Dad Rock Review is an occasional series tackling the pressing dad rock questions of our time, with your co-hosts Sarah Sweeney and Joe Costal. In this inaugural episode, they’re joined by Bertie Higgins himself for a brief chat about his contribution to the dad rock pantheon, after which Joe and Sarah try to figure out some of the song’s confusing cinematic references, what makes a song fit into the “dad rock” category, and whether romance is dead.
Sarah Sweeney: First, some background. Dad Rock Review got its wings one balmy September night in Philadelphia. Joe was transporting me to the Baltimore Book Festival and picked me up at the airport in Philly, where we stayed for the night at the home of Barrelhouse founding editor Mike Ingram. For no reason at all, Joe and I just kept belting “Key Largo” by Bertie Higgins, much to everyone’s chagrin.
Roadtripping down to Baltimore the next morning, we made Joe’s minivan our portable dad rock karaoke studio. Weeks passed, and Joe and I continued to discuss and trade our dad rock playlists on Spotify. What if we had a column? I thought, and the Dad Rock Review took off.
To honor our roots, we’re starting our journey by diving into Higgins’ yacht rock/dad rock ballad “Key Largo,” which references not one but two classic Humphrey Bogart films: “Key Largo” and “Casablanca.”
Storytelling runs in Higgins’ blood. The singer, a native of Tarpon Springs, Fla., is a direct descendant of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet who penned Faust. Florida is a long way from Germany, but per Higgins’ website:
Bertie is an intellectual romantic who loves to paint story songs about living and loving in a tropical paradise. His love songs explore the efforts of man trying to fathom the mystery and allure of woman. His fantasy songs deal with the beauty and sensuality of the tropics and his story songs combine past experiences and future hopes. The resounding theme throughout Bertie’s work: “Make the best of today lest tomorrow never comes.”
Recently, I chatted on the phone with Higgins about life, love, the crazy story behind his classic song “Key Largo,” and more.
Sarah Sweeney: How old were you when you wrote “Key Largo” and how did you write it?
Bertie Higgins: I was in my late 20s, and I’d written many songs prior to “Key Largo”—about 250 or so. “Key Largo” was inspired by a girl I was in love with. We’d split up and I really wanted to turn her around and bring her back. So, I figured the best way to do that was to get something on the radio and I wrote the song for her.
We’re both Floridians and we spent a lot of time in the Florida Keys, including Key Largo. I wrote it and it was difficult to get it recorded—I didn’t have any money so I borrowed $750 from my mother and took my road band into the studio and cut it. There was only one radio station playing it in the world, this tiny radio station outside Atlanta—we were living in Atlanta at the time—and I set it up with the program director to play the song the next day. She was sitting in my car at the time, and you could barely hear the song trickling into Atlanta. She said, “Is that you?” and I said, “Yes, it is, honey.” And she said, “You’re singing a little flat on the last part.”
I went back in the studio and fixed it, and we got back together. Now we’ve been married for 32 years with two children.
What really drove the song home was that it charted for so long—30-some-odd weeks. VH1 had very little programming back then, and I’d given a DJ friend of mine a copy of the video and he played the hell out of it. Fifteen times a day.
It took me a while to write “Key Largo.” It was actually a combination of two different songs.
SS: Was one song about the film Key Largo and another about Casablanca? Because that’s also what I love about the song: its mixed movie allusions.
BH: No, but you know my other big song is “Casablanca.” Both [my wife and I] were bigtime Bogart/Bacall freaks. “Casablanca” is bigger worldwide than “Key Largo” ever was—especially along the Pacific Rim. I’ve been to China 8 times in the last year, so we travel to Asia a lot. It’s pretty crazy and I never thought that at this stage in the game “Casablanca” would be so big. Big, big song over there.
SS: As a native Floridian, does it feel good to have contributed something to the pantheon of larger Floridian culture?
BH: Oh, yeah. I’ve gotten a lot of awards from the state. Florida Music Hall of Fame. Just got knighted, now I’m Sir Bertie Higgins. Got an honorary degree from Hannover University, so now I’m Sir Bertie Higgins, Ph.D.
SS: I love “Key Largo” because I can play it and sail off into the Key Largo of my mind if I can’t do it physically. What about the tropics speaks to you?
BH: I love the islands. I spent years right around the Caribbean and of course Florida. St. Maarten, St. Thomas, St. John. I find it very romantic. I just wrote a song called “Dreamin’ Again”—has nothing to do with the islands. It’s about people in my past, old lovers who came cropping up in my dreams. Pretty wild. That song’s on my latest album, Son of a Beach.
SS: We’ll check it out for sure. Finally, do you have a favorite Patrick Swayze movie and, if so, what is it?
BH: Well, it certainly isn’t Ghost. I kinda like the one with him and the kids and they’ve been invaded by Russia—Red Dawn. It’s a shame how he passed away, that’s a drag.
SS: Ok, Joe, before we delve into our shared love of Key Largo, let’s first address a pivotal question: Why dad rock, and what is it?
My love of the classics (the Allmans, Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, et al) was passed down from my dad, so I think of dad rock as any music your dad might love, especially if you were born between the years 1976 and 1989. That’s the most facile explanation, but today I define dad rock as music from a bygone era that reminds (usually white) middle-aged men of a romanticized past, when life was less complicated—emotionally, financially, domestically, socio-politically. In these trying times, is our dad rock perspective just the thing we NEED????
Joe Costal: Dad rock is the jeans you turn to on Saturday morning. They don’t look cool, but they always fit.
Dad rock is for late, late nights. It doesn’t show up early. Drink your micro brews to indie folk. Two-step and giggle to 90s rap and grunge. Dad rock doesn’t need to hang around while you build your confidence, it knows where the night goes. Laugh if you want, but when dad rock shows up, you’ll be singing.
SS: [Groan.] Ok, so let’s talk about the components of this song, both cinematic and location-wise.
I’ve never been to Key Largo, but I have been to the island of Cozumel, where I fell in love with a scuba instructor in the summer of 2011 and where I lived, briefly, in the summer of 2012. I’ve never even seen the film Key Largo, but as someone who actually fell in love on a boat and moved to the tropics for a whirlwind romance, Higgins’ cinematic torch songs speak to my deep-rooted desire to live inside a fantasy and to pursue unrealistic filmic narratives in my own love life.
JC: I’m Cuban, so I’ve not only been to the Florida Keys, but I’m culturally mandated to love them. Still, boats are hard. I’ve sunk more than a few dinghies in my day. I mean, my palms sweat when I parallel park.
Relationships are also hard. Sunk a few of those as well, some of them yacht-sized. Still I try. We all try. “Key Largo” is this great intersection of two distinct mysteries the human male feels drawn to puzzle out—often at his own peril—boats and women. The fact that Bertie figures out how to “have it all” is why the song works as middle-class, white-male fantasy.
SS: Yes! It’s funny how male fantasies pan out in real life, but is it the same for these elaborate romantic female fantasies? That “Key Largo” is a successful ploy to get back a girlfriend who’d dumped Higgins—the ultimate grand gesture—makes me love the song even more. It’s the kind of melodrama I live for, but which rarely happens on dry land—or ever, for that matter.
Have you ever successfully deployed a grand romantic gesture, Joe? Are romantic gestures a thing men actually do or are women just programmed by movies to believe they do? Weigh in with your manliness.
JC: Are you kidding me? I have a rose between my teeth writing this, Sarah. I’ve driven all night to get there … mixtape in one hand, her favorite ice cream in the other. I’ve done them all! And for every girl waiting for it, there’s a guy waiting to be that Bertie-esqe hero. The paradise hero! Magnum PI ‘stache and well-mixed mai-tais.
But I can’t make a mai tai anymore than I could make polyurethane. And therein lies the problem.
SS: Haha, I want to believe, Joe! I want to believe that a sustained cinematic love is possible! But in the past couple of years, I’ve worked to deconstruct the cultural brainwashing that my romantic life was destined to play out like a movie. Many women—myself included—have internalized the romantic tropes found in films because those films are marketed specifically for us. We’re programmed to expect some grand romantic gesture from men, but, for the most part, I think men are incapable of those gestures because of prescribed gender roles/social conditioning to be stoic and unemotional.
JC: Whatever. I take comfort in the fact that any love that comes to life on tropical beaches will surely find death back on dry land—in the dizzying expanse of Netflix queues and commuter traffic. Still, Bertie’s song and video contained all the trappings of what love meant to me prior to the third grade. Escape. Awkward hugging. Wind blowing at the perfect angle that you might see underboob.
SS: Right, the song is syrupy and almost cartoonish in a way? Like, if you asked Mr. Bean to describe what love is to a group of aliens, he might play “Key Largo.”
JC: Also, the song makes several erroneous cinema references, seemingly confusing Key Largo with Humphrey Bogart’s more prominent noir predecessor Casablanca, which co-stars Ingrid Bergman, not Lauren Bacall, even though Bertie sings, “We had it all / just like Bogie and Bacall.”
Key Largo, the movie, is a Hamlet-esque gangster yarn in which the protagonist hems and haws pacifism before finally kicking Edward G. Robinson’s butt. Yes, the movie also contains a love triangle, but barely the stuff of Dad Rock lore. Plus Bogey and Bacall are stuck in Key Largo during a hurricane. Most of the movie is predicated on their inability to “sail away” anywhere, but namely, away from Key Largo.
What’s funny to me is that the song could work as a Casablanca tribute: “We had it all, just like Bogey and Berg-moh … starring in our own late, late show, flying away from from MO-ROCK-OH!” Is it possible that Bertie played with this line first?
SS: I wish he’d gone with the Morocco version!
Also, maybe you can elucidate me here. I’ve always been confused about what Bertie means when he says, “Starring in our own late, late show?” Is that the premise of the film Key Largo?
JC: No. Just that Key Largo was always on TV after the local news? But again, the song isn’t “about” that movie. Or any movie?
“Here’s looking at you kid/Looking at all the things we did/We can find it once again ... I know/Just like they did in Key Largo…” Ok. So we know they never needed to “find it once again” at the end of Key Largo, but even worse, they don’t “find it once again” at the end of Casablanca. Rick lets Elsa get on a plane with her fiance. She marries THE OTHER GUY, Bertie! Did you fall asleep before the end of the movie?!
Sarah Sweeney is the author of Tell Me If You’re Lying. She writes liner notes for Light In The Attic Records, loves BBQ, your dad, and works as a writer in Boston. Visit her at www.sarah-sweeney.com.
Joe Costal is a dad of four. He rocks, so do his kids. He’s an assistant editor at Barrelhouse. His poetry is forthcoming in More Challenges for the Delusional by Diode Editions and in the music issue of Philadelphia Stories. Visit him at joecostal.com