Life Is Just A Tire Swing (AKA When Jimmy Buffett Wasn’t Running Resorts, Part One)

It was Jimmy Buffett’s third album, A White Sports Coat and a Pink Crustacean, that gave him major-label exposure to the pop music world. Yet a big record company could — or would — only do so much. Though well-received critically, the album made no dent on the charts. It just sat in the bins. That was baffling.

A White Sports Coat and a Pink Crustacean was filled with songs that, to paraphrase Buffett, combined Caribbean Soul and Country. Or as some call it, Gulf-Western. The playing by Buffett and The Coral Reefer Band was bright, thoughtful and energetic. The songs had great stories of love, loss, hi-jinks and sometimes bawdy circumstances.

But the lack of sales success did not stop Buffett. He kept playing the small clubs, slowly but surely building a fan base, particularly along the eastern seaboard and west to Texas. His next album, Living and Dying in 3/4 Time, was also strong and even yielded a hit single, “Come Monday.” In fact, the song first hit Atlanta airwaves a few weeks after he played 5 straight nights at Atlanta’s Great Southeast Music Hall. On the first night, he opened for Billy Joel. Perhaps there were 15 people in the audience that night, with maybe two or three of us actually paying to get in.

Billy Joel canceled the rest of his scheduled shows that week due to tonsillitis. In a few weeks, he too would have his first hit, “Piano Man.” Joel would quickly move on to bigger Atlanta rooms, The Electric Ballroom, Symphony Hall, and The Civic Center while Buffett spent most of his frequent Atlanta visits the next year or two at the Music Hall. But the fan base was growing. More than 15 people were showing up. Buffett was packing the place and he was finally selling more than a handful of albums.

Early the following year Buffett released A1A. Nothing wrong with that one either. In fact, it’s his best album. Buffett had a formula and it was working splendidly.  A1A featured mostly Buffett originals, along with a few well-chosen covers. Each of the songs, be they zesty or low key, were all reflective of the human condition. The Coral Reefer Band was still on board. Steve Goodman, who wrote “City of New Orleans,” provided terrific lead guitar.

One of the album’s originals, “Life is Just a Tire Swing,” takes a unique view on grinding through life. The jaunty song describes an idyllic southern childhood. The boy’s life is filled with loving parents, good home cooked meals, and a tire swing out back to wile away the summer afternoons. Life is simple if predictable. Now and then there’s a family vacation but they never venture “west of New Orleans or east of Pensacola.” The boy’s only contact with the world beyond was a phonograph “where Elvis would sing,” inspiring visions of expensive cars and the adventurous life.

The adventurous life no doubt gives way to love, loss, hangovers and regrets. In the song’s last verse, the boy, now grown, driving in Illinois one night, falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into “a Ma Bell telephone pole.” Buffett builds upon the terrific setting. There’s the wreckage and a “bunch of Grant Wood faces screaming ‘is he still alive?’” as the song’s character slumps behind the wheel. But then the guy comes around; he sees a tire swing from a near-by tree and knows all is well. This song gives reason to celebrate Buffett’s special genius. It also breaks the hearts of many Buffett fans; especially the longtime fans who have noted the changes in his career. In the next three years he recorded three more very good albums. But soon the reflective Buffett seemed to give way to the hedonistic Buffett. Apparently a very savvy business person, Buffet gave the people what they wanted. They wanted to hear about the party and not the morning after. And as more people came to the party, the Parrothead mentality, straight from the frat house, became part of the show whenever Buffett played.

Long appreciative of his audience, Jimmy Buffett is most convivial on stage. He remains in good voice and has taken better care of himself than the guy in “Margaritaville,” the poor guy in the song who usually managed to find his “lost shaker of salt.” Here’s wishing Buffett, no matter how contented he may be, can reclaim something more valuable than a salt shaker: that lost creative spark which infused his musical reflections all those years ago.