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The Parrothead Inside Me

A long night of the soul at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville

I am already having a strange day when I sit down for dinner at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. I’ve just watched the new documentary Parrot Heads, about Buffett’s very dedicated fandom, and I’m ready to experience the lifestyle for myself. Margaritaville is Buffett’s successful chain of vacation-themed casual dining restaurants, named for his 1977 hit, an ode to spending a season wasted in order to nurse a heartbreak.

“Escapism” is a word that comes up frequently in the Parrot Heads film when fans are asked to explain Buffett’s appeal, and escapism is exactly what I am in need of tonight. Chaos reigns, but there’s booze in the blender. It’s both five o’clock somewhere and literally 5 p.m. in Southern California when I decide to have an old person’s early dinner and waste away the rest of my wretched Wednesday in Margaritaville.

For decades now, Jimmy Buffett — an aging ’70s soft-rocker forever clad in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts — has been synonymous with vacation. Originally from Pascagoula, Mississippi, he has turned his musical career into a thriving franchise. After flunking out of Nashville in the early ’70s, he did a spell busking on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, before following "Mr. Bojangles" singer Jerry Jeff Walker to Key West on a busking tour and deciding to settle there. It was in Key West, the legend goes, that Buffett stumbled upon the formula that would make him a star. The Parrot Heads documentary dubs the trademark Buffett sound “trop-rock,” but it has also been called “gulf and western.” It exists somewhere on an islet between the streams of Southern-fried bar rock and deathless novelty songs.

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The classic Jimmy Buffett formula, as set forth by 1973's A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean and engraved in stone by “Margaritaville,” involves evoking tropical beaches nearly as vividly as The Beach Boys evoke Californian ones. Recurring themes include the breezy pace of coastal towns, sailing, and getting drunk, so drunk. Buffett songs smell like salt air, tanning oil, and cheap, endless booze. Style-demonstrative Buffett album titles include Last Mango in Paris, Coconut Telegraph, Off to See the Lizard, and Beach House on the Moon.

The first successful Margaritaville restaurant opened in Key West in 1985 (after a failed launch in Gulf Shores, Alabama), and the brand has expanded across the country. There are now Margaritavilles most everyplace an American vacation exists: Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, Jurassic World. The L.A. flagship opened last month, christened with a performance from Buffett himself. There are also licensed Margaritaville hotels, casinos, and soon, retirement communities.

Buffett has said that he wrote “Margaritaville" for Elvis, who died before he had a chance to record it. More recently, Buffett has been eagerly adopted by mainstream country music, and Buffett collabs have become de rigueur for male Nashville stars like Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson. As Buffett and his fan base have become older, the brand has become just as much about fantasies of retirement as of vacation, despite the fact that neither are really encouraged by American capitalism. Either way, the setting is almost always tropical — there is no winter in Margaritaville, even on his Christmas albums.

The flip side of Margaritaville's relentless American escapism is an undercurrent of colonialism. A 1982 song called “Somewhere Over China” involves the stereotypical “Oriental riff” and a lyric about fortune cookies. “Jolly Mon Sing” features Buffett co-opting island patois over generic steel drums. Those steel drums and a hint of the dubious accent recur on a 1996 song called “Jamaica Mistaica,” about the time a personal plane that had recently carried Jimmy Buffett and Bono was shot at by cops who thought it was smuggling drugs. “Margaritaville” itself takes place in an unnamed Mexican beach town where the narrator has escaped to in order to drown his memories of a recently failed romance in the eponymous “frozen concoction” while coming to terms with the fact that the breakup was really all his fault. On a more recent album, Buffett collaborated with Colombian tropipop star Fanny Lu on a bilingual version of a song he wrote titled “I Want to Go Back to Cartagena.” These moments can be unintentionally cringeworthy, down to their good intention of replicating a "foreign" sound for the folks at home.

The name "Parrotheads" was inspired by Deadheads, the name of the Grateful Dead fan base. Like many things about Buffett, it seemingly started as a joke and stuck. While songs about traveling actually only occupy a fraction of the Buffett discography, they have come to stand for the whole in the collective imagination. The Buffett live experience is aggressively zany, encouraging concertgoers to wear leis and Hawaiian shirts while stilt-walkers comb the crowd and flying beach balls abound.

The recorded version of “Margaritaville” is already more wistful than it gets credit for, but a so-called lost final verse that Buffett often performs in concert reveals the song to be even more depressing, casting a weary eye on the sad lives and impossible fantasies of vacationers: “Old men in tank tops / Cruisin' the gift shops / Checkin' out chiquitas / Down by the shore / They dream about weight loss / Wish they could be their own boss / Those three-day vacations become such a bore.” The irony of Buffett is that these soft, cloudlike songs often have a latent sharper edge within. You can’t sing about vacation without implicitly singing about what a drag work is.

It's interesting to consider Buffett as a peer to fellow ’70s songwriters with more serious reputations. In interviews, Bob Dylan has praised Buffett as one of his favorite songwriters several times, listing him alongside “[Gordon] Lightfoot, Warren Zevon, Randy [Newman], John Prine, Guy Clark," and singling out the song “Death of an Unpopular Poet” as a favorite. (In the early 1980s, Dylan joined his ex Joan Baez at a nuclear disarmament rally to duet on Buffett's "A Pirate Looks at 40.")

Like all of those songwriters, and Dylan himself, Buffett is essentially a journeyman singer-songwriter on an endless tour. Buffett performances — other people’s vacations — are his hours of clocking in. Onstage and in his records, he both mocks the vacationers and tenderly portrays their hopes, without drawing a binary line in the sand between the two sides. He works for the tourists he sings about, though he really speaks from the side of the resort waitstaff. Many island nations like the ones Buffett sings of are largely or entirely dependent on tourism for revenue. That everyone has fun at the staged party is not just an act of hospitality — it’s necessary for survival.

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“Margaritaville” is about relaxing, but the longer you listen, the clearer it is that he's also singing about the melancholy side of vacation time. The Margaritaville brand attempts to remove the melancholy bit by focusing wholly on the beach party aspect, but fails. The very idea of a chain restaurant as a mini-vacation from depressing reality is, of course, more than a little bit sad. But, BOY, is that exactly what I need when I walk through its doors! I am looking for a sensorially overwhelming escape from the mundane world, and Margaritaville offers nothing if not that.

When I approach the facade, a glowing Margaritaville sign with a giant, blue cartoon parrot beckons me in. The restaurant is themed within an inch of its life. There is an outdoor patio, and on that patio are terrifying stilt-walkers making balloon animals for customers. The first sight inside the restaurant is a giant prop blender filled with neon lime-green liquid, the titular drink of the province. Elsewhere you'll find wooden Adirondack chairs arranged around a fire pit, a booth housed inside a fake yacht frame, and ample tiki decorations. I sit at one of the regular indoor tables, near the yacht. I face the Margaritaville stage, where live acts play at night. It’s currently dead, but a drum kit sits onstage at the ready inside a giant plexiglass box, presumably to stop drunk patrons from trying to have a drum sesh. There are monitors everywhere playing a rotation of Buffett videos and Buffett-adjacent acts like Zac Brown Band. The most surreal moment is when they play a corporate music video juxtaposing Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” with visuals of carefree, youngish people sailing on a boat, their generous drinks spilling over the rims with the tug of the tide.

Buffett’s second-biggest hit, 1978's “Cheeseburger in Paradise" — a colloquial love sonnet to “heaven on earth with an onion slice” — gets a place of honor on the menu, with a whole section named for it. (It also lent its name to a second casual dining chain that Buffett opened in 2002.) The Margaritaville menu is rife with puns, song titles, and straightforward nautical, island, and beach themes. Aside from the margaritas, there’s a section called "Boat Drinks," named for another Buffett song. I skip both the cheeseburger and the boat drinks in favor of “Landshark Fish & Chips™”, dipped in a batter made with Buffett’s proprietary brew. It’s pretty good.

My mind almost starts drifting away to paradise when one of the terrifying stilt-walkers is suddenly towering over me, offering to make me a balloon animal. I say yes on a “when in Margaritaville” kick, and soon I possess not only a triangular balloon hat that would suit the Young Pope, but also a balloon flower wristlet corsage.

Turns out it’s harder to feel sad when you’re wearing a stupid balloon hat and posing in front of a giant blender. Sure, the effects are as fleeting as a night’s tequila buzz, but for the rest of the night at least, I, too, am a Parrothead.