Mental Health, and Jimmy Buffett
The healing power of creativity
This post is about two things. They may not seem related, but they are. And they’re in the same Substack, so they’re at least related that way, okay? Stop giving me grief.
It’s longish, too, and important — so go make a coffee and come back. COME BACK.
The first thing is to mark the passing of Jimmy Buffett. English readers may have little idea of who I’m talking about, as he didn’t make a mark there even with early chart hit Margaritaville, but after Buffett died tributes came in here last week from everybody from Paul McCartney to Joe freakin’ Biden.
While he became the affable troubadour of beach bars and island life and sailing and generally hanging out and having a good time, Buffett started out as a notably decent 1970s-style singer/writer of wry and often touching songs, each a short story in itself, before swerving into a more commercial vein as the cheerful Ambassador of Good Times. He went out and lived his best life for the next forty years, amassing millions of adoring fans, along with — he was a canny businessman on the side, developing everything from blenders to a restaurant empire, resorts and even entire housing communities — a fortune said to be in excess of $1B. Yes, billion.
Not bad for a guy whose entire vibe suggested he’d only wandered away from the bar to go score some weed, and would be back asap, so keep the brews coming.
I learned of him because my parents happened to pick up a copy of the seminal 1973 album A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean when we lived in Florida when I was a kid. They both (mom especially) loved the record so it got a lot of airtime when my sister and I were growing up, and songs like Death of an Unpopular Poet (my personal favorite) and He Went To Paris became a part of our childhoods and beyond (both are admittedly sentimental but very affecting song-stories that Bob Dylan, of all people, cited when asserting that Buffett was an under-rated songwriter).
After Paula and I met she came to enjoy Buffett too, and we even chose the following song for the first dance at our wedding in London, which looking back was a bold move — but hey, we were young and stupid and we had a good time whirling around the floor as everybody in the room (except my family, who smiled and nodded along) frowned and muttered “Did he really just sing that?” to each other.
Nobody (least of all Buffet himself, who laughed out loud when the President of the University of Miami cited his “enduring impact upon American culture” during her introduction to his commencement speech for an honorary doctorate in music in 2015) would claim his oeuvre was highbrow. Songs like My Gummy Just Kicked In, Too Drunk To Karaoke, the classic Cheeseburger in Paradise (which is genuinely about cheeseburgers, and how fucking great they are) along with It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere are the work of a man who was serious about what he did, but never took himself too seriously — a combination which may be the secret to a happy life.
His message was: “You know what, sometimes life’s not so bad after all and either way it’s the only one we’ve got — so let’s have a beer and celebrate the good times while they’re here”. That’s a rare and important reminder. And it’s not all about escapism, either: Buffett was an ardent environmentalist and player of benefit gigs and could suddenly and confidently change gear out of the good-time vibe to write a song like Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The words of his songs may be simple, but sometimes simplicity — or even the apparently simplistic, which he wasn’t afraid of — is the only thing that’ll cut through the endless, swirling knots of life. Listen to Delaney Talks to Statues (written for his daughter) and tell me that’s not the song you wish your dad had written about you.
Five O’Clock Somewhere, which he recorded but for once didn’t write, turned out to be one of the last songs he ever performed live, when (already dying) he rocked up at friend and longtime bandmate Mac McAnally’s tiny side gig in July this year. Apparently Jimmy left a note on the kitchen counter at home simply saying “Gone out” and flew his own plane to Rhode Island to make a surprise appearance at an afternoon gig in front of a few dozen adults and kids.
This is a guy who when flying Bono (again, of all people) and his family into Jamaica a couple decades ago found himself under heavy fire from the authorities — who assumed he was a smuggler, though Buffett explained they’d “only come for some chicken”. Bono was so unnerved by the experience that he and family bailed to Miami, where the cops are slightly less likely to shoot at passing rock stars. Despite his beloved seaplane being punctured by multiple bullets Buffett apparently merely shrugged, allowed that he’d probably got away with stuff he should he been shot at for in the past, and went home and wrote a song about it called Jamaica Mistaica.
I’m very sad he’s gone — not least because his passing feels like another part of my mother and father’s world fading away — but Buffett always seemed to be having a total ball doing what he loved and literally nobody in the world appears to have a bad word to say about him, so really, that’s a life very well lived.
Godspeed, Jimmy. May it always be happy hour, and the wind forever at your back.
Creativity and its role in promoting mental health are at the heart of the second part of this post too, as I’d like to introduce you to a charity called PoetsIN — for which I've recently become an ambassador.
PoetsIN (full name “The Creative Mental Health Charity PoetsIN”) has been running for seven years, using both industry-known tools (such as a “Worry Diary”) and the power and healing properties of creative writing to help people struggling with mental illness. The program started work in prisons but has expanded to schools, colleges, office, psychologists, third sector, private sector, public sector — producing excellent and demonstrable results with people of all ages managing addictions, coming off meds, psychosis, stress, depression and suicidal ideations.
It’s been so effective that the NHS (Britain’s National Health Service) socially prescribes PoetsIn. The organization triages people within 48 working hours and gets them on some form of support within a maximum of 2 weeks (an astonishing feat given the usual waiting lists for mental health support): providing a modular mental health program, a wellbeing workshop, an online community including a buddy service, online chat, and freely-downloadable tools.
In the founders’ words: “It’s easy-access, fun, suitable for all levels of creativity and even literacy, and nobody HAS to write a single poem. We love it when they do, but they don’t have to.” Words can be both a path, and a doorway out.
How can you help? Well, it’s a charity, so there’s that — either a donation to the organization itself or (if you’re quick) sponsoring one of the founders who’s doing a 79-mile walk this week (Sept 11th - 15th). Promoting their tweets, or Insta, or supporting their Facebook group. Also by spreading the word to anybody who might be interested in supporting, or — in the UK — could have need of their program.
We treasure people like Jimmy Buffet because they remind us life can be good, and it can be fun, which is easy for any of us to forget in the midst of reality’s slings and arrows: but for a lot of people the day-to-day reality is very different. Sometimes it’s not possible to breath in, breathe out, and move on — at least without help. Many of us who work creatively know how critical that process — engaging with words or music or art, finding a song you can sing even if it’s only for yourself — is to how we feel.
PoetsIN exists to leverage those benefits for the people who need them most.