You're at the two-minute break just before halftime in this semester, you're down 21 zip, and all you wanna do is get into the locker room fast--maybe when you re-emerge things will be better. Or better yet, maybe they won't have a guard posted and you can slip out the back door, never to return.
It's at times like these, in the early morning hours, that visions of palm trees and pedal steel guitar music start winking and swaying, sultrily enticing while outside Cambridge's wind chain-saws through the joggers and mailmen. Palm trees equal sunshine, sixpacks, surf. Pedal steel guitars equal smoky night clubs, sequins, cocaine in the back rooms. What more could you want? (For spring vacation, anyway.)
The way to get There is south on Highway One, you know, the one that goes through Ipswich et al. Highway One peters out in downtown Key West, Florida--they just closed down the naval air station so the town will probably be even sleepier than it ever was. After a couple of days of the palm trees and all their concomitants, you'll probably be ready for the pedal steel guitars. Well, the only places I know of to look for pedal steel music are two perhaps figmentary, (because they're only mentioned in songs) but pretty concrete (at least in the images they're evoked with in the songs) bars'n' lounges--the Shipwreck Lounge and the rather-more-evanescent Club Mandible.
Now, if you ever find yourself in the audience at either of these dens, dropping peanut shells on the floor and putting a poptop back into the beercan before you slurp up the suds oozing around the rim, Jimmy Buffett may just be standing right in front of you, along with the pedal steel you've been looking for. Jimmy Buffett is a semi-permanent escapee, you see, whose major claim to fame as far as the Southern vocabulary goes is his invention and frequent usage of the phrase "commode-hugging drunk," which comes in real handy on recriminating mornings replete with description and Darvons.
Jimmy Buffett is a country musician, one of a new breed that began with John Prine's innovations in country lyrics and produced such songs as "The City of New Orleans" (which Arlo Guthrie made famous) and the great country self-parody "I Don't Mind If You Don't Call me 'Darling,' Darlin, But You Don't Even Call Me By My Name." The genius of these new country singers and songwriters is in their largely successful avoidance of the banality of previous country lyrics, and their musical incorporation of not only rock and roll, but '40s and '50s pop tunes as well.
Jimmy Buffett's contribution to the New Country has been a sophisticated rowdiness, a wallowing in the sound of words, a degree of self-parody, and a subtly vulgar description of place and time and living. Buffett's worst moments are his most sentimental, when strings overwhelm his plain acoustic and pedal steel guitars, when he talks about his grandfather and going home, and gets trapped in the old cliches. These moments are more numerous on Buffett's later albums--as he runs out of youthful exuberance, maybe--but he greases his way out of most of the beartraps with little twists of detail. On his third album, "Living and Dying in 3/4 Time," for instance, he describes passing through a fading town called Ringling. It has all the potential for being another Bogdanovichian retarded-kid-sweeping-the-middle-of-the-street song, but in the middle Buffett sings: Across from the bar there's a pile of beer cans been there 27 years. Imagine all the heartaches and tears in 27 years of beers.
His second album, "The White Sport Coat and the Pink Crustacean," is probably the pick of his litter. It has several of his best wry vignettes, and the rudest of the crude underground hits he'll be remembered by: I really do appreciate the fact you're sitting here Your voice sounds so wonderful But your face don't look so clear. So bar maid bring a pitcher, another round of brew. Honey, why don't we get drunk and screw.
(Even Buffett knew how bad it was--he credited the song to a fictional "Marvin Gardens" who is listed as a band member under "Maracas and beer cans.")
One of the vignettes is called "The Great Filling Station Holdup." Before Dylan satirized outlaw myths in "Joey," Buffett was already sick of them--he sings about being an unwilling accomplice in a robbery that netted "fifteen dollars and a can of STP/A big ole jar of cashew nuts and a Japanese T.V." Then, while he and his buddy are getting drunk on the money, a sheriff comes, He roughed us, then he cuffed us, And he took us off to jail. No picture on a poster, no reward, and no bail.
There's a nostalgia song, called "They Don't Dance Like Carmen No More"; a shoplifting song, "Peanut Butter Conspiracy," about how you never know when the hard times'll hit you, so you better keep your touch; a simple bouncing love song called "Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit"; and a ghost-conjuring ballad about an adultery/murder/suicide and how the newspapers missed the human tragedy: An it's just a Cuban crime of passion Messy and old-fashioned... Anjejos and knives a-slashing But that's what the people like to read about Up in America.
Jimmy Buffett's last two albums have been a little more glossy than crustacean. Forebodings of trespassed territory emerge from the back cover of "Living and Dying in 3/4 Time"--it's 1974, right? and Jaws is more than an aching molar in the back of Peter Benchley's mouth, right? and a great white shark is slithering through clear green water on the back cover, about to swallow the credits and titles.
The first side of "3/4 Time" starts with a better nostalgia song than "Crustacean"'s "I'm an old man, I'd probably get sore/Cause they don't dance like Carmen no more." The song begins, "I wish I had a pencil thin mustach," and goes on to seance up a bevy of 20th century culture ghosts, like Ricky Ricardo two-tone jackets, autographed pictures of Andy Levine Dick Clark's Bandstand, "Going off to college to get a little knowledge,/when all I really want is to learn how to score." It ends with "Brylcream, a little dab'll do you/Yeah I could do some cruisin' too"; and it sounds like another rollicking good time.
But the next song comes on with loneliness and violins, and it's not enough that later on in the album Buffett sings about adding saxophones to country music, "Yeah, cleaning up the muddy breaks," as a bass guitar licks up and down the scale. Or that at the very end of "3/4 Time" Buffett does a 6-minute monologue called "God's Own Drunk," wherein the hero is guarding a still, gets overcome by temptation, takes a few slashes, commences to get hot flashes, metamorphoses into God's Own Drunk and a fearless man, then sees "The Bear...a Kodiak-looking feller, bout 19 feet tall," who rambles over and "looks me in the eyes, and mine were a lot redder than his. It hung him up." It's not enough because the spell is shattered--Buffett succumbed just once, but it's shadow of things to come.
His latest record, "Havana Daydreamin'," is just a shade hokey. The title song sounds mellow and all that until the chorus gets repeated once too many times--then it begins to call to mind Dean Martin, among others. Maybe it's that Jimmy Buffett is settling down--he's been in love for two years now with a woman named variously "Miss Jane," J. Slagsvol, and Jane--he co-wrote two songs on the album with her. He's beginning to complain about playing country music, as in "Kick It in Second Wind," when it's one o'clock in the morning and the audience is screaming for more, "Somebody's locked in the bathroom and the manager's lost the key/I pity that man, but from where I stand, it looks like the prisoner is me." He's not eulogizing craziness as much anymore.
There's always consolation, though. The feeling comes through that the day he finished the song, "Havana Daydreamin," the ABC-Dunhill people told him it was going to be the next AM hit; so he went out and got real drunk and the next day wrote "My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don't Love Jesus," the hangover song of all time. And, too, there are the sloshed and sleazy Buffett songs that sum it-up, like "Brand New Country Star" off the "3/4 Time" album: Well, he outgrew his sequinned suit, sold his Trailways bus Let his hair get a little too long, ducktails bit the dust. His custom-made pearl-inlaid guitar slipped from his hands And in its place a new electric one he had flown in from Japan. He's a cheeseburger-eatin', abandoned- Sunday-meetin', Brand New Country Star. He rides around in a Lincoln Continental, no steer horns on his car. The recordmen say he's the living end, gonna spin him to the top. He's a hot Roman candle from the Texas panhandle. He can either go country or pop. Yeah, he can either go country or pop.
And if Jimmy Buffett don't pop, he'll be in Key West for your children's spring vacations--getting tired of the Cambridge cold? Just hustle on down to the sandbar, gobble down a couple pink crustaceans, get drunk, and screw.