A Pirate Gets Licensed

Obtaining an unlimited gaming license in Nevada isn’t easy.  The Gaming Control Board does months and months of investigation into an applicant’s past.  No stone goes unturned.  Youthful mistakes can keep a potential owner from opening for business.  Instead of customers deciding who has the requisite morals to plug in the slot machines and roll out the green felt, government gumshoes and politically-appointed wise ones decide who is worthy.  Casino patrons must be protected.

Legend has it that Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was driving through the desert, envisioned an oasis, built the Flamingo, and created Las Vegas. That’s not the way it happened.

Casino gambling was legalized in 1931, and Siegel’s Flamingo flopped when it opened in December 1946, after successful premiers of other hotels. “In reality,” John L. Smith explains in his book Sharks in the Desert, “[Meyer] Lansky and several lesser-known racketeers, together with some plain old transplanted gamblers, played much greater roles than Siegel.”

One of those gamblers was Benny Binion, who left his Dallas bookmaking and racketeering empire and set out for Las Vegas in 1946 with his wife and children. Binion’s Horseshoe Club in downtown Las Vegas was a fixture from its opening in 1951 until his daughter, Becky, ran it into the ground in 2004.

The ability of gamblers and bookmakers to leave their clandestine operations behind in the east to re-open them unfettered in the bright sunshine of Las Vegas ended in 1955, when the Nevada Legislature founded the Nevada Gaming Control Board and the Nevada Gaming Commission.  Some long-time Nevadans observe that the Silver State has gone down hill ever since.

While Las Vegas was settled by gamblers and made men, Nevada’s newest licensee is a 65-year old singer/songwriter who turned 15 minutes of inspiration into a business empire.  Applicant James W. Buffett penned a little ditty back in 1977 called “Margaritaville,” that would spawn a happy-hour movement of the middle-aged.  The parrothead anthem has blossomed into an unmistakable brand for Buffett’s retail stores, restaurants, consumer products, and now, casinos.

It was all fun and games during Buffett’s 45-minute appearance before the gaming regulators, who did ask about a couple of colorful incidents such as the time a plane Buffett was piloting was mistaken by the Jamaican military for running drugs.

“They fired 115 times and only hit us twice,” Buffett said.

Perhaps the Jamaicans heard that High Times magazine had named Buffett the “smuggler’s favorite” recoding artist.

Buffett even admitted to William McKeen, author of the immensely enjoyable Mile Marker Zero:The Moveable Feast of Key West, “I guess everybody would like to be a smuggler.  It’s adventurous, romantic, swashbuckling.”

Buffett was once detained by authorities in France, accused of having the drug Ecstasy. It turned out to be medication for a heart palpitation.

“He laughed both stories off for the control board,” Howard Stutz reported for the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Buffett may have served as an alter boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, but he’s had plenty of wild times.  He started out wanting to be a serious southern writer in the mold of William Faulkner, but took up the guitar while in college at Auburn.  He moved to Nashville and ended up with a record contract as a country singer.  But he didn’t like country.

Flat broke, Buffett signed on to do a gig at a Miami nightclub.  He left the Mercedes he couldn’t afford to fill with gas with his wife and went to stay with Jerry Jeff Walker in Coconut Grove.   When his Miami debut was delayed, he fixed Walker’s Cadillac and they headed for Key West.

“This was Kerouac stuff, and I loved it,” Buffett tells McKeen. Buffett recalled his first trip to Key West as a “tropical Fellini movie.”

Key West would become Buffett’s home, with a new wardrobe from Goodwill and a bicycle to get around town on.  He slept on a friend’s couch, playing and singing for free drinks around town.

As McKeen so wonderfully chronicles, Key West provided all the fodder Buffett would need to write songs and he became part of the artist/author community that had followed Hemingway’s sandy footprints to the island community.

Buffett took day-to-day life in Key West and “packag[ed] it for mass consumption,” writes McKeen.  The same month that Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band played for Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball, the album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes was released and tourists flooded into Key West to enjoy the paradise Buffett sang about.

The town had never quite recovered after the Navy pulled out.  “Margaritaville” gave it new life.

An editor from Billboard magazine advised Buffett to copyright the song after the singer discovering a shop in Key West, Fla., was selling bootleg “Margaritaville” T-shirts.  From that an empire was born.

Now the laid-back everyman Buffett will hold a gaming license–with all the privileges that go along with it.  As Murray Rothbard explained in Power & Market,

Licensing is a threat of violence that limits the permissible producers to particular
groups (those who have obtained the license). The ostensible purpose of most licensing
is to ensure quality and safety for consumers. Even so, the intervener necessarily
eliminates the option of lower-quality but cheaper services. On the free market, sellers of
adulterated products could be prosecuted for fraud and/or injuring the buyer’s body.

The Margaritaville section of the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel and Casino is Buffet’s first Margaritaville-brand casino. However, two stand-alone Margaritaville casinos are under construction in Biloxi, Miss., and Bossier City, La.

“This is like grown-up stuff,” Buffett told the media after the hearing. “(A gaming license) is a really big thing for me that I will take very seriously. We’ve had success, but we’re going to have fun also.”

With the help of IP and licensing laws, he’s making a fortune branding the care-free lifestyle.

Bank of bad habits, the price of vice foretold
One by one they’ll do you in, they’re bound to take their toll
The wrong thing is the right thing until you lose control
I’ve got this bank of bad habits
It’s worth its weight in gold

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