My earliest childhood memories are from Margaritaville

You know a Jimmy Buffett concert is about to begin when a song that’s not his starts to blare through the speakers. With the sound of a steel drum and the rush of an enthusiastic fan base jumping to their feet, for three tours in a row, at ages, four, five and six, I had come to understand that the opening “Ole ole ole oles” from Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot” meant that Buffett was about to take the stage. It’s at this time that Buffett’s large Coral Reefer band – made up of a keyboard player (Mist-ah Utley!), percussionists, guitar players, trumpeters, backup vocalists and more – fill the stage, and beach balls and t-shirts are shot into the crowd. After enough anticipation is drummed up, Jimmy Buffett, the man responsible for summoning a devoted crowd clad in Hawaiian shirts and parrot hats, saunters onto the stage sans shoes, holding a guitar and waving to the crowd like the mayor of Margaritaville. 

As a young Parrot Head, or parakeet, I felt special to be dancing and singing with all these fun-loving adults, even if I had to stand on a chair to see.

The first time I witnessed this spectacle, I was peering through the spaces left by the rowdy adults in front of me to get glimpses of the stage. Flashing colorful lights and beach balls flying overhead instantly transported me to an island somewhere, even if in my four years of life I hadn’t been to one yet. I watched my parents watch me, gauging my reaction of my first taste of live music. At that age, Jimmy Buffett and his Parrot Head fans taught me everything I knew about concerts. I saw the impact that one person could have on many others, my parents included. Looking up at the adults towering over me, I saw my parents smile, sing, clap and dance, and I joined in. I learned that for concerts you get to wear a special outfit, to chant “Salt! Salt! Salt!” echoing Buffett after he sings “Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt” during “Margaritaville” and to swat at incoming beach balls to keep them floating across the arena for the entire performance. 

Because I was one of the youngest people in the crowd, I drew the attention of many Parrot Heads who wanted to make sure I was welcomed into their community. As a young Parrot Head, or parakeet, I felt special to be dancing and singing with all these fun-loving adults, even if I had to stand on a chair to see. By the time Buffett’s “A Salty Piece of Land” tour made it to the Mohegan Sun Arena in 2005, I was no longer an only child. My younger twin siblings were two, making them not quite old enough to join my parents and me in Margaritaville. He is a rare thing that belongs to just us, an inside joke or secret code that even my siblings still can’t completely appreciate since they weren’t there. 

Buffett is actually a great artist for kids.

Buffett holds a lot of important musical firsts for me. He was my first three concerts and my first CD. Before his 2006 “Party at the End of the World” tour, my grandmother brought me to Spin Street, a store in Mohegan that had aisles and aisles of CDs, and got me a 38-song compilation album called “Meet Me in Margaritaville: The Ultimate Collection” that I would study for the next concert that rolled around, which, it turns out, would be just a year away. In writing this, I learned that Buffett toured every year since 1976, even with a broken leg at one point in the ’80s.

Inside the venue at my second show, I got a pink t-shirt that wouldn’t fit me for years. (Buffett’s merch only came in adult sizes.) When we held the shirt up to my small body at the front of the merch line, I begged my parents to get it, knowing that it would be worth the wait to grow into one day. Aside from his merchandise, Buffett is actually a great artist for kids. His island sounds and campy songs like “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Volcano” are perfect sing-alongs that elicit a smile at any age. He even spoke in code to alert parents if he was about to play a PG-13 song, introducing his song “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” as “Why Don’t We Eat Lunch In School” and singing it that way one year. But, by Buffett’s 2007 “Bama Breeze” tour, I was ready to hang with the adults, draped in fake leis and ready to sing, clap and dance along with my parents and the other Parrot Heads.

For years after, I was a casual listener to Buffett’s music, mostly playing his greatest hits off of “Songs You Know By Heart” in the car with my dad on the way to soccer games or sharing my favorite song as a kid “Fins” with my college friends and attempting to explain what it was like to be at one of his shows. As some of my earliest memories, the clearest recollections I have from those nights are snippets: the excitement in my parents’ eyes as they brought their first child to her first concert, holding my mom’s hand as she guided me around the arena, swaying along with the crowd to the sound of Buffett’s soothing songs, and catching my mom whispering to my dad that he should take me to get a soda when she thought Buffett was about to play “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” — a song that I have still never really listened to for my mother’s sake. In the moment, though, I prepared myself to refuse to take a trip to the concession stand if asked. I wasn’t going to miss out on the full Buffett experience just because I was a kid. 

Today, whenever I get nervous or scared, I can hum “A Pirate Looks at Forty” to myself to calm down.

Mostly, I thought about Buffett whenever I was by the ocean. The ocean is maybe the only thing he and I have in common. (Well, that and margaritas.) It’s clear from his music that Buffett has lived his life on the edge, something I can’t say about myself. To be fair, almost no one, as my mom would put it, has done as much “hard living” as Buffett. It’s what makes him so special. There was a man who, from any one of his songs, told you exactly who he was. Someone who made mistakes, but did it honestly, and with a sense of humor. Someone with wild stories and friends in high places, yet just as approachable as any other guy at the bar. Someone who lived fully. 

Sitting on a beach during spring break in Key Largo, Fla. or caught in rough seas while shark fishing in Aruba, that’s when Buffett would creep back into my Spotify queue. Today, whenever I get nervous or scared, I can hum “A Pirate Looks at Forty” to myself to calm down. Maybe it’s because it brings me back to feeling content in his crowd as a child, but I think it’s also because Jimmy seemed to have figured out the ever-elusive peace. Amid my own “changes in latitudes” navigating my early 20s, Buffett’s relaxing island music helps me survive the chaos that is living on the island of Manhattan. He has become a legend for his easygoing, beach bum lifestyle, which includes a “Jurassic World” cameo where he manages to save two margaritas while running from angry dinosaurs, but he’s also storied and wise and the perfect escape for an anxious 22-year-old. Happy or stressed, drunk or sober, I’ve found that Buffett is an artist who is there whenever you need him. 

Recently, I’ve been thinking about Buffett a lot more. Aging out of my teenage years, graduating college and moving away from home has inspired a new interest in things that were important to me as a child. While my family was together cooking dinner one night, my parents and I excitedly played “Fins,” raising our hands above our heads to mimic sharks, swaying left and right as Buffett sings “Fins to the left, fins to the right” just as we had with the tens of thousands of fans at our shows. This time, my siblings were there, looking at us confused and horrified by our unexplained but instinctive movements. To celebrate my 22nd birthday, I rounded up a group of friends that indulged me in my desire to go to Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant in Times Square. Every hour on the hour, the lights dimmed and a mashup of his songs filled the room, bringing me back in time. Over the past few years, I had been trying to coordinate going to another show with my parents, but between our schedules and me not living at home anymore, we never made it. 

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When I heard that Buffett died at the age of 76 on Friday, I called my parents. We were sad, but mostly we were happy remembering the concerts and the memories from over the years. His shows always felt like a whimsical, lightning in a bottle experience that we were able to share together. My memories of Jimmy Buffett are some of my earliest ever and still some of my favorites with my parents. Over the phone, we praised his songwriting and storytelling and quoted the songs that meant the most to us. I joked that I still had something to look forward to: understanding “A Pirate Looks at Forty” on a new level when I am finally that age, and Buffett’s prophetic words rang in my ears over our laughter (“If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane”). Over the past few days, we’ve been sharing videos of him performing in our own group chat and I sent them a picture wearing my 2006 concert shirt, which finally fits. Even though he is gone, he is still one thing that is ours.

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