Monday, March 11, 2019

What I hear in “Walk Away Renée”

[Backstory: The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renée” was released as a single in July 1966. In February 1967 the song appeared on the group’s first LP, Walk Away Renée / Pretty Ballerina. “Walk Away Renée” is credited to Michael Brown (the group’s keyboardist and principal songwriter), Bob Calilli, and Tony Sansone. According to members of the group, Brown wrote the music, and Sansone gave some help with the lyrics, which were mostly by Brown. Why Calilli is credited is unclear. (See this commentary.) Like “Pretty Ballerina,” (by Brown alone) and “She May Call You Up Tonight” (by Brown and Left Banke lead singer Steve Martin Caro), “Walk Away Renée” was inspired by Brown’s crush on Renée Fladen (now Fladen-Kamm), one-time girlfriend of Left Banke singer and bassist Tom Finn.]

I started listening to The Left Banke after hearing the Four Tops’ recording of “Walk Away Renée” in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. I told that story in a 2018 post, and I am still happily listening to The Left Banke. Here’s what I hear in the lyrics of “Walk Away Renée”:

And when I see the sign that points one way
The lot we used to pass by every day
Just walk away Renée
You won't see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You're not to blame

I can think of just two poems that begin with and: William Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time” and Ezra Pound’s first canto, which begins “And then went down to the ship.” Pound is translating Andreas Divus’s 1538 Latin translation of Odyssey 11 into an approximation of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse: thus Pound begins the Cantos in medias res, as Homer began his poems. “Walk Away Renée” too begins in the middle of the thing, somewhere within a sorrow that repeats and repeats. There, once again, is a street sign: an unusual beginning for a pop song. A Left Banke song from 1967, “And Suddenly” (Michael Brown-Bert Sommer), also begins with and.

The sign and lot are markers of city life, things seen on the walk to school or the walk back home. The word “block” confirms the city setting. The landscape is bare and barely there, as it was even when Renée was part of the singer’s life. Of course the street is one-way, moving in the direction of further loneliness. A city lot is, by definition, vacant. The sidewalks are empty. Think of a Beckett play staged in an outer borough. Michael Brown grew up in Brooklyn.

The singer’s lack of response to these markers of emptiness is curious: seeing these things (yet again) prompts no outcry (why did you leave me), no reverie (these foolish things remind me of you). All the singer can do (yet again) is encourage Renee, who is blameless, to walk away. Like Catullus abandoned by his lover, the singer can take it, or so he says.

*

From deep inside the tears that I'm forced to cry
From deep inside the pain that I chose to hide
Just walk away Renée
You won't see me follow you back home
Now as the rain beats down upon my weary eyes
For me it cries

We move from outside circumstances to introspection. The hidden pain carries an echo of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” whose singer turns his face to the wall. As in the first verse, there’s a strange inaction: no verbs follow tears and pain, though the tears and pain must somehow, at some point, find their way out, whenever the singer was, or is, forced to cry. But it’s really the sky that cries in present time — sympathetic nature at work, supplementing or standing in for the singer’s tears. Compare Elmore James’s “The Sky Is Crying.”

*

And now there’s a lovely interlude for alto flute. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” closes with flute and bass flute. But Michael Brown said that the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” inspired the use of alto flute here.

*

Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me, though they're so small
Just walk away Renée
You won't see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You're not to blame

The song saves its best, most poignant verse for last. In this bare cityscape, there are no trees in which to carve initials. A wall must do. Does the singer’s lost relationship achieve some permanence in this inscription? Or are the names written in chalk, to be washed away by the rain? The names of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, do they?

There’s an odd and almost certainly accidental shift in verb forms here, from singular to plural. The names are small, but your-name-and-mine-inside-a-heart still finds a way to haunt the singer. That fleeting singular verb is marks the lone moment of togetherness in the lyric.

*

I love this song. In addition to The Left Banke and Four Tops performances, I recommend performances by Rickie Lee Jones, Cyndi Lauper and Peter Kingsbery (even with flubbed lyrics), and Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy.

[Talking Heads’ “And She Was” almost begins with and. The first word though is “Hey!” For Catullus, see Louis Zukofsky’s translation of VIII: “So long, girl. Catullus / can take it.”]

comments: 5

Stefan Hagemann said...

I hope I've said it before, but I love it and feel grateful when you write about music, Michael. Thanks for doing it so often and well. As it happens, my composition students are revising arguments for or against the idea that pop lyrics can be poetry. Robert Christgau wrote about the idea in Cheetah magazine, 52 years ago. Can you imagine Rolling Stone running something like that today? Or taking the lyrics seriously at all?

I'm excited to share this with them, though it may wreck one or two essays.

Michael Leddy said...

It makes me happy that you liked this, Stefan. I hope your students find something of value in it.

I haven’t seen a copy of Rolling Stone in quite a while, but no, I can’t imagine something like that in its pages today. By the way, if you can get your hands on an old, old copy (back when it was something like a thick tabloid newspaper), you’ll be amazed at how much text was inside. People may have been stoned, but they were reading. Where are my copies with the two-part John Lennon interview? Disappeared years ago.

Chris said...

Robyn Hitchcock's "Sometimes a Blonde" begins "And ghosts walk in the bodies of children..."

https://www.ouvirmusica.com.br/hitchcock-robyn/403073/

Chris said...

One more: Steely Dan's "Royal Scam": "And they wandered in / From the city of St. John /Without a dime..."

Michael Leddy said...

Great — thanks, Chris. I would never have found my way to these songs.