Culture: Long Live Margaritaville: The Undying Emotional Appeal of Jimmy Buffett
I know about Jimmy Buffett because of my dad. As a child of divorce, my visits with him lasted only a week or two tops, but they were always punctuated by Florida beaches—and thus Buffett. Dad would sing along to Buffett’s beachy tunes as we drove from Orlando to Cocoa Beach and back again.
During one such trip, he brought me to karaoke night at a bar called Coconuts on the Beach, which my uncle managed. It was, in retrospect, perhaps not the most child-friendly outing. But what might have been a private lapse in judgment ended up a rather public one: For reasons that still elude me, I wound up on the local news, no older than seven years old. My mother was outraged. I wonder if Dad was singing Buffett that night, and how late into his song he realized it was his own damn fault.
My dad died in 2007, and other than a few lyrics committed to memory, I haven’t really considered Buffett since. That is, until the singer passed away this September. Suddenly, those core memories felt indicative of larger themes in my life. I began to realize that so much of what interests me as a writer—music, drinks, fatherhood—reflects back at me in Buffett. His influence, however subconscious, seems undeniable.
It’s easy to dismiss his music, and the Margaritaville aesthetic that grew from it, as cheesy. There is a delicate balance to strike between art and commerce, one that is further complicated by the fact that Buffett actually owned very few of the restaurants and resorts that today bear his name. Still, there’s no debating that his core principles—to relax and enjoy a drink after a long day—reached millions.
Maybe there was a part of me that was always drawn to his clever wordplay, the accessible imagery and metaphor. But for people like my dad, he was a lifestyle icon, a modern philosopher and a drinks legend. The more I read and the more conversations with others I have, the more relevant he seems, both for the way he connected worlds and the way he was connected to mine.
I am hardly alone in feeling the pull of Buffett’s music and ethos. The Margaritaville fandom, otherwise known as Parrotheads, is a rabid one, and in the days that followed Buffett’s death, many of its acolytes found themselves unmoored. Such was the case, metaphorically if not literally, below deck one day on a compact sailboat christened “Two Days Gone.”
There, I sip rum with its owner, my friend Dave, on what wound up being a monsoon-like rainy day. Dave had purchased the boat during the pandemic based on the Buffett notions of freedom and adventure. He attended his first Buffett concert in utero, and tells me the loss is hitting him hard.
“It’s almost embarrassing to say, but it’s probably the most I have grieved,” Dave says after we toast. Buffett understood that life was suffering, and that you have to find your own way through it, he says. A good drink is one place to start. “You can’t separate Buffett from drinking,” Dave admits. And for many, that’s part of the appeal.
“Margaritaville” the song gave way to Margaritaville the empire, complete with cruise ships, cocktail mixers and a signature blender. Buffett was a crafty songwriter but an even craftier businessman, harnessing the marketability of his art and lifestyle. In the mid-80s, he courted Corona to sponsor his tours, and by the end of the decade, the beer brand had adopted his beach-centric phrasings and ways into ad campaigns to great success. Buffett opened his first Margaritaville store in Key West in 1985, and eventually launched his own lager, LandShark, in 2006.
Dave remembers enthusiastically ordering a LandShark in his early drinking days, only for the bartender to question his taste. But the quality of these products seems almost secondary to what they represent.
“There are a lot of people that love the idea of finding their beach,” Dave says, even if the music isn’t for them. In this way, Buffett exists multi-dimensionally. His music can be background noise or poetry. His ethos can be merchandise or it can be mindset. You meet Buffett wherever you need to. “It’s a spectrum,” Dave says, noting that despite the heavy rain, he still channels Buffett because the boat brings him peace.
Before I leave, he asks me whether I—someone who writes about drinks for a living—think that Margaritaville, with its brightly-hued drinks and paper parrots, is good for booze culture. It’s a question I consider again weeks later, as I sip a Who’s to Blame® Margarita in Times Square, a drink-wielding replica of the Statue of Liberty nearby, a Buffett-themed lightshow blaring.
The Margaritaville Resort Times Square opened in 2021. Chris Casciello is the general manager at the LandShark Bar & Grill, one of the many food and beverage options on premises. When I ask about the day Buffett passed, he is full of stories: People drove from as far as Queens to deliver flowers and pay their respects, Casciello tells me solemnly. It was one of the busiest days he’s worked there. He even called his own father, who he describes as the essence of a Buffett fan.
“We talked about growing up and listening to Buffett in the car on our way down to the beach,” Casciello recalls. Even today, songs like “Margaritaville” and “Come Monday” have the power to transport him back to those road trips. “It was a way for us to connect.”
I begin chatting with a fellow patron, Rick Kelly, who sits at the bar nearby sipping tequila sodas. Kelly was raised Mormon and had his first drink nine years ago, he tells me. Although he lives in Los Angeles, he visits New York every few weeks for work; his office is across the street from Margaritaville Times Square. When I suggest that, were I from out of town, I might drink at a place with more cultural resonance. He assures me he was at noted cocktail den The Dead Rabbit the night before. Today, however, Margaritaville fit the bill. As a father of two who “works constantly,” there is an element to Buffett’s message he hopes to pass down.
“Margaritaville is escapism, because for so many people, life is hard,” Kelly says, calling this place both absurd and awesome. “You don’t need to punish yourself today.”
Sitting here now is a way for Kelly to reject how he grew up, and he calls Margaritaville a form of positive nihilism—nothing matters, so do what brings you joy. Perhaps that means buying a plastic blender mug for an additional $8. Perhaps it means purchasing nothing at all.
The conversation, and my surroundings, inevitably bring me back to thoughts of my father. I have at times wrestled with my dad’s identity. He was a waiter at Red Lobster for 25 years, refusing promotions and leaving a college degree in gym education unused. But he certainly knew how to have a good time—the man loved a beach. In some ways, he was a character out of a Buffett song. As I get older, feeling the pressure to earn more and advance my career, I have to admit that there is something appealing about letting the sea breeze wash over you.
Maybe my dad didn’t see me as much as he would have liked. Maybe some things in his life didn’t quite pan out like he’d hoped. But he had the beach, and for at least one night, singing karaoke in Cocoa Beach with me nearby.
Casciello tells me that when he hears Buffett’s music at work, he feels closer to his own father. I’m struck at how much his childhood memories mirror my own, and how so many Buffett stories involve dads in cars heading somewhere. On the boat, Dave tells me a story of when his dad couldn’t muster the words to help him manage school bullies, so, in the car, he played him Buffett’s “Cowboy in the Jungle” instead. Buffett said what he couldn’t.
As I was driving up to meet Dave, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” came on, and I turned to the empty passenger seat. In a way, my dad was there in that car, and in that boat, and in that bar, speaking through Buffett. Even, or especially, in death, Buffett acts as the connective tissue to so many of our parents, be it through music, drink, the beach, sailing, fishing and so on. You don’t need to waste away again in a literal Margaritaville to appreciate his impact. But if that’s your preference, there are 40 cocktails to get you on your way.
Published: December 1, 2023