Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Bertie Higgins’ “Key Largo”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #8 in March 1982
In 1982, a white dude worked himself into a lather praising the kind of romance that happened amid sun-kissed waves and palm trees, the scent of jasmine and tanning butter tangled in her hair. No doubt about it – every MTV kid knew where he or she was when Duran Duran’s “Rio” wagged its cherry ice cream smile at them.
Fear not, parents: Bertie Higgins had something that smelled like July for you — a July that smells like cigarette butts in an ashtray and feels like the scrape of a gold chain against exposed chest hair. “Key Largo” conjures the spirit of the late seventies that persisted well into the putative eighties, a decade which in my reckoning didn’t start until perhaps Human League hit #1 with “Don’t You Want Me” or MTV’s becoming a household staple in early 1983 (the eighties ended sometime in late 1992 or early 1993, in case you wondered).
A fellow Floridian, but the white Florida of Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg, Higgins passed the Nixon-Ford-Carter era as a drummer in a second- or third-tier band until he said enough. Then he found a patron in — get this — Burt Reynolds, who many of my readers may not know has done dinner theater in my state even when he was still Hollywood’s most in-demand star. He moved to Atlanta and recorded Just Another Day in Paradise, on which “Key Largo,” the ripest fruit on this tree, was found. Released in fall 1981, “Key Largo” took its time climbing into its eventual top ten position. It also peaked at #1 for two weeks on the adult contemporary chart, its true home, on whose stations you can to this day hear this valentine indebted to the onscreen image of the cinema’s most iconic tough guy, who in 1981-1982 still had the post-Godard resonance to which Bryan Ferry and Woody Allen had responded.
An allusive product then, and “Key Largo” is among the last of the ballads and mid tempo numbers released by men too late for the hippie era and who record songs that are sung through beards. The uncanny success of Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers gave these dudes a toot of coke as record companies, in a post-disco funk, signed up wannabes. Robbie Dupree, Rupert Holmes, Pablo Cruise, and Benny Mardones you know (please note the interchangeable names. I like Benny Dupree; call him if you need a personal injury attorney). What about Robbie Patton? Kansas’ “Play the Game Tonight”? Sneaker? Stephen Bishop? So many of these tracks peaked outside the top twenty too: one hit wonders that rode a bit of AOR play and whose polyester made them unfit for Martha Quinn’s scrutiny.
“Key Largo,” however, stretches back further for an influence: Jimmy Buffet, of course. By the time Michael McDonald would record his own fake calypso in 1986 he could finger the trop beat presets. But Jimmy Buffet sounds like Randy Newman compared to “Key Largo.” Benumbed by the depths of his affection, Higgins kinda forgets that Bogart was letting wise cracks out with every exhalation of smoke. “Tryin’ so hard to stay warm,” Higgins sings in a breathy high voice over an ash-covered quilt of acoustic guitars and bongos and for fuck’s sake mandolins. What makes “Key Largo” grotesque is Higgins’ penchant for putting the stress on the last syllable of words: “You were my hero/You were my leading la-DY” and “Sailin’ away to Key Lar-GO.” It’s not creative singing — not with the backing track generating the frisson of a toupee in a bucket of water — he just sounds drunk. And Higgins’ cinematic education with Burt apparently didn’t get him past the fact that Bogie and Bacall “didn’t have it all.” All their movies, including Key Largo, ended with piles of bodies and the couple figuring out what to do next, hopefully with a full pack of smokes. If Higgins had used Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it would’ve been slightly more imaginative but left him gasping over a rhyming dictionary.
I expended many words on a slight song, but ubiquity is iniquity, man: I hear “Key Largo” at least twice a month. I like to think of Bertie in Tarpon Bend, his boat tied at the pier, a long-sought prize won thanks to “Key Largo” royalties, sipping a rum runner and listening to that British band that made his kind obsolete, a river twisting through a dusty land.