Deleted scenes: Las Vegas, Margaritaville and regulatory responsibility

Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way will be released May 9 on Touchstone Books. It’s the story of the little song that became a big brand, and the man who sang it all into existence. Garden & Gun magazine says it’s “buoyant” and “sings.” What follows isn’t in the book. This got cut, along with the story of an underwater welding bartender and a sunburned dude in a grass skirt asking, “You been margaritin’?”

Things get cut when you write a book. Even the things you like. So, join me in remembering the time I found Margaritaville in the halls of government, on the edge of what Jimmy and the Parrot Heads call Fin City. 

IMG_8459LAS VEGAS, Oct. 2013 — On Las Vegas Blvd. the next morning, wind gusts whipped up small funnel clouds of fast food wrappers and photos of topless women. It was Monday, and it was cold. Outside the Margaritaville Café “Ragtop Day” played to passing stocking caps.

I grabbed a cab and opened my notebook for the address to the Grant Sawyer State Office Building. The cab driver thought it over for a second and then passed me his navigation system. “Punch in the address, please,” he said. Not a lot of traffic from the Strip to the halls of government, apparently.

The Sawyer Building is 180,000 square feet of bureaucratic beehive on the north end of Las Vegas—past the glitz of the Strip, and then farther still past the old Vegas charm of Fremont Street, and then on still past the Neon Museum, where the markings of even an older Vegas nudged aside by progress and dynamite, have gone to die.

It was stop-and-go into downtown, through old Vegas past pawn shops and wedding chapels and people with hopes and people who looked for all the world they were carrying something less. The city always looks hard and desperate in the dust and the daylight.

When we finally reached Grant Sawyer, the cab driver gave me a card with his phone number. Call, he said. It’ll take forever to get a return trip otherwise.

On March 7, 2012, the business of Margaritaville had brought Buffett to this same maze of rules and regulations. He brought along his team: Jonathan Cohlan, a business ninja originally from the land of skyscrapers and leveraged buyouts; Howard Kaufman, Buffett’s longtime manager; Sunshine Smith, an ally from the hippie days who, among many titles, is Keeper of the Myth; Michael Utley, musical director and as close as there is to an original Coral Reefer in the band these days.

All were in on the Margaritaville Casino, so all were required to testify before the State Gaming Control Board in Conference Room 2450. Among other entities, applications were under consideration for Margaritaville Holdings LLC, Margaritaville Enterprises LLC, JB Intellectual Property LLC, the James W. Buffett 1990 Trust and L’Acquisition, Inc.

I was directed to a different second-floor room, the records room, and a gentleman named Tito who helpfully pointed me to an old, bulky Dell laptop where the transcript from the appearance—the only public record from the licensing process—was waiting.

Buffett’s testimony wasn’t terribly different from any other Jimmy Buffett performance. A storyteller, he told stories. He played his part.

“I did notice that you had shoes on,” then-chairman Mark Lipparelli said.

“And socks,” Jimmy replied. “It is cold out here.”

How many planes does he have? “Four.” Where does he live? “That’s a good question. I’m a Florida resident. I have lived most my life in and around Florida, and I have a summer home on Long Island and a home in the French West Indies in Saint-Barthelemy.”

What about that time Jamaican authorities opened fire on him and his Grumman Albatross (the Hemisphere Dancer) as he headed toward Negril? “As the song says, I’d only gone for chicken.” He’d also been shot at some 150 times (hit twice). “Anyway, it was serious at the time, and it became an international incident blown way out of proportion.” Anyway.

About “Margaritaville”: “It’s been a pretty good song. No, it was written in five minutes about a hot day in Austin, Texas, with a margarita and a beautiful woman. I finished it in Key West. I had no idea.”

He left discussions of capital recovery and brand management to Cohlan and Kaufman. I sat under fluorescent lights at a standard issue government table and copied it all down. Then I called my cab.

On the ride back to the Flamingo, my cab driver and I talked layoffs. I’d been pinched by the newspaper industry. He worked construction until bottom fell out of the economy, Vegas’ building boom went bust and staycations became a thing. He drove the cab and worked a second job and tried to find some time to spend with his two daughters. What he wanted most, he said, was some sleep.

He’d been on his way home when I called. I apologized. “No problem,” he said. “If I say I’ll pick you up, I’ll pick you up.”

He dropped me back at Margaritaville, and I wished I could tip him a vacation.

Pre-order Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way, the story of Margaritaville and the man who sang it into existence. 


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