Songs You Know by Heart: An Epitaph for Innocence

The plaintive echo of steel drums is reinforced by the Coral Reefers’ horn section. That particular melancholy of timpanis we’ve come to know as “tropical,” the soundtrack of so many sunburnt days and adulterous nights, is cancelled out by the audacity of the brass. The intro to ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ is so well-executed, it almost makes me want to amend my herbivorous habits. It’s as if Jimmy lives entirely on this thin line between irony and simplicity, a line much thinner than Seven Mile Bridge appears on a map as it reaches out to the Keys. Perhaps that is why he is regarded as a great songwriter rather than a Hawaiian-clad bozo. Because those who are wont to give credit to the ironical can give credit where it’s maybe due.

But I am not here to talk about Jimmy Buffett’s intentionality. Instead, I am struck by the way I finished a very long, very hot bike ride yesterday and wanted nothing more than to hear his drunken pirate’s anthems, to lament a nautical past I never quite had. Songs You Know by Heart is a greatest hits album released a full thirty years ago, and it ranks among the greatest greatest hits albums of all time. It is a veritable hit parade, a string of songs that serve as a gateway drug for every modern Parrothead.

This longing came from somewhere primal. It has been roughly three years since I last heard the CD in its entirety, spilling from the waterproof speakers of a boat on Possum Kingdom Lake. It was just like Jimmy intended. Splishin’, splashin’, sweatin’ out our worries, fidelity be damned. These were the most deliriously happy days of my life, where nary a rope hopelessly wrapped around a prop or a million sticker burrs lodged in my feet could wipe the sheen off of life. At The Lake I was happy and free to believe that the world worked as I thought it did.

I discovered my spirit animals (first the Great Blue Heron, then the Nine-banded Armadillo) and caught every freshwater fish species in Texas. I lived in a bathing suit for two, three, four days at a time. I forgot every ounce of resentment I had for my ill-fitting and homogenous upbringing and even embraced people who would be found cloying in their master-planned native settings. I could sit in a very weathered wooden Adirondack chair and play guitar until it was almost dark, then ride a wakeboard until it was more than dark. On The Lake, life made sense.

Jimmy is singing ‘Come Monday’ as I drop frozen bananas into a blender, but I’m not making daiquiris. Instead, I resolutely prepare a recovery smoothie and find, for the first time ever, exactly what it is that hurts so badly when I think about The Lake. It is no secret that my stomach hurts when I describe the patriotic bunk room and the formative years I spent driving to far-flung antique malls in the way back of my mother’s old Mercedes station wagon that smelled like leather and seaweed. I can picture every piece of furniture, each tchotchke in its rightful place, the way things always seem frozen and free of time at lake houses.

What hurts more than the way all of those memories and decorative plates were heartlessly boxed and sold to the highest bidder in a down market is the way that past can never be revisited. Relegated to the mind’s eye, a tour of The Lake becomes an endless series of “What if?”s. How can I know if that amount of happiness will ever be possible again if I can’t go find out for myself? Are these people my new best friends? Will they sneak out to the lake for the afternoon with me, only to be terrified by the sight of a flood-ravaged house with furniture askew and follow me room-by-room as I clear it of fearsome Palo Pinto County squatters by entering every doorway with a pistol drawn like I always saw on cop TV shows? How many hours can we sit in silence on that back porch, the closest place to Heaven on God’s Great Earth?
The world will never know.

Jimmy’s brazen claim is not unfounded. I know all of these songs by heart, though they sound different now. On the surround sound of my too-expensive house’s stereo, the poignant steel drums are louder than I remembered. The prospect of high rent in Texas did not exist when I rode the inner tube and gained a bloody nose and lost my swimming trunks. The minor chords ring a little longer, and the dark undertones are illuminated a little bit more. Perhaps some things are best hidden in the bright July sunlight of our minds.

There is no one here to listen to me now, and if there was they would not care. Even now, I feel nauseous and have prickles running through my nerves. I mourn the place whose phone number I can still remember, whose rhythmic cattle guards en the route used to trigger more elation than any other frequency in the world. There was a time when you could find joy by riding a banana boat with friends and strangers alike and a nose full of water was the worst thing that could happen to you. There is a place where this is still true, but I cannot go there anymore.

They say you can never go home, but this is a complicated claim. It is less nuanced when that home belongs to somebody else, somebody you’ve never even met, somebody who has permanently altered the built and natural landscape of the place you once knew. I will probably never be able to afford a lake house, but even with all the money in the world, I won’t be able to buy the only one worth owning. Innocence is as priceless as a floorplan that you can navigate in the pitch-dark after sneaking out and stargazing all night, and no career I choose will ever be able to buy either back.

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late. Though skulls and crossbones have never been my thing, something about that line feels more right and true than anything I’ve ever heard.