Jimmy Buffett has the image of a guy so laid-back he can scarcely bend his elbow at the beach. That’s occasionally true, said the singer-songwriter-guitarist, barefoot and casually dressed in a purple shirt and knockabout pants during an interview to promote his first novel, the breezy Where Is Joe Merchant?
But he said: “I also love to work.” He loves performing, too, and fans flock to his performances.
In the summer of 1991, grosses for his concerts put him third, behind the Grateful Dead and Guns N’ Roses, according to PollStar, the concert promoters’ trade journal. This summer, he thinks he came in third again.
“I’m more popular now in terms of concert attendance than when ‘Margaritaville’ was a hit,” he said.
So although he hasn’t had a huge hit since “Margaritaville” 15 years ago, Buffett didn’t have to write a book to feed his family or fill empty days.
“I think I was driven to write because I wound up living in Key West, which was a literary town when I went there. I wrote travel pieces for The Miami Herald and I was always writing short stories,” said Buffett, who published 12 of them in 1989 as Tales FromMargaritaville.
“The short-story book was successful. I couldn’t leave it there. I didn’t try to write War and Peace. I tried to write something you could take to the beach. I wanted it to read easy.”
In Where Is Joe Merchant? – No. 5 on the Publishers Weekly best-selling fiction list Oct. 11 – Buffett wrote about what he knows: the rock scene, the milieu for his title character, and piloting boats and flying planes around Caribbean islands, which is protagonist Frank Bama’s forte.
“Frank Bama isn’t me but we have the same musical taste. He listens to James Taylor and Van Morrison,” said Buffett, who got his pilot’s license at age 40, five years ago.
“Once I got the lead character and his girlfriend going, it was a matter of connecting old haunts and stories and changing a few names. After all my wild years, I realized that was research. I didn’t have to make a lot of this stuff up.
“I wanted it to be a very strong character book, with good vs. evil, a mythological adventure story with a quirky, not-so-normal approach. I was influenced by the entertaining novels I like to read. I’ll read something serious but then I have to read something not serious.”
Shakespeare provided help, he said, explaining: “Richard III is the best villain there ever was. I didn’t know how to write about bad guys. I found myself going back to the classics to look for clues.”
Buffett worked on his novel during the last three years, writing every day, even on tour. “Somehow I found the persistence and discipline to do it,” he said. “It’s something you discover about yourself.
“My wife and I had been separated almost seven years. We reconciled and I was still touring. And I was writing a book. It was a pretty big menu.
“Performance had been my life. Family and friends came second. My therapist said, ‘Performance is part of your life, not your whole life.’ I said, ‘Dang!’
“You’re lucky if you live long enough to realize that.”
The reunited Buffett’s have two daughters, 13-year-old Savannah Jane and 6-month-old Sarah Delaney.
In his novel, Buffett had fun with rock group names – Cats in Heat, Freddy and the Fishsticks, Missing Milk Carton Children – and with chapter titles.
“It always was the fun part of being in rock ‘n’ roll, making up names of bands and making up song titles. As a songwriter, I feel if you get a good title, you get a great song.”
At that rate, “Desdemona’s Building a Rocket Ship,” Chapter 10, will probably be a song on Buffett’s next record. His song titles include “Please Bypass This Heart” and “Cheeseburger In Paradise,” and one album is titled Last Mango In Paris.
A year ago, he founded Margaritaville Records, which has released a Buffett 72-song compilation, Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads, distributed by MCA. He’s also signed new acts “who don’t fit niches and who have the dedication to do what I did, stick in there.”
“They’re not going to get paid a million bucks. They’re going to have the advantage of my 25 years of survival in a business not known for survival,” he said. “I made a lot of mistakes and learned from them.
“I say, go out and work. Sell yourself to clubs as opening acts. Establish yourself so you’ve got a career whether your record does anything or not.”
As a kid Buffett thought he would grow up and go to sea.
“My grandfather was a sailing ship captain. The Caribbean and its lure were with me all my life,” he said. “I have sailed my guitar around the world.”
- Orlando Sentinel, October 11, 1992