I had a front-row seat for an impromptu Jimmy Buffett show at Key West’s Margaritaville in 2015. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

I knew he was born on Christmas Day 1946. I knew his wife’s name, his kids’ names and the background stories to many songs.

I’d read his books and short stories. I’d memorized his lyrics and pored over the liner notes in his “Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads,” CD boxed set (remember those?). I’d seen a dozen or so big concerts and sat 4 feet from him at a few intimate and impromptu performances at Margaritaville in Key West. Those “secret” shows were among my top 10 best nights in Key West.

Every few years, a whispered buzz would pass among locals via Key West’s “coconut telegraph” of island news and gossip. “Buffett’s in town. He’s playing tonight at Margaritaville. I’m not supposed to know or tell anyone.”

The worst-kept secret inevitably packed the Duval Street bar. A delighted roar would erupt when a barefoot Buffett appeared on the small stage, smiling conspiratorially at longtime sound man (and helluva good guy) JL Jamison while sliding a guitar strap over his shoulder.

I even interviewed the singer, songwriter, author and beach-themed business mogul in 1998, in his old office above Margaritaville on Duval Street.

I was a starstruck 22-year-old reporter who had lived in Key West for all of three months. Mel Fisher and Capt. Tony were still alive, though we’d lose Mel later that year.

But it had never occurred to me that Jimmy Buffett would die, and I’d be writing, not about the latest flock of Parrot Heads descending on Key West each November, but about the end of an era, and the loss of a man whose words, music and lifestyle played at least some role in our collective love affair with Key West.

But now he’s gone, and as he used to sing, “We’re sending the old man home.”

It’s been an interesting dynamic to witness since my phone started dinging incessantly with the news of his death around 5 a.m. Saturday. 

Jimmy Buffett was gone, and Key West was left to figure out who it is without him.

Insane as it sounds, as locals on this island, does it not feel as if we’ve had some sort of “claim” to the music man? After all, we live here. Certainly, we knew him better. He liked us better. He sang about our little island. He put us on the map in many ways, so Jimmy Buffett was somehow ours.

He may have disagreed. And I’m sure his longtime neighbors in Sag Harbor, Long Island feel much the same — that Jimmy Buffett is somehow “theirs.”

It’s not an intentional or remotely rational claim, but it’s true. As Key West locals, we get it. We get him. We knew Jimmy Buffett better than those who just swill margaritas, wear a ridiculous hat to a summertime show in Cincinnati and crack themselves up every time they say, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.” 

Some of us came to Key West because of what we heard in his songs, and we stayed because of the version of the island we found when we arrived.

Like the rhythmic silence that follows the last song on an old record, when music has filled a space for so long, the silence suddenly becomes an intrusion.

Thankfully, we’ll always be able to fill that silence with the soundtrack that always leads back to the Southernmost City. 

Thanks, Jimmy. Fair winds and following seas, my friend.

Mandy Miles
Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.