Kerth: Nobody goes down at the end of Lonely Street in Margaritaville

Published: Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

You’re driving down the road, and that song comes on the radio that forces your hand to reach for the volume knob.

Some may give the dial a counter-clockwise twist to banish the song from the airwaves. They might even start pushing buttons to drive a stake into the tune’s heart.

Me? I crank the dial the other way.

Because even though it’s been played ad infinitum – or even ad nauseam – for the past four decades or so, “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett is the greatest popular song ever written.

Oh, there are plenty of music fans who would argue with me, but they would be wrong.

They may point to popular music charts such as Billboard and note that Buffett’s signature song never rose higher than No. 8 – about what you would expect from a celebration of besotted sloth composed of only three chords and 208 words.

And they would be right about all that. But still, they would be wrong in denying the song’s greatness.

Because it is the greatest popular song ever written, an anthem of endless summertime.

As an industry, no other song can hold a candle to “Margaritaville.” What other tune can lay claim to anchoring one of the most enduring musical careers in pop music, all the while spawning a lucrative empire of restaurants, beachwear, furniture, resorts, casinos, appliances – and of course rum?

As they say in politics, if you’re looking for truth, follow the money. And if you follow the money to find true musical greatness, it all leads to “Margaritaville.”

But beyond all that, there is still some pretty darn good writing going on in those 208 words.

The key to good writing, they say, is to engage the reader’s senses. Well, by the end of the first verse of “Margaritaville,” the singer has nibbled on sponge cake, watched the sun bake tourists covered with oil, strummed his six-string on his front porch swing and smelled shrimp beginning to boil. Go ahead, check them off – all five senses, with the kinetic motion of the porch swing thrown in for extra measure.

How many great works of literature can make the same claim after only 32 words?

Which brings us to the chorus, the anthem of every lazy lout longing to waste away in a tasty land like Margaritaville. But listen a bit more closely, because as every reveler raises a salt-rimmed glass to belt out the lyrics with woozy glee, there is something else entirely going on.

That’s because the speaker in the song realizes something vital is missing in Margaritaville. He tells of searching for his lost shaker of salt, which is only a symbol of his loss and longing – and his loneliness. For, unlike the armies of Buffett’s Parrotheads who belt out the song while clinking their glasses all around, the guy in the song drinks alone. And his drink has lost its savor.

While his friends claim there is “a woman to blame,” he knows his lonely solitude is nobody’s fault. Well, that’s what he knows in the first chorus. By the end of the song, as his life deteriorates even further – waking up with a tattoo he can’t remember getting, or hobbling home with a cut heel from a pop top on the beach – the repetitive chorus undergoes subtle changes.

In the second chorus he thinks, “Hell, it could be my fault” before he fully realizes at the end of the song that it’s his “own damn fault” that he has wasted away his time in Margaritaville.

It is time he will never recover, because the only thing the “booze in the blender” does for him is to help him hang on – if not to a lost lover, then at least to a losing lifestyle.

It is a master stroke of irony that such a sad song can generate such joy in a crowd as they roar out the chorus, drinks hoisted aloft in celebration – one more sign of the greatness of the lyrics, which can survive not only endless repetition but also mindless misinterpretation.

The only more ironic misreading of a popular song is Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” whose chorus is always bellowed out by crowds in a joyous jingoistic frenzy of patriotic fervor – despite the fact the verses’ lyrics are clearly Springsteen’s cynical swipe at a nation whose mean streets batter its youth, crush their dreams and then send them off to die needlessly in Vietnam.

Ironic, isn’t it, how fans can celebrate the polar opposite of a song’s intent? Write a cautionary tale about the perils of a partying lifestyle and then sell it as the rallying cry for an army of rum-soaked revelers in Ray-Bans. Now that’s what I call a flip-flop.

Still, Jimmy Buffett is no fool. He knows which side his bread is buttered on. What would be the point in stepping up to the microphone and telling his crowd, “Hey, look, this is a sad song. It’s a tale of loss and loneliness. It’s about a guy drowning his pain in alcohol as his life spins out of control.”

No, empires are not built by reminding your fans of their lack of insight. Empires are built by letting fans reduce a masterpiece of writing into a mindless mantra, even if it is a mirror image of the central message.

And what’s the harm, as long as it makes them happy – and loosens up their wallets to all the merchandise you have to offer?

Still, one can’t help but wonder how the song would be received today if Buffett’s song had been recorded by Elvis, as it was originally intended before Presley’s untimely death in 1977.

Had Elvis died only a year later, just after recording a song about “wasting away” in a booze-addled haze, would we be hoisting our glasses to belt out the lyrics as we start our week’s vacation on the beach?

No, it takes an ironic, durable, sun-kissed elf in a flowered shirt to get us to do that – Jimmy Buffett, the author of the greatest pop song ever written.

• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He can be reached at trkerth@yahoo.com.

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