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Published: Monday, 6/9/2008

Buffett's Margaritaville remains a very nice place to be

ON THE back of our little RV, I keep a bumper sticker that reads: "Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Jimmy Buffett." Everywhere we go we get appreciative thumbs up from fellow Parrotheads who look at the mess we're in and no doubt ask themselves, "Hey, what could it hurt?"

Well, for one thing, if the Margaritaville Muse were to take his gig to the White House, I assume that affairs of state would put a serious crimp in his annual concert tours, and that would be very bad for the Republic. Not to mention Republicans, at least those who who go to his shows to abandon the hum-drum in their lives and escape to that magical place Buffett calls home.

So I am not here to nominate Jimmy Buffett for president. I'm here for the party.

I've been to rock concerts, country concerts, and music festivals, and I've never seen anything like a Buffett show. People who for most of the year are button-downed professionals somehow morph into completely wacky and off-the-wall alter egos at a Buffett concert. I'm not talking necessarily about the effects of the alcohol, although there is a good deal of it. As Jimmy sings in his signature song, "Margaritaville," there's lots of "booze in the blender."

Dianne Walton and an unidentified Parrothead enjoy the Margaritaville atmosphere before a Jimmy Buffett concert. Dianne Walton and an unidentified Parrothead enjoy the Margaritaville atmosphere before a Jimmy Buffett concert.
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But even the fans who eschew the hootch undergo a personality transplant. If you have a problem with bashfulness, forget it. They confiscate it at the front gate. You'll see older folks in their 70s and 80s and youngsters just 5 or 6, and nearly all of them are dressed in outfits they keep hidden the rest of the year. Hardly anybody sits down, and everybody knows all the words to all the songs. Buffett's greatest-hits album, in fact, is called "Songs You Know By Heart."

A Buffett concert can be an overwhelming and unnerving experience for first-timers. Parrotheads cavort in grass skirts and coconut bras. And those are just the men. Some wear hats that would have made Carmen Miranda proud. Others affix shark fins to their backs.

To fully appreciate the Margaritaville experience, you have to get to the venue early - like when the parking lot opens. Then you set up your lawn chairs, drape a lei around your neck (don't forget to wear the gaudiest Hawaiian shirt you've got), and watch the spectacle around you while you tailgate.

We've seen Buffett in concert 21 times now. Oh, the stories we could tell about the party in the parking lot. Okay, maybe a couple can be safely shared:

One imaginative Parrothead somehow turned himself into a palm tree, and his head was the monkey up on top eating a banana. We once saw a fan set up a mini-Tiki Bar and mix his margaritas with the help of a weed-whacker. And at every show, without fail, several devoted Parrotheads (maybe "committed" is a better word) arrive in pickup trucks full of sand. Up go the inflatable palm trees and out come the Coronas.

There was a time when we could get in line for Buffett tickets at 9:30 in the morning at a Ticketmaster outlet and get pretty good seats at face value a few minutes after the sale began at 10. Now we don't bother. Buffett has become such a huge summer tour event that brokers somehow secure most of the seats. If you want to see Buffett, you pay the brokers, and the tickets generally go for several times face value. The same is true of tickets offered in eBay auctions, so obviously the demand is there, seemingly at any price.

The best seats in the house for one summer concert next month were listed on one broker's Web site at $2,000. Each! I suspect the Parrotheads down front don't worry about gasoline at four bucks a gallon.

A good friend of mine, John Ansberg, is a fellow Parrothead and an undertaker. Now there's a job that requires an occasional escape. Apparently people are dying in sufficient numbers to compensate him handsomely, because he remembers sitting on a dock once in St. Bart's, one of the Caribbean's most expensive islands, and there was Buffett, hosing down his boat in Gustavia harbor. Jimmy invited him aboard for a quick tour. I've never managed to actually meet Buffett, but a review I wrote of a concert many years ago at Blossom Music Center near Akron made it into a Buffett biography.

And, of course, I've been to the restaurant that inspired Jimmy to write the song "Cheeseburger in Paradise." Maybe you have too, since nearly every burger joint south of the Mason-Dixon line makes the same claim. True believers think he wrote it at Le Select, an upscale place on St. Bart's. Since I can't afford to go to St. Bart's, I prefer to think it was that funky joint on Cabbage Key off Sanibel-Captiva in Florida.

Buffett occasionally performs now in major league ballparks because he can fill a lot more seats. I think that's a mistake. Not only do many fans need binoculars to get an up-close view, it's an insult to baseball shrines such as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, two places he played a couple summers ago. It's not like he needs the money. He's come a long way from that first hundred-dollar pickup truck.

But despite the annoyances, Margaritaville is still a pretty nice place to be. My wife and I will see Jimmy at DTE Energy Theater north of Detroit tomorrow night. That'll be concert number 22 for us, and no, we didn't pay anywhere near $2,000 a seat, though I'm sure we enriched some broker enough to put a tank of gas in his Lexus.

One of my favorite Buffett songs is called "Saxophones." I don't know if he played it in 1993 when he performed at Bill Clinton's first inaugural ball. But if Jimmy does one day make a run for the White House and wins, perhaps Bill can return the favor, now that it appears he won't be America's First Gentleman. He's pretty good on the tenor sax.



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