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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Then something strange happened: the crowds at his shows started growing. College kids were showing up again. Fans began making a day of it in the parking lot, competing to see who could wear the most outlandish costume. Buffett's musical sidekick, harmonica-ace Greg ("Fingers") Taylor, saw the change when he rejoined the band after taking a year off to "learn how not to drink." Taylor and Buffett were riding in a limo through a Midwestern parking lot "and all these insane rituals are going on around us. Winnebagos with shark fins on top. People dancing. Buffett turned to me and said, 'Fingers, I have no idea how it happened.'"

But he knew what to do about it. Even in his beach-bum days, Buffett had been an effective businessman, handling his own bookings, keeping the club owners passably honest, locking himself in his motel room to go over the accounting ledgers. So now he spent freely to turn his concerts into spectacles, building elaborate stage sets with erupting volcanoes and such. He also tightened up the music and hired the Trinidadian steel-drum virtuoso Robert Greenidge. Eventually he brought in clowns on stilts and a storyteller for the children and sent bands into the parking lot to play for the fans. He launched a newsletter and later a website to sell his merchandise and was among the first stars to land a corporate sponsor, Corona beer. When Disney approached him about opening a Margaritaville Cafe at Disney World and performing at the park 10 nights a year, he called financier Warren Buffett, a distant relative, for advice. Warren told him Disney could be hard to work with, so he killed the deal by demanding 10% of Disney World's gate on nights he played.

Buffett often claims to be uninterested in money, but he has been uneven about sharing it. He gives freely to environmental causes and has a foundation that donates $1 from every concert ticket to grants for nonprofit agencies in the cities where he plays. At the same time, his band, though well paid, has long griped about having no pension plan. Buffett is now creating one for his veteran sidemen.

Buffett is sitting in a darkened room, his eyes welling with tears. He's surrounded by other people who are crying--a Pittsburgh multiplex crowd experiencing Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Leaving the theater after the movie, Buffett is speechless, an unusual condition for him. "Whoa," he says finally. "Not a big popcorn movie." Soon he is talking seriously about thoughts the film stirred up. "My dad, J.D., was in the Army Air Corps, a crew chief on C-47 transports in China," he says. "He was on a flight over the Himalayas when fire broke out belowdecks. He put it out but got back up to find the pilot and copilot bailing out. He and a master sergeant talked 'em back to the controls." There's emotion in Buffett's voice. His eyes are hidden behind aviator shades. "My father never told me that story until the Alzheimer's. He never talked about the war. His generation did so much for ours, and it took us so damn long to figure that out."

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