No one knows the coordinates of the mythical “Margaritaville,” but real-word origins of Jimmy Buffett’s most famous song began at a Mexican restaurant in Texas and ended with a car crash in Key West.
“Margaritaville” would become not only Buffett’s biggest hit but the cornerstone of a lucrative branding empire that included restaurants, resorts, housewares, a Broadway musical and retirement communities. Buffett, who according to Forbes achieved billionaire status this year, died Friday at the age of 76.
Before he achieved fame, fortune and the devotion of his loyal followers, known as “Parrotheads,” Buffett was a nearly 30-year-old musician living in Key West, performing gigs and trying to move past the disappointment of his early musical career as a country singer. In 1976, after a night playing a club in Austin, Buffett nursed his morning hangover with a girlfriend over burritos and cold margaritas before she drove him to airport for a final goodbye.
As Buffett would recount in interviews over the years, he pulled out his guitar at the gate and began strumming the hook, writing most of the song in about five minutes. (Buffett told the New York Post in 2018 that he initially planned to call it “Wasting Away Again in Austin, Texasville”)
A car wreck on the road ahead delayed Buffett’s drive back home to the Keys, putting a little more time between him and that first round of breakup margaritas in Austin.
“There was a wreck on the 7-Mile Bridge,” Buffett said in a 2020 interview on the Bobby Bones radio show. “I wrote the end of the song while waiting in traffic.”
He finished the song at home and soon performed it at the Key West bar where he worked.
“People seemed to like it,” he recalled.
The barflies’ warm reaction to “Margaritaville” was just a tiny sip of the success the song would go to achieve.
Buffett was finishing his album “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” so he added “Margaritaville” to the track list. When they were released in early 1977, the album and the single became Buffett’s breakthrough hits. “Margaritaville” peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite his prolific career that included nearly 30 studio albums, it remains Buffett’s only song to crack the Billboard Top 10.
Within a few years of its debut, “Margaritaville” had transcended the status of hit song and traded Billboard chart positions for a registered trademark symbol.
In 1983, more than six years after “Margaritaville” became a hit, Buffett sued Chi-Chi’s after learning the Mexican restaurant chain had copyrighted the name for a drink special.
As Buffett recounted to The Washington Post in 1998:
“I discovered Chi Chi’s Restaurant chain had copyrighted the word Margaritaville! I had to reach a settlement with Chi Chi’s to use the name of a song I’d written! Then I found a woman in Hawaii had copyrighted ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’! I was being ripped off everywhere because I wasn’t paying attention. There was a demand there, and everyone was exploiting it but me! So I started taking care of business.”
Buffett said the lesson learned from the “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger In Paradise” fracas was that if you wanted the carefree beautiful beach life where you could admire sunsets and sea planes, “you better damn sure take care of business now or you’ll never get there.”
After settling the lawsuit against Chi-Chi’s, Buffett began branding assets with the Margaritaville name. By the time Buffett died, his Margaritaville brand graced cruises, resorts, senior living facilities, apparel and bar and pantry products. This was in addition to non-Margaritaville entities such as Buffett’s children’s books and Coral Reefer marijuana line.
The embrace of “Margaritaville” as a dreamy, escapist fantasy is all the more impressive when contrasted against the song’s meaning; Buffett has acknowledged that he was hung over and in the midst of a dissolving relationship when he wrote it.
For all its marimba and steel drum lightness, “Margaritaville” is a beach bummer: the story of a man so hopelessly lost - metaphorically and otherwise - that he loses track of an entire season and winds up with nothing to show for it but a tattoo he can’t remember getting. In the elusive Margaritaville, your flip-flops break and you can’t walk the beach without slicing your foot on something sharp.
But for legions of fans, Buffett and “Margaritaville” came to symbolize something undoubtedly joyful.
In a 2020 interview with Rolling Stone, Buffett was asked why he thinks a song so clearly about melancholy still made so many people happy. Buffett, who had a lifelong love of New Orleans, often compared his tours and music to Mardi Gras, where people could come to blow off steam or let loose before returning to real life.
“The theme of Mardi Gras is finally chasing death,” Buffett told the magazine. “You’ve got to have fun to keep the devil away.”