Before we get into this, a confession: I thought I had already written this blog. Not a Jimmy Buffett tribute blog, as I knew I had failed to do that in the nearly two months since his death, but a blog reflecting on the particular song I’ll examine later.
But I can find no evidence of it, so I guess I’ll do it here.
Why is it that it took me almost two months to write a Buffett tribute blog? I’m not sure. I felt like a lot was said at the time and I wasn’t sure what to add to it. Tributes rolled in, I read some of them and struggled to know what to say.
Then last week I was shopping when “Cheeseburger in Paradise” came on the PA at the store. It was the first time I had heard a Buffett song that wasn’t a “tribute” in the week or so following his Sept. 1 death.
“Holy crap, he’s really gone, isn’t he?” I thought. I was finally ready.
It also didn’t hurt to run into a good friend (you know who you are) on the street who may have kicked by butt into gear.
So here we go…
People love to hate on a successful artist. I do it too sometimes. With Jimmy Buffett in particular, I think people resented that he promoted this beach bum lifestyle while turning himself into a billionaire.
But as a very wise local musician said to me once about Buffett, you don’t find the success that he had without there being substance behind it.
Jimmy had the chops as a songwriter in particular. Musically, his style changed a number of times over the years, but he never lost that eye for detail and the heart for people that make any good storyteller successful.
I think I understood that on a gut level somehow, even as I attended several of his concerts while in my 20s mostly as a reason to party.
Put more simply: Jimmy Buffett told soulful stories.
He gave us 50-plus years of examples, and music is richer for it.
Here’s the secret of good songwriters, as I’ve always seen it: They’re always finding ways to make you laugh or make you cry. The truly great ones find a way to make you laugh – or at least smile – when you ought to be crying. John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell and Kris Kristofferson all come to mind when I think of this quality.
And Buffett belongs on the list as well. No less an expert than Bob Dylan (also on the list of course) was once asked his favorite songwriters and said, “Buffett I guess. (Gordon) Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy (Newman). John Prine. Guy Clark. Those kinds of writers.”
My lord, what a list. I think I’ve written about them all at some point except Guy Clark and maybe Randy Newman. I should probably change that.
But some snobs were put out to see Bob, of all people, listing the beach bum king among their gods.
Clearly they haven’t listened – I mean really listened – to any of the songs named above.
They also haven’t listened to “Cowboy in the Jungle.”
Of course they’d probably resent the title. “What the hell does that mean – cowboy in the jungle?”
Well, listen to the story.
The first verse is about a man born in the wrong time – a common Buffett subject back in the day. Only this one isn’t a sailor born “200 years too late” but a cowboy on his way to Paraguay (where they still have cowboys … er, gauchos) who runs out of cash and becomes a sailor.
In the second verse, he contrasts this broke cowboy and his full, interesting life with rich tourists who live empty lives but try to be interesting in short bursts of “trying to cram lost years into five or six days.)
(If you’ll allow me a quick aside: I’ll admit I’ve often wondered how that line set with Buffett in later years as he looked over his now largely middle aged, middle class crowds and saw these very people buying his tickets, trying to cram lost years into one night of partying.)
Finally, we get some first-person narrative in the last verse as Buffett looks at the stars from his boat and ponders our existence and reaches the conclusion “still 24 hours, maybe 60 good years, it’s really not that long a stay.”
What ties it all together is Buffett’s thoughts on ambition vs. intuition, with a small change each time through before he finally tells us, “Forget that blind ambition, learn to trust your intuition – plowin’ straight ahead, come what may.”
It’s hard to argue with that, and it’s just the kind of advice Buffett would often give in his songs: Don’t let making a living get in the way of actually living.
But more on point, I love a song that can do that – take three seemingly disparate narratives and somehow tie them together with repeated a line or two. I don’t know if there’s a poetic term for the way a refrain can take on different meanings every time, but it’s something I noticed in the country songs of my youth, and now notice it well-crafted folk songs here and there.
Also, special props to Mike Utley for his keyboard work on this one and Fingers Taylor on the harmonica. Those performances really put this over the top for me.
There are obviously more popular songs of Buffett’s. Doubtless there are better songs too.
But as someone who often finds his own thoughts turning to what it means to really live, I return to this song often.
It means something much different to me than it did 20 years ago, but in many ways it’s still the same.
And isn’t a good songwriter’s legacy? That he or she leaves us with something that can grow with us throughout our own lives.
Have a good weekend out there, people. Trust your intuition.