“Here lies one whose name was written on water” – John Keats
“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss” – Joan Didion
“the sun was called the sun because the real word for it was too terrible.” – Joy Williams
“Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat
I made this, I have forgotten
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, the lips parted, the hope, the new ships.” – T.S. Eliot
When I was six or seven, my family owned a boat for a time. It was a very small boat, but it was big enough that I could curl up and sleep in the bilgy fiberglass storage area under the bow. And it was a very brief time—not much more than a couple years—but it was perfectly positioned and vivid enough that “back when we had the boat” has become the default location for almost every water-based memory from the first ten years of my life, no matter where and when it actually occurred. I sometimes feel that if I didn’t fight it, my reverie over this period could swallow the rest of my memory whole.
I tell you that to tell you this: When I was a kid, I wanted to live on a boat. I wanted this deep, deep in my bones, and felt it with a purity and intensity that, when I think about it now, makes me put my hand over my heart. But the shadow of reason grows, and adolescence locks earnestness and optimism outside of fashion for what feels like forever, and this want was eventually and affectionately archived along with the other Things That Probably Look Cooler On TV Than They Really Are, just another one of the endlessly-cycling fantasias of a kid who was tired of living in a house. After a while it became clear that a life less ordinary was not going to be had on this rent-to-own basis; a couple weekends a month on Lake Erie was never gonna feel like Magnum P.I. or even like The Rockford Files. My high romance with the boat and the water eventually cooled into just wanting to profile down at the dockside commissary and flirt with girls wearing lifejackets.
Late this past fall, though, I was walking down by the water in a different city, and saw at the marina there a string of houseboats. Festooned with greying welcome mats and Christmas lights that weren’t turned on, they looked waxy and shopworn, like Easter cakes still on display in November, crusted-over and pathetic. But in the dusk, I could make out through one of their lit windows the back of a person standing at the counter, all elbows and hunch, chopping or washing something. It was a simple bit of drudgey human gesture that didn’t have anything to do with the splashy escapism and strained hunky-dory that I saw in the version of that life that I’d written off. And in the half-second before I moved on and began to think about something else—neatly executing the kind of instantaneous mental ejection crucial to surviving an ambush by the glimpsing of a sudden sliver of viability in something you’ve walled off in your heart and mind as necessarily impossible—I found myself surprised by how real that life seemed in just that moment, and also surprised to find myself so surprised.
Once upon a time, for one little while in one very little corner of the world, there used to be this ongoing dialogue about the marina as concept and culture. Over however many years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it was a discussion that passed between friends and acquaintances and otherwise disconnected co-occupants of certain precincts of the internet. Mostly the dialogue had to do with the casually nautical lifestyle evoked by the marina, and this lifestyle’s window of fashionability among musicians and other people appearing on record covers. Such talk, though, inevitably rippled outward into parsing that lifestyle and that fashionability’s subsequent impact on popular culture in general and on inwardly aching record collectors in particular.
Broadly and in brief: Among my kind of record people, marina culture had mostly to do with local waters, scrappy vessels, the white working class of mid-70s/early-80s America, and the companionably weathered souls navigating the intersections of all three. The great post-60s scattering of Cool America had begotten a generation of spirits too free for the land but too human for the sky. At the same time, the great proto-80s stagflation of Regular America had begotten a generation of bodies too dogged to stay but too tethered to get far. True, a lot of those dads and uncles too soon sold the Sea Ray for a down payment on a Chevy Whatever, and true, by their next albums David Crosby was in long pants and Kenny Loggins was in long sleeves, but for a long minute there, they were all in the water together, united in salty sigh and weedy ahoy down at the marina.
It was an elusive idea, and parsed on the internet a few decades after the fact, its slipperiness made for a brief season. The ascent of the adjacent and far more party-ready “yacht rock” saw the nuances of the marina mostly spackled over and subsumed into ironic vogue and all its bankruptcies. Whatever is left now of whatever we thought then, it survives isolated in the rusted circuits between people who are not exactly talking but not exactly not-talking. And even the people who are talking aren’t really talking that way anymore. People just wear deck shoes now.
But I’ve written about a lot of this stuff in a couple other places, and I’m vain enough to not want to be thought of as someone who repeats themselves too much, so there is much that I won’t say here. To the extent that “here” is even here anymore. Jesus. Fucking internet, man.
Anyway, I am writing, then, of a certain absence. I’m writing about it, from it, and into it. And whatever else it may be, Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” is a record of absence.
First and most literally, there is of course the absence of the shaker of salt, the madeleine squirreled between the gently mildewed all-weather-cushion ventricles of the song. When I first heard “Margaritaville” as a very young and very unimaginative kid, I honestly thought the lost salt shaker was the whole object of the song, was why the singer sounded so sad, was what everyone else (not him, though!) was blaming on a woman and which he was blaming initially on no one and then possibly on himself and then definitely on himself. I had little concept of metaphor, and just assumed that salt in a shaker was another one of the mysterious adult things whose great importance would become clear to me as I got older, like all that stuff under the sink in my parents’ bathroom.
“Being a Parrot Head is also much more. For most Parrot Heads, there is a specific state of mind that comes with their condition. Age has nothing to do with it. Through his music and writings, Parrot Heads vicariously experience Jimmy’s lifestyle: the party, the ocean, the sunshine, and a relaxed sense of freedom are a part of it. And that freedom is most appealing; it allows us to express our feelings and creativity in whatever manner we choose and allows us to escape from the rat race to our own little tropical paradise, if only for a little while.” – From “What Is A Parrot Head?” by Parrot Heads of North Carolina (“Partying With A Purpose!”)
A half-step to the side of the salt is a quasi-absence–or at least the kind of disconnect that you find in these kinds of first, quiet things. The complicated peace just before the arrival of a vast, clamoring audience. The detailed confusion of What Might Be that buzzes before the dumb certainty of What We Are settles in. There is some formal weirdness in the retrospective realization that this wistful and neighborly little song became the mover and mission statement behind a sprawling corporate lifestyle conglomerate supported by a landlocked conga line of deferred dreamers stretching from non-coast to non-coast, for most of whom a song like this is something like a hat that you put on. While I am abstractly pissy at the fact that this shimmering miniature of coastal American saudade has all these decades later lent its name to, for example, a line of tropical-drink blenders, as well as the fact that its conflicted but earnest yearn has been ballooned and cartooned and flattened into the cheapest escapism, by listener and creator alike (it’s all there in the title of Buffett’s 1999 record: Beach House On The Moon), I am not necessarily averse to the truth that the artistic imperative to worry will never fully overcome the human imperative to believe. In the popular imagination, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere will ultimately always lose to It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere. And anyway, Jimmy Buffett has as much as any single performer of the modern era satisfied Wordsworth’s requirement for the great artist: He has created the taste by which he is to be appreciated. Can’t knock the hustle.
The song’s most central absence, though, is also—considering its creator’s ultimate willing descent into garish banana-cabana sybaritism—its most surprising: the absence of the good times. With the possible exception of playing guitar on the porch, none of the things that are generally considered the raisons d’etre for the kind of beach-bum idyll depicted in the song—“the party, the ocean, the sunshine, and a relaxed sense of freedom”— are really present in the song.
What we get instead is the hangover, the day after, the in-between times, the bill come due, the soft oblivion that you can’t get silkscreened on a t-shirt. “Margaritaville” is almost exclusively negative space. And that’s not a flaw: On the contrilli, its sideways nature lets it get to places that other, better, more frontal songs (e.g. James Taylor’s blank-generation “Mexico” and Jerry Jeff Walker’s terminal version of “Backslider’s Wine”—two songs which you could fairly put at ends of a continuum with “Margaritaville” as an exact midpoint) will not reach.
Because as affecting as these more-exquisitely rendered songs can be, their directness and the clarity of their object keeps them even-keeled and centered. They’re too good to be called obvious, but there is about them an unmistakability. “The baby’s hungry and the money’s all gone.” “I found myself face down on the bar room floor.” Both songs run plumb through the canonical and chiaroscuro vale of hope and collapse that is known to us all.
So often, though, the deepest, most irreconcilable losses in life happen around the edges rather than at the center. We brace ourselves for the big stuff, the bottom dropping out, the axe falling, the door closing, and we overlook the flickering little departure, the slow winking-out in the periphery. The hardest things to keep are the things that you would never think to save. They vanish when you are not looking from places you’ve stopped checking and accrete without your even realizing into a void that ends up mattering more than you could ever have imagined.
It is a very particular class and a magnitude of loss, one that “Margaritaville” accesses by glancing just to the side of where it by all rights should—by not being about the beach but about fucking up your foot on the way there; by being not about the party but about the tattoo you got afterwards and don’t even fucking remember; by being not about the ease and the absence of obligation but about the woman you couldn’t keep, the one simple, everyday thing you want that you really can’t find, and the waste, dear lord, the fucking waste. The bright yearning for the good life that is implied by the song does not outrun the dark realization born of what’s actually in the song, right there in front of us: That there are things—things that matter—that even the good life cannot fix.
But at the same time that “Margaritaville”’s sideways approach kinda gives the lie to the style of living that is its implied center, it kinda gives it life, too. Looking too directly at the heart of the good life overwhelms us and thereby dulls it: When trying to get our minds around broad concepts like “freedom” or “leisure time,” reaching any truly personal conception requires machete-ing through the torrents of flat and banal images that present themselves so readily, and few of us have that kind of stamina anymore, so we end up caught in dumb feedback loops of blue skies or open roads or cold drinks or hammocks or stacks of money or whatever. But coming to understand something of that life’s periphery—recognizing that it even has a periphery—can keep it from hardening into cliché. “[T]he party, the ocean, the sunshine, and a relaxed sense of freedom” are as empty as they are immortal, their meaninglessness imparting them with deathlessness, and vice versa. By focusing on transitory details, the song exhibits a presentiment of loss that lets it sidestep the stupefying glare of the eternal thing at its center. It is the single evasive maneuver that has kept the song compelling, has kept it apart from the vicarious experience and easy jackassery that it left in its own wake, has kept it alive.
The secret heartbreak shared by marina culture and record collecting is that at the very center of both is a wholly individual and ultimately uncommunicable thing. In the marina, that thing is the freedom promised by the water; in record collecting, it’s the ecstasy of personal musical taste. And because of this, we’re all left celebrating not thee thing, but the surrounding things: The boat, the weather, the waterfront bar. The price, the cover, the store where we bought it. And we all mean well, doggedly pursuing preservation in service of reanimation. Ours are aesthetics and cultures rooted in the braiding together of fleeting and loss-prone peripheral phenomena into something that can be saved, gathering the neural wisps of the complex and the unique and knotting them into something that can be measured, seen, and shared. Sorting out our ideas about the ocean’s majesty may dredge up differences and frustrations, and whatever is between us may slip through our fingers again and again and again. Better, then, to just have some beers on the boat, preserving in the known and beloved pattern of that act at least something of the fellowship.
But, to paraphrase the one Sharon Stone, you can only share your way to the middle. The dissatisfaction of not being able to bring each other all the way in eventually becomes an awful lot for the collective to bear. There creeps in a counterfeit that can taint, running backward and inward, sickening the eggs of what we hope to one day bring forth. What begins as wanting to explore a sensibility in a place where others can see it leads to a sensibility warped by the understanding that it will of course be seen. Too many knots exhaust the rope, too many acquisitions cloud the consideration, talking about things you like becomes liking the things you know you’ll be able to talk about, the outward exposure depletes the inner fever, and it is wonderful to be together but we are no closer, here inside “The little circle of time that talking makes / like a hunger-producing food.” At our best, we are united in our talents for massing all the attendant things and scrolling between them fluidly enough that we receive what we think might be glimpses of the great thing at their center. But how often are we at our best? And all at the same time? Half of us are talking about oceans, the other half are talking about boats, and eventually we all just end up talking about the most knowable, relatable thing. Fucking boats, man.
This is the sorrow of “Margaritaville,” and that it is probably unwitting makes it no less profound. The life that we live among each other happens in the connections that form in our exchanges across the steady drift and eventual weave of the observable and the relatable. And at the center is something important that will not be settled here. In a few drawling, bittersweet strokes, “Maragitaville” sketches beautifully and dolefully the part of its life that it can tell you about, and when it’s said all it can, smiles downward and gives a sad little wave. There is a good life behind this, yes, but you’ll have to go the rest of the way on your own. That essential place is not in the song, not in this thing that we share, and perhaps we were not, after all, meant to get there together.