Still Rockin' In Jimmy Buffett's Key West Margaritaville

Sunny escapism made the singer rich. But in his new No. 1 best seller, he (almost) gets serious

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Therapy, says Buffett, "has helped me learn that my life is not an endless Buffett show." Band members say he has mellowed and become more real in his dealings with them--less given to angry outbursts, less interested in throwing postconcert parties to show the younger players what it was like in the old days, more able to have an actual conversation. But it's a work in progress. "We're just always working on that," says Jane. "We worked on it last night. Everybody is fascinated by Jimmy's life. He tries to remember to ask about theirs."

This balancing of emotional accounts lends much needed heft to A Pirate Looks at Fifty, providing a gravitational tug that keeps the book from flying away on the wings of Buffett's endless enthusiasms--for saltwater fly-fishing, camaraderie in remote places and, of course, boats and seaplanes. ("Flying in the day is like being in the ultimate movie," he writes. "[But] when you're flying at night, you're not in an airplane. You're in a spaceship.") He builds the book around his 50th birthday present to himself, an air journey through Central America, the Amazon and the Caribbean with a mind-boggling array of sportsman's toys and a retinue of family, friends and assistants. "To work with Jimmy," says pilot Jim Powell, "you've got to think and whistle at the same time." Buffett and his little boy flew his huge, cacophonous 1947 Grumman Albatross seaplane; Jane and their youngest daughter rode in his Citation jet. ("Remember," he tells his audiences, "I am spending your money foolishly." Right now, he's thinking about buying a staggered-wing biplane and a truffle farm in Provence--if Jane will let him.)

Reading A Pirate Looks at Fifty is like sitting with Buffett at a beachside bar, listening to him spin tales, repeat himself now and then, discourse on life and share nifty bits of geography and history. ("In the late '30s, Henry Ford...constructed a picture-perfect replica of a Michigan town to house 10,000 rubber workers" in the Amazonian jungle. "It didn't catch on.") He has a gift for equatorial observation but doesn't like to rough it. He wants his adventures to come with a four-star hotel and perhaps a chilled bottle of Puligny-Montrachet at day's end. (Jane, the practical one, does all the booking.) He writes about the Caribbean custom of doing as one pleases, then asking "forgiveness, not permission," but when he's repeatedly denied permission to land his seaplane in the waters along his route, he obeys. And when he's flying near the island of Carriacou and sees a "lost tribe of tarpon" in the sea below, he wants to "get the Albatross wet" but doesn't. "To even attempt to obtain permission ...we would have to fly back to St. George's and immerse ourselves in a nightmare of red tape." The author of A Pirate Looks at Fifty isn't a pirate at all. Never was.

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