January 2, 2015

Buffett, Blackwell, and Bono: Bullet the Blue Sky

“I honestly thought we were all going to die,” Bono, lead singer of the Irish band of conscience, U2, told friends one January night. A few weeks earlier, he had been in Sarajevo, staying at the former Yugoslavian Olympic city’s war-torn Holiday Inn. He and his wife celebrated the New Year of 1996 checking out the underground rock scene in that town’s crumbling clubs. The siege on Sarajevo had claimed approximately 10,000 lives during the recent Bosnian conflict. But Bono’s comment to his friends wasn’t directed towards this symbolic, peaceful visit to a country climbing out of the rubble of its self-destruction. It was instead an allusion to what befell him and his family when they touched down in the tiny island nation of Jamaica shortly afterward.

On that particular sunny afternoon of January 16, 1996, Bono was riding in a plane owned and operated by one Jimmy Buffett. The laid-back, reefer-rapscallion, whose cottage industry of tropical ditties had beckoned legions of middle managers to don Parrot Head caps and drink massive amounts of fruity concoctions, was in the cockpit of his big sea plane steering a course to the west end of the island. Jimmy had been flying for over a decade, having learned on a single-engine Lake Renegade craft he’d dubbed “Lady of The Waters.” He’d once written a song, “Jimmy Dreams,” in response to an incident with one of his planes. He sang, “It’s the sound of the low tide/The smell of the rain/Travelin’ alone/On my boat and my plane/Take it all in, it’s as big as it seems/Count all your blessings/Remember your dreams.” The blessings the song alluded to were in answer to the fact that Mr. Buffett had once crashed one of his planes.

Two years earlier, on August 25, 1994, Jimmy was fishing with a friend in Madaket Harbor off Nantucket, Massachusetts. Having finished with the day’s catch, Jimmy fired up his nearby Grumman twin-engine airplane, ready to head home. Authorities later speculated that one of the craft’s pontoon runners had a crack in it. Water had seeped into the compartment, causing an uneven distribution of weight. Seconds after take-off, Buffett’s plane dropped 30 feet back into the ocean. Shaken and bruised, he managed to swim to a nearby passing boat that, in turn, took him to the mainland for medical attention. A St. Christopher’s medal had been in the cockpit, and later, Buffett went back to retrieve it. “Somebody was looking after me – either St. Christopher or God,” he said. Chances are good that St. Christopher medal was with Jimmy on the afternoon of January 16, 1996.

Both he and Bono had been guests of Chris Blackwell that week. Blackwell was inarguably Jamaica’s most renowned entrepreneur. Born into a wealthy landowner’s family, he had immersed himself in the island’s music scene early in the 1970s. He soon set up a record label named Island and signed a local musician and his band. Bob Marley and the Wailers went on to be Island Records flagship group. Soon other reggae acts jumped aboard, and Blackwell helped fund the landmark Jamaican film, “The Harder They Come.” Over the next two decades, Island Records’ roster grew to include musicians like Melissa Etheridge, Steve Winwood, Robert Palmer, Marianne Faithfull, Grace Jones, and U2. On August 21, 1982, when Bono married his high school sweetheart, Alison Stewart, in Ireland, the newlyweds honeymooned at Blackwell’s huge estate in Jamaica. It was while luxuriating at this sprawling compound that Bono scribbled down an idea for a new song, “Two Hearts Beat As One.”

Blackwell’s estate is located on the west end of the island. In the 1950s, James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, purchased the place from Blackwell’s mother and christened it “Goldeneye.” Many of the Bond books were written on this fabled property. After Ian passed away, Chris bought back Goldeneye from the Fleming estate. It was this destination that Jimmy Buffett and Bono were headed to that warm day in 1996.

Buffett had been an island hopper most of his adult life and had come to know Blackwell early on in his career. While Jimmy released his twenty-plus albums through MCA Records, Blackwell apparently wouldn’t have minded the prolific banana-balladeer to join the Island Records ranks. During the week, both Buffett and Bono had been guests at Blackwell’s Goldeneye estate and the Pink Sands Resort he owned on Harbour Island. On this day, the group of celebrity tourists had a hankering for cooking some chicken on a beach near Goldeneye. But while Buffett skirted over the treetops, someone was allegedly tipping off the Jamaican police department that a drug operation was about to take place in Negril, the bay area community on the west end of the island. The same bay where Blackwell’s home was located.

The plane touched down in the calm waters and came to a stop. Island Record’s vice president John Vlautin told People Online later, “There’s a strict protocol to landing around there which they followed.” A boat sped out to meet the airplane. Buffett, Blackwell, Bono, his wife Allison, his 6-year old son Jordan, his three-year old daughter Eve, and U2’s bassist Adam Clayton, climbed on board the waiting launch. It was reported that a couple people took to swimming in the clear Caribbean water for a moment. Behind them, the two pilots started up the plane and began to slowly taxi away. That’s when all hell apparently broke loose.

The coastline near Negril contains only small beaches along the quaint limestone cliffs that plunge down into the sea. Manmade steps are carved in the granite rocks leading up to the various properties on that part of the island. Charming hotels dot the overlooks. A working white lighthouse is positioned near the peninsula. It was at that location where a group of policemen had responded to the anonymous tip. They were surveying the coastal area when Buffett’s plane landed.

At some point, as a group or individually, someone started shooting, without the common sense decency of asking any questions. Bono later told his friends, “It was absolutely terrifying. I was convinced we’d all be killed.” He reportedly dove to the deck of the boat with his family. “The kids are still very upset from their nightmare ordeal, but it was only by the grace of God we survived,” he reportedly later said.

The pilot, meanwhile, was not very enthused about being the target of a veritable turkey shoot. The windshield cracked, having been struck by a too-close-for-comfort bullet. He quickly got the plane into the air, circled up and back towards Kingston. The plane was met when it landed near the Kingston airport. Two other bullet holes were discovered in the fuselage of the craft. The pilot and his passenger were shaken but not injured. There were no drugs discovered inside the plane.

The same state of anxiety was apparent in the demeanor of those they’d left behind. Chris Blackwell issued a statement later that day: “This is a terrible incident. For my guests and children to be shot at is distressing and regrettable. It is fortunate that no one was injured.” The Jamaica Police Department apparently were baffled by the mix-up themselves. Assistant superintendent Jonathan Morrison told reporters that it was “not quite regular” for his policemen to simply open fire on a suspicious aircraft. “We’re not clear why it would have been necessary to shoot,” he told Reuters News Service. “We’re still gathering information.”

Jamaica’s police commissioner, Trevor MacMillan, seemed genuinely chagrined and apologetic of the mishap. The area near Negril had been a hot spot for criminal drug activity for many years, primarily the marijuana trade, and growers used many private airstrips around the west end of the island to smuggle their drug (ganja) on board small planes bound for the United States. “Aircraft come in here regularly on ganja missions,” MacMillan explained to reporters. “Thank God no one hurt. It was an incident we regret most sincerely.”

A subsequent investigation into the matter yielded no conclusive reasoning for the spray of gunfire. No criminal charges were filed against any Jamaican police officers. The always affable Buffett later told The Boston Globe, “Nobody was hurt, so I said, ‘Let’s just get on with it.’ Some people said, ‘God, you could have sued them, you could have sued the government.’ But I went, ‘No, it’s probably karma. We’re even now.” The shooting didn’t stop him from eating his chicken that afternoon either.

For Buffett, the earlier brush with death in his life seemed to make him not get so worked about little things like being fired upon. Life always had another opportunity for him. “I know that I got another shot,” he told interviewer Jaan Uhelszki in 1999, “because all I have to do if I get into hard times is to think about that (plane) crash – that I could have not been here. And I was lucky to have lived through that, and things don’t seem as intolerable or critical after that. All I have to do is flash back to that and go, ‘Wait, you could have not been here, so lighten up.’ I believe that guardian angel is up there.”

In any event, he related to the Boston Globe, “Like all things, it made for a good song.” He promptly went into the studio and recorded the satirical tune, “Jamaica Mistaica,” which was released in June of that year on his album, “Banana Wind.” Parodying the well-known tourist slogan “Come back to Jamaica,” his chorus embellished on the phrase: “Come back, Come back, back to Jamaica/Don’t chu know we made a big mistaica/We’d be so sad if you told us good-bye/And we promise not to shoot you out of the sky.” With its steel drum percussive backing and reggae delivery, the song is a wonderful, deflating remedy to the potentially destructive incident that occurred in their lives.

The event fortunately did nothing to taint everyone’s relationship with each other. Blackwell became interested in a project that Jimmy was concocting with Pulitzer-prize-winning author Herman Wouk. “Don’t Stop The Carnival” was a story Wouk wrote decades earlier, concerning one Norman Papperman, a harried executive who chucks away life in the big city to flee to the embracing charms of a tropical paradise. Buffett and Wouk fashioned the tale into a musical play, and with the backing of investors, Blackwell being one of them, debuted the work in Florida to commendable reviews. Around this time, Blackwell was able to lure Jimmy away from his record distribution deal with MCA in 1998. Island Records released the album “Don’t Stop The Carnival” in 1998 and Jimmy’s 1999 CD, “Beach House on the Moon.” Buffett has since started his own independent label, Mailboat Records, which released the live recording “Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays” in November of 1999.

Blackwell’s interests in the record business had diminished significantly since the late 1980s when he sold his company to Polygram to the tune of $280 million. He jumped into the accommodations business, creating the Island Outpost group, with hotels located in Miami’s South Beach, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. His relationship with the local authorities after the Jamaican incident didn’t seem to sour his continued thriving masterpiece resort on the west end of the island called The Caves. It’s an exclusive gated compound, with cottages spread over several acres, with a staff that attends to guests’ every needs.

As for Bono, he seems to have let bygones be bygones. When asked by 2CR-FM in November 2000 what his favorite holiday destination was in the world, he responded, “I love Jamaica. I love to go to Jamaica. I like the vibe, I like the fact that they all speak with Irish accents, you know, ‘Wahn, too, t’ree, you know what I’m sayin’?’ They all sound like Cork men, or like they’re from Kerry or something. I think there was a load of Irish priests there as missionaries years ago. In fact, in Kingston there is an Irish town – very strong link with the ol’ Irish and Jamaicans. But they can dance.”

Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest the irony found in Bono’s band name U2 and what could have been linked to the incident had he actually been on board the plane. On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, a pilot for the U.S. Air Force was flying a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, when he was suddenly shot down out of the sky. Not only was Bono’s band named after this type of craft, but the swaggering singer himself was born a mere 10 days after the history-making event.

As Buffett alluded, tragedy thankfully was not to be a part of their karma that day. “I know that there are times in my life where I probably should have been shot at for a lot worse behavior,” he wryly conceded to The Boston Globe. “But on this particular instance, I was innocent.”

“Jamaica Mistaica”
Lyrics by: Jimmy Buffett
Music by: Buffett, Kunkel, Guth, P. Mayer, J. Mayer

Some folks say that I’ve got the perfect life
Three swell kids, lots of toys and a lovely wife
I fly, I sail, I throw caution to the wind
Drift like a stratus cloud above the Caribbean

But every now and then, the dragons come to call
Just when you least expect it you’ll be dodgin’ cannonballs
I’ve seen too much not to stay in touch
With a world made of love and luck
I’ve got a big suspicion ‘bout ammunition
I never forget to duck

Come back, come back, back to Jamaica
Don’t chu know we made a big mistaica
We’d be so sad if you told us goodbye
And we promise not to shoot you out of the sky

It was a beautiful day, the kind you want to toast
We were tree top flyin’, movin’ West along the coast
Then we landed in the water, just about my favorite thrill
When some a**hole started firing as we taxied to Negril

Just about to lose my temper as I endeavored to explain
We had only come for chicken, we were not a ganja plane
Well you should have seen their faces when they finally realized
We were not some coked-up cowboys sporting guns and alibis

Repeat Chorus

They shot from the lighthouse
They shot from highway
They shot from the top of the cliff
They had all gone haywire
We’re catchin’ fire
And there wasn’t even a spliff

Well the word got out all over the island
Friends, strangers, they were all apologizin’
Some thought me crazy for being way too nice
But it’s just another s***ty day in paradise

Come back, come back, back to Jamaica
Don’t chu know we made a big mistaica
We’d be so sad if you told us goodbye
And we promise not to shoot you
Promise not to shoot you
Promise not to shoot you
Out of the sky

© 2001 Ned Truslow

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