So two days before Friday, which would be Wednesday, my friend Richard got hold of two free tickets to see Jimmy Buffett at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York. These were great seats: Orchestra, Row S, Seats 1 and 2, $156 apiece. When he called me, it was a given: We were going. I mean, hell, this is Jimmy Buffett, king of the Laid-Backs, ambassador of the Conch Republic. The only catch? Richard wanted to watch from his boat, anchored in Zach’s Bay, next to the amphitheater, where Buffett fans with boats raft-up and party. So we ditched the tix idea and planned a boat trip.
Sure, the scene in the arena is fun. Imagine navigating through 15,000 land-bound Parrotheads gathered in one parking lot. It’s like running through a forest of Hawaiian shirts. Or no shirts. It’s all encouraged, along with leis, skin that’s never seen sunscreen, beer, margaritas (Buffett’s “Margaritaville” is the Parrothead anthem), meats grilling, foam parrot hats, and generally an affinity for the island life and for any gently rebellious behavior toward city living.
I’m a Parrothead. But like Buffett, I am also a die-hard boater. If given the choice, who wouldn’t want to go by boat? Here’s what it’s like.
We’re already late for the pre-game festivities when we pull out of our slip in Freeport, New York. I settle in the bow. While idling out of the canal I see a sign for “Wedding Chapel,” about 50 feet from a sign that says “Knife-Throwing Lessons.” Both have the same phone number. About 30 minutes later we arrive at Zach’s Bay and meet up with several boats tied together. We swing around and see a guy with a deep tan, kicked back, wearing a faded bathing suit, who looks like he’s already had a puff or two and a few beers. I ask him if they’re staying for the concert. “Of course,” he says, breaking the state record for wide grins. He sweeps his hand toward the rest of the crew: foam parrot hats. Some foam sharks too. Barbecuing. The guys and gals average about 50 years of age, though some seem pretty young: legacy Parrotheads.
Overhead a small plane orbits, towing a banner that says LandShark Lager. It’s Buffett’s own brand, available at stores listed on his website, margaritaville.com. While you’re there, you can also purchase T’s, flip-flops, frozen concoction makers, tequila, Adirondack chairs, men’s and women’s fashions, and otherwise a healthy dose of the tropics. Oh, and when you’re traveling to Pensacola, you can make a reservation at the New Margaritaville Hotel. (Jimmy’s making a killing off Parrotheads.)
The stereos on all the boats in Zach’s have the volume cranked, and they’re playing — what else — Buffett songs.
A stereo war is going down between “Fins” and “Volcano” and a few other songs. One lyric stands out overall: “Ran into a chum with a bottle of rum…”
Buffett’s about to come on. Life is good. There’s only one problem: We can’t see the stage.
We make a last-minute audible to actually use our two free tickets. Our decision is hastened by the thin line of dark clouds along the horizon, to both the west and east. Maybe they’re two parallel systems heading north. We turn on the VHF and the forecast isn’t good, but without weather radar aboard, we don’t really know.
With the tickets, we make for land. We push our way across the parking lot to the amphitheater. Richard heads backstage (he has a pass) and I am left alone to remember that I’d quit smoking. I pull out the lone cigarette I’d been carrying and try to light up, but a yellow-shirted venue goon starts eyeing me and I slip it back into my pocket and go to Orchestra, Row S, Seat 1, ushered around each corner by other yellow shirts. I should have smoked on the boat.
I start a conversation with four Parrotheads in the row behind me: a couple of retired Brits living in Bermuda and their two American friends. We talk about the number of Buffett concerts they’ve seen — around 10 each. All are wearing their regulation Hawaiian shirts.
After a couple of minutes my nicotine craving reignites and I walk to the cove side of Orchestra and try to fire up, but a yellow-shirt barks “No smoking!” I return it to my pocket, check out the boats floating in the cove again, return to my seat and watch the backgrounds on the open-air stage change from the Conch Republic flag to sunny beach scenes. At Jones Beach the sun has set, it’s cold, and there’s 100 percent cloud cover.
At 7:30 p.m. Buffett appears on stage and the crowd of Conch disciples goes wild for its fearless leader. First song: “Margaritaville”! Jubilation ensues until Buffett pauses to say that he has bad news and good. Bad: A storm is going to arrive in 15 minutes — trust him, because he’s an aviator and a mariner. Good: The storm will pass and he’s going to come back out and play at 9 p.m. no matter what. Geez, he seems happy. In the next minute the yellow-shirted venue goons shout for all of us to leave, and herd the entire stadium crowd outside, where the only shelter from the rain is under the theater itself and the awnings of criminally expensive food stands.
The bathrooms are a good place too. Well, in the dark alley next to the back door of the men’s room, which is where I head to try to fire up that wrinkling cigarette. A handful of women are smoking, and this utterly mellow guy — let’s just say he isn’t on his first margarita — sees me pull out my lighter and asks for a light for his Cuban cigar. Then he hands me one. We stand in our own cloud, wasting away in Margaritaville. As we say goodbye, he hands me another cigar.
The entire crowd starts cheering with each thunderclap, and I start to worry about my party brethren back on the boats. Finally, at 9 p.m., an announcer tells everyone to return to their seats. I begin to miss my spot on the bow. I’m wet already; maybe the best place to hear Buffett really is from the water. Only one way to find out.
Jimmy comes back on stage. I can’t see him, but on the bow of the boat the music rings loud and clear. “Margaritaville,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Come Monday,” “A Pirate Looks at 40,” “Fins” … songs about love, life, drinking, the tropics, freedom. Things that seemed so far away when I was crowded under rain-soaked awnings, but now seem closer than I’d realized. It starts raining, harder, but Buffett just keeps going, and the legion of Parrotheads will stay until the very last note.
From under the protection of the T-top I watch the crowd moving under the bright stadium lights. Between the camera flashes I notice the flickers of butane lighters scattered throughout the crowd. I flick my lighter and listen to the crowd. It is singing along. And, as would any boater taking it all in from the water, so am I. Front row, orchestra is pretty sweet, but some music is best heard under the T-top, with a full cooler and the boat gently rocking on the hook to the beat. Where’s Margaritaville? I’d say it’s right here.
Five places to see, hear or travel to for live music by boat.
Nikon at Jones Beach Theater
Wantagh, New York (jonesbeach.com)
The Gorge Amphitheatre
George, Washington (livenation.com/Gorge-Amphitheatre-tickets-George/venue/122913)
The Newport Waterfront
Newport, Rhode Island (newportwaterfrontevents.com)
On the Waterfront Festival
Rockford, Illinois (onthewaterfront.com)
Susquehanna Bank Center
Camden, New Jersey (livenation.com)