I met Jimmy Buffett once, at the birthday party of a mutual friend held at an outdoor bar in a Florida beach town with blazing tiki torches and waving palms. The singer/songwriter/good times lifestyle mogul, who died Sept. 1, was friendly and laid-back, exactly like you’d imagine Jimmy Buffett would be at a beach bar. It felt like a scene from one of his songs — about the common ground found in a cool breeze, a cold cocktail and a mutual love of fun.
But for me, that moment is rivaled in peak Parrotheadness by, say, singing along to his hit “Fins” in decidedly nonbeachy Cincinnati and squealing when the city’s name comes up in the first line. Or taking a party bus full of Hawaiian-shirted revelers from York, Pennsylvania, another nontropical locale, to Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion to tailgate for hours before and after the Coral Reefer Band took the stage.
Though I spent nearly two decades living in the Florida tropics — Valhalla for Buffett’s sun-thirsty tribe — I think I’ve felt the most fanatic love for him in places far separated from the sand. After all, it’s at your coldest that you need the sun the most.
I first fell in love with Buffett’s music 31 years ago in Ohio during a summer spent selling beer under a fake Eiffel Tower in culottes and a St. Pauli Girl-esque frilly white top at Kings Island amusement park. (I was also in close proximity to future 98 Degrees and “Love Is Blind” star Nick Lachey, who was in the barbershop quartet that performed in front of said fake tower and managed to be hot even in a straw hat and striped vest.)
I was previously somewhat aware of Buffett, but I was unprepared for the fervor I found in Cincy for a man I identified at the time as some dude who sang about the beach.
“There’s no beach here,” I said, confused, to a coworker who breathlessly gushed about Buffett’s then-recent four-night stand at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center.
“That doesn’t matter,” she said. And honestly, I think the landlockedness of it all is the point. Look at the lyrics of “Fins,” in which a sun-seeking Cincinnati girl takes the train to decompress in Florida, only to be surrounded by dudes “circling, honey” and hitting on her like she’s “the only girl in town.” Horny guys aside, the Sunshine State is a destination — a break from the realities of work, or snow, or having to wear shoes.
The more I learned about Buffett’s hold on Ohio, it all made sense. Apparently the singer created the term “Parrothead” — a jokingly loving reference to the Grateful Dead’s “Deadhead” fans — after surveying the tropically clad fans at a 1985 show there, according to a Cincinnati Enquirer story.
Despite being four hours from the nearest beach, Buffett was everywhere in Cincinnati, including the set list of the cheesy live park show that did “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “Volcano,” which I could hear several times a day from my register selling pretzels and beer. It got to the point where when the guy I briefly dated went away for the weekend, I found myself adapting Buffett’s wistful “Come Monday” into “Come Tuesday,” the day he was returning.
Yeah, I’m a dork.
Years later, I found more beachless Buffett fans in Pennsylvania. I normally hate bus trips that don’t let me leave when I want, but I boarded a motorcoach packed with fans from York and all the Jell-O shots you could down to go see him at Merriweather. A bunch of friends had bought a package that included the bus, the concert and the alcohol, and even though I’m not a Parrothead, I wanted in on their warmth, their camaraderie and the chance to weep a little during “Come Monday.”
What I remember most about that day was the communal parts seemed almost as important as the actual show. Walking around, I saw so many bare chests, grass skirts and leis, with strangers offering me a beer or a homemade margarita. At one point, I got back on the bus to take a break; I was not a big partier, and margaritas and sun make a girl sleepy — and passed a couple getting off at the same time. The husband, carrying a beer, paused on the stairs and looked at me.
“Where do we know her from?” he asked his wife, who stared at me for a couple of moments.
“I know!” she said. “She’s the girl from the worship team at church!”
We all laughed, even though party buses aren’t the kind of activity you would normally associate with church singers. But even though that was the one and only conversation I had with that couple, in my mind, I kind of felt bonded to them forever. All we needed to know about each other was that, for one day, we were co-inhabitants of a waterless beach. Fans to the left, fans to the right. Like we were the only game in town.