Label: MCA Records
The Coral Reefer Band:
G.E. Smith: Vocals, Senator Pullman
Mixed by: Jim DeMain
INTRODUCTION TO JIMMY BUFFETT’S SONGS
Jimmy Buffett landed in my Palm Springs hermitage like a long-haired Peter Pan in denim. During our talk under the Lucky Tree I asked him. “With all the strings to your bow—rock star, composer, lyricist, novelist, short story writer, sailor, aviator—why on earth do you want to make a musical of my “Don’t Stop The Carnival?” Reply with an impish grin: “It might be fun.” Well, as a relief from writing vast panoramic war novels, my work with Jimmy on this musical has been wonderfully refreshing fun—with moments of exasperation, to be sure, because this is an ever-smiling collaborator, who appears and vanishes like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, leaving just the smile.
Here are some notes on Jimmy’s songs, from the show’s six-week first tryout in Coconut Grove Playhouse, where it broke house records and won the south Florida Carbonell for the best musical show of the year.
INTRO—THE LEGEND OF NORMAN PAPERMAN/KINJA:
Jimmy Buffett explores new creative ground here, putting the two-hundred year history of Amerigo, a fictitious Caribbean island, into a calypso number, and framing it in another song. The Legend of Norman Paperman, the theme of the show. The principal singer is the Governor of the Island, and key characters of the show sing verses about the history.
I was bowled over when I first played this tape of this song, which Jimmy sent me very early in our work. Who on earth, I thought, would write a song with such a title, and how could he make it come out so melodious and amusing? The hero of the novel, Norman Paperman, is indeed a Broadway press-agent, and public relations is what he is escaping from after a nasty heart attack, to start life over in a tropical paradise. That is a dream many people have, and Don’t Stop The Carnival tells the funny and sad tale of Norman’s awakening.
Nothing in my novel suggests this song except the island ambience. Jimmy came up with it only after we had finished the first draft of the musical, and it is quintessential Buffett, quirky imagery and a lot of truth, in a rousing song of the kitchen help. The hotel Norman Paperman takes over is called the Gull Reef Club, and the cook, Sheila, who sings Calaloo, is the true soul of the place, and of the Caribbean.
Way back in our collaboration, I predicted that Jimmy might write a big hit-song after the show was on its feet, perhaps even out on the road. Jimmy actually wrote Island Fever months after the Coconut Grove run, for the first romantic scene Norman has with the mysterious blonde goddess of the island, Iris Tramm. I had been begging him for a song in this scene to convey how Norman has succumbed to the magic of the Caribbean, and to the seductive charm of Iris. Island Fever is that song, and it could be the late-blooming hit I foresaw.
It took me a while to get used to the slow smoky style of this number, Iris Tramm’s first song. It’s now one of my favorites. Iris has a dog, a German shepherd named Meadows, who is an important character in the story. She sings to him about her disillusionment with men, hence the refrain, “That’s why I live with my dog.” The song also hints that she is nevertheless falling for Norman Paperman. At Coconut Grove Iris sang to an amazingly lifelike puppet dog, which all but upstaged her, and won the audience’s affection all through the evening.
JUST AN OLD TRUTH TELLER:
Lester Atlas, a crude, very rich corporate raider, traps Norman in the Caribbean dream by offering to buy the hotel for him, and then welshing on the deal when Norman can no longer back out. He is a despicable but somehow lovable rogue, who in his own mind is a magnanimous, misunderstood benefactor of humanity. What other people call corporate raiding, he explains, is simply telling the truth in business matters. Why Jimmy decided to give him a song with tango rhythm and a klezmer trill I don’t know, but it works.
HENNY’S SONG: THE KEY TO MY MAN:
Henny is Norman’s wife of many years. She knows that his move to the Caribbean is a middle-age fantasy, frought with potential disaster, but she means to stand by him. Though she too is snared by the island’s charm, she’s smart enough to know it’s and illusion. She’s not quite smart enough to perceive that Iris Tramm is a threat to their marriage. Henny sings this song at the Kinja airport, as she is returning to New York to close up their apartment. Off and on Jimmy and I talk about having a “Married Love Song” for Henny. During rehearsal Jimmy wrote this lovely song almost overnight.
In this percussion-rap duet, the big enchilada of the island, Senator Evan Pullman, comes to the Gull Reef Club on Norman’s first day as proprietor, to let him know that he is already in all kinds of trouble. He walks Norman through the hotel, pointing out the violations of “Kinja Rules,” which are the way the island really works. Senator Pullman is a suave politician in a suit and tie, who every now and then goes into an absolutely crazy break dance, then just as suddenly turns back into a dignified legislator. This was a hilarious high point of the first act. Hearing the song on the album requires some imagination to picture what’s going on.
A THOUSAND STEPS TO NOWHERE:
The hotel water runs out on Norman’s first night. The cistern is bone-dry after a long drought. There is an emergency cistern, which works on a pump that nobody can activate but the boatman Gilbert, who has gone home for the night. Gilbert lives at the top of a steep hillside climb called The Thousand Steps. Recent heart attack not withstanding, Norman gets Iris to drive him to The Thousand Steps, and as he climbs he sings about his own folly, with Iris joining him in a duet of their mutual attraction. A Flash to Henny in the New York apartment expands the song into a trio. Henny sings Key to My Man in counterpart to A Thousand Steps.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WATER:
This song has been in and out of the show, and now it’s in again. Jimmy was talking about writing this number when we first started to discuss the musical. He would strum an invisible guitar and sing “It’s all about da wadda…” As he said way back then, there are two haunts that plague Norman in running the hotel: money and water. It’s a lively song, and I hope it stays in. A besetting problem is a musical in time. You have 2 ½ hours to tell a story that in the novel runs over 400 pages; and half of that theater time goes to dancing and singing. It’s a challenge!
CHAMPAGNE SI, AGUA NO:
The song Champagne Si, Agua No, is a reprise of the water song, to a different rhythm. Norman throws a champagne party for the guests to distract them from the water shortage and it works temporarily, till all hell breaks loose.
THE HANDIEST FRENCHMAN IN THE CARIBBEAN:
The Gull Reef Club’s former handyman, Hippolyte Lamartine, could fix everything and keep the place running no matter what. Sheila knows Hippolyte, and she gets him to come back and take over. Hippolyte is solving all problems and things are looking up, so Norman sings this jolly song about his wonderful handyman. Then it turns out that Hippolyte is a bit of a homicidal maniac, which creates difficulties.
HIPPOLYTE’S HABITAT (QUI MOUN QUI):
This is Hippolyte’s entrance song, proudly claiming that he is the real boss of the Gull Reef Club. I asked Jimmy to include some island patois to lend color to Hippolyte’s song, and he obliged with the ominous refrain of Qui Moun Qui. Hippolyte is a surly hairy brute who walks around barefoot in a big straw hat, always sharpening a huge razor-sharp machete.
WHO ARE WE TRYING TO FOOL?:
Iris and Norman, though fiercely attracted to each other, have been keeping their relationship at arm’s length. They learn that Henny is coming back to the island from New York sooner than expected. Iris weakens and proposes to Norman that they have one big night on the town. When they return to the club they are both far from sober, but at the door of Iris’s cottage she has a sudden chilling change of heart. She knows that no good can come of this. So does Norman. He promises that he’ll leave after one drink, and they sing this sultry sexy duet.
FAT PERSON MAN:
Lester Atlas returns to the club to see how things are going. Hippolyte’s coarse appearance offends him, and he orders the Frenchman off the grounds. Norman is utterly appalled at losing Hippolyte despite his homicidal eccentricity, and begs Sheila to get him back. She warns him in a reprise of Old Truth Teller that it’s too late, and that Atlas may not live long.
UP ON THE HILL:
The climax of the story comes in a big Christmas party for the posh Hill crowd, paid for by a surly millionaire, Tom Tilson. This party is a make-or-break affair for Norman Paperman and unfortunately Atlas insists on attending, while Hippolyte is on hotel grounds, planning to cut his head off. Also at the party Iris arrives drunk, and her behavior portrays to Henny what has gone on between her and Norman. Here Jimmy Buffett writes a new kind of song, a biting social satire about rich white folks who live up on cool Caribbean hilltops in redwood-and-glass mansions. This is the song I admire most in my collaborator’s versatile score.
A little parody of God Bless Ye, Merry Gentlemen, which I wrote at Jimmy’s request, disclosing the real reason the rich folks live on this “forsaken rock in the sea”—tax avoidance.
In Amerigo, Carnival was as hallowed as Christmas itself. Perhaps slightly more so. There was a meaning to it: see, islanders did not put it into words. Yet which made it the authentic supreme day in the Kinja calendar. Africa was marching down the main street of this little harbor town today. Africa undimmed black vitality surging up out of centuries of island displacement, island slavery, island isolation, island ignorance. Africa unquenchable in its burning love of life, Carnival was Africa Day in Amerigo.
TIME TO GO HOME:
The Tilson party is a triumph. Norman Paperman is “in” at last. In Tom Tilson’s congratulatory words he has “licked the Caribbean.” Hippolyte’s attempt to kill Atlas has been foiled, but he tangled with Iris’s dog Meadows and seriously wounded him. Badly hung over, Iris goes driving through a rowdy Carnival scene to get the dog from the vet, and dies in a traffic accident. With this shock Norman’s triumph turns to ashes, he wakes from his fantasy, and decides to go back to the New York he hates and loves. Atlas takes over the hotel, getting himself a “domicile” so as to beat the IRS. Glad to be returning to Manhattan, Henny forgives Norman in a final poignant duet, Time To Go Home. At one line that Henny sang, audiences on some nights broke into applause: