We share this world with a variety of people of varying mental capacities and affectations including (but not limited to) airheads, cokeheads, Deadheads, eggheads, hotheads, knuckleheads, metalheads, potheads, redheads, shitheads, turtleheads, warheads, soft baby heads, and of course, cheeseheads.
But then, somewhere in the middle of that list, clutching a rum-infused tropical drink tightly against their Hawaiian shirt, we have the Parrotheads.
What is a Parrothead exactly? On the surface, they are the jovial, colorfully plumed, and completely devoted fan base that loyally overtakes any venue their Tommy Bahama-wearing demi-god, Jimmy Buffett, is performing at. With his catalog of nearly 40 albums and a career spanning five decades, Buffett is an American institution and, to some, the chief architect of a way of life.
However, that doesn't seem like a sufficient and fully informed characterization of this rather interesting group. One question remains: Why are these people Parrotheads. What is the allure of Margaritaville? How is it that these otherwise normal, respectable, middle-aged white people flock to Jimmy Buffett tailgate parties, lose their damned minds, and drink like Mexico and Puerto Rico are about to run out of the hard stuff? And do any of these neon tropical sandal-clad folks bother with mirrors before leaving the house?
And when Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band came to Coral Sky Amphitheatre on Thursday, April 9, one more question lingered: How could I join the party?
This intrigue stemmed from having observed Parrotheads from afar but never in their natural surroundings. Like odd, secretive creatures in the wild with curious habits, they engage in rituals foreign to me. Plus, they always seem to have a ball. So late one afternoon in West Palm Beach, I slipped into their ranks to get some answers.
The first thing anyone needs to know about Parrotheads is this: They're incredibly friendly. “I've never seen a fight at a Jimmy Buffett concert,” said Jimmy Muldoon, a Parrothead from New York. After just a few hours of carousing with them, I knew this was the truth. As a whole, they're like a combination of Canadians, hippies, Gandhi, and that one friend's mom you always secretly wished was your mom because she was awesome and always made sure to feed you pizza bagels until you exploded.
Within moments of stepping into a row of tents and beer coolers just outside the amphitheater's southern entrance, I was welcomed into the makeshift Jimmy Buffett-themed paradise by a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing gang of six. They didn't look anything like I'd imagined. Parrotheads should all sport silver hair and baseball caps, you know, like the man himself. Right? Instead, here was a group of attractive men and women in their 30s and 40s. Yes, they were wearing brightly colored clothing but nothing that would seem out of place at a luau. Within minutes of introductions, I was offered a beer. We were basically friends for life from the first sip.
“We didn't choose Jimmy, we were on a parallel path. We knew the words the first time we heard them.”
Two within the group were veterans of multiple Jimmy Buffett concerts, and the rest were newbies. Some bought their tickets as soon as they went on sale, and some got lucky with Groupon deals. Most were (mildly) concerned with work the next day — unless they decided to take off, because priorities, people. When I asked what they were expecting from the show, the answer was unanimous: awesomeness. One of the guys, Jason, was hoping for something else, however. In addition to hearing songs from his favorite Buffett album, Banana Wind, he also said, “I won't be satisfied until I see old boobs.” Godspeed, Jason.
Jason's cowboy-boot-wearing wife, however, was there for the camaraderie. “The best thing about Jimmy Buffett fans, though, if there's a small space in the grass, they're gonna be like, 'Let's make room for you.' At Dave Matthews, you've got bitches saying, 'Don't get in my space.' They're argumentative. There's no fighting here, no confrontations. This is more like, 'You want a spot? Sit in my lap.'”
Aside from the attitude, another essential aspect of Parrothead life is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the tailgate. And here's where the actual attendance of the show becomes almost secondary. “The first time I heard Jimmy Buffett, I turned to my friend and said, ‘This guy is summer,'” my new friend, Mr. Muldoon, declared. "He may not be that 24/7, but a Parrothead is being that you can imagine you’re there 24/7.” While the sextet of younger fans was looking forward to seeing Buffett, they made it abundantly clear that the pregame of booze and chit-chat was far more important to them. That same attitude was echoed in other Parrothead outfits, albeit in varying degrees.
Standing tall, apart from the crowd of barbecues and corn hole games, only a few hundred feet away from my new pals, was a pickup truck/pirate ship with a lawn chair on the roof surrounded by tropical foliage. The owners of the land-going ship were four longtime Buffett fans from Michigan and Ohio. The quartet consisted of two pairs of brothers (all cousins), in the midst of a weeklong trek to the Florida Keys. The captain of the adventure, Mike, first saw Buffett in Detroit in '86 and not only proudly adopted the label of Parrothead but explained that the most important thing Buffett did was give a name to a life that he and his friends were already living. “We didn't choose Jimmy," He said. "We were on a parallel path. We knew the words the first time we heard them.”
And that's the third and most essential lesson I gleaned from my time among these people. Being a Parrothead isn't a concert thing or even a twice-a-year thing. Despite one attendee describing the entire affair as “a momentary lapse in reason,” this all hardly seemed fleeting. In fact, the last two groups impressed upon me just how lasting that sentiment can be. Hell, sometimes it's a family tradition.
Parked nearby, situated around a lovely spread of barbecued meats and accompanying condiments, were two generations of Parrotheads. The patriarch was both a proud business owner and a proud father bringing his son and daughter into the Parrothead fold for their very first concert. “We used to play his records when they were kids,” his wife told me as her cheeseburger-hat-wearing daughter smiled in the background.
South Florida has long been a natural fit for Parrothead culture. Flip-flops, beaches, rum, and cheeseburgers flow plentifully in the street of Broward and Palm Beach counties. And soon, the embodiment of Parrothead culture will be erected in Hollywood, Florida.
Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, a massive, 349-room, 17-story Jimmy Buffett-themed hotel and wonderland is set to open later this summer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the family of Parrotheads was completely forgiving of the impending resort. “He's a business guy. He's not a sellout. It still keeps the flavor of what he is,” the proud Parrothead father said.
Of course, “what he is” ventures far past being a guy who simply sings about boats and booze. Buffett has been involved in multiple charities throughout his career, and that's something else that's rubbed off on the faithful and their way of life.
Two songs into that evening’s show, I came across a patch of lingering tailgaters. They were folding chairs and packing up musical equipment, but they weren’t in any sort of rush. See, they weren’t heading inside. I hesitate to use the term, but these were what can only be described as the hardcore Parrotheads.
These folks didn’t need to go to the concert. They eat, breathe, and marry into the Parrothead culture. They told stories of meeting future spouses at Buffett concerts and annual Key West gatherings. Although Buffett and his music first attracted them, for these fans, Parrothead lifestyle goes far, far beyond the man who started it all. This also means behaving benevolently as socially responsible people toward strangers, especially those in need.
“There’s more to being a Parrothead,” said Sandy Kaiser, a kindly looking woman with margarita-shaped earrings. “We party with a purpose.” It’s the mantra Kaiser's group of Parrotheads, who call themselves the Barefoot Children of Fort Lauderdale Parrothead Club. Like many chapters of Parrotheads across the nation, Kaiser’s group engages in year-round charitable work. In their case, that means road cleanups, beach cleanups, and fundraisers – not excluding the food they donated the day of the concert.
It’s at this point that the identity of a Parrothead and all that it encompasses becomes clear. Whether they’re sharing brews at a tailgate, attending (or not attending) a Buffett concert, wearing Hawaiian shirts to work on Fridays, giving back to the community, or giving birth to baby Parrotheads, at the heart of it all, there’s a positivity pulsating through the lives of these flamboyantly decorated people.
Will that positivity radiate from the consumer-oriented mecca of the soon-to-open Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort? We can only hope.
But, at least for these folks in the parking lot, being a Parrothead is a lifestyle of fun, generosity, and warmth as radiant as the summertime they sing about. It just happens to be soundtracked by a smart and talented entertainer who loves cheeseburgers and a frozen cocktail or two.