Long before Jimmy Buffett became one of the most successful musicians in the world (his net worth was recently estimated at north of half a billion dollars), he was a struggling Nashville songwriter trying to figure out his path in the music business. Then he met Jerry Jeff Walker, who already had a hit and a handful of albums to his name. The meeting changed Buffett’s life. Last week he spoke to Texas Monthly about his old friend, who passed away on October 23. Here’s what he had to say.
[Note: to read more testimonials to Jerry Jeff, go here.]
I met Jerry Jeff in Nashville in 1970. I was writing songs and had a job as the Southern pop editor for Billboard magazine and a friend introduced me to him at an ASCAP event. I knew who he was from “Mr. Bojangles.” I was a huge fan, and we went out, had dinner. He was living in Florida, in Coconut Grove. I was in my first marriage, and there was trouble on the horizon. Nothing was happening for me in Nashville, and I looked at him and I thought, “Man, that’s the life I’d like to lead.” We got very drunk that night; this was nothing new in those days.
He ended up staying at my house. In the middle of the night there was a commotion and my wife said, “What’s going on down there?” I said, “It’s Jerry Jeff and he’s trying to make a phone call.” He was talking to an operator, and cursing loudly. Then, about five a.m. the phone rang, and in those days, the phone people would call and say, “We cut off your phone service because you used an obscenity. Are you ready to behave yourself now?” I went “Oh my God!” Jerry Jeff got up that morning and apologized to my wife. “I’m really sorry about this,” he said to me. “If you’re ever in Miami look me up.”
So a year later, I was working the folk circuit in the South, starting to get a name, and my manager got a call from these people in Miami who had a folk club, they wanted to book me. I’d split up with my wife, and I thought, “I’ll go to Miami and work the way Jerry Jeff does.” Coconut Grove was where I wanted to be. So I got on plane, went to Miami, called Jerry Jeff, told him I was there, and he said, “Come on over, stay with us.”
I stayed in his guest house. He was in with a great group of people—Freddie Neil, Vince Martin, Bobby Ingram, Dion—and they were all playing these folk clubs. I was gonna be an opening act, but my gig wasn’t going to be for another two weeks. I said to Jerry Jeff, “What am I gonna do until then?” And he said, “I wrecked my car and it’s in a garage, these guys are working on it and I’m working on it too, come on and help me.” So that’s what I did for two weeks. I lived with him and we worked on his car, which was a 1947 Packard.
There was always somebody around. Jerry Jeff introduced me to Freddie Neil [who had just had a big hit with “Everybody’s Talkin’,” off the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack]. He was probably Jerry Jeff’s favorite friend and songwriter. He was the real, real deal. There were all these other people coming through town—David Crosby, Rick Danko, Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane, Joni Mitchell, a lot of people getting out of the cold weather and coming to Miami. For me as a nobody, I couldn’t get over my luck, meeting all these people. That’s what Jerry did for me—because I was with him, that gave me some significance that I really didn’t deserve at the time. Everyone gathered around him. He was living large, and that was what everybody wanted to do then—live large. Miami at the time had a history going back to pirate days, the Mafia, the hippie days, the Cubans. It’s always been a pirate town—and he was the head pirate.
His girlfriend Murphy was from Key West. When that car was fixed, they said, “We’re gonna go to Key West, come on, you’ll love it down there.” I’d never been. We got in that car, he took me to Key West, it changed my life.
I’ve probably seen all of the Jerry Jeffs that there are. The dark period, the coked-up period. He almost wore his welcome out in Key West, for obvious reasons. He could be charming, but he could be the devil. I put him in a song I wrote, “The Devil I Know.”
We got down to Key West and I had credibility there as well because Jerry introduced me to all these scalawags and city officials, people at the Chart Room Bar—I got a job at the Chart Room Bar. He and Murphy went back to Miami and I stayed in Key West and never went back. I loved it—I’d been a teenager on Bourbon Street in college, I knew New Orleans from childhood, and Key West just had that magic.
Jerry Jeff and I wrote a song together called “Railroad Lady” while riding the train from New Orleans to Nashville. I thought it was a wonderful thing to be on a train with Jerry Jeff Walker, writing a song. I put it out on my album A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean and he said, “Why’d you give me credit for it?” I said, “Because we wrote it on the train.” He didn’t remember it.
By that point, Austin had come onto his radar. He played a last show at the Big Pine Key Inn in Big Pine, Florida, and got drunk, turned around, smashed his guitar, walked offstage. I went, “Woah.” You only saw that in the movies. When he realized what he’d done the next day, God, was he horrified. He wrote the song “That Old Beat Up Guitar” about it. He packed up, said, “I’m going to Austin,” and I didn’t hear from him for six months.
At the time, I was kind of coming out of the minor leagues, I was making records. From working all these bars and clubs I realized that I had the chops to perform, and I wound up going to Texas to play shows, and I’d stay with Jerry Jeff. He was with Susan by then; I could tell that was a very good move.
I’d gotten there on my own but he was there for me. He was my credibility in Coconut Grove, he was my credibility in Key West, and he was my credibility in Austin. My first time there I was an opening act at Castle Creek [a long-gone Austin folk club]. Jerry Jeff came and we played onstage that night. He’s the best wild man/concierge you could have. He knew everybody and he could be charming or he could walk off the stage and break his guitar. People still loved him and put up with him—because he was Jerry Jeff. He didn’t have a death wish, but he got out there pretty much.
When he got to Austin, he re-created himself. It was never, “I gotta get in, I need to be somebody.” He went there and was very comfortable being Jerry Jeff Walker, with both the good and the bad. He was a magnet, surrounded by all these musicians—B.W. Stevenson, Marcia Ball, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Marshall Chapman. I met all of them. Everybody wanted to be Jerry Jeff. He had a pied piper kind of thing. He had this sense about him and the thing of it was, it started with fun—he was fun—he seemed to be having fun.
I came to Austin a lot in those days. I made it there by getting these college bookings and getting on Willie’s second Fourth of July picnic. I played Castle Creek many times. I think it was after one of those shows, the next morning I had a hangover and I had to fly home that afternoon. I went to El Rey, a Mexican restaurant on Anderson Lane for lunch. I had a margarita, which helped with the hangover, and in the car on the way to the airport the chorus of a new song started to come to me. I wrote a little more on the plane and finished the rest of “Margaritaville” back in Key West.
In Austin, it didn’t matter that I was a Florida boy. Jerry Jeff took me down to Charlie Dunn’s [boot shop], dressed me, gave me a whole makeover. I got my first cowboy hat in Austin because of Jerry Jeff. Imagine this guy from New York who moved to Florida and created a scene in Coconut Grove, and then becomes the cosmic cowboy in Austin. He was the best carnival sideshow performer there ever was.
But all of a sudden you’d see the dark side and you’d say, “I don’t want to be around that guy.” I felt bad about it because he was only hurting himself as a performer. To me, it’s a treasure to be able to perform. I’d see him onstage when he wasn’t having fun and I’d say, “How can you not have fun up there? It’s a gift.”
We’ve all got dark sides, but his, he could go deep. He was often coked up or drunk, and you didn’t know what you were gonna get. There was no telling him not to, he had to figure that out by himself. I tried to tell him, but he didn’t listen. He’d say, “Aw f—!” or “Aw, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” By that time, I’d figured it out. I never thought he’d ever make it to forty, the way he was going.
He tried just about everything to get clean, and he eventually did, yes he did. And Susan had a lot to do with that, his kids too. It made me feel really good to see him do that. It could’ve gone the other way.
When my career took off I always stayed in touch with him. The last time we played together was three or four years ago, in Texas. I had a show in Frisco at the soccer field. ZZ Top was supposed to play but had to cancel. I called Jerry Jeff: “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” “Want to open for us?” I hadn’t played Dallas in ten years. He said yeah, and he sold a lot of tickets. I thought it would be fun to have him on the show, payback, to him from me, but it was an incredibly good show and he was on, and by that time I had recorded one of [his son] Django’s songs, “Somethin’ ’Bout a Boat.” It came full circle, it couldn’t have been better.
Would I have gotten to Key West without Jerry Jeff? Probably. And I probably could have found a job—I’d made the commitment. But it was so much easier because of him. When I heard he passed, I thought about what he had done for me in Key West, what he did for me in Coconut Grove, and what he did for me in Austin. Jerry Jeff was genuine from the beginning, from the time they shut my phone off and he said come stay with me if you ever get to Miami and I needed it desperately. There was no hesitation when it came to taking me in, none. I always tried to emulate that with other people I’ve helped out. I think that’s one of those beatitudes he had, he was at heart a very kind person—he loved to play and loved to sing and to hang out, and the spirit of what music did for him made other people happy.
What it comes to is, he wrote what he was. He was a gypsy songman—he just loved it. He wouldn’t have kept going and survived if he hadn’t loved it so much. Then he turned his life around and got to enjoy it more.
He met his demons and he conquered them, that’s what I think. He lived nearly forty years longer than anyone who hung out with him in those days thought he would. And they were a great forty years.
He came through it and he slayed those dragons, and I give him as much credit for that as for writing “Mr. Bojangles.” He saved his own life. I’m just happy I knew him that long. I’m happy he made it.