Jimmy Buffett and a Clean Break

I love my couch. My books—spines and titles nestled firmly in familiar, colorful order—old friends regaling, winking in conspiratorial pleasure and wisdom from the shelves guarding either side of my flat screen. I love my guitar, 1962 Ludwig, films, records, tapes and CDs. Treasures, all.

These past years, spring break, my week away from teaching, has meant indulgence in these homebound luxuries. To clarify, I love my solitude. Time to write stories and songs, read, play and record music, watch great films, dream: there’s such joy in these. But it’s necessary to get out. And I often forget and neglect. I used to move a lot in my youth, touring with my bands I Don’t Know in the 1990’s and Humbert in the 2000’s—in addition to countless work and play treks all over, but the decades have lulled me into dropping anchor too often, for way too long.

In March, I had an idea. I didn’t want to go far, but I wanted to go deep. Visit people and places I’ve missed. Maybe meet and see some new. I casually spoke of it to my sister and my son, two people who love me and mean everything. Their collective response: “GO!” They weren’t so polite, but their advice was encouraging, supportive—exclamatory in the imperative mood. Oh, and my therapist concurred.

Another thing. Jimmy Buffett died in September.

That was hard. I walked out on my balcony the moment I heard, guitar in hand, and sang “Lovely Cruise” to the sky. My send off. His songs were the soundtrack to my college years, so many sailing and fishing expeditions and life-celebrating moments with friends and family. From Marathon Key and Mile Marker 0 to New Orleans and Biloxi and Mobile, from Flagstaff, Austin and San Antonio to Laguna Beach and Phoenix and Vegas, from Sleepy Hollow and Irvington and Brooklyn to Pamplona and Paris and the Coast of Marseilles (and dozens of destinations in between), Buffett has been my permanent carryon. Especially early catalogue.

I know all about musical snobs. I’m one of them. But those who sneer at “Margaritaville” or “Fins” have probably never heard “He Went to Paris”, “Death of an Unpopular Poet”, “I Have Found Me a Home”, “Survive”, “Tin Cup Chalice” and “Coast of Marseilles” –songs I discovered under the fraternal wing of Alex Munoz, my F.S.U. big brother, songs that made me hungry and eager and lovelorn. Music that stirred a yearning, making me wander and ramble, exploring far and wide, without and within. And, of course, Buffett also cemented the strong connection-bond with my old man. Over the years, I translated all his favorites. He sang along as best he could, but he knew every plot and character, every shred of poetry by heart. Whether on a bridge, on the shore, in a boat or on a pier, Buffett was always playing when Dad or I reeled one in. And the countless concerts we attended, my little sister, Barbie, another diehard fan, in tow. Yes, Buffett, too, had something to do with my decision to go on this clean break.

North Florida. Time to visit Nic Schuck, my old friend and brother, author, and fellow Buffett devotee. If you’ve never read Native Moments or his collection of short stories Panhandlers, you really should. We taught English at the same school twenty years ago, and I’ve been promising to visit Pensacola ever since his departure. And another brother, Miguel Masferrer in Tallahassee. To look back a little, to retrace, to bask in what there was and where I am. I shot a quick text to both. They responded with all the welcoming goodness and cheer I could ever deserve. I planned and made all arrangements in less than an hour. This is how the best things happen. A series of related impressions and feelings can probably offer the best narrative. So, I will recount the journey in spurts of memory and affection, with a very slim chance of doing it proper justice.


I landed in Pensacola on Monday around noon. It was windy, a small storm brewing. Nic scooped me up in his work truck. Perfect. A brotherly embrace, bag in the bed, and we were off to the beach. We visited Don, his old friend, and the real man behind one of Nic’s most severe and outlandish novel characters. The surf was pounding Don’s ocean backyard. We had fresh oysters and told stories I won’t repeat. We left Don and drove to Nic’s “office”, the Pensacola Bay Brewery, home to his stool and his business—Emerald Coast Tours.

He shares a bit of space with the brewery, and his tours are experienced on Segways. I’d never been on one. He gave me a few pointers and I hopped on. I was nine again. The speed and wind and freedom—exhilarating. His knowledgeable and funny-as-hell personal tour, illuminating and riotous. I had only imbibed Nectarian root beer, compliments of Pensacola Bay, but I was intoxicated with rich history, the beauty of 19th century architecture—one house in particular, a Creole cottage known infamously as Las Casa de las Gatas Negras, was my favorite—and bewitched by the windswept, birdsong calmness of the storybook town.

Segways humming swiftly down the quiet streets, we made it to the Seville Quarter. Imagine a collection of musical stages, saloons, speakeasies, and brothels under one cavernous edifice. A series of cozy hardwood and mirror joints full of class and glass, cobblestone and lush foliage, assembled under one massive, antiquated roof. This nightlife sanctuary came alive at dark, but we were there early to see it yawning and naked. Nic introduced me to the owner and manager. Strangers, now kind and friendly. There was an old piano lounging seductively in a dark hallway that ran through this old-world labyrinth. I couldn’t resist. I played “Come Monday” for Nic and a Captain Tony-looking bartender. There was praise and gratitude and a ceremonial moment of silence after my performance.

We finally packed the Segways and drove to Open Books, a quaint and charming booklover’s den. We bought several John D. MacDonald paperbacks for a buck a piece. Nic and I are fans. We both met the great Travis McGee, one of the coolest PIs in all of literature, through Buffett. He alludes to the prolific writer and his hard-boiled and brilliant character in the song “Incommunicado”. I also found a collection of V.S. Naipaul short stories for a song. A splendid shopping spree. Then we drove to his home. His wife, Julie, welcomed me with a genuine smile and warm hospitality. The children were polite and generous. I was with family. Zoe gave up her room for three days! I will always be grateful. I brought a book from home. Just one. I knew I’d be acquiring a few in my travels. I chose Quichotte by Salman Rushdie, a modern, metafictional take on the Cervantes classic. By chance, one of Schuck’s novels also pays distant homage to that literary Titan. Good fortune and happenstance are always welcome. I read myself to sleep every night, the Schucks providing their guest with a bright little lamp, casting just enough shade to heighten the visions gingerly carrying me away.

Every morning there was strong coffee, the comforting raucousness of a full house, an affectionate, cracked-out puppy pouncing on me at every corner, the smell and sound of Louisiana boudin and eggs sizzling in the pan, and the promise of a fine day.

They planned a getaway on Tuesday.

The Flora-Bama, a landmark musical venue straddling Florida and Alabama, and Lulu’s, Lucy Buffett’s (Jimbo’s sister) music venue/bar and grill. We drove straight to Lulu’s in Alabama. We wanted a burger, and I’d heard stories. Lulu’s was a bit of Disney and a bit of Tortuga— Buffet’s image and action shots all over the place. I think I was finally mourning the man properly. We ordered burgers and waited, impatiently. We laughed a lot at the bar, the kind giggling that comes with staving off anger-hunger. It was so worth it. Probably the best burger this decade. If you’ve never had a double cheeseburger with fried green tomatoes and Lulu’s special sauce, I fervently encourage the thing. I had to leave with something besides a belly smile, so I bought a psychedelic guitar pick from Lulu’s gift shop. Something I try not to do, but there you go. For sentimental reasons.

The Flora-Bama was better than its reputation and legendary aura. Everyone has played there. We walked in, and I felt the decadent vitality of southern, piratical carousing and perennial music. The colorful satin, leather and lace decorations hung from the ceiling in miraculous variety, breadth and volume. Thick sea air sweeping the sandy floors, the driftwood and barnacle castle exuded a raunchy, festive character. So many stages, so much lazy, boisterous energy and musical history. We walked upstairs and entered the Small Space, a stage reserved for the more serious and discerning musicians and audience. There was a trio on stage playing Marshall Tucker’s “Can’t You See”.

What can I say? Sometimes the tired and overplayed will strike a chord. Julie wrangled a small three-top right by the stage. She found a sticker and wrote our names on the small roundtable. We were knights of a sort, our recorded names and jovial alliance a testament to friendship and our salty escapade. I walked out back to the ocean by myself, took in the bruised water-sky horizon shared by two states, strolled for a while along the coast, my feet sweeping the frigid surf, and pocketed a beaten-gray shell just for thoughtful the hell of it.

That night, Nic brought out guitars, and we sat on the sectional. We began to strum and dialogue with chords and melodies. After some playful banter, I offered my best rendition of Buffet’s “Tin Cup Chalice”. Nic serenaded us with “Stoney”, Jerry Jeff Walker’s homage to poet H.R. Stonebeck. Then Julie joined us and brought the whole damn thing down. Nic and I laid ground, the solid foundation, all harmony and pulse. She hovered just above us, her dulcet, sultry alto, reminiscent of Sheryl Crowe with a dash of Louisiana, making everything—baby and dog included—go silent. She softly killed “Hurricane”, a Levon Helm classic covered by Band of Heathens some years ago. Then, finally, after a solid impromptu set, as if to cement her domain over home and company, she belted a vicious performance of “House of the Rising Sun” to punish all in attendance. It was a familial and cathartic event that will live with me always.

The final day was reserved for the beach.

And there has never been such a day. It was splendid, dazzling, crisp. The storm had passed. The water would be cold, but nothing could keep me out of it. There was even a dare! Fort Pickens in Pensacola has one of the most beautiful strips of white sand and blue-jade glass water I’ve ever seen and felt. And I’ve plunged below the cliffs of Marseilles, raged along and within the shores of Ibiza, and taken midnight strolls along the crescent-shaped beauty of La Concha Beach in San Sebastian, wading hand in hand below an opal gibbous moon. But something about the bright, powdery dunes of Fort Pickens, strewn with wisps of swaying sea oats and passing historical spirits in the fragrant breeze, gave me a sense of now in a truly meaningful way. I was alive to see and feel this moment, this time, buttressed by a setting awash with legend, beauty and gravitas. We roamed the fort’s innards, a complex web of dark, hidden tunnels, ancient cells, and powerless artillery. One Hubble-sized cannon was said to shoot 400-pound balls three miles. It felt like I was transported, living something important in a structure and plot too majestic to contain.

The Blue Angels were running exercises just next door. Taking off from Forrest Sherman Field. Our toes in the sand, the Angels soaring above us, their choreography gorgeous and thrilling, the reflecting white sand crystals blinding us, forcing a squint that bared our teeth in a goofy smile. A soul-centering reverie amid natural treasures, pure grace, and bastions of time. I finally took a dip, the 64-degree water notwithstanding. Invigorated, I waded back to my people for lunch and laughs, picking up a pretty shell as I walked towards them, shivering.

We made one more stop after the beach: the Paradise Inn. This secretly nestled hotel was a favorite spot for the Schucks. We sat on wooden beach chairs facing the bay, inches from the water. We talked and guffawed, enjoyed the emerald water and healing sun, and ate things I won’t share with my cardiologist. I tasted fried green beans and fried cheese curds for the first time. I didn’t know these things existed. Delicious. I also had my first (non-alcoholic) Athletic IPA. Surprisingly good—hazy and hoppy.

On our way back, I decided I finally needed to experience Buffett’s “Bubbles Up”. I’d heard all about it but could not bring myself to listen until that moment. Now was the right time. I knew the song was written and recorded when Buffett was ill, and it was thought to be a troubadour’s farewell. I asked Nic if he would play it, and the four of us listened on the drive home. It was a private concert in the quiet cab, reverent and solemn, so much affection and tenderness floating in the tight space. And it’s not just words; I felt it. These are the lines that broke me:

“So, when the journey gets long. Just know you are loved. There is light up above. And the joy is always enough. Bubbles up.”

One man’s sage and generous postscript.

Our final dinner was going to be something special. There were rumors of its delectable attributes and signature, unequaled and unscripted design and creation. Nic had perfected Carbonara. It helps that his amazing mom, whom I met and hugged, and whose Italian accent and sweet nature had me completely charmed and mesmerized during our brief visit, is a native of Brindisi, Italy. How fortunate was I to meet such a lovely woman? He let me in on his culinary secrets, but I will not share them here. I will say that I learned about one theory regarding the genesis of this popular Italian-American invention. In 1944, a young Italian army cook working for the allies created the dish, having learned through battle and bread-breaking that Americans loved their bacon. Great story. But Nic’s creation was something else. Smoky, rich, rustically savory, and decadently comforting, it’s the best I’ve ever had.

I read myself to sleep that night, as usual. But I dreamt this time. I roamed far in my slumber. I felt much. The reel was gauzy and vague, mute. I recall very little, but it was moving. There was darkness and irrepressible elation—peace draped over its pretty, unsettling surface. The last thing I remember was acceptance and serenity. I woke up clear-eyed, ready and refreshed. To put your head on the pillow and drift off easily, despite all of it: that’s probably the greatest gift and blessing. Because in the end, you’re the only person you can never get away from, and you’re the only person who can never leave you.

We had Cuban coffee in the morning and talked about books. Nic gave me an extra reader copy of Jim Harrison’s Dalva, which I’m currently reading, and I thanked him. He drove me to Enterprise. I rented the smallest Chevy, nothing more than a golf cart, and we said goodbye with ease. We were sated, our connection confirmed. We made those three days count and matter. He sent me on my way with the last two cold cans of Athletic IPA in a bag.

I was on my way to Tallahassee. Back to my old school with new if older eyes. I made my way onto scenic highway 30A, hankering for a pit stop at all the jewels the path had to offer. I committed to a meal and a water-dip at every gem stretching from Destin to Panama City.

An intermission is now required. I will tell of my Tallahassee sojourn soon enough.

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Izo Besares

Izo Besares is a singer / songwriter, drummer, and founding member of the local band Humbert, which formed in 1999 from the ashes of I Don’t Know. He’s an educator and a single father living in South Miami. Email him at [email protected].