Paris or Alaska?

Jimmy Buffett's 'Boats Beaches Bars & Ballads'Jimmy Buffett‘s music was one of the links between my father and I. At least, I’ve always felt that way, until I remember that my father probably only heard one of Jimmy’s tunes his entire life. Funny how your memory adjusts to your beliefs.

My father, like the singer of “A Pirate Looks at 40” really was a pirate two hundred years too late. He never quite adapted to a normal 9-5 workaday world. Before my parents married, he’d been in the Air Force, stationed in Alaska. He made no secret of his dream to go back to one particular valley, build a cabin, and live out his days in peace.

But like the singer of “He Went to Paris”, and in fact, like so many of us, he put his dreams on hold. Just until the kids were older. Just until the kids were grown. Just until mom was ready. Ten years, then twenty, finally, thirty years went by, the dream unfulfilled; and then, it was too late.

Although I identify strongly with the hopeless romantic in some of Jimmy’s tunes (“Come Monday”, “Stars Fell on Alabama”) and with the delirium of a beautiful daughter (“Little Miss Magic”) I’ve never quite achieved pirate status. But like my father, I’ve put off too many dreams for far too long.

So now the question is, where first – Paris or Alaska?

If you’re looking for a good introduction to Jimmy Buffett, the anthology ‘Boats Beaches Bars & Ballads‘ provides a pretty good overview of the man’s work. If you’d like to try a smaller bite first, the album that hits all the right spots with me is ‘Jimmy Buffet's 'A1A'A1A.’ “A Pirate Looks at 40”, “Life is Just a Tire Swing” (with that title, how can it miss?), “Tin Cup Chalice”, about actually fulfilling some dreams, and John Sebastian’s moving ode to lost time, “Stories We Could Tell.” More than any other song, it makes me regret the times not spent together.

 "Oh, the stories we could tell  And before we have to say that last farewell I wish that we could sit upon a bed in some hotel  And listen to the stories we could tell"


And now the purple dusk of twilight time
steals across the meadows of my heart . . .

Although I’m much given to hyperbole, it’s safe to say that Nat King Cole’s recording of this is my very favorite song of all time. Wistful lyrics, beautifully understated orchestration, and deliberate, almost casual vocal phrasing combine to embody the sadness of a lost love. (Not the delirious “I can win her back” kind, but the heavyhearted “What do I do now?”)

Written in 1927 and 1929, it was recorded many times before Nat took his turn in 1957. Originally an instrumental by the great Hoagy Carmichael, two years later Mitchell Parish (“Sophisticated Lady”, “Stars Fell On Alabama”) added the brooding lyrics. Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra all had turns at it, but according to Parish’s obituary in The New York Times, April 2, 1993, Cole’s version was his favorite. (Not even remotely related – Avery Parrish recorded the classic blues instrumental “After Hours” with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra in 1940.)

The orchestration by Gordon Jenkins is critical to this version’s appeal. A brilliant arranger, Jenkins was largely responsible for Harry Nilsson’s very special “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night“, featuring a dozen standards wrapped in the velvet of Harry’s voice and Gordon’s orchestration.

The first time I heard “Stars Fell On Alabama” was on Jimmy Buffet’s 1981 Album “Coconut Telegraph.” Jimmy seems to get the mood right. The album also features the flip-side of the wistfulness embodied in “Stardust” in the song “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful.” The story of a man who’s had enough, he takes off on vacation alone when his girlfriend can’t make the time to join him and ends up making the vacation permanent. By the end, you’re pretty sure there’s nothing wistful happening here.

Another of my personal favorites, the album also contains the song “Little Miss Magic” written for Savannah Jane Buffet just two years before the birth of my own daughter. For a crusty old pirate, Jimmy does all right as a tender, loving father.