David Freed

A Cowboy in the Jungle

Jimmy Buffett’s singing voice was hardly world class, but what he lacked in vocal range, he more than made up for in the often brilliant lyrics he penned. He was a big-time popstar famous for his lighthearted, feel-good songs, but behind the cornball, fun-filled, Caribbean-Parrot Heads-Margaritaville schtick, he was a sentimental philosopher and poet par excellence whose words were freighted more often than not with wisdom and inspiration. Friends first introduced me to his music in college and I’ve been a fan ever since. He also was a successful novelist and avid pilot, which endeared him to me even more. So it was with profound sadness that I awoke last week to reports of Jimmy’s passing, much too soon, at age 76.

I never met Jimmy Buffett. I once mailed him a copy of my first book, Flat Spin, figuring he might enjoy the flying references, but he never wrote back. The extent of our relationship, if you could call it that, was me having purchased most of his early albums and attending a handful of his concerts over the decades. Hardly BFFs. And yet, when news hit that he was gone, I found myself fighting back tears and grieving his loss as I would that of a close buddy. It seemed a foolish, illogical response. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn’t mourning the death of an entertainer I never knew. I was mourning a piece of my past that I thought was lost forever.

Some studies have shown that one’s ability to smell can spark memories more powerfully as any other sensory influence. I wouldn’t know. I’m plagued with a terribly poor sense of smell. But play me a favorite song from back in the day, and chances are pretty good I’ll be able to tell you where I was, at least approximately, when I first heard it.  Many of Jimmy Buffett’s tunes have that effect on me. I can’t begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent singing along to many of them in my car or dancing to them in the kitchen with my wife on Saturday mornings or struggling to do them justice on my guitar. At the top of that playlist is one of his lesser-known masterpieces: “Cowboy in the Jungle.”

The song in a nutshell is about disregarding your ambitions and learning to trust your intuition. I must’ve listened to it a thousand times when I was a big-city newspaper reporter, back when I aspired to trying my hand at more creative forms of writing but feared giving up the steady paycheck newspaper work afforded. It’s no exaggeration to say that Jimmy Buffett bolstered my courage to trust my intuition and, ultimately, venture into the unknown world of screenplays and novels. That’s the part I thought was lost when I read that he was dead., those seminal moments of who I was and where I had been. Gone. That’s what I thought as I grieved. Upon further reflection, I realized I was wrong.

One’s personal history is not erased with the departure of a writer who helped shape that history, whose work brought joy or comfort or insight or distraction by whatever measure. As long as a good writer’s words lives on, so too does our relationship to them and their words. In that regard, I’ll continue to sing along with Jimmy Buffett. His songs will bring back memories, and I know I’ll smile.

There’s a cowboy in the jungle

And he looks so out of place

With his shrimp-skin boots and his cheap cheroots

And his skin as white as paste

Headin’ south to Paraguay

Where the Gauchos sing and shout

Now he’s stuck in Porto Bello

Since his money all ran out

So he hangs out with the sailors

Night and day, they’re raisin’ hell

And his original destination’s just another

Story that he loves to tell

With no plans for the future

He still seems in control

From a bronco ride to a ten-foot tide

He just had to learn to roll

Roll with the punches

Play all of his hunches

Make the best of whatever came his way

What he lacked in ambition

He made up with intuition

Plowing straight ahead come what may

Steel band in the distance

And their music floats across the bay

While American women in moomoos

Talk about all the things they did today

And their husbands quack about fishing

As they slug those rum drinks down

Discussing who caught what and who sat on his butt

But it’s the only show in town

They’re trying to drink all the punches

They all may lose their lunches

Tryin’ to cram lost years into five or six days

Seems that blind ambition erased their intuition

Plowin’ straight ahead come what may

I don’t want to live on that kind of island

No, I don’t want to swim in a roped off sea

Too much for me, too much for me

I’ve got to be where the wind and the water are free

Alone on a midnight passage

I can count the falling stars

While the Southern Cross and the satellites

They remind me of where we are

Spinning around in circles

Living it day to day

And still 24 hours may be 60 good years

It’s really not that long a stay

We’ve gotta roll with the punches

Learn to play all of our hunches

Make the best of whatever comes your way

Forget that blind ambition

And learn to trust your intuition

Plowin’ straight ahead come what may

And there’s a cowboy in the jungle

Share this post