Sun, Sand, Bars, and Acoustic Guitars

My (Unexpectedly Continuing) Life as a Tropical Troubadour….

I had been living in Norway for 20 years, writing, recording, and performing music. Playing live gigs in Norway is especially challenging. There are months of little sunlight, black ice-encrusted goat trails that pass for roads that wind agonizingly through steep-walled fjords, high, foreboding mountains, and incomprehensibly snow-covered backcountry.

There were many occasions when I’d drive 6-9 hours on such roads to a gig, set up, and start playing immediately after having just arrived. The glamour of the troubadour’s life exists mostly in the minds of those who don’t live it.

Like so many other guitar-wielding organically-oriented analog-based music artists suddenly marginalized by technologically-driven and laptop-rendered hip-hop and the rise of American Idol-derived music tastes, I found myself struggling to maintain a full booking schedule. Even though I had appeared on many successful recordings, had songs chart, featured in and starred in films and documentaries, played some of the biggest festivals, clubs, and most prestigious parties in the country – I was going, along with CDs, songs with melodies, and album song sequences, the way of the dinosaurs.

In 2008/9 I recorded and released an album with a band I branded The Topangas. In 2010/11 I began receiving email requests for my songs from radio stations with colorful tropical beach-evoking names like Tropical Walls Radio, and Boat Drinks Radio, and Beachfront Radio. The Program Directors of these stations had heard my songs at various Americana and alt-country radio stations and felt that my sound would be a fresh new addition to their somewhat passé and increasingly-cliché-ridden format.

As a Native Hawaiian, I had long since tired of the cold social and meteorological climates of Norway: I was longing for the tropics of my long lost Hawaiian homeland origin. So these invitations from Tropical Rock radio stations suited my vision of what I imagined my life could be—considering I couldn’t afford to move to and live in Hawaii which would have been my first choice—if I had such a choice.

Tropical Rock is a form of acoustic guitar-based music that blends country, folk, and appropriations of Caribbean, Latin, Hawaiian, and Polynesian cultures, elements, instruments, and influences. The specific form we’re talking about here was first pioneered and created by Jimmy Buffett and is best understood through listening to his quintessentially definitive hit song “Margaritaville” – upon which he built his whole empire.

As one who was suddenly feeling outdated, antiquated, anachronistic, and just plain old and past it, I had pictured myself living out my last years slowly strumming songs about life, travel, loss, mountains, deserts, and beaches in a succession of blurred watercolor oblivion of tiki bars slowly melting into a coral-hued sunset just over the horizon to meet eternity. I felt my race was run, my time had passed, and I would just live out whatever remaining years I might have dissolving slowly back into the vibrant yet laid back tropical surroundings of my origins.

The Eagles song “It’s Your World Now” perfectly captured the way I felt and thought at this point in the game:

A perfect day the sun is sinkin' low 
As evening falls the gentle breezes blow
The time we shared went by so fast
Just like a dream we knew it couldn't last
But I'd do it all again If I could, somehow
But I must be leavin' soon It's your world now
It's your world now My race is run
I'm moving on Like the setting sun
No sad goodbyes No tears allowed
You'll be alright It's your world now

I strongly felt that if I were to leave the world of music and songwriting, I would be leaving it in far more capable and skilled hands. I wondered why anyone would still be interested in my music or songs. But with what I considered the improbable support of the trop-rock radio stations and attendant Parrot Head Club community, I began booking a series of tours to Key West: the bastion refuge of all crash landed, burnt out singer-songwriters and footloose wastrels alike. Key West: where weird goes professional…

I quickly assembled a rhythm section I tagged the Tiki Town Castaways and booked as many dates as I possibly could in clubs around Key West and up the west coast of Florida. Coincidentally, my good friend Ned Daniels – whom I had met another lifetime ago back in the sweltering, mythological desert wonderland of Arizona – had moved to the strategically located Punta Gorda, and offered his place as a staging camp for us to launch our planned campaign of tropical tunes on an unsuspecting Floridian public. That worked out ideally as Punta Gorda, in addition to having many waterfront tiki bars and clubs of its own, was also very conveniently and centrally located near all kinds of trop rock and tiki bar venues and establishments out in Matlacha, Pine Island, Boca Grande, Fort Myers, and Tampa.

I had also begun corresponding with the Key West’s preeminent blogger and proselytizer; Key West Chris Rehm many months prior to planning my tour. Key West Chris had helped me organize some local Key West musicians for my debut at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon. Among them was the legendary drummer Richard Crooks who had played on Bob Dylan’s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks album. So that was a real honor: his drumming and sense of groove were amazing.

Another notable development came in the form of producer Ian Shaw, recently relocated to Key West from London offering to record our live performance at Smokin’ Tuna. Shaw had produced many artists but most notably he produced Nick Heyward’s (of Haircut 100) albums. For me, this was intriguing because I had always related to the tropical-orientation and vibe of Heyward’s work both with Haircut 100 and his own solo efforts.  

With the help of Smokin’ Tuna’s owner Charlie Bauer and Key West Chris, I set about booking a tour of Key West clubs as well as the other venues along the west coast of mainland Florida. Charlie was gracious enough to offer us a week’s lodging in the upstairs apartments at his club for our first tour of Key West. This would turn out to be a pattern as we would play many other tours of Key West and other towns throughout Florida launching from the mythical apartments of Smokin’ Tuna Saloon.

Smokin’ Tuna provided an ideal base from which to gauge the attitude, pace, tempo, and zeitgeist of the small tropical island town. From our lofty third-floor apartment landing we enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of crowds as they watched the various artists who played the legendarily-filmed stage. We were also right on Duval Street where all the action happens.

Our first trip over was in the sweaty, slow off-season crawl and swelter of July. The crowds were sweaty, thin and minimal – composed mostly of locals – but the atmosphere was spirited and lively.

We played a majority of the fun colorful clubs and tiki bars of the Keys and mainland from Hurricane Charley’s and TT’s Tiki Bar in Punta Gorda to the Smokehouse and Whiskey Joe’s in Tampa all the way to the infamously celebrated Flora-Bama on Orange Beach and St. Jimmy’s Landshark Landing at the Margaritaville Hotel on Pensacola Beach.

As each week of gigs and performances passed, I got increasing numbers of new bookings for not only other clubs but for other events and festivals as well. Key West Chris also hosted a Songwriter’s Invitational in which I participated. He always held and hosted his invitational within the most significant gathering of Parrot Heads, the Meeting of the Minds Trop Rock festival which runs for 4-days every November.

MOTM as it is known, was a lot of fun not least because all the other trop rockers were there and we’d have great, fun impromptu jams while hanging out ‘round various pools, beaches, boats, and watering holes in the warm, tropical friendly environs of the story-rich enchanted village. There was a vivid spirit of camaraderie, connectedness, and shared experiences among the trop rockers and the audiences alike and each year the gathering took on all the more enjoyable aspects of a giant family reunion.

Sometimes I would camp at Chris’s or guitarist Bo Fodor’s place. In addition to fronting his band, Bo was a prominent DJ at the local radio station 104.9 FM which featured some of my songs quite regularly on its airwaves. Once, in a very sonic expression of the serendipity of the trop rock universe, as we rode into town, just after crossing the bridge that leads onto the island we heard my song “Guess I’ve Gone and Done It Again” blasting on our van’s stereo courtesy of the local station. It was a fun and inspirational moment which we took to be a sign of things to come.

One afternoon Chris introduced me to Cindy and Rick a local couple who lived out on Cudjoe Key about 20 miles north of Key West. One day, Cindy and Rick took us all out on their boat to a stunningly beautiful key that rose up from low tide revealing huge strands of pearly-white sandy beaches on either side of a turquoise tidal river that flowed between them. All kinds of brightly hued fish and eagle rays were clearly visible in the gin-clear water. We swam and grilled chicken, burgers, and hot dogs all afternoon. High tide came back in and we headed back for their camp at Cudjoe Key mostly in the dark. Luckily Rick knew his way and navigated the shallows with relative ease and absolute skill. Thunderheads flashed in the distance across the black horizons briefly illuminating the usually turquoise warm waters with ethereally striking shock-white flickering shimmers……..