Jimmy Buffett had long planned to be a surprise guest at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. “He was going to be part of (the festival), as of two weeks ago,” said the esteemed novelist Tom McGuane, Buffett’s friend of 50 years and brother-in-law for nearly that long. McGuane was speaking at the premiere of a documentary that stars both of them, “All That Is Sacred,” which had its world premiere in Colorado Saturday morning, only about 12 hours after Buffett’s death.
Before catching a plane out of Telluride, McGuane spoke with Variety about witnessing the rise — and further rise — of Buffett over a period of a half-century. As the documentary about them shows, they were part of a group of friends in Key West, Florida in the early and mid-‘70s that also included soon-to-be famous writers like Jim Harrison and Richard Brautian. They had other good reasons to remain in contact after that particular gang broke up… like the fact that McGuane’s wife, Laurie, is Jimmy’s sister… or the fact that fly-casting buddies are hard to really split up.
“There’s a Mexican expression that says everybody knows they’re gonna die, but nobody believes it,” McGuane told the Telluride audience. “And I think when you get to be my age and each week brings a phone call of a friend with cancer or a friend who’s passed away… Jimmy died last night, and he seemed to be so forceful and energetic all his life, every minute of it, that it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have ordered death out of the room.”
“I wrote Jimmy a letter, and my wife read it to him the day before yesterday. And the letter was all about, (when) you know your death is imminent — how should you feel about that? … And it was full of all sorts of stuff. And I was able to assure Jimmy — ‘Bubba,’ I would call him — I was able to assure Bubba that whatever he had done certainly had quite a long life into the future. And I said, ‘You won’t be there for the applause. How big of a deal is that?’ And he was still speaking at that time and he said, ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ He said, ‘That’s great.’”
Following are some of the thoughts that McGuane shared with Variety about Buffett’s life and career:
“I agree with Bob Dylan that he was a great songwriter. That’s what Dylan thought. [In a latter-day interview, Dylan cited Buffett as among a half-dozen songwriters he had been influenced by, alongside Randy Newman, John Prine, Gordon Lightfoot, Guy Clark and Warren Zevon.]
“One of the things I think was Buffett’s genius in terms of a long-term career is he really never changed. He didn’t become a different kind of singer. He didn’t become a disco singer. He didn’t become a metal singer. From early on to the end, you could always tell who was singing the songs. He was non-adaptable, in that way, and that served him well.
“I think that for a lot of hip music people, Jimmy probably didn’t get quite the credit he should have for his originality as a songwriter. But there was a lot of resentment out there. The guy who was writing songs about blue collar people going to the beach having three jets, the picture didn’t make sense to some people, especially to the illuminati at the newspapers who sort of write about such things, you know? There was one of them in the Times today: ‘Jimmy Buffett, who made a fortune from writing songs about loafing at the beach, didn’t live that life.’
“But you have to remember, when I first met him, he was just a couple years out of stocking groceries, and (he and Laurie) were latchkey kids, growing up — lower middle class, I guess, is the way they would put it. So there was the magic of having more than you need and all that glamour. But he also hung onto the old gang, even after he became a boldfaced name suddenly. He was famous, and we were kind of famous. I’ve had a lot of my life where I was best known as Jimmy Buffett’s brother-in-law.
“I remember one time he said, ‘These are the best eyedrops you can ever get. David Geffen gave them to me.’ Those were some of his references that wouldn’t have been in our previous lexicon. Or you want to go fishing someplace and he’d just take the jet there and the rest of us would schlep to get to the destination. So that physically changed things a little bit. But he didn’t ever lost touch with any of that first group. All of us stayed friends all our lives.
“Jimmy was a reader. In fact, a friend of his gave me his copy of E.B. White’s collected essays, and every sentence had his commentsin the margins. He grew up in a household that was working class, but cultivated people, really, especially his mother. His mother was very literate and a very good book reader. She’d always wanted to go to college, and couldn’t afford to. And she finished her working life and went to college and graduated after starting at 65. And he read all the time. Quite apart from music or anything, he was very smart and curious and had tons of energy.
“He was always working very hard on his music, even when there was little support for that [in Key West days]. We’d all gather around and he would play his songs for us, and some of them later became famous songs that were very much professionally produced, but I was really stuck back on the version where he just picked them out on his acoustic guitar and sang them. I always felt they kind lost something in production, but I don’t think anybody else feels that way.
“Years later, I was with him when his book (‘Tales From Margaritaville’) went to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Every Parrothead in America walked into a bookstore and bought that book. Some booksellers said, ‘We never saw those people before. We never saw ’em again.’ None of us resented it (from the Key West writers’ group) — all of us were happy about it. I think maybe Jimmy thought it was kind of a triumph of the old nag, but it wasn’t that way.
“He was just a great guy. He loved other people, and he was lovely in the context of his family, of his sisters and his parents. He took very good care of his parents, and sent my wife to college. He and I sent our nieces to school. He really didn’t change very much through not just a long, illustrious life, but a long life of, after pretty early on, extreme wealth. You would expect those to create bigger changes in an individual than they did in his case.
“He was just smart — just like Jim Harrison; these guys were really smart guys. One time we were casting a film that I was involved in, and we went to New York with the director and we were looking at footage of different actors that we were considering, and we were making snide comments about everything we saw. And Buffett’s were so ingenious, I remember the director saying, ‘We might as well give up. His mind is so much faster than ours.’
“He lived a long life, was very successful, is very renowned, and did pretty much what he wanted to do. I mean, he was on top of the world for a half-century, still a huge deal at the time he died. And most music careers are not like that; you just have Bruce Springsteen and a few other people. His following was so huge, they’re going to name streets after him — I mean, (commemorations) are gonna be like a national holiday.
“I’m not religious, but I’m not convinced (that death is the end). I mean, for 150,000 years of what we know, people have believed that there was something beyond death, and it’s not some guy with a beard and robes, but that there’s something indistinguishable about the human spirit. … I was interviewed for a profile not too long ago, and the guy said, ‘What are you hoping for when you die?’ And I said, ‘A surprise.’
“So I told Jimmy several things when I wrote him (the final letter). One of the things I said was, ‘So you don’t really know what’s coming? I don’t either. Just leave a little room.’”