Jimmy Buffett and Jim Harrison Had a Helluva Good Time in the '70s

Credit: Jean-Philippe Piter

On Sunday Jim Harrison, the brash, uncompromising author of more than 30 books passed away while writing at his cabin in Patagonia, Arizona. Lifelong friend Jimmy Buffett, who first met Harrison in the 1970s, remembers the good times. 

On Hearing of His Death

The first thing that I did when I learned that he died, I went out and jumped on my paddleboard and paddled out to jump in the water — just started swimming around. I had to go jump in the water to try to make sense of it all. When something like that happens, you just start thinking about so much, because we did so much together, you know. You’re just hoping that you can remember the best things about somebody that good.

On the Making of the Documentary Tarpon

There are so many funny things we did that people never knew about. One time, we worked on this Tarpon movie together, a fishing documentary from the ‘70s. Basically, we had no fucking idea what we were doing at the time, starting with the script. [Director] Guy de la Valdene had all the money and sent a crew that was all French. I speak French now, but I didn’t at the time, so there was a huge communication issue. So we’re in the Keys and taking out boats with [poet] Richard Brautigan and [novelist] Tom McGuane. It really captured the Key West of the ‘70s. It’s sort of a treasure today.

But we didn’t really get paid for it. I wrote the music and Harrison was going to do the narration. And so, they said they’d give us a ticket and we could live at Guy’s family’s castle on the outskirts of Paris, and we’d work in town. So I told Guy, I said, “Don’t call me before you’re down to, like, six hours of footage, because I really can’t do anything until it’s down to that." When we arrive, the house looks like a castle or something out of a movie, with a boat and everything. Jim had to go in earlier than us to work on narration, and came back out to the castle in the afternoon and he went, “Jesus Christ, you’re not going to believe this.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Well they got it wrong, they don’t speak fucking English. They thought you said 60 hours!” And I went, “What?!” He said, “Yeah, they said, ‘Jimmy said call us when we’re down to 60 hours.’ ” And I went, “Holy shit.”

So we had nothing to do. Fortunately, we scored a bag of pot from somebody coming from Spain and had the key to the wine cellar. So we lived like gypsies in the palace for about three weeks before they madly got this thing down to where we could go in and work.

We worked in the studio in the middle of Paris, there were just cubicles and everybody was working on different projects. There was this girl cutting another film and she’d come over, and she was loving the beauty of what we were shooting. And then I look at her stuff and I said, “Jim, man, it’s like a porno film or something!” He said “What?!” and then he went back and started charming the girl, and it turns out it was the first Emmanuelle. So we were cutting a fish movie in one booth, and they were cutting Emmanuelle in the next booth. She would let us come back in and watch the movie. We said, “Boy, this is going to be a lot better than our fish movie.”

On His (Small) Contribution to Legends of the Fall 

One time Jim and I drove his Ford Cortina from Montana to Michigan together. Just the two of us. We seemed to have all these road trips that we did together that were kind of, kind of hilarious. I loved to hear Jim’s view of the world. I don’t know how much he cared about mine. On another trip in Florida, we talked about Cuba a lot. I told him about my grandfather, who was a ship captain who took his family on board in those days, back in the early 1920s. My father spent his first birthday in Havana Harbor, and there’s a family story that my grandfather put up a signal flag to celebrate my dad’s first birthday, and all of the other ships in the harbor started signaling back. So all the sailing ships in Havana Harbor had their flags up for my dad’s first birthday. And he loved that story. Well, the next thing I knew, he told me to look at Legends of The Fall when it came out. The opening of one chapter it says Tristan took a ship to somewhere, and there's this passage about it. And he told me later, he said “Yeah, I did that for your grandpa and your dad.” He put it in the book.

On His Health

I was going out to see him one time and he gave me directions to his house. He says, “Well, you’ll know it’s mine because it’s a dirt road and there will be a water truck out there, and it will be wet. I just had the road watered in front of my house, and you can’t miss that.” So I drive out there, and sure enough I’m driving down this long dusty road, and I come up to this place and the road is damp. And there he is, out in the yard. He’s standing there of course with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other hand, and he says, “You know, I cut back. I just start with a little wine at lunch now.” And when I get out of the car to say hi, he says “Yeah, you know that dust is bad for you. That dust. I had to wet the yard so it settles. It’s bad for my emphysema.”

On Harrison's Work Ethic

What I loved about him the most was the fact that he was productive. Even in his later years, in his unhealthy period, which had been going on a long time now, he was still working. And I remember when I first went up there and stayed with him in Michigan. You know, I’d be up there in the summertime when it was hot as hell, and he always worked. He worked in his barn there, and he was pretty prolific. And I think you know, there’s a lot of things you wouldn’t advise other people to do. But when you scrape away the booze and the drugs and the chicks in Hollywood, there’s a huge, huge amount of great work.

On His Passing

Well, in his older days, we were all terrified that he would drink himself to death. He wasn’t as terrified as we were. He lived a lot longer than any of us thought he would, and I think he was living on his own speed. He had made his peace with death. I just thought it was really amazing when Tom [McGuane] told me, he said he was at his desk writing and he wrote on the page, scribbled on the page, and that was it.

–As told to Ryan Krogh