Seems to me that Mellencamp never quite got his due, though he had a great deal of commercial success in the eighties and nineties. Maybe it’s because he started out as “Johnny Cougar” (hey, at least it wasn’t Little Johnny Cougar), and transitioned through being John Cougar Mellencamp before the branding exercise ended with the simple use of his real name, making him seem a bit inauthentic. Maybe it’s because he was always being compared, unfairly and usually unfavourably, to Springsteen. Maybe it’s on account of his early songs seeming a little facile (though be honest, who doesn’t like Jack and Diane, however guilty the pleasure?). Damn, though, he could write a song when he put his mind to it, and as the years went on, and he suffered through a heart attack at only age 42, he changed, matured, stopped swinging for the fences with big, arena-friendly anthems, and started writing interesting little stories and character studies. Key West Intermezzo, an extremely well played, tightly constructed, deftly arranged, and beautifully produced little gem about nothing more grandiose than a couple of buddies out on the town on a hot summer night, strikes me as his best. Mellencamp and co-writer George Green supply the quirky little details with a light, wryly perceptive touch: the loud Cuban band at the Flamingo, “crucifying John Lennon”; the inevitable gorgeous girl spotted across the bar, stirring the ice in her drink “with an elegant finger”, while the narrator looks balefully at her well-heeled boyfriend and thinks man, what’s she doin’ with him; his buddy, Gypsy Scotty, spinning a yarn about some girl he knew back in Kentucky, but c’mon, he just made that story up – there ain’t no girl like that; the wan sunlight of an early Florida morning making for “a bone-coloured dawn”; there’s a cinematic feel to it. You feel like you know these guys, like you’ve hung out with guys just like them your whole life.
It’s a good feeling, even acknowledging the rueful observation that yeah, she might have caught your eye first, but you can’t just call dibs on the attentions of that girl over there, the one everybody’s noticed by now, who’s surely going to come and go having never looked your way at all. Nothing for it, I guess, but to lean on your buddies and push on ‘til dawn.