I’ve mentioned previously that Sunday mornings are my precious alone time when I reflect and rejuvenate to give me the strength I need to face the grunge of the workweek. The soundtrack for my Sunday morning ritual is designed to be soothing, consisting largely of classical guitar pieces by Segovia, Sharon Isbin and Christopher Parkening, and Celtic harp performed by a variety of artists but heavy on works composed by Turlough O’Carolan. When I lived in the States, the crossword in the New York Times Sunday Magazine was part of that ritual; when I moved to France, I switched to mots croisés and mots fléchés. The problem I faced with French crosswords is that I am relatively uneducated (and uninterested) in French history, making them more of a chore than a challenge. The solution to wasting Sunday mornings with Talleyrand, Léon Blum and obscure figures from the Second Republic was to reassign mots croisés to air travel and use that quiet time for French newspapers and the sounds of plucked, struck and strummed strings.
A couple of years ago, I integrated In the Heart of the Moon into the rotation, with wondrous results. About thirty seconds into the first song I lose all interest in the latest strikes, parliamentary debates or whatever else the French are bitching about, toss the paper on the floor, close my eyes and immerse myself in the magical music. In the Heart of the Moon is simply one of the most beautiful recordings I’ve ever heard.
Many Westerners know the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré from his marvelous blues-roots albums and the collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu. Toumani Diabaté is somewhat less familiar, but is recognized as one of the greatest living players of the kora, an instrument that defies many Western paradigms related to string instruments.
I am fascinated by the ingenuity human beings have applied to the creation of musical instruments, but if you’re not, feel free to skip this section to get to the review.
From a distance, the kora resembles a sitar, but the kora’s twenty-one strings (usually nylon) are divided into two opposing sets (eleven on the left side and ten on the right) that gradually rise above the neck the further down they go, like delicate twin cable suspension bridges. The distance between string and neck is significant enough to make it impractical to change notes by pressing the strings onto the neck as you do with a guitar, and like the violin family, the neck is fretless. The notes, percussive sounds and chords result from the player using the thumb and index finger on both hands while the other three fingers on each hand rest on supporting posts. The kora does have tuning pegs, an innovation of the early 60’s that caused a great deal of controversy in the kora-playing universe. Even with the tuning pegs, the nature of the instrument is such that the player is restricted to four scales that come close to syncing with our major and minor scales as well as the Lydian scale that often pops up in modern jazz. That’s assuming you can tune the instrument—word has it that the tuning of a kora is as close to the Sisyphus myth as a musician can get, and many a wannabe kora player has responded to the effort by just saying, “Fuck it.” The base of the kora consists of a large calabash sliced in half and wrapped in cow skin, through which those resting posts travel to provide stable footing. There is a soundhole, but unlike a guitar, the soundhole is located on the side instead of the front. The sound is somewhere between a lute and a harp, but brighter. Modern kora players have access to electric versions of the instrument, which allows for the possibility of pedals and other gizmos to further shape the sound.
I don’t know why anyone would do that, because the kora is perfectly beautiful in its natural state. As I researched the kora for this piece, I watched videos of Diabaté a hundred times and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how he created such wonderful sounds. This is because playing the kora is a three-dimensional experience, and the standard front-and-center camera angle prevented me from seeing what his fingers were doing behind the scenes. Fortunately, I found an unusually engaging scholarly article on the kora authored by one William Ridenour who helped shed some light on kora technique:
There are two main ways to play pieces on the kora, and these are described as kumbengo and birimitingo. Kumbengo is best described as a basic pattern or an accompaniment pattern. Kumbengo is the foundation of a piece, and one cycle of kumbengo is repeated over and over, usually with variation. Sometimes a kumbengo is developed from the vocal melody of the piece (Knight).
“Accompaniment-type playing involves an ensemble relationship between the fingers or hands of one or more musicians in which African aesthetics of polyrhythm find full expression” (Charry 167). Kumbengo patterns are often disrupted by another way of playing, involving fast descending melodic flourishes which are often highly ornamented. This type of playing is called birimitingo, a word possibly of onomatopoeic origins. When pieces are performed, the player alternates between the two styles at his or her will, depending on the demands of the particular situation.
Occasionally the kumbengo is punctuated by a knock on the hand support by the right index finger in a technique called bulukondingo podi. Another type of knock, konkong (Charry calls it “konkondiro”), is more common; it is a timekeeping pattern tapped on the round side of the kora by an apprentice or a male singer (Knight).
Techniques and Roles of the Playing Fingers
Generally, the left thumb plays strings 1-8 on the left side, and the left index finger plays strings 6-11. On the right side, the thumb plays strings 1-5, and the right index finger plays strings 2-10. There is quite a bit of crossover between thumbs and fingers on the same side, especially with the technique of birimitingo. In addition, there are two predominant ways to pluck a string: open and muted. To create a kumbengo, the thumbs play a bass line, while the fingers play a treble melody; the instrument is intrinsically polyphonic. The pitches ascend in 3rds on both sides of the bridge, facilitating the playing of two- to four-note chords, rapid scalar passages (fingers or thumbs in alternation) and octave doubling (Knight and Charry 158).
Translation: If you want to become a great kora player, prepare to devote your entire life to practice. As it turns out, that’s pretty much how kora players have been developed for centuries due to the caste systems common in many locales on the African continent (the Mandé caste, in this instance). According to Wikipedia, Diabaté comes from a long line of “70 generations of musicians preceding him in a patrilineal line.” Even if you only credit a generation with thirty years of existence, that translates into 2100 years of male-only kora playing. The generational sexism was broken recently by one of his cousins, Sona Jobarteh, whose album Fasiya integrated the kora with pop sensibilities.
The twelve songs on In the Heart of the Moon are marked by incredibly simple chord patterns consisting of one, two or three common chords. Over half the songs are in the key of F major, a key frequently used in kora music; only one song is in a minor key, D minor, which happens to be the complement to F major. Touré generally provides the baseline accompaniment through a simple, repetitive arpeggio, graciously giving his younger friend plenty of room to maneuver (though he does insert some sweet licks from time to time). The variety in the music comes largely from the kora, especially during those birimitingo passages where the flurry of notes sound like the aural equivalent of shooting stars on a clear summer night.
The songs and playing styles come from a period in Malian musical history called Jamana Kura, or “New Age/Era.” Jamana Kura emerged in Mali’s pre-independence period, a style marked by “a lighter more popular feel than the old Mandé griot classics” (according to the liner notes). To my ears, the song structures are reminiscent of the folk music of Britain and France, simple but highly melodic compositions that support folk dance. Jamana Kura also introduced a new, highly-rhythmic finger-picking guitar style that arose from a merger of other stylistic traditions; Touré takes this a step further with his grounding in the blues, further intensifying the rhythmic patterns. The result is true world music, a style simpatico with Western and African sensibilities.
Translation: you won’t hear anything on In the Heart of the Moon that feels too “foreign” to you.
The album was recorded in a hotel conference room in Bamako without rehearsals in three days, and given the fact that these two giants of African music had only played together briefly prior to what Touré called “A very important meeting in the realm at the heart of the moon,” it’s only natural that the festivities begin with a warm-up song in the key of F major, “Debe.” The song’s origins are ancient, dating back to the 17th Century, and the music is almost childlike in its simplicity and ability to delight the listener. Touré begins the piece with a nimble run echoing the melodic structure before dropping into a simple arpeggio that forms the dominant theme. You hear Diabaté enter about twenty seconds into the song, and soon he teases us with a short sample of birimitingo that makes you tingle with delight.
Don’t worry, folks, the kid is just warming up.
About halfway through the song, Diabaté gives us a longer sample of the birimitingo technique, and what I find simply amazing is how tightly he controls the length of each note to ensure that it doesn’t get in the way of the next one—hundreds of notes, each clean, clear and absolutely beautiful. You hear Touré say something to Diabaté after this stunning rush, and though I’m not sure which of the seven Malian languages Touré had mastered is in play here, the liner notes tell us “Ali praised Toumani as the rightful heir to the Mandé tradition.” The genuine respect and affection shared by these two brilliant musicians is on full display in the live version of “Debe,” where you can also see the kora in action:
“Kala” opens up with another Touré blitz that sounds very reminiscent to the intro to “Debe” until he forces the rhythm into a detour and winds up playing a rather jaunty, joyful pattern based on an F-C major chord structure. Diabaté’s approach is more varied here, introducing bright, complementary chording in addition to the bursts of birimitingo. Towards the end of the song, Diabaté repeats a chord that is slightly out of scale but marvelously harmonic, adding a slight bit of tension to the mix. This is another song guaranteed to bring a smile to your face—a playful, hummable, childlike delight.
Ry Cooder joins the party on “Mamadou Boutiquier,” an ode to Mandé traders who helped spread the Mandé language and Islamic traditions across West Africa. Toure’s introduction here is somewhat clipped, leading to a more integrated duet. Cooder is listed as playing “Kawai piano,” but the sounds you hear are distant hints of breathy organ, indicating the presence of an electronic keyboard. Once again, the song is built around an F-C major combination with a bit more flair in the rhythm due to the 6/8 time signature. The waltz-like beat adds a certain formality to the music, reminding you more of Vienna than Timbuktu.
Next up is “Monsieur le Maire de Niafunké,” a song celebrating Ali Farka Touré’s ascension to Mayor of the town of Niafunké, a small village on the Niger where he lived during his infancy. Unlike a certain U. S. President who shall remain nameless, Touré did not use his brief time in power to enrich himself but to improve the roads, build a sewer system and install an electric generator—all on his own dime. Imagine that! Diabaté opens this song with a light, nimble arpeggio to set a celebratory mood; Touré steps in to fill the humble supporting role and free Diabaté to do his thing. This is Diabaté’s most diverse performance on the record, combining varied phrasing on the rhythmic pattern with joyful injections of melodic birimitingo and the occasional chord. The fade to the song can only be described as sweet, a gradual diminuendo that communicates tender respect before Diabaté graciously hands off the lead role to Touré for the short closing pattern.
We finally see a key change (to D-A major) with “Kaira” (peace), a song popularized in the 40’s and 50’s by Diabaté’s father (also a kora player, as dictated by tradition). Touré handles the rhythm, adding a syncopated kick to liven things up a bit, and although percussion was present on the two previous tracks, the shaker is much more noticeable here, giving the piece a touch of samba. The jaw-dropping moment comes at the halfway point when Diabaté goes on an extended birimitingo at breakneck speed, then returns a few seconds later as if nothing particularly remarkable had happened. One feature of In the Heart of the Moon I hope people appreciate is the utter humility of the musicians—this isn’t the “ego-based music” George Harrison identified as the major irritant in modern music (a view to which I fully subscribe), but two men putting their egos aside in the service of creation.
“Simbo” returns to the F-C pattern, enhanced with breaks where two and three-note chords are played in a varied, syncopated pattern. Another strong duet with amazing kora-guitar harmonies, Diabaté varies his solos with unexpected pauses, sequential triplets and even long periods of silence to allow Touré to reaffirm the beat. The note patterns have a slightly Mexican feel to my ears, but I’d have to compare scores to understand why—and kora music is notoriously difficult to score. For the most part, I’m quite content to let music theory go to hell for a while and just let this exquisite music course through my soul.
The greatest departure from the baseline comes with “Ai Ga Bani,’ (I Love You), the only vocal piece on the album. Here we shift to a three chord pattern in D minor that marks a surprising but welcome shift in the mood from inspirational to erotic. Touré opens with high-note runs similar to the first two songs on the album, then descends at the point where the minor key is established. He punctuates that change with a strong WHACK on the strings, communicating sexual tension near the boiling point. I’ll state the obvious and tell you this is by far the sexiest piece on the album, with the erotic feel intensified by the passionate sincerity Touré brings to his vocal. Ry Cooder again adds the breathy sounds while Diabaté and Touré provide contrasting fills—Diabaté’s full of mystery, Touré’s loaded with blues-inspired earthiness.
You may have figured out that the Jamana Kura had little to do with colonial resistance or the politics of the independence movement. Many of the songs from the period were devoted to expressions of love, and though the performances here are wordless, you can feel the tenderness and joy in the music. “Soumbo Ya Ya” is one such song, featuring a melodic line that rises and falls with the peaks and valleys of human emotion. Touré provides the dominant line while Diabaté dazzles us with intensely beautiful flurries that sound positively magical. It’s followed by the more reflective but sweetly passionate arrangement of “Naweye Toro,” a song that differentiates itself from the others with the brief appearance of a C7 chord in the middle of the F-C major pattern to add a spot of tension before arriving at the affirming resolution. I love Touré’s guitar on this piece—calming and earthy, reminiscent of gentle bluegrass music.
The last three songs are all traditional songs arranged by Touré, beginning with the sprightly “Kadi Kadi,” a cascade of intense, active runs that fill the soundscape like exploding blossoms. Diabaté is on fire here, responding to the quick tempo with confidence and remarkable dexterity. You definitely hear the country blues influence in Toure’s picking on “Gomni,” a song that feels more Texas than Mali. Touré’s playing is fluid, insistent and powerfully rhythmic, an open invitation to musicians and listeners to let the world go to hell and just fall in love with the music (the brief applause at the end of the song is pleasingly affirming). In the Heart of the Moon ends with “Hawa Dolo,” a meditation using an F-Bb-C pattern that employs the kind of slow arpeggios you hear on pop songs of the early 60’s like “Angel Baby” and “The End of the World.” Ry Cooder makes an appearance with a Ripley stereo guitar, producing sounds that form a deep background, making the acoustic guitar and kora sound even brighter. The feel of the song is rather sad, but tenderly so, expressing the ever-present regret of “all good things must end.”
The music on In the Heart of the Moon is intensely captivating, an alluring invitation to the listener to explore and learn more about Malian music and culture. Bamako is definitely on my list of future vacation itineraries, but right now the country is going through yet another period of instability and it simply isn’t safe for a white French woman to visit. Despite the capability of music to transcend cultural differences and build bridges between people, political considerations always seem to get in the way.
My urge to visit Mali coincides with a parallel wish—the wish that I had been there when they made In the Heart of the Moon. I’ll let producer Nick Gold explain why (from the liner notes):
. . . at two o’clock the next day Ali and Toumani were sitting opposite each other, close together, instruments were tuned, microphones were placed, sound levels were set and off they went.
Each of them would suggest or remind the other of a song by playing the first few notes of the melody and that was basically it. Beyond the basic song structures, it was completely improvised. If one of them wanted to take a solo, he’d nod to the other. At times it seemed like they were just sitting on a groove (albeit a wonderful groove). Then one of them would start damping a string, the other would follow suit, and you had this very detailed interaction that I didn’t fully appreciate until we got to the mixing stage. Every single note that both of them played was absolutely meant. For three days every afternoon they played for an hour or two. This sessions were very relaxed, but the concentration between the two of them was intense . . . There were no second takes. Nothing was edited . . . They hardly spoke during the sessions. They didn’t need to. Sometimes I had the thrilling experience of eavesdropping on a moment of very special and intimate communication. Listening to this record, you’d think they’d played together all their lives, yet they’d played for a total three hours before this—spread over fifteen years.
I’d be so completely absorbed by the music. We needed absolute quiet in the room while they were recording since the kora is such a very quiet instrument. A song would end and you’d realize you’d been holding your breath, hypnotized. It was terrible when those sessions ended. I wish I could have afternoons like that every day of my life, with the most sublime music just going on—forever.
I enlisted my partner to write introduction to this review, for reasons that shall become obvious. Take it away, Alicia!
When we lived in the United States, Ari and I used to love going to Las Vegas to dance, to gamble and to take in all the different kinds of people who pass through that very unique place. One night we had a lovely dinner at Bouchon and instead of following our usual post-dinner routine of espresso and a shared dessert, we decided to sample some of the liqueurs on the menu. All through dinner we were engaged in deep conversation about future possibilities in our lives, and when Ari gets excited about something she tends to disconnect from everything else. So, whenever the server returned to ask if we needed anything else—and I believe he came back four or five times—Ari ordered “Whatever you brought last time,” while I politely shook my head. This proved to be a good strategy, as by the time we paid our check, Ari was thoroughly sloshed and needed to lean on me to exit the restaurant.
I’d never seen her drunk before, as she is usually very disciplined and likes to feel that she is in control of her senses. Lucky for me, she turned out to be a happy drunk instead of a mean drunk, laughing at her image in the various mirrors that lined the passageways, making jokes about the hideous hair-dos and fake lips we encountered, and once kissing me passionately while grabbing my breasts in full view of the constantly moving crowd. “Fuck them,” she said and continued to fondle me until she suddenly broke off. “I’m hot!” she said, and stamped her feet like a spoiled child and broke out in hysterical laughter. “Let’s go outside,” she said and marched off in the wrong direction, back towards the casino. I caught her and turned her towards the exit, but I cautioned her that it was probably warmer outside than indoors (it was early summer). She looked at me and started stamping her feet again, giggling until she cried. When she was done, I led her outside, stopping now and then to regain her balance.
We went down the moving walkway at The Venetian to The Strip and stopped for a moment. She wanted a cigarette but I had to light it for her as she couldn’t line up cigarette and flame. “Oh, that’s good,” she said after she exhaled, then suddenly took off, heading south down The Strip. Cut off by the crowd, I followed as closely as I could, but she disappeared into Harrah’s and I lost her. I decided to wait at the other end of Harrah’s, hoping she would take that exit, and that was a good call. “Fuckers won’t let me gamble without money,” she said when she walked out. “What the hell is this world coming to?” Then she broke out into peals of laughter and continued south. This time I held on tight and tried to talk to her but she was in her own world.
When we reached Margaritaville, they happened to be playing the theme song. “Oh, I love this song—hold my purse,” she cried, and started dancing away right there on The Strip, singing the few words she could remember in her condition, adding her own lyrics like, “You bet your ass it’s your own damned fault!” She broke her heel about a minute into her performance, kicked the shoe into the crowd and continued to dance on one high heel and one bare foot (I managed to rescue the shoe). Then she saw that the entrance was located up some stairs slightly above The Strip and shouted, “I want my beads!” So she climbed up the stairs to the landing–really just a couple of meters higher than the sidewalk, yanked her blouse and bra up and showed the crowd her tits to great applause. I ran up as quickly as I could because the very large bouncer behind her did not look happy, so I covered her body quickly and pushed her away from the entrance. “What’d ya do that for? Where are my beads?” “Ari, we’re not in New Orleans.” “No? Then where the hell are we?” “Las Vegas. Remember? We’re going to go back to our hotel now.” “Can we fuck?” “Yes, we’ll fuck.” “Oh good. That’s my favorite thing!” I had her take off her other shoe so she could walk easier, and all the way back to The Bellagio she would stop people at random and say, “We’re going to go fuck. That’s my favorite thing!” When I managed to finally get her to our room, she teetered over to the bed, said, “Fuck it” and collapsed. She lay in that position all night, the feet of her stockings ripped to shreds, her legs dangling in mid-air, her arms spread unevenly across the bed. Every so often she would enter a half-waking state and sing, “Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville” and fall back to sleep.
The last thing I remember was the second drink. Of course, we changed our plans for the next evening and had dinner at Margaritaville, where Alicia showed me where I broke my heel and the hardly-a-balcony where I exposed my tits to the throngs. Nothing registered, but I still felt a strange sense of disappointment that I didn’t get any beads for my effort. I have beautiful tits, people! They should have been honored accordingly!
We had a great time at Margaritaville. They do make pretty good Margaritas, but I limited myself to two. After that we danced and sang along to the Jimmy Buffett songs they play between breaks in the action. Now and then I sat there musing about the incredible power of one hit song, and how it transformed Jimmy Buffett’s life from Key West bum to corporate mogul. From the New York Times:
His newest showstopper, a 17-story hotel near Miami, has three pools, a full-service spa and eight restaurants, including a seriously upscale steakhouse. That electric blue sculpture in the lobby? You’d swear it was by Jeff Koons.
Over near Orlando, work has started on his $800 million family resort, which will include a 12-acre water park and 1,200 homes priced at up to $1 million apiece. His company, which had $1.5 billion in sales last year, is introducing a line of jewelry. He has one of America’s fastest-growing craft beers. A team — led by a former Google executive — is working to transform his digital media business.
The man is Jimmy Buffett. And it’s time to toss whatever you thought you knew about his lazy, hazy Margaritaville out the window.
Forget the ville. This is a Margarita World. “People are always shocked when they find out how big we’ve gotten,” Mr. Buffett said recently over lunch, grinning and splashing Tabasco on a modified Cobb salad. “We just kept quietly doing our thing. Not saying much. And now — bam! — here we are.”
Margaritaville, with its themed restaurants (erupting volcanoes, boat-shaped booths), started as a tropical cousin to T.G.I. Friday’s. Through trial and error, Mr. Buffett and a partner, John Cohlan, have since expanded Margaritaville Holdings to include four booming divisions: lodging, alcohol, licensing and media. Now, as they pursue growth for the first time overseas, where Mr. Buffett has a much softer fan base, they are trying to recast Margaritaville as a broad, aspirational brand — the Ralph Lauren of leisurely escape, if you will.
And his new musical, Escape to Margaritaville, just opened in Chicago.
I don’t begrudge Jimmy Buffett’s success one bit. He was just trying to string together some kind of music career after failing to make it in Nashville when “Margaritaville” turned into one of the most iconic songs in American history. When you hit the big one, you’d be an idiot not to ride that pony as long as you can. And unlike most American products, “Margaritaville” actually makes people happy and can be played over and over again with minimal wear and tear. What I can’t figure out is this: how did a song about a half-depressed loser and his addiction to a Mexican cocktail become the ultimate American party song? Do workaholic Americans secretly want to say fuck it all, head for the beaches and drink themselves silly all day long?
Right now, the world would be a lot better place if Americans did just that. I hope there are plans for a Margaritaville on every corner in every city in the United States so Americans can get drunk, be happy, sing Jimmy Buffett songs and leave the rest of the world the hell alone.
The downside to the overwhelming success of “Margaritaville” is that Jimmy Buffett’s brilliant insights into cultures and culture clashes have been buried in a drunken frenzy. Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes is a surprisingly perceptive work, where Jimmy displayed the unique ability to satirize sacred American notions and common human failings without pissing anyone off in the process. The two cover songs he chose fit right in with the general tones and themes of the album. The music isn’t complex but it’s played well and The Coral Reefer Band never wavers from its commitment to creating a laid-back, tropical island feel. Jimmy’s not the greatest singer in the world in the technical sense but he hits all the notes with an Everyman’s voice that is naturally appealing. I’m not surprised the album represented his breakthrough—but I think most people missed the social critique in their pursuit of a good time.
The title track gets the party started, a pleasant trip down memory lane supported by a full string arrangement that they really could have done without. The social dysfunction described in this song involves “vacation deprivation,” a uniquely American problem. While the rest of the civilized world ensures that people have plenty of time off to rest and rejuvenate, most Americans get by with a lousy two or three weeks a year if they’re lucky, and half of them spend at least part of that time checking emails and taking phone calls. Jimmy urges us to submit to the changes in latitudes—the sacred shift in perception that comes when you have disconnected completely from the bullshit back home and just go with the flow of life:
It’s those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Nothing remains quite the same.
With all of our running and all of our cunning,
If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.
That is so true, people! We need laughter and freedom from obligations from time to time! My favorite moment on any vacation is when I go somewhere and no one on earth knows where I am except the people I’m with. That’s liberty!
What I love most about this song is its healthy, forward outlook. While recalling old memories usually leads to either regret or hopeless nostalgia, the hero in this story has no regrets whatsoever and uses his cherished memories as inspiration to create new, memorable experiences:
Oh, yesterdays are over my shoulder,
So I can’t look back for too long.
There’s just too much to see waiting in front of me,
And I know that I just can’t go wrong
When you stop looking forward, you might as well set up the appointment at the mortuary, because your time on earth is drawing short.
The only thing I have trouble with this song is the implication that changes in latitudes change attitudes. Not necessarily. I’ve been to Cancún and found myself hassled by mean, aggressive drunks who wanted to put their hands all over me—nothing a swift knee to the nuts won’t cure, but still irritating. I’ve also been to places like Minneapolis and Quebec in the dead of winter and found the vibes and people absolutely charming. I get antsy sunning myself on beaches, so I don’t associate “tropical” with “relaxing.” That said, I realize that most people in the world view the tropics as the ultimate getaway and will accept that as a given as I work through this review.
“Wonder Why We Ever Go Home” is a somewhat mournful number that deals with the mindlessness of modern existence. The arrangement is dominated by rising swells of harmonica and slide guitar that sound fabulous, mirroring the feeling of dreams going up in smoke. As the narrator faces another lonely night on his own, worried about whether or not he can (or even wants to) “race to catch up with my dreams” and present himself to his girl as a reliable breadwinner, he pauses to wonder if society is going to hell in a hand-basket:
People are movin’ so quickly.
Humor’s in need of repair.
Same occupations and same obligations;
They’ve really got nothing to share,
Like drivin’ around with no spare.
Jimmy Buffett wrote this in the 70’s, and the speed of life has increased a thousandfold since then. This song makes me wonder just how much of our lives have drifted away from normal rhythms as we burn our days as captives of digital technology. Although “Wonder Why We Ever Go Home” doesn’t seem to fit the escape-to-the-tropics theme, it establishes the reason for the desire to leave it all behind. It’s a beautifully reflective piece that deserves more attention.
The first cover song on the album is Steve Goodman’s “Banana Republics,” a painfully insightful number about American expatriates. Goodman is best known for “City of New Orleans,” one of Arlo Guthrie’s hits, but Jimmy Buffett recorded several of his less commercial but richer compositions. The acoustic guitar passage that opens the song (a partial duet) is absolutely gorgeous, establishing a sense of melancholy that underpins a sad tale of cultural disassociation. After establishing the various motivations for leaving the land of the free for foreign climes (which all come down to “Tryin’ to find out what is ailing/Living in the land of the free”), the song shifts to the existential reality of the daily lives of American expatriates—who learn pretty quickly that Americans are neither welcome nor respected:
First you learn the native customs
Soon a word of Spanish or two
You know that you cannot trust them
Because they know they can’t trust you
Feelin’ so all alone
Telling themselves the same lies
That they told themselves back home
Down to the Banana Republics
Things aren’t as warm as they seem
None of the natives are buying
Any second-hand American dreams
I’ve noticed more and more that Americans who travel outside their country seem so . . . out-of-place. It’s like they come in with either a defensive and superior attitude expecting the natives to be difficult, or they come in fearful that they won’t be accepted no matter how hard they try because of the poor reputation that precedes them. This awkwardness has been captured in literature by Henry James, Hemingway, James Baldwin and others, a character flaw probably grounded in the geographical isolation of the United States and reinforced by a substandard system of public education. Now that America is turning sickeningly inward, and replacing awkwardness with bluster, the situation is unlikely to get any better. Congratulations to Jimmy Buffett for choosing to record what has proven to be a timeless song about a long-standing problem.
Geez. We’re a third of a way through the album and I’m still not feeling those party vibes . . . I’m hearing some great stuff, though.
“Tampico Trauma” lightens the mood a bit with a more upbeat arrangement featuring solid lead guitar and sharp harmonica from Greg Taylor. The song’s message is consistent with the theme of American ignorance in foreign countries, but some sympathy is called for as the Mexican police are notoriously inconsistent and more than happy to take a few pesos from you to help resolve legal problems that you didn’t even know you had. The rock-and-rollers in this song don’t last long in Tampico, as there are few countries anywhere who take kindly to drunks who like to pick fights. It’s followed by “Lonely Cruise,” a song Jimmy picked up in Nashville from songwriter Jonathan Baham, a very sleepy number without a lot to recommend it . . . and I can’t imagine anything more boring than a cruise ship.
At last! We have arrived at Margaritaville!
As mentioned above, “Margaritaville” is about a loser. All this guy does is eat sponge cake, watch the tourists, fuck around on a guitar, make shrimp, get drunk, wreck his shoe, cut himself, get drunk again and ponder a long-lost love. Not exactly the most productive motherfucker in the world.
Still, he’s a lovable loser, and all of his fuck-ups and wasted moments are archetypal human behavior. We can relate to this guy because we’re all guilty of pissing away our time and fucking up. And though it goes against the Puritan work ethic that still influences life in the USA, the truth is that sometimes the best thing we can do is say “fuck it” and let the world go to hell. What’s so admirable about our anti-hero is that he chooses to waste his time and his life. And why not? What’s the point of returning to the daily grind with all of its “running and cunning?” And what’s the fucking hurry to do anything? Note how he deals the injury he suffers in the last verse:
I blew out my flip-flop
Stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home
We laugh at the clumsiness and bad luck of the first two lines, but it’s his reaction to the attack of the pop-top that’s worth noting. He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t freak out about blood poisoning or hepatitis. He doesn’t scream, “Shit! Oh fuck fuck fuck!” and hop on one leg back to his porch. He cruises. He responds to the mishap with a shrug, knowing that “there’s booze in the blender” and everything will turn out in the end. His attitude towards life is the exact opposite of one who lives life on the rodent wheel. Why bother? We ain’t going anywhere anyway, so let’s kick back, have a drink and enjoy the sunshine.
Pretty subversive stuff in a society geared towards sacrificing human sanity in the quest for higher productivity and stock prices.
As things turn out, appearances can indeed be deceiving. There is a method behind our anti-hero’s apparent madness, and he’s actually doing the most important thing he could be doing if he’s ever going to get out of his funk and move on. He’s engaging in self-reflection. The progression in the shifting final lines of the chorus is that of a human being moving from denial to acceptance of his own contribution to a failed relationship—a relationship that mattered a lot to him:
- First chorus (denial): “Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame/But I know it’s nobody’s fault.” (Shit happens, no point in blaming anyone, total avoidance).
- Second chorus (another possibility). “Now I think—Hell, it could be my fault.” (Maybe if I’d listened a little more and stuffed my male pride up my ass . . . )
- Third chorus (acceptance of responsibility): “And I know it’s my own damn fault.” (Yeah, I really fucked this one up. Can’t blame anyone but myself. Shee-it. Now I know better.)
We can now answer the question posed in the intro: how did this song become so outrageously popular? Yes, it has all the basics of hit: great hook, easy-to-sing melody, engaging instrumentation, solid build to the finish. But what really makes “Margaritaville” a beloved cultural icon is that it expresses what many Americans yearn for—to let it all go, to have the time to do absolutely nothing, to escape the rat race and start to enjoy life. Yeah, the guy’s a drunk who can’t even remember how he got a tattoo, but that’s a much more interesting story than any response to the standard operating question, “How was work today, honey?”
“Do nothing and there is nothing that will not be done,” says the Tao-Te Ching. Jimmy Buffett was imparting ancient wisdom to overworked, over-busy Americans who need to unstrap themselves from the clock and stop trying to control everything—time, careers, each other. Let it go, have a good time, learn something about yourself in the process—that’s what makes “Margaritaville” such a great and perpetually relevant song for Americans. As far as I’m concerned, “Margaritaville” should be the national fucking anthem.
And I mean that. America needs to CHILL THE FUCK OUT.
Tough song to follow, but Jimmy does a great job with the reconstruction of an older song from his repertoire, “In the Shelter.” He’d recorded it in classic country style with a quicker tempo on the album High Cumberland Jubilee; here he shifts to a relaxed reggae beat that makes the song a better fit on an album where many of the characters have slipped out of mainstream society. The character here is a young runaway who has no idea where she’s headed but refuses to even consider returning home, a world of “forced repressions” and “angry questions.” The key line in the song appears at the end of the second verse—after raising the ultimate “if only” (“if you could only tell them how you feel”), the narrator reads her mind and concludes that patching things up with the parents is a dead-end: “But they’re too real to understand.” Her parents are too firmly grounded in the shared reality of “the way things are” and all the behavioral expectations of a conformist society to have any concern for her feelings or dreams. The girl’s path forward is unclear; she leaves for the city knowing “that this could be her final fall.” Once she gets there, she heads past the shops to the river, where she “takes off her boots and socks” and starts to cry. Jimmy sings this song with a tone of sad regret, fully empathizing with the girl but unable to offer any solutions, for there are none in the present, and no viable answer to the question, “What’s it all about?” All she can do is play it out and hope that somewhere along the way she’ll find some answers. Far superior to the sentiment-and-cliché loaded treatment of the runaway problem in The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” “In the Shelter” is one of Jimmy Buffett’s finest and most sensitive works.
“Miss You So Badly” is one of the quirkier songs about a musician’s life on the road, but also one of the most descriptive. Most songs in this category rarely rise above the level of bitching, eliciting a response in the listener something like, “Fuck you, you entitled prick. You’re whining about getting driven around in limos, staying in first-class hotels and ordering room service and broads at the touch of the finger and you want me to feel fucking sorry for you?” The Stones “Goin’ Home” captures the emotional impact of road travel exceptionally well, but is rather sparse when it comes to the details. Enter Jimmy Buffett to address this deficiency:
We’re stayin’ in a Holiday Inn full of surgeons
I guess they meet there once a year
They exchange physician stories
And get drunk on Tuborg beer
Then they’re off to catch a stripper
With their eyes glued to her G
But I don’t think that I would ever let them cut on me
Okay, now I get it—that sounds horrible! Oh, you’ve got more? “And I’m just watchin’ The Gong Show . . . ” Stop! Stop! Not Chuck Barris! Not that parade of cheesy no-talent losers! Omigod! Call 911 immediately!
And I love the reverent, respectful reference to the greatest of them all:
I got a head full of feelin’ higher
And an earful of Patsy Cline
There’s just no one who can touch her
Hell, I’ll hang on every line.
Damn straight, Jimmy!
“Biloxi” was written by the recently departed Jesse Winchester, a man who had the courage to escape the United States to avoid military service in Vietnam. Courage is not only measured by how willing you are to take a bullet, my friends, and when it came to Vietnam, that kind of courage was wasted on a no-win situation. If America were a truly healthy, confident country, it would honor those who manifest the courage of their convictions as much as it honors the courage of those willing to go to war.
Jimmy recorded this song because of his own pleasant memories of the town where he got his start in music and because “Jesse Winchester got it right.” The imagery in the song integrates the natural setting and human activity through the use of memorable visuals—the persistent boy who begins by filling his pail with salty water but graduates to forming a pool from the incoming waves, the girls dancing in the sea, the couple “splashing naked in the water” and the repeated image of storms and sun moving towards New Orleans. Jimmy sings each line as if he is savoring a treasured memory, using the slow tempo to take his time and re-immerse himself in the experience. The only break in the stillness of the song is an extended instrumental passage before the last verse; here, the strings are used to perfection and Michael Utley’s piano runs sound like twinkling stars over the ocean. It seems that every album in the 70’s had to have its “opus,” a long-form slow song that often turned out to be a bore. Not so with “Biloxi.” It’s a beautiful song, tenderly performed.
But it’s too slow to serve as the closer for this kind of album. Hence we have “Landfall,” a rock-oriented number proclaiming the virtues of sailing, seafood, boogying and drinking. Especially drinking.
‘Cause I’ve seen incredible things in my year
Some days were laughter, others were tears
If I had it all to do over again
I’d just get myself drunk and I’d jump right back in
Before the prohibitionists in the audience go nuts, it should be pointed out that Jimmy has more than a valid reason for immersing himself in the party life of good times and good cheer, and it all comes back to the bullshit of daily life. In the song’s most fascinating verse, he describes living in a space so cramped it must feel like a prison, but Jimmy knows damn well that the real prison is in the mindset and rituals of the conventional world:
I lived half my life in an eight-by-five room
Just crusin’ to the sound of the big diesel boom
It’s not close quarters that would make me snap
It’s just dealing with the daily unadulterated crap
So Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes comes full circle, and “Landfall” reinforces the dominant theme: why do we put up with “the daily unadulterated crap?” Why do we have to be slaves to the economy? Why can’t we figure out a way to do our fair share of the work society needs us to do while leaving us more time for the good times? Aren’t you tired of the “unadulterated crap” in our lives—I sure am! Let’s start a revolution, dammit—a special kind of revolution. I’ve quoted this passage a couple of times in other reviews but in case you missed it, here again is the first verse of “A Sane Revolution” by D. H. Lawrence:
If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t make it in ghastly seriousness,
don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.
Commit yourself to the fun revolution! Raise those salt-encrusted margarita glasses in a glorious toast to a better future!