Jimmy Buffet - Margaritaville Single Cover
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‘Margaritaville’ by Jimmy Buffett - Lyrics & Meaning

September 4, 2023 3:17 pm GMT
Last Edited December 19, 2023 7:54 pm GMT

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Jimmy Buffett - ‘Margaritaville’

Label: ABC Records

Release Date: February 14, 1977

Album: Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

Producer: Norbert Putnam

Songwriter: Jimmy Buffett

Chart Performance:

  • No. 1 on US iTunes Chart
  • No. 8 on Billboard Hot 100
  • No. 13 on US Hot Country Songs

The Background:

‘Margaritaville’: the song that not only captured the spirit of Jimmy Buffet's island-inspired, beachside persona, but that also became the touchstone for the entire ‘Gulf and Western’ sub-genre.

Released in 1977 and penned the previous year, ‘Margaritaville’ formed part of Buffett's game-changing, Platinum-certified Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes album.

Following Buffett's death on September 1 2023, ‘Margaritaville’ enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and streams, with the coastal anthem bubbling up to the surface of the US iTunes Chart.

It now feels virtually impossible to confine any analysis or summation of ‘Margaritaville’ to the song alone, with Jimmy Buffett having built an empire around it consisting of a restaurant chain, a Broadway musical, along with beer, tequila, apparel and furniture brands and more.

Particularly to Buffett's famously fervent ‘Parrotheads’ fanbase, ‘Margaritaville’ has evolved into the radiant beacon for their laidback, frozen-drink-sipping, 3/4-time way of life.

Produced by Norbert Putnam, the uplifting, carefree song remains the kindling from which ‘Gulf and Western’ or ‘Beach Country’ was sparked, with notable Buffettian disciples including Kenny Chesney, Jake Owen, Old Dominion and Zac Brown Band.

The Sound:

Every inch of ‘Margaritaville’ feels drenched in the crystal clear waters, the idyllic white sand and the sugary, coconut-encased cocktails of Florida's sunny Key West island - from the lyrics to the sound to the man that glues it all together.

When the jaunty, euphoric steel drums kick off the track, the listener feels as though they're standing in front of a surfboard-cluttered, parrot-emblazoned beach bar, with the faint, alluring scent of rum and tequila drifting between two gently swaying palm trees.

By the time Jimmy Buffett's playful, opening line reverberates through the speakers, you've already stepped eagerly inside the endearingly run-down shack, and you've ordered up a couple of ice cold drinks. The unashamedly celebratory feel of ‘Margaritaville’ pivots around the now-iconic steel drum riff, but the sashaying bass and easygoing guitar both add to the tropical-tinged ambience of the song.

Buffett delivers the lyrics in his characteristically understated style, with country music's honorary pirate gliding through the verses with an off-hand, conversational tone.

The song's lyrical keystone - “Wastin’ away in Margaritaville” - is laced with a sense of despondent lethargy. However, by the time the chorus concludes, the ‘Come Monday’ songsmith has decided to simply shrug off his troubles with a little help from Jose Cuervo.

Although a crestfallen song lyrically, Jimmy Buffett gives the protagonist an innocently roguish quality that permeates ‘Margaritaville’, giving the track the levity it's become synonymous with.

The Meaning:

“Nibblin' on sponge cake
Watchin' the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing
Smell those shrimp
They're beginnin' to boil”

‘Margaritaville’ is filled to the brim with variegated, evocative imagery painting a sun-bleached picture of life in a beach resort. Buffett repeatedly hints at an existential crisis, which adds a note of melancholy to the serenity of island life, but for the opening verse, the listener is distracted with a vibrant, holiday-themed palette of colours.

These include light-hearted, summery references to “nibblin’ on sponge cake”, “watchin’ the sun bake”, “tourists covered in oil” and the distinctive smell of shrimp “beginnin’ to boil”.

“Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
But I know it's nobody's fault”

There's been considerable debate as to whether Jimmy Buffett is singing “wastin’’ or “wasted”, with the country megastar having regularly flitted between the two when performing ‘Margaritaville’. ‘Wastin’’ is generally accepted as the default choice, and although Buffett has never commented on this specifically, the original sleeve lyrics for Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes read “waistin’”.

The hook consolidates the broken-down persona of the narrator, as he expresses the overwhelming sense of being lost at sea and struggling to find his purpose.

In this verse, Buffett leans into the escapism he so often used as his muse throughout his career. Rather than delving into his problems at any great length, he instead keeps it vague and zeroes in on the frivolous avoidance he's enjoying in Key West.

The famous ‘salt-shaker’ lyric has been taken by many to be a thinly veiled metaphor for the protagonist's quest for motivation, and this certainly seems to underpin the line.

However, in an interview with Sound On Sound, Buffett's producer, Norbert Putnam, explained that the origins of the hook were, in fact, quite literal, “One day in the studio, [Jimmy Buffett] comes in and starts telling me about a day he had in Key West. He was coming home from a bar and he lost one of his flip-flops and he stepped on a beer can top and he couldn’t find the salt for his Margarita. He says he’s writing lyrics to it and I say, ‘That’s a terrible idea for a song.’ He comes back in a few days later with ‘Wasted Away Again In Margaritaville’ and plays it, and right then everyone knows it’s a hit song. Hell, it wasn't a song - it was a movie”.

“Don't know the reason
Stayed here all season
With nothing to show but this brand new tattoo
But it's a real beauty
A Mexican cutie, how it got here
I haven't a clue”

When viewed as the fun, party-starting anthem that ‘Margaritaville’ has blossomed into over the years, the breezy scene-setting should be taken at face value.

But underneath the triviality of the fact that Buffett gets a new tattoo, or the amusing realisation that he's ended up staying at the resort for much longer than he initially intended, lies the unmistakable air of disillusionment with his mainland life.

It's this yearning for the freedom of packing up and starting a new life somewhere in the sun that has ensured Buffett's music and brand have remained so popular through the decades. Arguably, the aching need for escapism - and Buffett's unrivalled ability to satisfy this - is the key to his enduring success.

“I blew out my flip flop
Stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home
But there's booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on”

The first two lines of this verse also stem from the real-life story Jimmy Buffett told his producer when writing ‘Margaritaville’. The narrator once again turns to alcohol to numb the minor annoyances and deeper frustrations that he appears to be contending with.

Old men in tank tops
Cruisin' the gift shops
Checkin' out chiquitas down by the shore
I found 'em, I found 'em
They dream about weight loss, oh
Wish they could be their own boss
Those three day vacations become such a bore”

This so-called ‘lost verse’ of ‘Margaritaville’ doesn't appear in the studio version from Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, but Jimmy Buffet would often add it during live performances.

The verse was supposedly dropped from the album rendition in order to reduce the track length for radio. On the ‘Live (1978 Version)’ of the song from You Had To Be There, Jimmy Buffett delivers an alternative - and less radio-friendly - final few lines in addition to the lost verse:

“I blew out my flip flop

Stepped on a pop top

I broke my leg, had to limp on back home

God, I still feel pain

I wish I had some cocaine

But that's been gone since early this morn”

What has Jimmy Buffett said about ‘Margaritaville’?

During an interview for the Bobby Bones Show in June 2020, Jimmy Buffett shed some light on how ‘Margaritaville’ came about, “It happened in Austin, I was playing a club at that time called The Castle Creek...and [my friend] took me out to the airport because I was living in Key West. I'd done a show the night before, and I was a little bit hungover, so we went and had some burritos and a margarita”.

He went on to explain, “It was hot and I said, ‘Damn, that was a good margarita’, and I started it there, like, ‘You're wasting away...’ Then I got on a plane to Austin, went back to Miami and I was driving down the Keys going home, and there was a wreck on the Seven Mile Bridge that had stopped traffic. I wrote the end of [‘Margaritaville’] on the Seven Mile Bridge, and then got to Key West and finished it and did it on stage in the bar I was working in the next night. People seemed to like it...”

As part of a CBS: 60 Minutes documentary, Jimmy Buffett touched on why he thinks his sun-soaked brand of music resonates with so many people, “People in high-pressure situations and high-pressure jobs use it as an escape...from the rigours of life”. In response to the question of what he would consider his primary ‘job’, Buffett remarked, “I sell escapism”.

On ‘Margaritaville’ specifically, Jimmy Buffett admitted to CBS, “It is an anthem of some sorts...I wrote it in six minutes...it was just another song going on the album...Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think it would do what it did. Never”.

For the full lyrics to Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Margaritaville’, see below:

“Nibblin' on sponge cake
Watchin' the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing
Smell those shrimp
They're beginnin' to boil

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
But I know it's nobody's fault

Don't know the reason
Stayed here all season
With nothing to show but this brand new tattoo
But it's a real beauty
A Mexican cutie, how it got here
I haven't a clue

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
Now I think, - hell it could be my fault

(Lost Verse)

(Old men in tank tops
Cruisin' the gift shops
Checkin' out chiquitas down by the shore
I found 'em, I found 'em
They dream about weight loss, oh
Wish they could be their own boss
Those three day vacations become such a bore)


I blew out my flip flop
Stepped on a pop top
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home
But there's booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
But I know, it's my own damn fault
Yes, and some people claim that there's a woman to blame
And I know it's my own damn fault”

For more on Jimmy Buffett, see below:

Written by Maxim Mower
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