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Saturday, March 5, 2016

In Memory of Pat Conroy: The Prince of Tides/Jimmy Buffett, and more


Pat Conroy, the bestselling author of several novels and works of nonfiction, died yesterday at the age of 70 after a bout with pancreatic cancer. The New York Times reported that at the time of his death, Conroy was at work on a new novel and a memoir.

Conroy’s fiction was deeply autobiographical, drawing on his dysfunctional family and unhappy childhood growing up in coastal South Carolina to flesh out the characters and action in his novels. His 1986 novel The Prince of Tides is a good example, chronicling the travails of the Wingo family of Colleton County, South Carolina. Early in the story the narrator, Tom Wingo, travels to New York to meet Dr. Susan Lowenstein, a psychiatrist caring for Tom’s twin sister Savannah after her most recent suicide attempt. In Lowenstein’s waiting room, Tom scans the bookshelves and comes across a copy of Savannah’s second published collection of poetry, entitled The Prince of Tides. He is brought to tears by the dedication:

Man wonders but God decides
When to kill the Prince of Tides.

In the course of the novel, Tom and Lowenstein become romantically involved as they uncover the traumatic source of Savannah’s suicidal behavior and the secrets of the Wingos.

Conroy’s novel inspired a song called “The Prince of Tides” on Jimmy Buffett’s 1988 album Hot Water. Buffett’s dedication to the song says: “Pat Conroy, Doc Pomus and the people of Dafuskie Island have already said it all. I am thankful for such inspiration.” Dafuskie Island is located along the South Carolina coast and was home to a large population of Gullah—freed slaves and their descendants—who first arrived in the area at the end of the Civil War. As a young man, Conroy spent a year teaching at an impoverished schoolhouse on Dafuskie, an experience he turned into his 1972 book The Water is Wide.

Buffett’s song is largely a lament about the development and commercialization of Dafuskie Island. The recording opens and closes with Buffett reading passages directly from Conroy’s novel. The lyrics namecheck the Wingo family (African drums are silent and the Wingos are poets at last), and Buffett alludes to the dedication from Savannah’s poetry volume with the refrain: Now I realize who killed the Prince of Tides.

Near the end, the song segues into a version of "Save the Last Dance for Me," co-written by Doc Pomus, who along with Conroy is acknowledged in Buffet’s dedication. The last line of the song, before the concluding passage from The Prince of Tides, is: And beach music, beach music, beach music just plays on.

In 1996 Conroy told AOL’s The Book Report about the origin of the song:

He called me on the phone. He said "Hi, I'm Jimmy Buffett." I said "Hi, I'm Paul McCartney." He said: "May I write a song called Prince of Tides?" I said: "You do, and I will kiss your behind." He said: "How much will I have to pay you?" I said: "I will kiss your behind --- I told you." So he wrote the song.

Conroy also revealed that the song provided inspiration for his next novel. “At the end he sings ‘Beach music, beach music....’ And that gave me the title.” Conroy’s novel Beach Music was published in 1995.

In 1989 the Fayetteville Observer reported that Conroy loved Buffett’s song. "It gave me status with my children, for about eight hours," Conroy said.

A more cryptic allusion to Conroy can be found in “Pat Conroy Beach Music” by Preston Lovinggood, from his 2014 album Shadow Songs. Lovinggood described it to Ghettoblaster Magazine as “an instrumental spoken word interlude piece.” It consists of the sound of heavy rainfall (or waves on a beach?) with the actress Abbey Miller and Todd Fink, from the band The Faint, speaking indecipherably behind it. Lovinggood described the track to You Hear This as “sort of like waking up from a dream.” The connection to Pat Conroy and/or Beach Music is unclear, at least to us.

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