The first time I met Jimmy Buffett occurred on a spring day in 1973. I didn’t know anything about him – not his name, not his music. At the time I lived in a condo in Homestead, a community south of Miami. One of the condo amenities were tennis courts, and a friend dropped by to play a few sets.
On the other court we saw a fellow about our age practicing serves. He’d hit about a dozen serves, retrieve the balls and then bat them back from the other side of the court.
He stopped and watched us awhile, at which point we invited him to join us and he eagerly accepted. My pal and I took turns playing sets with him and we were all about equal in ability – not beginners, but no threats to conquer Wimbledon. After about an hour, we walked to the rec room and thirstily fed quarters to a soda machine.
“Hey, I appreciate your hospitality,” he drawled. “I’m Jimmy Buffett and just waiting to meet a friend who lives here. I drove up from Key West and it didn’t take as long as I’d figured.”
Buffett went on to say he was playing rock songs and ballads at a bar, scratching out a living but was working on an album that would “be out soon.” My friend looked at me and held back a grin as everyone who could strum a guitar and carry a tune talked about a soon-to-come recording.
Boy, little could we know what the future held for this disheveled fellow with long uncombed blonde hair and scraggly mustache. He also sported a rather distinctive mole on the right side of his chin.
A year later we’d forgotten that “Jimmy Buffett” moment when his first big hit – “Come Monday” – climbed the charts with his casual voice and haunting steel guitar riffs. The hits kept on a ‘comin, one best seller after another, that Buffett coined as “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n roll.”
Before leaving us, Buffett handed me a business card of the place he was performing most nights and said to look him up if visiting Key West. “Just leave a message and I’ll call you back sooner or later,” he added.
His young lady friend arrived and Buffett eagerly embraced her, leaving my friend and I to finish off our drinks.
I tossed the business card into a trash can without a second thought.
You know his fate. Superstardom. His career became a thing of legend due to his musical talent, amicable manner and business acumen. Buffett marketed himself like few others, riding his gold and platinum albums with a chain of Margaritaville restaurants and a series of best-selling memoirs, a novel and even books for kids.
Bigger yet were his concerts, with every venue a sellout and crazed fans nicknamed parrotheads adorned with parrot hats, Hawaiian shirts, hushpuppy shoes and tailgate parties featuring copious bottles of rum and the scent of wacky weed wafting over the raucous congregations. If anyone was sober, he was an exception.
Buffett – himself constantly flabbergasted at his success – once said that his original plan was simply to become the bass guitar player in a band “so I could meet chicks.” He joked that his first Key West gig paid $150 per week and half price on drinks, “but after the first week I owed them money.”
I lived in the Keys from the mid-1980s to 1993, and everyone you’d meet claimed they knew Buffett. One such braggart told me that Buffett composed “A Pirate Looks At 40” with him in mind, but after hearing the same from several others at local watering holes I’d just smile and nod my head.
But that’s not the end of my Buffett story. I was on assignment to write an article for a fishing magazine in the Turks & Caicos Islands in the mid-1990s. After checking into the resort comp’ing my stay in exchange for exposure in the article, I went to the Tiki Bar facing the Atlantic and struck up a chat with the bartender. I told him why I was there, and he frowned.
“I guess you didn’t get the word yet, but the guide who was supposed to take you fishing tomorrow can’t do it due to some family emergency,” he said. But then his face brightened. “I’m a part-time guide and have a client going out tomorrow for a half-day of light-tackle fishing on my skiff,” he stated. “I’ll ask him if he’d mind a writer coming along.”
About two hours later I checked with the bartender and he did a thumbs up. “Be at the dock at 8 a.m.”
Imagine my utter shock when I stepped aboard the skiff the next morning to witness Jimmy Buffett. He’d brought his guitar, a bottle of tequila and a bag filled with weed. We shook hands without him standing and he said, “Just call me Jimmy.” I glanced at the bartender who was grinning like a jackass eating briars, relishing my instant astonishment when realizing I’d be fishing with the illustrious Buffett.
I recalled our day at the tennis court 20 years earlier and to be kind Buffett acted as if he remembered it, but he probably only remembered the girl he was meeting that day. It reminds me of the great Jack Nicklaus who is forever asked by an admirer if he remembers making eye contact on a particular hole at a golf tournament decades earlier, and he replies that he does. Hey, a little white lie helps to gratify a delusional fan.
I’d only planned three days of fishing on the trip, but it fazed me not when the half-day on the water with Buffett entailed nothing more than being anchored in a quiet cove with Buffett strumming his guitar, swizzling tequila and puffing joints. We set out lines with live shrimp as bait and put them in the rod holders.
The bartender and I – obviously affected by Buffett’s second-hand smoke – sang along to some of his famed songs. No one cared how off-tune we may have been, and it wouldn’t have even been noticed if a world record bonefish had gobbled a shrimp and run off towing our boat behind it.
Fortunately, my other days fishing with a regular guide proved article worthy, and I honored Buffett’s request not to write about our outing as long as he lived.
While I was never a crazed parrothead, Jimmy Buffett’s death hit me hard. Perhaps the two brief encounters heightened my nostalgia, but our inheritance is all those fabulous songs and his mellow happy-go-lucky persona.
Live in Paradise, Jimmy. Sure wish I’d kept your business card, not that you haven’t been long gone from that dingy Key West bar. When my time comes, I hope to meet you on a heavenly skiff in the Bahamas. Until then, I’ll be singing “Come Monday” at karaoke.