Lessons from a Pirate: I

Yes, you’re right. I’m writing a post (two, actually) about the arts and community engagement based on observations about Jimmy Buffett. (Really?!)

Here goes: Can it be a guilty pleasure if I’m claiming it in a way that is visible to everyone with Internet access? And can it be a guilty pleasure if I don’t feel guilty about it? I’ll let you be the judge. I raise the issue because there may be some who think I should feel guilty.

Through the mid- and late 1970’s I was a serious student of serious music. As a result, I missed most everything happening in pop culture from about 1975 to 1990 or a bit later. (The Captain & Tenille pretty much saw me out the door. You can supply your own punch line there.) It was not until my son started listening to popular music in the 1990’s that I “tuned in” again.

One of many results was that I was completely oblivious to Jimmy Buffett’s (the Pirate*) rise to fame and fortune. I was introduced to him (thanks, Julie!) only in the last decade or so. My first JB concert was an eye-opening, not to say shattering (in a good way), experience. I remember understanding nearly none of the lyrics of any of the songs, marveling at the fact that the audience seemed to know them all from the first chord, and puzzling over the “choreography” of the fan experience. (And let’s not even mention the Parrothead tailgate parties.)

After that first concert I was curious, to say the least. I took a deeper look at those “silly” songs (of course, some of them are silly) and made a fascinating discovery. There is a depth to some that I found astonishing. This was a vindication of the reflective/visceral construct I’ve devised to talk about “art that feeds the soul” regardless of the style or culture from which it comes. (As but one example, see the lyrics to Schoolboy Heart.)

Now a fan, I began going to concerts (I’ve been to four or five, including flying to Chicago for one) and hosting big Margaritaville parties. (We’ve held three now.) It was smack in the middle of the last concert I attended, the first since I started this blog, that I realized there were important points to be made about engagement that Jimmy made manifest in pretty significant ways. (In an earlier post, Lessons from the Ballpark, I opined about the blogger’s occupational hazard and warned you this essay was on its way.) Jimmy Buffett is incredibly successful and appears to have amassed a good deal of money (if merchandising and restaurants around the world are any indication). Almost idolized by fans, fabulously wealthy, a long career that shows no sign of burning out. What are the lessons for the nonprofit arts establishment? (Give me your willing suspension of disbelief for a moment.)

First and foremost, Jimmy Buffett appears to care deeply about his audience. He seems to genuinely like them. Now, I’m sure that’s not true every minute of every day of every fan, but on the whole he seems to enjoy singing for them–even when he’s singing Cheeseburger in Paradise for the gazillionth time. In concert there seems to be virtually no “distance” on his part. I’ve seen him stroll out alone, barefoot, onto the stage and begin a concert with an incredibly intimate song that sounds as if it’s being sung, individually, to each member of the (very large) audience.

I make this the first point because it trumps all. He likes to sing and he does what he does with excellence. But it is the care for his fans that comes through and it is this that forms the foundation for his success. What’s the lesson here? Imagine how our work would differ if we began from a perspective of caring deeply about the people we do (and more importantly, can) serve. We would imagine how our arts expertise could enrich, enhance, and improve their lives. To get there, we need to shift our focus from the art we hold so dear to the people whom that art can serve.

[I fear including the entire essay in one post will put people to sleep. Therefore, I think this makes as good a point as any to stop for today. I’ll continue this next time with points 2-3 and the summary.]



*A Pirate Looks at Forty (excerpt)

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all

Watched the men who rode you switch from sails to steam
And in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen
Most of ’em dream, most of ’em dream

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late

by Jimmy Buffett (1974)

Jimmy Buffett Photo:Attribution Some rights reserved by Bruce Tuten

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  1. Sydney Schnurr says

    Could this be the lost shaker of salt we are all searching for? Buffet is a heck of a business man who can teach us a thing or two about engagement. Thanks for admitting you are a fan. I am too, not only of his music that speaks to the pirate in all of us, but also of his connection with his audience…parrot heads are mega fans. We could use a few million of them in the arts.