A Night in Margaritaville with Canada's Biggest Jimmy Buffett Fans
For the Parrotheads of the Toronto Maple Reefers Club, finding their own, personal Margaritaville is transcendent.
Photos by Nicole Nyholt
"My Margaritaville isn't everybody else's; it doesn't have to be. Everybody needs it and it is what it is."—Jimmy Buffett
Have you found your Margaritaville? Would you even know what it looked like? Maybe it was the time you discovered a hair in your fajita and got your entire meal comped, or when you saw a Corgi wearing sunglasses? Maybe it was when your parents asked if they could throw out those pool noodles in the shed, and you casually responded, "No." Or was it when you jokingly bought a six-pack of Palm Bay and actually loved it more than any $16 cocktail you've ever had? There are many Canadians who may only know Margaritaville as a song by the father of trop-rock Jimmy Buffett or his eponymous restaurant chain, but for members of the Toronto Maple Reefers Club, it's something far more transcendent.
"There is no such place as Margaritaville, it doesn't exist. It's wherever your happy place is." That's Norm Marshall talking, one of the guys who founded this Buffett fan club in 2003. He and fellow Parrotheads—the play on Deadheads given to devout Jimmy Buffett followers—have gathered inside the event room at the National Yacht Club on a foggy October evening to celebrate the club's anniversary.
Leis hang from necks, tropical flowers adorn hair, white wine meets the sweet kiss of its death, and an abundance of Hawaiian shirts suddenly have the ability to make you feel as if you've dressed informally. There are pictures of Buffett and his albums reverentially poised by the DJ booth; there are baskets filled with bottles of Patron and Malibu that look like a duty-free showcase waiting to be raffled; and there are club members seating themselves at a grouping of large banquet tables, giving the space the look of an intimate destination wedding. The group ranges from middle-aged to seniors, but they have such an immediate energy that I feel like I've walked onto the set of the Cocoon reboot.
There's no question: They're here to party.
I'd become besotted with the idea of Buffett's cult following when I first listened to his music on my own volition in the depths of last winter—the idea that a song about a town named after a cocktail could inspire its own fermented philosophy. So when I found out that there was a Parrothead club in Toronto, I was keen to see just how their Margaritaville came to life.
"I was working in the Cayman Islands in 1976," the club's treasurer, Kirsten Jensen, tells me. She, like most of the club's members, recalls discovering Buffett back in the 70s and 80s. "We were on a yacht, and they were playing Jimmy Buffett, and I asked, 'Who's that?'"
This was back when Jimmy Buffett was establishing his ownership over the calypso-flavored country genre in North America—when he appeared on the back of album covers looking more like someone who tweets at KFC than a man who now earns a metric boatload of money every year, owns his own beer label, and was heralded by Bob Dylan as one of his favorite songwriters. Throughout the 70s, Buffett endeared himself to everyone who would rather play than work with his carefree, languid rhythm and strangely poetic tales of beach life that pondered such subjects as being hungover and wanting chocolate milk and dreaming about cheeseburgers.
Buffett's songs are about afternoon boozin', sunburnt tourists, and cruising by the seat of your pants. They're postcards from the guy with the guitar at the youth hostel who never stopped traveling. They appear on albums and tours with authentically chill names like Summerzcool and Last Mango in Paris, and they provide the framework for the lifestyle to which the Maple Reefer Club Members have subscribed. Buffett's musical rhetoric is like if "Hakuna Matata" was stiffly blended and served over ice. It imagines a place where you don't need a beach, a hammock, or underpaid resort staff to be on vacation, but just your favorite drink, a shirt that's ready to hang loose, and a few people willing to sing along.
Derek Knights, one of the club's most seasoned Buffett fans, cheerfully describes the Parrothead vibe as we have a beer beside the dance floor. "It's like if you could have a tropical vacation in your backyard whenever you wanted to!"
He's wearing a shirt he picked up at a Buffett concert in Paris a week ago, which marked his 99th time seeing him play live.
"My first concert was in 1984 at Canada's Wonderland," he tells me. "I saw him in Cincinnati in 1986, then a couple weeks later in Detroit, and I haven't missed a year since."
Knights explains the concept of Margaritaville as if it's everywhere and nowhere, making it sound akin to the Force with a drinking problem. But his own amorous ties to the ideal of it stem from discovering a passion for sailing later in life—he's a regular skip at the yacht club—and the never-ending conga line that is following Buffett around on tour.
"I know so many people now. I've got places to stay; sometimes it starts at 9 AM in the parking lot, tailgating before the concert. It's hard to explain, when it happens you know it."
Like Juggalos, Phish Heads, and other musical sub-cultures that have followed them, a huge part of Parrothead culture revolves around touring, annual gatherings, and community. It's the type of thing that makes it easy for those uninitiated to lampoon them for their rampant partying or to focus their attention on their tailgating detritus, which appears throughout the States. But like Mardis Gras or Sweet Sixteens, it's easy for any party that you're not a part of to look slightly obnoxious from the outside.
With the party in full swing, the mood at the Maple Reefers Club gathering is overwhelmingly warm and inviting; despite being a stranger who basically apparated from the internet, I'm paraded around and introduced to everyone like I'm their new son-in-law. There is friendship among former strangers, and loving relationships seem to form throughout the club. Everyone is there for such an inoffensively pure good time, and the music strums along with the same dumb charm that still makes summer flicks like Caddyshack, Weekend at Bernies, and Summer Rental rewatchable. It's this mindless brand of fun that attracted Marshall to Buffett's way of life.
"It's not exactly a lifestyle, it's a fun style" he says, his voice ricocheting off of Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" in the background. "When I'm listening to music, I'm not listening to Jimmy Buffett—when I party, I listen to Jimmy Buffet."
Though he makes it clear there's no element of escapism to what they do, he says he got the idea to start the club with his partner while working around the clock in an undercover police unit. Finding his Margaritaville was about getting in touch with a side that needed to chill.
"To connect with another part of you that has nothing to do with the reality back home" as Marshall puts it, "Jimmy Buffett's music just goes along with that so much."
There's something inherently silly about a group of adults and seniors dressed for Ace Ventura cosplay twirling around a room, but what I'm learning is that's exactly the point.
"You wear flip-flops or a Hawaiian shirt on vacation for two weeks, you're a Parrothead for that time," Marshall sagely instructs me. "We just do it all year long."
The Maple Reefers—named after Buffett's Coral Reefer band and not just a dispensary waiting to open—busy themselves with more than just partying though. Kathy House, the club's secretary, tells me their mantra is to "party with a purpose," and they participate in fundraising and beach cleanups—inspired by Buffett's own conservation efforts and charity work.
But this gathering is by no means comparable to the open-bar-in-the-trunk-of-a-car ragers that descend on the live shows. With around 40 people in attendance at peak time, it's pretty modest.
"Sometimes we're the biggest club, sometimes we're the smallest," Knights says.
Though they do maintain the distinction as the largest Buffett club in Canada, Marshall says that membership fluctuated since they started. People have moved further away from the city and can't make it down as frequently, and in some cases, people have passed away. These are somber stories to hear while you're on your third pint and listening to enabling nonsense like "It's Five O' Clock Somewhere," but with Buffett himself turning 70 this year, his core fan base is aging along with him.
Despite everyone's insistence that their children are Parrotheads, the event's attendance shows there's clearly a generational divide with Buffett's music, giving the evening a strange sense of ephemera. It's as if I've been taught the ways of a society that eminent cultural historians will look back on centuries from now and say, "Hey, remember when the machines let us have fun?"
Knights describes his freewheeling feelings toward life on earth much more aptly with an offhand Buffett lyric: "In a hundred years it all won't matter."
Even if that's true for these parties (not to mention the content they inspire me to write and, well, content in general), there's still an enduring pertinence to what the Maple Reefers found in Buffett's music and one another. They're happy. They're themselves. It's a gentle reminder of the small slices of everyday paradise that you can only find when you're willing to think about something other than your own bullshit for a moment. Even if this isn't my Margaritaville, I have an undeniably great time hanging out with a bunch of other people's parents for three hours and walking out into the howling winds rolling off Lake Ontario as steel drums softly rumble from inside the yacht club.
I make my way over to the bar where my friend works to cap off the night. She lets me bring in a slice of pizza and cracks me a beer upon my arrival. Perhaps I'm biased by the same combination of booze and hunger that usually culminates to make 7-11 a Michelin star tasting menu after midnight, but the fresh slice, still dramatically melting at the edges where it had been separated from its cheesy compadres, is simple perfection. It's warm, it's satiating, it's fittingly of the margherita variety, and it leaves a wide pizza-eating grin on my face. I'm in a happy place, and when I look, without envy, at a group of dudes with the twinkle of booze in their eyes as they celebrate a birthday by doing their third consecutive shot in a five-minute span, something is clear: I'm in my Margaritaville, and at the same time, they are in theirs. The same latitude with a different attitude. It's as if, for a moment, I could feel the sweet french dressing and coconut shrimp tinged breath of Buffett himself whisper: "It is what it is."
Party, karombo, fiesta, forever.