At its most beneficial to society, the job of the critic is to illuminate: to rip through the tangled, redundant foliage of the music world so you don’t have to, and serve up whatever we deem “worthwhile” on a virtual platter. On occasion, though, a perverse fascination takes hold, and we assume the role of the anthropologist, cannonballing into the deep-end of a wild subculture, and seeing where our sensibilities take us.
The impulse that brought me out to Jimmy Buffett’s show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre last night, Oct. 23, is the same one that makes a NASCAR race, or Insane Clown Posse’s annual Gathering of the Juggalos, sound like an interesting once-in-a-lifetime event. Could that impulse be driven by a sense of detached snark? Maybe a little bit. But the urge to peer into a storied cult, especially one routinely maligned for its questionable taste — in this case, Buffet’s infamous Parrotheads — also comes from a genuine desire to understand what makes people tick.
[jump] So, what brings Parrotheads together, do you ask? The answer is none other than Buffett’s expertly cultivated, endlessly commodifiable brand of “island escapism,” which seemingly exists in a world where the counterculture of the ‘60s never happened, where “turn on, tune in, drop out” means playing hooky from work and hopping a booze cruise to Montego Bay, instead of questioning the cultural hierarchy that drove you to hop that booze cruise in the first place.
Carefree and fun-loving as the Grateful Dead often were, their music and cult mentality carried an implicit sense of identifying the flaws within America’s status quo, and remaking reality from the fringes. There’s certainly some overlap between the Parrothead and Deadhead approaches to escapism, but it’s Buffett’s keen business sense — generating endless licensing agreements for restaurant chains (Cheeseburger in Paradise) and swill beer (Landshark Lager), and hawking everything from footwear to chips & salsa under the Margaritaville branding umbrella — that defines his fanbase’s pursuit of a hedonistic, apolitical helluva time.
Walking up the hill to the University of California’s Greek Theatre – which combines the form of the Acropolis with the utilitarianism of a municipal pool – one couldn’t help but notice a smattering of big, loud, yellow shark fins slowly infiltrating the crowd. Upon further inspection, these fins were actually hats. Foam hats with the Landshark Lager logo slapped on, making the Parrotheads underneath resemble a pack of cheesehead trojan warriors on the quest for a killer good time. You’ve got to hand it to Buffett: He knows a marketing opportunity when he sees one.
With the venue gates approaching, and each Hawaiian shirt threatening to outdo the last, Buffett’s key demographics were confirmed: a) ex-frat and sorority types in their mid-forties to fifties, with platinum hairdos and Arizona-ready suntans resembling the shade of hot dogs, b) older, slightly crotchety, AARP-eligible dentist types, many of whom might’ve been around the Cal campus to join Reagan in his calls to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” and c) the occasional “Parakeet” — that’s official lingo, denoting Parrotheads of the millennial variety, for those of you keeping track at home — presumably, Cal kids using their allowance to pregame for Phish, Bassnectar, or maybe both.
As the tropical cheesehead crowd began to filter in, and a looping video of gentle ocean waves set the scene for the chill spectacle to come, I promised myself to approach Buffett with an open mind and an open heart, to evaluate his music and its presentation on their own terms, as well as within the bizarro boomer-party-bus culture I had suddenly found myself catapulted into. At 40 years into Buffett's career — his first major release came in 1973 with A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean — how capable would he be of executing what he set out to execute? Would the diehards find the dose of tropical ecstasy they were looking for? Might he have the chance to win over a casual observer? As the lights dimmed, and a kooky, haphazardly compiled montage of photos and video of the Buff-man himself graced the projection screen, my questions were answered. Sort of.
Visually, Buffett’s show is typified by the endearingly vacant aesthetic sensibility of your aunt who sends daily chain emails, or that professor you could rely upon to slap Comic Sans all over their Powerpoint presentations. Combining a Spongebob-esque flair for tropical sterility with a straight-from-Google-Images lack of refinement, this stage-setting slideshow for the Buffett cult of personality appeared gleefully out of touch with any standards for modern design, driving home the idea of Parrotheads as a booze-cruising subculture with no use for the outside world. Weird graphics would dominate the show, most memorably an ominous wall of cheeseburgers during — you guessed it — “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” resembling the wacky arrangement of bowling pins in the nightmare sequences of The Big Lebowski.
Now, if Buffett and his famous Coral Reefer Band’s music lived up to the uninhibited weirdness of the visual components, those Parrotheads would really be onto something. So, I was a bit let down to hear just how benign and vacuous the material was, even with the backing of 12 perfectly competent musicians, playing everything from steel drums to pedal steel guitar. While all the garish outfits and wild hats in the audience — easily outdoing the Zedd crowd at Treasure Island last weekend — suggested music with equally wild, kinetic energy, it was remarkable just how flaccid and borderline-opiated Buffett & Co.’s sound actually was, seemingly tailored for intercom systems at orthodontist’s offices and Hawaiian plate lunch franchises nationwide. Maybe I was silly to expect anything more, but the lack of any resistance, any bite, any real pizzazz, was a bit surprising.
Renditions of classic Buffett songs, from “A Pirate Looks at 40,” to “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” were a bit difficult to evaluate, since I’m a bit of an outsider to the whole Parrothead thing. But it’s the cover songs that really convinced me of this band’s true character. On one hand, you had Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” a redundant, by-the-numbers facsimile of a cliche-of-a-song I already try to avoid when I can. More revealingly, though, was the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias,” a Deadhead favorite that the Coral Reefer Band somehow managed to squeeze dry of all its vital, heady energy, resulting in an appropriately tropical, vaguely fun, corpse of a pop song. It’s the one that drove home my opinion of Buffett and his band as the Main Street Singers from A Mighty Wind, copied and pasted onto Maui.
For all the negatives, though, the Parrotheads seemed to be having a rollicking good time, and it was easy to get swept up in the crowd’s enthusiasm: a refreshing foil to so many lukewarm, noncommittal SF audiences. And you’ve got to hand it to him: Buffett is an excellent showman, with genuine regard for his fans, who seemed happy to be in Berkeley, spouting constant references and anecdotes about the Bay Area — “Sausalito flashbacks,” anyone? – when most performers would’ve dropped an obligatory “Hello Berkeley!” and moved onto the next thing. For all his artistic questionability, it was easy to see how Buffett has magnetized fans like moths to a flashlight for over four decades now.
After a rousing encore of “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” that sent the fin-hatted Parrotheads out the venue gates, and toward the Margaritaville merch booth in a giddy haze, I was reminded once again of what a specific lifestyle image Buffett has managed to build, with a rabid cult to match. After just one show under my belt — while some fans have been to over 100 — I couldn’t possibly claim to “get” it. A second go-around likely wouldn't change my mind, but that’s the point. I’d almost certainly have no interest in seeing Insane Clown Posse twice either. You’ve got to let your inner armchair anthropologist explore some new terrain once in a while, and even if it doesn’t meet your standards of whatever’s “good,” you’ll probably come out the other side having learned a thing or two.
Whether you’re a Parrothead or a Juggalo, all you really want is a sense of community within a culture that reflects a more perfect reality. Juggalos have Faygo, and Parrotheads have margaritas – with salt! salt! salt! – but in the end, everyone just wants to dress like clowns and have a good time.