Opinion | Tony Jones: Thanks Jimmy: A tribute to the music that never left me

For many people, certain musicians and the music they craft act as mile markers in their lives, highlighting significant points in time that will always be associated with a song or album heard, or a concert seen that made a big impression on them. And as many of us are realizing, with the passing of that certain musician, we stop and reflect on their music, and those times we most associate it with.

I certainly mourn the passing of many of the musicians that I listened to while growing up and into adult life, people like Jeff Beck, David Crosby and even Steve Harwell of Smashmouth fame. But there’s one recent passing that has really struck me. I grew up in South Florida in the ’70s and ’80s and while it was the Beach Boys that first introduced me to surfing, it was Jimmy Buffett who introduced me to the beach lifestyle that would define my late teens and that I would maintain in the decades that followed.

It was a lifestyle defined by flipflops (“slaps” in ’70s South Florida surfing lingo), surfing baggies, a propensity towards partying at the beach, and spending as much time seaside as school, jobs, and parents would allow. Big test in algebra today, on the same day the Atlantic pushes a rare clean swell with offshore winds your way? Well, guess which way your priorities drifted. Of course, that also meant I spent a good deal of time on make-up work and in detention for skipping school. But hey, that was part of the lifestyle too. And it’s all Jimmy Buffet’s fault. (I think there’s a song title in there — “Blame it on Jimmy”.)

In a sense, it’s also his fault that I’ve been a Colorado transplant for going on 40 years, because it’s the beach life that brought me out here. My dad was looking for work in the mid-’80s and when Boulder, Colorado, came up as an option, he asked me what I thought about it. For me, giving up surfing was a tough sell, but having skiing as a replacement seemed like a fair trade, and the rest is history.

At that time, the skiing lifestyle wasn’t all that different from the surfing lifestyle that I’d grown into. In the ’80s I was skiing with gaiters and jeans and chasing the latest powder dump with the same zeal I would surf in Florida. It’s a good thing that lift tickets at Loveland were $15 when I first got out here. I’m not sure that I could have withstood the culture shock of the expense that skiing presents today compared to surfing.

Unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets to spend a lifetime traveling the world in search of epic swells in far-off places, the cost of surfing is relatively low. It costs you a surfboard and wetsuit, both of which can last years, and gas money. Once you’re outfitted, you roam the coast in search of the best surf you can find and then park and out you go. No tickets to ride the attraction or season passes required. Just you and the surf, the wildlife and 100 other wetsuited figures all scrambling for the same wave. The crowds are something today’s popular surf spots and ski slopes have in common, but I’m hopeful that younger generations will continue to enjoy both with the same competitive camaraderie that I’ve been lucky to experience.

It’s amazing to me that the lifestyle that I adopted at 15 years of age and practiced in situ for four brief years has stuck with me into my late 50s. I’ve always tried to maintain the outlook Buffett inspired in me present in my life. That includes an appreciation of the outdoors and of the joy of moving to the motions of nature’s constructs — be that a head high wave or a powder-filled glade of aspens and pines. It’s also an appreciation of music that’s hard to pigeonhole into a single genre, and of good times regaling others with stories of epic days in the surf or on the slopes while that music plays in the background. That music and those stories and memories keep my past alive and well, and invariably there’s a soundtrack playing in my mind or on the stereo as I walk down memory lane. And among the tunes on that soundtrack are those songs with a calypso lilt over a country sensibility that I’ll always associate with long days spent surfing and hanging out at the beach, with Jimmy on the stereo.

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