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The Melancholy of Margaritaville
Along with variations on the cocktail Jimmy Buffett made ubiquitous.
Try to forget, for a moment, about Jimmy Buffett™. Forget about The Brand. Forget about the restaurant chain and the airport bars and the hotels and the cruise ships and the retirement communities. Forget about pretty much any of his albums since the mid-1980s. Forget about the musicals. Forget about some of the cornier classics, such as “Cheeseburger Paradise” or “Boat Drinks” or lyrics like “why don't we get drunk and screw.”
Think instead of a handful of exceptional songs that he wrote in the 1970s. “Margaritaville” (1977), of course. But also “A Pirate Looks at Forty” (1974), “Come Monday” (1974), “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” (1977), and “He Went to Paris” (1973). Bob Dylan once cited “He Went To Paris” as among his favorite songs.
For obvious reasons, I’ve been listening to those songs a lot this week. Over the years, I’ve likely heard those tracks thousands of times, ever since I got Songs You Know By Heart on a cassette tape when I was in my early teens. I’m not a Boomer (Buffett’s most loyal audience), but as a beach kid growing up in the 1980s, spending entire summers in the ocean, that album was part of the coming-of-age soundtrack, along with Bob Marley’s Legend and Peter Tosh’s Legalize It. The album title is true: I actually do know these songs by heart.
I had given up on Buffett at some point during college, but his songs were never far away (in part because my parents moved to Florida and it is apparently the law that a cover band in every bar must play “Cheeseburger In Paradise” at least once per evening). I’ve always believed we experience drinks very much like we experience the popular songs of our youth. An ounce and a half of booze, a three-minute song—ephemeral for sure, yet in the right context you may remember it your whole life. We know that no new song, regardless of how well made it is, will ever matter as much the ones we heard as a teenager.
When I listened to those 1970s Buffett songs again this week, I was struck by how melancholy they are. I’m definitely not the only one commenting on this. There is even a meme making the rounds on social media that suggests if you drop “Margaritaville” into a minor key, it becomes very dark. As one commenter noted: “The song ‘Margaritaville’ is about slowly accepting the fact that you're a drunken broken mess because of your own decisions and you can't keep blaming it on your ex.”
It’s true and, of course, runs counter to the laid-back, fun-loving, parrothead-and-party-time escapism upon which the Buffett brand is built. Even Jimmy himself once told Rolling Stone, “There was a melancholy to Key West, and there is a melancholy to people who are escaping.”
As Rolling Stone describes “A Pirate Looks at Forty”:
If there was ever a hint of a dark side to Buffett’s work, it could be found in this concert standard from his fifth album, A1A. The narrator, based on a real-life Buffett pal named Phil Clark, arrives at middle age looking back on a life of drug smuggling, drinking, and chasing women. Those days are gone: “I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast,” Buffett sings. But the song is ultimately about wisdom and resilience, reflecting with a sense of loss but not regret, and Buffett makes the tale go down easy with an island-breeze melody that conveys a what-me-worry beach lifestyle before it all went south.
That this type of tropical escapism appeals to a certain type of middle-aged American man is not a surprise. The poet Derek Walcott once described the phenomenon he witnessed in Caribbean resorts:
“The seaside bars from the Bahamas to Tobago are full of boiled executives downing drinks and looking out with unshaven machismo to the lather-line of the reefs, their scuba gear conspicuously heaped like infantry weapons. They grunt about groupers and fire coral, as if Hemingway weren’t dead and all the sharks and stingrays that never attack the locals hadn’t gone with him.
Likewise, there is an inevitable link between Buffett and Ernest Hemingway, and not just because of Key West. Along with Anthony Bourdain and Hunter S. Thompson, they likely make up the Mount Rushmore of hard-drinking, adventure-seeking, globe-trotting, macho escapism. But there is an inescapable, dark side to that escapism. Hemingway’s time in Key West and Cuba remains the period idealized by drinkers, but it’s also when he pissed away his talent on a bar stool. As I wrote in Boozehound:
“When I was in school, I’d dreamed of becoming Ernest Hemingway. Now, I travel and drink and write about my traveling and drinking. Close enough, I guess—though likely closer to the paunchy, boozy, crazy late Hemingway than the younger, dashing one who ran with bulls, drove ambulances in the Great War, and wrote classic novels. It’s sort of like dreaming of becoming Elvis when you’re young, and then actually becoming Elvis years later—but maybe you’ve become the wrong one, the Elvis who performed, sweaty and overweight, in rhinestone jumpsuits.”
Jimmy Buffett, who eventually became a billionaire, was too savvy and entrepreneurial to end up like Hemingway (or Bourdain, or Thompson). He clearly saw the dangers of being a tortured artist. “I'm not a great singer, and I'm not a great guitar player. But I'm a good entertainer,” he once said. He gave up drinking and drugs in 1989, right around the time he wrote Tales From Margaritaville, his first of three No. 1 bestsellers. “I could wind up like a lot of my friends did, burned out or dead, or redirect the energy,” he told The Washington Post in 1989. “I’m not old, but I’m getting older. That period of my life is over.” Perhaps it goes without saying, but he also never wrote a song as good as the ones from the 1970s.
Perhaps this is all a downer, particularly in a newsletter devoted to the joys of drinking. It’s definitely something people in the wine and spirits business tend to avoid talking about. But you can only spend so long in Margaritaville before it all catches up with you.
What strikes me is how cognizant Buffett is about all this in a song like “A Pirate Looks at Forty” (which he wrote well before he’d turned 40). For me, the dagger line of that song comes as the narrator realizes he’s “200 years too late” to actually become a pirate: “My occupational hazard being my occupation’s just not around...” These days, you might say the same thing about the occupational hazards of being any kind of writer—of songs, novels, longform journalism, anything—in our current media dystopia.
In any case, the passing of Jimmy Buffett gives us a chance to raise a margarita to toast the legend. While “Margaritaville” suggests that the narrator’s cocktail is a “frozen concotion” made in a blender, I’ll skip that method and just shake my margarita over ice with three ingredients: 2 ounces of blanco tequila; 1 ounce of fresh lime juice, and a half ounce of Cointreau. I generally don’t measure the lime; I use one and whatever I squeeze out of that will suffice. I like my margarita served up, with a salted rim.
Obviously, everyone has their own way of making a margarita. Some prefer Grand Marnier or a different orange liqueur. I’ve included two variations below that substitute marachino liqueur and Velvet Falernum. Some prefer agave syrup or a premade mix and no liqueur at all. Others don’t do salt, or they prefer their margarita on the rocks. Please share your favorite margarita in the comments.
This margarita variation replaces the orange liqueur with Velvet Falernum, the rum-based, spiced liqueur from Barbados. Derek Brown is credited with creating this, though he insists: “Despite what people say, I didn’t invent it. Not sure who did.”
1 ½ ounce blanco tequila
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce Velvet Falernum
½ ounce agave syrup
Fresh lime wheel
Combine liquid ingredients in a shaker. Add ice and shake vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lime wheel.
How about a frothy riff on a margarita that involves an egg white and does away with the Cointreau in favor of maraschino liqueur? I wrote about this one years ago in the Washington Post. Why is it named after Madrid’s art museum? Who knows? Somewhere between an aviation and a margarita, this was created by Kacy Fitch of the famed Zig Zag Cafe in Seattle.
2 ounces blanco tequila
1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
½ ounce maraschino liqueur
1 egg white
Lime peel twist
For best foamy consistency, add all liquid ingredients to a shaker. Shake first with ice for 30 seconds. Then, strain the drink back into the shaker and do a reverse dry shake, without ice, for another 30 seconds. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with lime peel twist.