Chris Moss Online

Interpreting Songs

This entry details the genesis of my torrid love affair with Jimmy Buffett. It started off as a post about interpreting lyrics, but it took a different direction.

Songs can be a lot like poetry, and their meanings can differ widely among people. In fact, the popular interpretation of some songs can be remarkably different from what it meant to the lyricist. One of the things I really love about music is how it can be incredibly personal. You can latch on to just a particular part of a song, a line or even just a few words. Whether it was the words themselves or the expressive manner in which the words are vocalized, certain songs have the ability to evoke sharp feelings and emotions. Or, it can evoke a memory (or the feelings related to the memory) of a place where you were, what you were doing or who you were with when you heard a song. I find that entirely appropriate and absolutely wonderful.

For me, there are a lot of songs that bring back certain memories. Most of the time, I don’t care for new songs I hear until I can associate that song with something. My earliest memories of music involve growing up on Lake O’ The Pines and fun times at our family’s houseboat. We spent a lot of time doing fun things and music was a big part of it. We listened to classic rock and country. Bob Seger, The Eagles, and classic country artists like Willie Nelson and George Jones were staples, as were contemporary country artists of the late 70s and early 80s. Full blame for my interest in some of this music can be layed on my parents and the wonderful memories permanently attached to artists like Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Rabbitt. There is a song by a comedian, Tim Wilson, that somewhat describes me. However, it has also given me a broader appreciation for music than most and I find I enjoy a very wide range of music.

I refuse to like an artist just because they are popular. In fact, an artist who materializes out of thin air and is suddenly popular is likely to make me have a distaste for them. I didn’t like anything Madonna did until she had been popular for 15 years. But after a road trip coming back from New Orleans once, listening to The Immaculate Collection, I finally acknowledged her greatness. The closest I’ve come to liking a new artist right out of the box is Hootie & the Blowfish, Matchbox 20 and John Mayer. I “discovered” Steve Winwood when “Higher Love” came out when I was in high school, only to learn he had been making music for 25 years.

The Tragically Hip and R.E.M. are associated with my friend, Tim, who introduced me to those groups, both of which we listened to extensively as we drove the back roads of East Texas to cure our boredom. Sarah McLachlan’s album “Fumbling Towards Ecstacy“, not ironically, is associated with my own sexual awakening. Indigo’s song “Perfect Day” not only describes James and I, but we heard it and danced to it together the night we met. There are countless songs that evoke a particular feeling or memory for me.

My favorite artist, much to the chagrin of certain (all) of my friends, is Jimmy Buffett. If ever I were to meet a cute gay boy who loves The Tragically Hip and Jimmy Buffett, methinks a certain Aussie would feel a bit threatened 😉 Jimmy Buffett does not possess a gifted voice or remarkable musical ability, but the words of his songs are pure magic, for me at least, and for a variety of reasons his music has earned a huge permanent space in my heart. Buffett’s music defies classification. It’s not really rock, it’s not really country. No genre will claim him. His music has been (appropriately) described as “Gulf and Western” and “Yacht Rock.”

I have a vague memory of seeing Jimmy Buffett on the local news one night when we were living in Orlando circa 1986. Buffett was promoting his Save the Manatee organization and had held an event locally. I only knew him as “the guy that does that ‘Margaritaville’ song” and thought it was cool he was involved with manatees. At the time, I wanted to become a marine zoologist and go to work at Sea World. I didn’t pay much attention to him until after I had lived in Florida for a total of eight years and moved away. I always had a beach bum sort of mentality, combined with an adventurous nature and a desire to explore the world, particularly the warm and tropical bits. When we moved away from Texas after five years, I spent much of my life in Florida pining for the “good old days” on the lake in Texas and wanting to move back. When my parents finally did in 1989 during my freshman year of college, I jumped at the chance to go, too.

After being back in Texas a few months and learning first-hand that “you can never go home again” I began to miss some things about Florida. My brother, Jason, had been in a steel drum band in high school when we lived in Florida, and his group of band friends had listened to a lot of Jimmy Buffett. Jason began playing a lot of Buffett because he missed his friends from the steel drum band (there are those memories tied to music again). At first, his music annoyed me. I didn’t like his voice and paid no attention to the lyrics. After a while, I caught certain lines and started to kind of like them. During the summer of 1990, I worked the Census and was assigned to some rural areas. My brother had a pickup truck with four-wheel drive, so I often would drive his truck on my assignments, and he had some Jimmy Buffett tapes in there. I spent a lot of time driving around East Texas roads, alone, with a lot of time to ponder the world and my future, and Jimmy Buffett became the soundtrack to that. The music itself and some of the lines began to be pleasant reminders of my four years living by the ocean. I also began to enjoy the simple truths and life lessons in certain of the songs, such as “He Went to Paris“, “Cowboy in the Jungle“, and “Take Another Road” The imagery and music also fit with the beach, boat and water freak that lives within me. A lot of the songs are humorous, and the brand of humor fits me, too. I think I also liked the fact that he was somewhat obscure. There was just a real synergy of things I liked about his music, which I didn’t realize until I looked a bit deeper. It might be summed up by a line from his song “Migration” that goes, “I’ve got a Caribbean soul I can barely control and some Texas hidden here in my heart.”

The fall of 1990 took me to Denton to start as a sophomore at the University of North Texas. I was living in Denton with my childhood friend from the 5th and 6th grades, who I reconnected with when we moved back to Texas. It went great for the first couple of weeks, but it quickly went sour. My friend got into the party scene, joined a fraternity and drank – a lot. It takes a lot for me get so crosswise with people that I can’t think properly. The frat brothers were always at our apartment, and something was always going on. One of them moved in. I didn’t like the frat brothers, and pretty soon I no longer liked my friend. I tried to leave them alone and get through the semester, at which time the lease would end and I could move. But, they didn’t feel like leaving me alone. I became a subject of ridicule and teasing, and an easy target was the music I was listening to at the time. It sort of pushed me even closer to that music. Songs like “Dallas” and “Stranded on a Sandbar” became extremely relevant. A lot of the music, however, had a calming effect and reminded me that things would get better, and of course they did. But the experience forever endeared me to Buffett’s music.

One misconception a lot of people have when they hear that Buffett is one of my favorites is that they think I am a Parrothead – which I’m not. I’ve never had a desire to wear a grass skirt or a foam shark head. I do treasure the music, though.

His newer music over the last 15 years has been great for the most part, also, so here’s to more fun in the sun and by the water and adventures ahead careening through life listening to wonderful music!

Current mood: introspective
Current music: “A Pirate Looks at Forty” – Jimmy Buffett

8 thoughts on “Interpreting Songs

  1. Layton

    Great Post!
    Very introspective and melancholic.

    Also, in response to: “If ever I were to meet a cute gay boy who loves The Tragically Hip and Jimmy Buffett, methinks a certain Aussie would feel a bit threatened ;).”

    Shya, like you could ever find a cute gay boy that even knows The Tragically Hip or Jimmy Buffet! Good luck with that!

    And, your post did make me realize the magnitude of Jimmy Buffet’s “cultural wake” that he has created with his music, lifestyle, and actions. It also makes me wonder how many “parrotheads” would be affected, and how they would react, when Buffet passes away. Morbid I know, but that’s how curiousity sometimes exists.

  2. Greg Gallop

    A1A – Eh?
    I’ve gotta give you your props on this one. You were the one who turned me into a Buffett Afficianado (fancy word for addict). I remember asking you one night, “Why is Buffett so good.” Your response, “You can’t truely appreciate Buffett until you hit rock bottom.” I always thought that was a bit of self pity and arrogance – until I hit rock bottom a year or so later. Now I understand the words you told me. I think it is what gives me an appreciation for the “Less is More Lifestyle…”

    I’ll be in Dallas on the 18th and 19th (going home on the 20th). We have a family comitment on the 18th but I’m free Sunday.

    I’d like to see you (and James). You guys up for it?

    Later
    Greg Gallop

    P.S. My Fav was always One Particular Harbor (hence the blog) but ever since I turned 30, I’ve had a growing appreciation for Pirate Looks at 40.

  3. Ed Deluzain

    Jimmy Buffett
    Chris,

    I think this is among your best posts (I think I’ve read them all) because it reveals so much about you. I, too, love Jimmy Buffett, and his are the only CD’s I keep in my car. I think the man is a poet, and he can turn a phrase that “makes the top of my head blow off.” I have so many favorite songs that it’s hard to even name them all, but one that delights me every time I hear it is “Jolly Man.” The term “ballad” is tossed around very loosely in popular music, but that song meets all the literary characteristics of a genuine ballad, including the incremental repetition. I don’t stay particularly up to date with his current output, but the old songs are with me always. Happy Valentine’s Day, and Happy Mardi Gras.

  4. Chris

    The Jolly Mon
    Thanks for the kind words, Ed. I am working on a long post about New Orleans that I think you’ll appreciate as well. Do yourself a favor and pick up some of the more recent Buffett CD’s – like a fine wine, he gets better with age.

    The Jolly Mon was turned into a children’s book which Buffett co-authored with his daughter. It’s available from Amazon or Margaritaville.com. They also teamed up for a second children’s book called “The Trouble Dolls.” I’ve never read either but suspect they might be an appropriate gift for grandchildren at some point!

    Happy Mardi Gras!

  5. Greg Gallop

    Jolly Mon = Good Buy!!!
    I’ve got The Jolly Mon. We bought it for Savannah. She absolutely loves it and can almost sing the song now. I’d say it is an EXCELLENT purchase for any kid older than 2 and any pirate older than 40

  6. Chris Moss Post author

    I was re-reading this post and the comments today and wanted to elaborate on Gallop’s “rock bottom” comment. I remember having that conversation with you. That remark came from similar conversations I’ve had with other people I’ve met over the years who have a similar appreciation for Buffett as I have (prefer the less well-known songs, not the concert faves; are not “Parrotheads”). Virtually all of those people grew to love Buffett music in that way at a very low point in their life (divorce, loss of friend or family member, loss of job, etc).

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