That Time I Got Drunk at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and Woke Up A Country Star
I’d never even heard of Jimmy Buffett until my first year working in event ticketing. It was 1995, I was 18, and the phone was ringing off the hook with people asking for tickets to the Jimmy Buffett concert at Great Woods in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
After work I went down to Newbury Comics and bought the seminal classic “Songs You Know By Heart”, I put it on in the car on my way home and thought it was the worst album I’d ever heard in my life. It’s quite possible that I threw the CD out the window after one listen.
Other than business concerns, I never thought about Jimmy Buffett again until six years later. It was a very miserable Friday in New York City, just a few weeks after 9/11. Everything was as terrible as terrible could be. I’d been getting sick, my girlfriend’s father had been diagnosed with stage four cancer, a dark cloud literally hung over the city and metaphorically my life.
I was walking past Madison Square Garden and ran into a ticket scalper friend of mine. “What’s the show?” I casually asked. “Jimmy Buffett,” he replied, “Do you want to go? It’s a stiff. I can give you a really good lower for ten bucks.”
For ten bucks I’ll always see an arena act that I’ve never seen before, so I said OK. I walked into the garden, got a beverage and waited for the show to start. Most of the audience were wearing Hawaiian shirts and hats which was kind of odd for a freezing cold November in New York.
Within seconds of hitting the stage, the entire audience just exploded with the most enthusiastic, optimistic, happy, and exhilarating response I’d ever seen (although it may have seemed like more than it was considering the extenuating circumstances).
I couldn’t physically stay for the whole show but it left an impression. I went out the next morning and purchased “Songs You Know By Heart” again. All of a sudden it felt like a badly-needed 42 minute vacation. For the next couple of years I made a point to see Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band whenever they came to town.
One night I was in Las Vegas when they were opening one of his licensed theme restaurants named Margaritaville and there was a private concert at the swimming pool of the hotel.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago…
I’d been working long hours and was hungry. Sometimes when this happens I get dressed, lock the door, go outside, and stand on the sidewalk for a while until I determine what I want to eat. I don’t know why I do this exactly.
For whatever reason it popped into my head that I could take an Uber and be at the Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville in Universal Citywalk in about fifteen minutes. It seemed like the sort of one-hour vacation I was craving so I impulsively went with it.
It was a weeknight and the bar was fairly empty. I was watching some couples pretend not to want to kill each other. The restaurant broadcasts Margaritaville Radio, an internet station which I used to listen to frequently while making dinner back in Queens.
The next morning when I got to work I was about to listen to “Songs You Know By Heart” on Spotify when I took a deeper look at the catalog and realized that I’d never really listened to any of the other Jimmy Buffett albums much. That morning I began listening to the first 13 albums in order :
Down To Earth
A White Sport Coat And A Pink Crustacean
Living And Dying In 3/4 Time
High Cumberland Jubilee
Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes
Son Of A Son Of A Sailor
Somewhere Over China
One Particular Harbor
Riddles In The Sand
To the untrained eye these are just a list of records but I looked a little closer at the catalog. One thing I remembered from the Buffett concerts is that they were more like broadway musicals than proper concerts. There’s staging, choreography, costumes, props, sets, and narration (Buffett pretends he is captain of a ship and introduces songs by explaining where he is navigating the audience to geographically).
The Jimmy Buffett character likely bore no resemblance to the performer and therefore I started to look at how he built the mythology of the character over time. How he sat down to write a song and didn’t ask what he was going to be about because it was either going to be about drinking, island life, or travel. How could he write thirteen albums and every song revolves around the same three themes?
Listening to them was a masterclass in how it was all done. You can clearly hear where one song is an improvement on a previous idea, the little changes that make them work or not work, how he built the mythology by referencing one thing after another from places he may never have been or may never have existed.
I kept typing away at my spreadsheets but I was listening carefully the whole time.
Around 5 o’clock I fed Axl (my cat) and started humming a tune. Sometimes when I start humming a whole song just comes out of me in seconds, and that’s what happened here. I had sort of absorbed all of this material, the experience in the restaurant, my memories of all the things I heard on the radio station and within three minutes I had written something called “I Think I Liked You Better When You Drank”. I recorded a rough demo with my acoustic guitar on my phone.
I sent it to a couple of friends and went on with my life. The next morning my friend Michelle Angermiller (a disc jockey on WWZY in New Jersey) called me screaming “THIS IS THE BEST THING YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN!” It took me a minute to even remember what the song was. “YOU JUST WROTE THE NEXT ‘FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES!’” she blurted out.
It took me a minute to realize what she was saying. Here I thought I had written a Jimmy Buffett song and was hoping to get it played on Radio Margaritaville. Instead I had written a Garth Brooks song.
I used a producer I found on Fiver to translate my crude recording into a sketched-out idea. I hired a pedal-steel guitar player on Fiverr to accentuate that this was a country song.
The vocals are always a problem for me, so I booked some time with Geza X who had worked with me on “The Pregnant Vegans” album and we were able to record the vocals in a day.
In searching for a proper producer I’d come across Kramer (who made not only the Galaxie 500 albums but also Mike Doughty’s “Skittish” which is one of my favorite albums of all time), his name came up over and over. We spoke on the phone. He’d sold me a Bongos, Bass, and Bob LP on the sidewalk in front of a theater when I was nine years old. I still have it. I still cherish it. He was perfect but he was out of my budget. I could afford his mastering work at least, so I told him I’d call him when it was mixed.
As I don’t really know anyone in the world of country other than the insanely talented Laura Cantrell (who, if you follow my writings you will know was on my favorite record label Matador Records), I asked Laura for some ideas of whom I could hire to mix the song.
Laura referred me to Mark Nevers, who as it turns out had worked on (among a million other things) a couple of (Pavement affiliated) Silver Jews records. This was all quite serendipitous and I knew just from his discography that he would be the perfect person for the job. He worked on it for a couple of days, I sent it to Kramer, he worked on it for a day, and then the song itself was complete.
During a break on the vocal sessions I went to a convenience store and realized that the walls in Geza’s parking lot were painted different colors. There’s been a huge interest in what’s called “The Pink Wall” outside the Paul Smith store on Melrose Avenue. Countless selfies are posted from there every day. Here I had a blue and a dark green wall to work with and nobody to compete with for their use.
I went downtown to the Santee Alley and bought two cowboy hats, one white and one black.
Geza got permission from the auto parts store to which they were properly attached, and I set up my phone on a tripod to lip sync the vocals.
I then realized there was a wall painted black around the corner from my apartment and another painted white next to my driveway. I did 8 takes in total (each wall combined with each cowboy hat) and sent them off to my $16 video editor in Sri Lanka.
48 hours later he sent back the most nightmarish compilation of tacky dissolves and wipes you have ever seen. I spent more time over the next week explaining to him why he had to remove the effects on this stupid video than I did writing or recording the song itself.
The video is somewhat confusingly bad but works well enough.
Building on my past mistakes, I’d finally learned how to submit a song for possible placement on an official Spotify playlist. I’d learned that you have to tag a song on Soundcloud based on the mood of the song, not the genre of the music, I’d learned about proper tags in the MP3 file itself for licensing inquiries, and I’d learned to have no expectations for it’s release.
I sent the song to Kirsten the programming director at Radio Margaritaville and prayed she would listen to it. Then I spoke with a radio promoter who sort of had not a lot of information about his work anywhere online and was quoted $3000 to get the song on a variety of smaller country stations. Ultimately I spent $200 to have it announced and what is called “serviced” to those stations but not promoted. They tell me a community radio station in New Zealand downloaded it but not much else.
It gets hard to keep my head up after spending another $1000 or so on another great song only to have it not help me build a fan base at all, but I couldn’t not have the adventure.
Also I rhymed “tranquil” with “counterexample” so that’s like a lot of Scrabble points or something.