I don't want to live on that kind of island
No, I don't want to swim in a roped off sea
Too much for me, too much for me
I've got to be where the wind and the water are free.
— Jimmy Buffett, Cowboy in the Jungle
Through sleepy eyes on the morning of Sept. 2, from the cozy confines of my camper high in the Caribou National Forest, I learned that the Caribbean troubadour with a penchant for good red wine and just the right amount of high-quality weed was gone. Jimmy Buffett had died the day before, at the age of 76. He’d succumbed to skin cancer after a four-year battle with the disease.
As a proud Parrothead, it was tough news. I didn’t want to climb out of the covers. If I woke up in earnest, there'd be no doubt the news reports were true, and not just a bad dream.
I think we all knew something was up. Buffett was an artist who thrived on interaction — it seemed that he never stopped touring and never stopped singing. But after a slew of canceled and rescheduled shows and concerts, the doubts began to creep in. I remember talking with my girlfriend just a few days before he passed, and saying, “I don’t think Jimmy’s in very good shape.”
Even so, reading the news reports early that morning were no less jarring. No less heartbreaking. I read about how he passed, surrounded by his wife, his kids, his dogs and his music. For some reason, the lyrics of his kitschy little tune, “Jolly Mon” bounced around my head.
The night was filled with magic, they bid the sea goodbye
Swam into the heavens and they stayed up in the sky
And all the island people when they wish upon a star
See the dolphin and the Jolly Mon who tell them where they are
Some 30 years ago, when Jerry Garcia died, all the Deadheads were devastated and lost. And the news reports — sans all the social media noise and chaos, of course — centered on the man, his music and what in the world the band’s devoted following was going to do with themselves.
Now, I get it.
As someone posted on one of the many social media platforms the morning of Sept. 2: “Check on your Parrothead friends today. We are not OK.”
No, we were not. Some of us still aren’t.
Later that day, after I held back tears and cooked breakfast for a big group of Labor Day weekend campers, I grabbed my fly rod and wandered up the creek by myself. I’m not ashamed to admit that I wiped at misty eyes as I waded in the chilled waters of the Caribou, far away from the Caribbean but as close to it as I could get in the moment.
Jimmy was a fly fisher. Most folks don’t know that. Many erroneously associate him with the “yacht rock” scene because, if you call up the Christopher Cross Pandora station, Buffett will inevitably make an appearance. But that’s not where his roots lie. He was a surfer and a (son of a son of a) sailor, for sure. But he loved the long rod, and I loved that he did, because it was something we had in common.
Others, when they think of Buffett, think only of the songs that made their way to the pop or country charts — many consider his work to be simple and shallow … Escapism dunked in a blended Cuervo Gold margarita and consumed by a plastic crowd of stoned drunkards with nothing better to do on Thursday night than dance around an amphitheater.
Jimmy’s work was complex — even the “simple” stuff, like the song that helped him leave his mark on the music industry and launched his multi-billion-dollar brand, had incredible depth. If you stop and listen to the melancholy lyrics of “Margaritaville,” you’ll eventually come to understand its sophistication. And then you’ll find that clever wordsmithing in just about every silly song he delivered, from “The Great Filling Station Holdup” to “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?"
And, for fly fishers, Jimmy was our kindred spirit. You may not know it. You may not appreciate it. But his lyrics and fly fishing have two foundational elements in common. Hope and optimism. Fly fishers don’t have a choice but to be hopeful and optimistic. Just ask any permit angler or long-rod steelheader or Atlantic salmon fisher.
I mean, would we do it if we were of any other persuasion? Oh hell, no.
And Buffett’s music? Listen closely, fly fishing boys and girls. Because even if you change the channel when “Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes” comes over the airwaves, the music could be your own personal soundtrack.
I’m devastated that he’s gone.
But he left so many songs behind, and for that I’m eternally grateful. His music helped me name dogs and both of my kids. It helped me recover from “lost love and loneliness,” and it helped me understand that an “occupation just not around” is but an excuse to founder.
I’m not saying you have to be a Parrothead — and it’s tragic that all of us have seen our last Jimmy Buffett concert — but if you’re not a Buffett fan, for whatever reason, take a minute and listen, if for no other reason than to better understand your friends who are.
And lest you be tempted to write him off as just another dead artist, know that his music wove his way into the words penned by truly great writers, like Tom McGuane (his brother in law), Hunter S. Thompson, and Maureen Dowd, the longtime New York Times columnist. And know that his best friends included the likes of the late Ed Bradley, Harrison Ford, Paul McCartney, Glen Frey and the incomparable (and, sadly, late) Jerry Jeff Walker. Disagree all you want, but Buffett was generational.
Here are five Buffett songs that all fly fishers will appreciate, even if the connection isn’t obvious. I’m betting though, after you listen to the words, you’ll come to understand the hope and the optimism.
Because us Parrotheads and fly fishers … we need a lot of both right now.
Salty Piece of Land
This one might be the most obvious — in it, the singer works through a stanza that any flats fisher will immediately appreciate:
So I saddled up my seahorse
With a fly-rod in my hand
I was not looking for salvation
Just a salty piece of land
Like a lot of Buffett’s work, it’s about escaping crisis by retreating to the water. No brainer, right?
Havana Day Dreamin’
Every time I hear this song, I’m transported to the beach in front of Xcalak, a remote village on the southern tip of the Yucatan. Back in the day, the flats guides would line up their pangas on the sand and haggle with the Gringo anglers who might happen by, hoping for a shot at Chetumal Bay permit.
Yeah, the song is about a slightly more nefarious pastime and memories of “the girl,” but in today’s wicked world, even fly fishing can feel illicit if you have to exchange pesos on a Caribbean beach. And, of course, there’s always a girl, right?
A Pirate Looks at 40
Among Parrotheads, this one’s an easy favorite. In fact, I’d wager that if you asked any Parrothead of middle age (and, damn, there are a lot of us) which of Buffett’s songs strikes the most accurate chord, it would be the soulful tune. It’s a song for anglers with a past, folks who’ve loved and lost and been to “rock bottom,” or who might be there right now. And, again, it’s about hope, about how we have to be the first to recognize the problem and then pick ourselves up to solve it.
And I have been drunk now for over two weeks
I passed out and I rallied and I sprung a few leaks
But I got to stop wishin', got to go fishin'
Down to rock bottom again
Just a few friends, just a few friends
Be Good and You Will Be Lonesome
This one’s a bit more obscure and, for whatever reason, it gets sparse airtime, even on Radio Margaritaville. But I love the message, and I love that it was inspired by a quote from Mark Twain, America’s first great humorist (and, yes, Buffett himself is that lofty class himself).
When I hear the song, I can’t help but think about driving the lonely highway that runs the length of Long Island in the Bahamas, a remote, impoverished and amazingly beautiful family island. It’s a great place for some DIY bonefishing in the old Morton salt ponds and on the endless flats that are largely reachable without a boat. Every morning, as anglers drive to the flats, they wave at the uniformed schoolchildren as they prepare to hop on the bus.
No, the Bahamas isn’t Hispaniola, as referenced in the song, but without arriving at flats fishing later in my life, the song wouldn’t be nearly as lovely.
On a timeless beach in Hispaniola
Young girl sips a diet cola
She's worlds apart, worlds apart
Spirit of the black king still
Reverberates through Haitian hills
He rules the sea and all the fish
What if he had a TV dish?
I have found me a home
This is the first song Jimmy wrote upon arriving in Key West in the early 1970s, where he quickly fell in love. Back then, the little village at the southern tip of America was a bohemian paradise, where the bars were friendly and the tarpon fishing was still off the charts. It’s one of my favorites because it’s a familiar feeling, arriving in a new place and knowing, almost instantly, that you’re supposed to be there.
That’s how I felt in 1999 when I arrived in Idaho — and I’d still be a full-time Idahoan if it weren't for winter and what it does to my titanium enhanced spine. Oddly, I have the same feeling when I step into the black water of the Suwannee River in the hurricane-ravaged woods of far northern Florida, and lay my head on my pillow in my little house in the woods at the end of a country lane.
I have found me a home, James, far from anything and where the stars shine bright. I’ll be looking for you in the heavens. Until then, my friend, “Jolly Mon, sing.”