Wastin’ Away in Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Casino

Cross the Long-Allen bridge over the Red River to Bossier City, make a left on Bass Pro Road, and suddenly you’re in a casino that doubles as a parrot-heavy altar to Jimmy Buffett, America’s beach-casual bard of good times.

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Oct 31 2013, 2:41pm

Illustrations by Michael Shaeffer

You can go to Margaritaville any time you want; it’s just a ten-minute drive from Shreveport, Louisiana. You cross the Long-Allen Bridge over the Red River to Bossier City, make a left on Bass Pro Road, and suddenly you’re in a casino that doubles as a parrot-heavy altar to Jimmy Buffett, America’s beach-casual bard of good times.

Wikipedia describes Buffett as being “best known for his music, which often portrays an ‘island escapism’ lifestyle, and the often humorous things he has experienced throughout his life.” That’s one way of putting it. Another description might call Buffett money-hungry and creatively bankrupt—a songwriter peddling bland, unobjectionable good-times tunes to over-the-hill office workers who fantasize about being burnouts.

This has been an astonishingly lucrative formula for him as he’s expanded his brand from music to restaurants and now massive casinos all over America. The $205 million Bossier City Margaritaville Resort Casino is the third of its kind, following one in Las Vegas, which opened in 2011, and another in Biloxi, Mississippi, built the following year. This March, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Tulsa announced plans to turn their tribal casino into the fourth Margaritaville, which is due to open in 2015. Across the nation, it seems, Americans are eager to embrace the Jimmy Buffett brand of gambling and entertainment complex, just as they have gobbled up his tropical barfly shtick for decades. They love his shit.

(Full disclosure: in high school I dated a girl whose parents considered themselves “Parrotheads.” They’d drive us around in their minivan blasting the whole “Cheeseburger in Paradise” canon. We went on a vacation once to the Maryland shore featuring day after day of Buffett. I was that age when you take music way too seriously, but they were nice people and I managed to bear it while gritting my teeth. To this day, I really fucking hate Jimmy Buffet.)

I went to this latest incarnation of Buffett, which may very well outlive the man himself, in June, just two weeks after it opened its doors to guests and gamblers.I was on my fifth business trip in six months to Shreveport-Bossier, where there are seven casinos clustered in a metropolitan area of 400,000. Usually I stay in the Hilton on the Shreveport side of the river, from which I’ve seen the tower of Margaritaville rise slowly into the sky. What promise did it herald? I wondered. What does $204 million look like when cast in Buffett’s image? What would paradise look like in Bossier City? This is my diary from the expedition:

Check-In
The staff at the desk seem flustered. This is understandable, as they have less than two weeks of operations under their belt and the kinks in the system are still getting worked out. An elderly lady in front of me turns and asks if this is where we get chips. I don’t think so, I say. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” she sighs before shuffling away. Behind the desk three exquisitely pruned rose bushes hang suspended in an amber-lit glass box. The lady who checks me in is very nice and the rate is an affordable $109/night.

Room
My room on the 12th floor is surprisingly not heavy on the Buffett influence, though there are two paintings of birds that betray signs of the casino’s corporate muse (their plaques indicate they come from “the collection of Jimmy and Jane Buffet”). The wicker-trimmed furniture suggests a vaguely tropical theme, as does the wallpaper, but I imagine the architects who designed the place figured no one would spend much time in the rooms. I put my things down, change into a pair of gold Corona swim trunks and flip-flops, and head back downstairs.

Poolside
The view of Shreveport from here is outstanding. Hotel towers stand like sentries along the river—the reddish plate glass of Sam’s Town casino, the copper plate glass of the Horseshoe, the art deco facade of El Dorado. The sky is clear, the air is warmer than the water, and I admire this little island refuge. I lay back in the red lounge chair, surrounded by couples and families splashing in the (fairly modest) pool as Alan Jackson’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” creeps into the air from unseen speakers. The track ends, then the voice of Jimmy Buffett declares to a crowd at some past concert, “The spirits are moving me. The spirits always move me when I come home.” He then embarks on a particularly flat, Buffett-ized version of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Southern Cross.” Sparrows wiggle into the fake flowers along the patio, chirping.

Two dudes, one in a cowboy hat, descend the stairs to the pool deck, then head back up. On a balcony a few stories above me, a plump blond woman in a teal suit smokes a cigarette. The hotel tower itself is relatively unremarkable—another monument to gambling and consumption in a town full of them—aside from a three-story panel of palm leaves running between balconies. A large MARGARITAVILLE sign sits atop the building. The Louisiana flag flies from the rusty roof of the Bass Pro Shop down the street. I sink my feet into soft new AstroTurf as “Southern Cross” ends and “Satisfaction” begins.

This leads me to ponder Jimmy Buffett’s place in the music-industrial complex. The Rolling Stones are a marketing machine, but do they have their own casino? Bruce Springsteen sells out stadiums every time he announces a show, but does he have his own Atlantic City entertainment establishment? “No,” you say, “those guys would never need to stoop to that!” But is it stooping? Not for the dread pirate Buffett. This is a man who’s made millions of dollars playing the same nine songs in front of drunken, middle-aged crowds for decades. He wears Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts every day. Vacation is Jimmy Buffett’s only subject, so hotels and casinos aren’t compromises for him. He will build 100 of these casinos all over America if he can, and they will be here towering over the landscape long after the Beatles or the Clash have faded from memory.

A leggy young cocktail waitress with a red flower in her hair makes her way around the pool. I smile expectantly when she turns my way, but she gets distracted by a man who resembles an aging Alex Rodriguez. He sends her for matches to light his big cigar. I wait a few minutes and decide to explore the rest of the complex.

Margaritaville Cafe
The couple next to me share a pasty quesadilla. They are white, trim, look to be in their late 40s and, I learn, are from Shreveport. This is their first time at Margaritaville, Chris and Karen tell me, and they’re not really gamblers. Last year, some friends of theirs took them to a Buffett show in Columbus, Ohio, and they were shocked at the amount of partying. The casino is different, more PG. “It’s like Disneyland for adults,” says Chris.

All around us, the tables and barstools are full. Flat-screen TVs arrayed about the room show Buffett concert videos interrupted by videos from sympathetic artists like Zac Brown, who may be the icon's heir apparent (see their 2011 collaboration, “Knee Deep”). Three bartenders move busily behind the counter, all clad in lime-green shirts, the two males in straw fedoras. Our bartender, who introduced himself as Finch, keeps fucking things up, playing Cocktail-like games with glasses that he clearly isn’t skilled enough to pull off. Things break, people wait way too long for their drinks. I order a Margarita, and Finch pours me straight tequila with a lime. By any traditional measure, the Margarita Café is a pretty lousy restaurant.

As an experience, though, it has its strengths. From my stool at the tiki-style bar, I watch folks eat papery burgers in booths mounted into the decks of fishing boats. Above them the ceiling is covered in a map of the Caribbean, with twinkly lights designating ports of call. A scaled-down model of a seaplane hangs above the tables and a volcanic mountainside takes up one wall. You can see how, after a few drinks, you could pretend you weren’t Bossier City. It’s still a far cry from Key West, but we might be in Epcot, if Epcot served rumrunners. What could be better than that?

A man wearing a denim shirt and a Springsteen-style red bandana takes the stage at the far end of the dining room and sits on a stool. He strums an acoustic guitar, mumbles into a microphone, and then, his sound check apparently complete, the man disappears. The bar’s TVs are now all tuned to a closed-circuit channel that shows the man’s guitar resting on the stool.

It is easy to talk about how shitty America is, how vapid its distractions and icons. People do it all day long on social media. What’s complicated and harder to talk about is why Americans seem so happy with the shit they are handed. Like right now—here’s a restaurant where the service is bad, the food is worse, and the live entertainment has apparently just gone AWOL. But the customers here are mostly satisfied to sit in this crowded, tacky, plastic place. In fact, there’s a line of people waiting to get in just outside the hostess station.

After Chris and Karen push off, I turn my attention back to the stage. The bandana man gives a husky rendition of John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” as the stage lights cover him in a rippling flame effect. I finish my horrible tequila and compete with two new customers for Finch’s attention. When he deposits the check, he shakes my hand like we’ve been drinking buddies in some subtropical outpost. I get the fuck out of there.

The Casino
On the ceiling above the roulette and poker tables green and blue glass balls evoke sea foam. The rich red carpet is covered in a pattern of parrots and plants. A few song titles glow in boxes atop slots: “Island of Temporary Refuge,” etc., but otherwise this is just a fairly ordinary small casino. It’s done rather tastefully, actually: no themed video poker machines, no Buffett faces in the slots screen, no pirate flags emblazoned on the felt of the poker tables. What stands out is how new everything is, how the blue stools are still unblemished by cigarette burns, how the cigarette smoke lingering in the atmosphere hasn’t acquired that permanent stench. Compared to the dark caverns of the Harrah’s in New Orleans, the room is almost airy, the chandeliers still bright, the white marble floors newly waxed. As I wander through the slots I come across a row of Michael Jackson machines fronted by chairs covered in images of the King of Pop—hey, wait, why doesn’t Michael Jackson have his own entertainment and gambling complex?

Beyond the obvious answer (give Joe Jackson time), there's an instructive comparison to be drawn between the two entertainers. MJ was an otherworldly talent with choreographed sneers, ambiguous sexuality, and technical perfection. Jimmy Buffet? He’s that brother-in-law who’ll toss a nostalgic arm around your shoulder, untuck his shirt, and tend to the grill at the beach house. If you’re a father in nearby Texas looking for some poker and family pool time, who would you rather kick it with?

The Pool Bar
The DirecTV logo bounces around the inactive flat-screen, a microcosm of the dysfunction or carelessness that runs through all Margaritaville. Nothing here works quite like it should. When she gets to me, the bartender doesn’t smile, just takes my order for a Corona, which comes in a can. The three bros behind me keep asking about their shrimp while two couples look plaintively at the bartender.

If nothing works, at least the scenery is nice. Turning towards Shreveport, I watch a speedboat cut a skinny wake through the Red River, while countless swallows fill the dusk sky. The neon lights of Sam’s Town and El Dorado beckon; another train crosses the rail bridge. “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” comes on again, and I pay particular attention to Buffett’s guest verse—Alan Jackson wonders what Jimmy would do, then the man himself chimes in:

Funny you should ask that because I’d say:

Pour me somethin’ tall an’ strong,

Make it a hurricane before I go insane.

It’s only half-past twelve but I don’t care.

I think about Lead Belly, who grew up outside Shreveport. When my wife joined me in Shreveport last month, we ventured down Texas Street, a big empty avenue running through downtown. A large poster of the blues legend hung from a would-be nightclub, showing him leaning against two barrels in his overalls, a bandana around his neck, acoustic guitar on his lap. We also made a pilgrimage to his grave on Blanchard Latex Road, in Mooringsport, just shy of the Texas border.

The cemetery sits behind a spare brick church. Someone had blessed Lead Belly with a new black marble gravestone etched with an engraving of a guitar that sat behind a wrought iron fence. The other graves were humble. A jackrabbit dashed past us into the woods. The line in American music that leads from Lead Belly to Jimmy Buffett is twisted and embarrassing, but it’s there somewhere. Lead Belly never had his own casino. He had a “brand,” I guess, that wasn’t too far from the one that Buffett tries to project—drunk, itinerant, living on the margins—but he actually lived it, without legions of fans or a merch department hocking overalls. One can only marvel at the possibilities for Buffett’s future grave.

Up on the pool deck, a family frolics in the water and I take a fresh towel from the attendant, who seems tired. She tells me it’s now 8:51 PM, an hour to go before close. A lady and her kids get out of the hot tub, so I’m free to ease my way into the lukewarm water. Positioning my back against a jet, I sip my Corona and look up at the Margaritaville sign, which glows in alternating tropical colors, then ripples in rainbow pattern, then repeats. As my Corona trunks billow with the bubbles, the light in the hot tub changes gradually from purple to green to blue. A young couple make out softly on a red lounge chair near the pool.

The first licks of “Hotel California” warble through the air, a live version. Add the Eagles to the list of bands who never built a casino. They probably never thought of it. Their music lent itself well to middle-aged pleasures, dreams of the West Coast, wind in your hair, taking it easy. There must be at least a chain restaurant in there, right? Yet somehow, there’s no legion of Eagles fanatics; the Eagles are not merry or inviting. The vacation memories their songs conjure not about good food, friends, and water sports—they’re a tad dark, a touch cokey. Nor did they take that step to become characters, relatable, bankable. “Don’t look back, you can never look back,” Don Henley said after he went solo, but he ended up reuniting with his group to cash in. Jimmy Buffett had a better business plan than the Eagles and he never changed. He avoided conflict and built a marketable myth. All he asked of his listeners was that they relax, pay the cover, buy a T-shirt, and pretend there was sand between their toes.

Maybe that’s the secret, which is hardly a secret: Americans want it easy. Jimmy Buffett could have written more complex songs, the Margaritaville Resort Casino could have been a better, more interesting vacation spot—but that might have challenged somebody or made somebody slightly uncomfortable. Buffett gives the people what they desire most, which is corny rhymes and theme-park dinners. This isn’t dangerous Michael Jackson or even more dangerous Lead Belly: this is relaxation. No, it’s not paradise, but it’s only $109/night and you don’t need a plane ticket. For one evening, you can pad around in flip-flops, drink by a pool, shrug your shoulders, and listen to some schlub play acoustic guitar. If you close your eyes and ignore the service, this might be the good life.

“Please bring my wine,” Don Henley demands over the speaker. I sip my beer in the lukewarm hot tub until the can is empty. And then, I swear to God, “It's Five O’Clock Somewhere” starts up again.

@BrianWBoyles

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