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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Buffett didn't serve in Vietnam, thanks to a college deferment and a flunked physical. He and his father used to fight about his chosen occupation--J.D. wanted him to be a naval officer. "By the time he was diagnosed," he says, "we'd made our peace." In 1996 he wrote one of his finest songs, False Echoes, about J.D., a sober lyric without fancy wordplay about a man who "fades like a flare."

"I've never performed that song live," he says. "I don't know if I could."

And he's not sure how it would be received. Buffett's success came with a devil's bargain: he would be a cartoonish entertainer, not an introspective balladeer. Among his better recent work is a musical based on Herman Wouk's Caribbean novel, Don't Stop the Carnival, but the show never made it to Broadway. And though his concerts deliver moments of beauty and power--a song called One Particular Harbor gets people dancing but with tears in their eyes--they also deliver mindless ditties like Cheeseburger in Paradise. "The set I'd like to do is all ballads," he says over dinner in Pittsburgh. "But the carnival atmosphere wouldn't allow it. You've got to do what's necessary for the business you're in."

Fingers Taylor thinks Buffett sells his fans short. "He is a great songwriter, and they know it," he says. "They're not just interested in the further adventures of Margaritaville and Cheeseburgers." There's a community of fans on the Internet called the Church of Buffett, Orthodox, who believe that Margaritaville amounts to "apostasy" and that Buffett's "spiritual core" resides in his earliest work. "If I ever had to defend myself to the Church of Buffett," he says at dinner, "I would only say that the bitterest artists I know are those who had the chance to jump through the hoop and chose not to take it. They stayed on as coffeehouse singers. But I jumped through, not knowing what was on the other side. And when I got there, I had to deal with it. It wasn't 'happily ever after.' I was just getting started."

The next morning Buffett jumps on his mountain bike to ride through the streets of Pittsburgh, spreading good cheer. He is trailed by two assistants, one of whom records his escapades with a digital video camera. Buffett follows this routine on every stop of the tour. This afternoon the footage will be cut at a backstage editing suite, then projected on giant screens during the show--a canny bit of marketing that appeals to the fans' civic pride. Buffett rides by the Heinz 57 factory, rows up the river on a mahogany scull, goofs around with some preschoolers and winds up at Kenny B.'s Eatery, a downtown Cuban-American diner.

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