at Heart” is a common Jimmy ode to femmes who ground us all on what’s important, and his closing “Duke’s on Sunday” finishes the CD off like his earlier “Lovely Cruise.”

What takes this CD back to the earthy, life-affirming ground of his earlier work, at least for me, are the songs he’s done in the aftermath of Katrina and the devastation done to his beloved Gulf shores. The disaster seems to have loosened or recreated that part of him that can touch the central core of many of us. “Bama Breeze” has a good video if you can catch it and captures a spirit that you hope will prevail, a spirit that says, you know what? Shit happens. Life is life. Don’t think you’re unique just because sometimes you’re in the way. That’s the theme of the other Katrina song, “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On.” You got hammered, you got screwed, but you still have a life to live, no matter who or what’s to blame. Get with it.

Which is basically what Jimmy said to me years ago when I needed to hear it, and he’s saying now once more when I do again. You thanked Mark Twain once at the end of a song, Jimmy, and I owe you big time in the same way. My wife makes a great margarita.

“According to my watch, the time is now.
The past is dead and gone.
Don’t try to shake it,
Just nod your head.
Breathe in, breathe out, move on.

Don’t try to explain it,
Just bow your head.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Move on.”

Thank you, Jim.