Jimmy Buffett finds a life beyond Margaritaville

July 22, 1994|By Gary Graff | Gary Graff,Knight-Ridder News Service

In Arthurian legend, it was the land without a king.

For Parrotheads, it's the party without the host.

Jimmy Buffett has left Key West.

Not entirely, mind you. The singer, songwriter and perennial summer concert favorite still keeps a studio on the Florida island. It's also the home to one of his Margaritaville clubs.

But the Buffett clan -- wife Jane and daughters Savannah Jane, 15, and Sarah Delaney, 2 -- have relocated to the Florida mainland, homesteading in Palm Beach (they also have a summer house in Long Island). On the surface, it's a minor move: Mr. Buffett is still close enough to whisk down to Key West for some fishing; and Palm Beach is suited to the sun 'n' fun that are crucial to his image.

But for his legion of fans -- dubbed Parrotheads by the Eagles' Timothy B. Schmit -- the symbolism of his move is strong. Key West is the spiritual center of Mr. Buffett's "Margaritaville," a mythic mind-set mecca of Hawaiian shirts, no socks and cold, fruity cocktails.

"On one of the computer bulletin boards, someone took a shot at him for living in Palm Beach with all the millionaires," says Marty Lehmann, editor of the Buffett newsletter Coconut Telegraph. "But these people . . . came to his defense. They said: 'So what? He's made a lot of money. Leave him alone.' "

L Moving, Mr. Buffett explains, was strictly for his children.

"We moved for the schools," says the singer, 47. "Key West is a great place; it's idyllic, a place where you can be a kid forever. But I don't want to raise my children down there."

His oldest daughter hardly seems worse for the wear. Savannah Jane has co-written two children's books with her father, and when she visits him on the road "she likes to get on that stage and sing backup, so God help us!" Mr. Buffett says with a laugh.

The move hasn't dampened his career, either. He's busier than ever. Mr. Buffett still makes vague noises about not touring as much -- "I don't feel like I can do 70 or 80 of them and keep up the same energy level" -- but another summer has come and found him drawing the usual sell-out crowds at amphitheaters around the country.

For the first time in five years, Mr. Buffett has new music for his devotees. "Fruit Cakes" is his 23rd album and his first of fresh material since 1989's "Off to See the Lizard." It's largely what you'd expect from a Buffett album: spirited sea chanteys; a couple of country tunes; some mellow, reflective ballads; and covers of the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band," Mr. Buffett's favorite Dead song, and the Kinks' appropriately titled "Sunny Afternoon."

"I just wanted to make a record for Parrotheads and people who like Jimmy Buffett music," says Mr. Buffett, who hasn't had a hit since "Fins" in 1979.

"I didn't aspire to challenge radio, who had never played me before, or MTV. I have better things to worry about than that. . . . I went and made a record I felt comfortable with; I like having the freedom to do that without anybody saying, 'Aren't you worried about having a hit?' "

Records are only one part of Mr. Buffett's multimedia empire -- though his Nashville-based Margaritaville label is a burgeoning concern that puts out albums by the Iguanas and other artists.

His main interest now is a stage musical based on Herman Wouk's "Don't Start the Carnival." Mr. Wouk is working on it with Mr. Buffett -- who once turned down the lead in "The Will Rogers Follies" -- and the two are finishing the first draft of the script. They're also meeting with directors and investors, though no deals have been signed yet.

Mr. Wouk's book, Mr. Buffett says, is "a bible to anyone who lives in the Caribbean. To do it with Herman and attempt to make it work and make a calypso musical with it is right up my alley."

On the big screen, Mr. Buffett is completing a Paramount Pictures film adaptation of "Where Is Joe Merchant?" -- the detective story that's one of his two New York Times best sellers. A movie version of his 1977 signature hit "Margaritaville" is still being discussed, "like a fish in the box that won't die."

And Mr. Buffett has a bit part in the upcoming movie "Cobb," which stars Tommy Lee Jones as the Detroit Tiger great.

"I'm the heckler he beat up in Boston," says Mr. Buffett, who's part owner of a minor league baseball team. "They let me write my own part, and I thought of all the things that had been yelled at me over the years. . . . Anything that would ignite him.

"He got pretty incensed. There was Tommy Lee Jones in spikes coming over the wall, which is something I forgot about."

So regardless of where he calls home these days, Mr. Buffett's sail is up and has a full wind behind it. "Someday," he says, "I might not tour like I do now -- really. You're laughing; why does everybody laugh when I say that?

"Anyway, it's been nice to see that there are all these other things I can do, too."

Parrotheads, unite!

What: Jimmy Buffett, the Iguanas

tTC Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion

When: Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, at 8 p.m.

Cost: Concerts are sold out

Call: (410) 730-2424

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