Chapter 10 -- Around the Rock, Back in Time
It was supposed to be like this: As the fingers of Hoagy Carmichael fill the smokey bar with a rollicking piano tune, ceiling fans stir the air and his music together. The infectious sound shoulders its way through the crowd of seedy characters, then heads off across the water to some other island's shore. Alone at the bar sits a tanned rogue with unruly sun-bleached hair and a bushy mustache. He wears a sweat-stained Bogart suit that's as dated as his dream. He's the owner, Jimmy Buffett.
"That was my perception of what Au Tour was gonna be," recalls Jimmy on his his first visit in seven years to Au Tour de Rocher, his ill-fated hotel/nightclub. "I walked in that night, opening night, prepared to take my 'Bogartesque' seat at the bar and just kind of be the host," he continues, "when it was announced to me that the cook had just quit - walked out the back door. And I went out there and cooked gumbo that night for 120 people. Whipped up something and . . ."
"It should have told me something," he admits. "It was an omen."
Jimmy soon discovered that he was less Rick Blaine, and more Norman Paperman.
"I was fully qualified to write the music for Don't Stop the Carnival, because this dream absolutely turned into a nightmare. In fact, I told Herman Wouk the whole story, and he looked at me kind of dumbfounded and said: 'Jesus, that's a whole story. You should write that story.'
Au Tour De Rocher means "around the rock". Jimmy's former dream was built decades ago on a 100 foot high bluff overlooking L'Orient Beach near St. Jean. The mysterious original architect obviously had a flair for the dramatic, because the small peninsular property boasts a panorama of azure Caribbean, verdant mountains and an overwhelming slice of coconut dream sky. Au Tour was not really a hotel in the modern sense. Literally built around the volcanic rocky hilltop, it only sported six simple rooms, a small open-air bar, and a restaurant with a dancefloor that could hold maybe 75 people.
One Lonely, Ramshackle Little House
The only part of Au Tour that is still plainly visible from below is the remains of one lonely, ramshackle little house that bravely fronts the sea above L'Orient. It's a wonder it hasn't yet blown away in a hurricane. The rest of the Au Tour, like its past, is only visible upon closer examination.
"I had a personal attachment to Au Tour,"says Jimmy, "because of a longstanding love of To Have and Have Not, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It was just one of those movie moments that is frozen in time for me as to what I perceive the Caribbean to be: A great French night club with music, a distant island in the background, and seedy characters coming in."
Armed with only that vision, Jimmy and a few friends decided to buy the tiny hotel in the mid 1970's. But this was not a hotel with 32 hangers and a touch-tone phone.
"It was, to put it in simple terms," he says, "a wild-ass night club."
"Au Tour never got started until way after midnight -- after Le Select closed. It would look kind of vacant -- almost like it does now. Then, at about 12:30, it was just like... an attack. Mini Mokes and Girgles would come roaring up the hill and just park anywhere. That hill would be packed with cars, the music would be blasting, the champagne was flowing, and it rocked all night long for the almost ten years that we had it."
While the nonstop carnival raged and stars like John Denver, Mick Jagger, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, and others occasionally brightened the bar, Jimmy found that actually running a hotel and nightclub was a hell of a lot of work. Keeping the place supplied, making sure the bathrooms weren't overflowing with sewage or junkies, keeping track of the books and the employees, and finally dealing with legal issues led to incredible headaches for he and his partners.
"The biggest nightmare," Jimmy recalls, "was that the guy who sold it to us also sold it to another corporation. We didn't get clear title for another ten years. So we wound up in court. We were battling the authorities here, and the partners were trying to kill each other. It was pretty amazing."
He stops and shakes his head and chuckles. "You know, we even had a 24 hour jewelry shop in here that was run by Charlotte. We called her Charlotte the Shark. She wouldn't start selling jewelry til after midnight. Everybody would get hopped up and buy a bunch of it. But we never saw a penny."
Au Tour also went through its share of managers. "All let's just say, verycolorful people. They all got rich, and we still never made a dime. But boy, did we have fun. Nobody ever had as much fun as we did on some nights up here. The memories of this place fill a lot of pages in my books and a lot of lines in my songs."
It's difficult -- but not impossible -- to picture Au Tour on a lively, moonlit night: the dancefloor crowded with sweaty bodies as booze and other contraband flowed freely. Beautiful people and pirates everywhere laughing, telling tales and lies, and chasing romance. And a steady, heady Caribbean rhythm pulsing through the whole place. If you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes.
The old bar, its roof now sporting only charred crossmembers, still stirs fond memories for the former owner. "I was sitting here with Joni Mitchell one night and we asked her to sing Carrie to my friend Groovy, because that was his favorite song. It was very late at night, and she didn't have a guitar. I said, 'You gotta sing this for Groovy, he came all the way across the ocean by himself.' So she did it a capella. I just did time on the bar, and Joni sat there and sang to Groovy, who was just...weeping openly as he listened."
The black and white-tiled dancefloor is still sheltered by a tin roof supported by wildly painted columns. Jimmy points out where the attached rooms were. "There were times that people would actually come in here and rent these rooms. Some knew what they were getting into and what it really was. It was Babylon. Other people didn't know. They just thought it was just a cheap hotel. They found out quickly that it wasn't."
As Jimmy walks through the ruins, the images reappear. He gestures down the stairs to a huge hole in a deck, once the site of the hot tub. "It was about the second or third year that we put the hot tub in. This was the spot." Then he points down a little incline and smiles. "There used to be an old cannon right there."
But in the end, it wasn't anything like a cannonball that brought down Au Tour. It was simple bad wiring in the kitchen that started a fire. The fire raced through the restaurant, and bar, and that was that. Enough damage was done to close the place.
A wistful look appeared in Jimmy's eye as he regarded his ruins. "I got the call that somebody had burned us down," he says, "or that God had struck. But ironically enough, it was just a short circuit. An electrical fire in the kitchen had burned down Au Tour de Rocher."
Despite all the hassles, nightmares and legal battles, Jimmy and crew managed to get permission to have one more party here: a New Years Eve bash. "All the people who loved to come up here got together and out of the ashes of this place rose one more party night that was one of the most memorable New Year's I ever had. People brought coolers and carpenters from around the island got it in enough shape, we brought a generator up and we had music. It was a helluva party. I left about 2 o'clock in the morning kind of melancholoy. I had very ambivalent feelings about the island at that time. I got up the next day and it was still going at 10 o'clock in the morning, and it went the whole next day. That party lasted about two days and then that was it. A while later we sold it."
We walked to the edge of the rock and looked down at L'Orient, where a nice swell ran through the translucent water. "L'Orient is still one of my favorite places just to come reflect," he says. "All those days I looked out at that surf. Surfing's a part of my life now and in those days it wasn't. We were into more interesting things at the time. It's amazing now when I look out here and I think, 'Jeez, in 10 years I never went in that water.' At least I get to do that now. I can always catch a wave and look back at the Mayan ruins of Au Tour de Rocher. Maybe it will stay this way, maybe it won't, but it certainly will be a lasting memory."
He took a long breath and laughed. "We've made our mark here."
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