‘One fairer than my love! The all-seeing sun Nee’r saw her
match since first the world begun.’ (Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet)
‘Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me though they’re so small’ (Michael Brown)
Some guys have all the luck. You know the type. They don’t shuffle and stumble. They stride, stroll and swagger through life. Golden apples and golden girls fall unbidden at their feet.
Most of us alternate between times when the tides of life seems to sweep us happily along and times when they treacherously turns against us. We carry on looking on in wonder at the guys who seem oblivious to those tides. Serenely they surf away from us into a golden sun.
And, some other guys just don’t seem made for these times. Fragile souls who retreat from the clashing, clangourous cacophony all around to the shelter of their rooms.
There in solitude and stillness they tune into tender melodies and celestial harmonies that heal their wounded hearts and near break our own when we are privileged to hear them.
From a veiled place deep inside the lonely tears and deep inside the hidden pain they spin glistening threads of gossamer music which surprisingly turn out to have a lasting tensile strength able to comfort and support us through the emotional crises that inevitably waylay us on our journey through the years.
The ultimate example here is the awesome genius of Brian Wilson. There will be much to say about the blessed Brian here later.
Today, we turn to a songwriter of striking originality, and singular achievement, the late Michael Brown, who in, ‘Walk Away Renee’ wrote a song whose incandescent beauty will never fade.
A song of haunting depth which, as we will see, calls out to be illuminated, imagined time after time by singers who find themselves gripped by the need to find within themselves the way to the heart of a masterpiece.
Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1965 Sixteen (16!) year old Michael Brown fell mythologically in love (as sensitive 16 year old’s will) with Renee Fladen who was unobtainable by virtue of her beauty which struck Michael dumb and the fact that she was the girlfriend of Tim Finn, the bass player in the group they both belonged to, ‘The Left Banke’.
Agonised and tormented Michael retreated to his room and communing with the Muses came up with a song which devastatingly yokes a lyric of heart sore adolescent angst to an endlessly enchanting melody set in a sophisticated and elegant arrangement.
An arrangement that features Brown’s spectral harpsichord, a string quartet helmed by his father, Harry Lookofsky, a distinguished classical and jazz violinist, and a melancholic, autumnal alto flute solo.
All of this underpinning a tender, introspective, emotionally truthful vocal from Steve Martin. This is a record of riveting gentleness which insinuates itself into the deepest chamber of your memory like the perfect sunset of your youth.
It’s not hard to hear the influences of the sun dappled Mamas and Papas and the pastoral, Choristers on a spree, sound of England’s The Zombies whose, ‘She’s Not There’ must surely have been on heavy rotation on Michael’s turntable.
Of course, like many, he will have spent untold hours beguiled by the melodic and harmonic genius of Brian Wilson though he will have been one of the very few able to turn admiration into true emulation.
Now when I was seventeen going on eighteen I would have told you that sixteen year olds could know nothing of love. And, when I was over the crest of 20, 30 and 40 I would have said the same.
Now that I have crested further summits I’m not so sure. Not so sure. Perhaps sixteen year olds know every bit as much about love as their seniors. Love is love is love and who dares to think they can truly sound the depths of another’s heart?
Michael Brown writing, ‘Walk Away Renee’ at 16 perfectly captured the sweet ache of young love and lost love. We are all eternally in his debt.
The Left Banke original was issued on the Smash label in July 1966 and ascended to Number 5 on the Billboard Chart. It became a touchstone of its times and and came to serve as the very definition of, ‘Baroque Pop’.
The special quality of the song was recognised at Motown and assigned to the ever reliable, Four Tops who recorded it for their 1967, ‘Reach Out’ album. Issued as a 45 in January 1968 it was top 20 in the US and top 5 in Canada, Ireland and the UK.
Here’s a wonderful example of how the collaborative power of the galaxy of talent at Motown could produce records that simply take your breathe away! So many elements of musical brilliance seamlessly integrated. Much of the credit must go to one of the greatest songwriting/production teams of the era – brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier.
They were able to draw on the resources of the stellar team of musicians at Motown to create a record which has subtle detail and immense emotional punch.
From the opening brass flourish we are aware that this is not a record you can turn away from. Benny Benjamin on the drums near matches Levi Stubbs vocal for dramatic effect (near matches for Levi at full throttle is surely unmatchable!).
There’s a delightful rhythm guitar part from Eddie Willis and little remarked upon but beautifully articulated backing vocals from one of Motown’s secret weapons, The Andantes.
In the instrumental break there’s a wonderful confection of softened brass and Woodwinds that shows the refined palette of the storied production team.
And then there’s the always in the pocket vocals of Lawrence Payton, Duke Fakir and Renaldo Benson supporting and encouraging lead singer Levi Stubbs.
Levi Stubbs! Levi Stubbs!
When it comes to describing the singing of Levi Stubbs even the word heroic is inadequate. Perhaps only by overhearing mighty Thor singing the warriors home to Valhalla could we find an apposite correlative for the majesty and power Levi brings to, ‘Walk Away Renee’.
This, in contrast to the swooningly affecting adolescent Left Banke original is a 100% proof adult version with Levi adding layers of inured pain and bruised authority to the song. It’s a wind down the windows and put the pedal to the floor performance that never fails to quicken the pulse.
The next take on Renee I’d like to feature comes from the mercurial RIckie Lee Jones. It’s a track from her arresting EP from 1983, ‘Girl at Her Volcano’ where you can also find alluring versions of, ‘My Funny Valentine’ and, ‘Under the Boardwalk’.
When she’s on form RIckie can take any song – one of her own or one from the classic repertoire – and through a combination of the bohemian off kilter charm of her vocals and piano entirely seduce us.
RIckie doesn’t come at the song head on. Rather, she shines a woozy light on its facets illuminating further beauties within. She takes us by the hand and leads us into a dream world where time is bent and stretched. Where past and present merge. A land where we would not be surprised to see the ghosts of past loves floating, just out of reach, before us.
There’s a touch of shamanistic ritual in Rickie’s version or searching for a literary reference you might call it magic realism. Either way it’s wholly Rickie Lee. The boldness of her imaginative invention is testament to her artistic prowess and a lovely tribute to Michael Brown’s great song.
Now for some blue collar New Jersey soul. No, not The Boss. Here’s a characteristically impassioned version by an artist you can always rely on to give his all to a song – Southside Johnny. I must admit to having punched the air many times when I’ve been to see Johnny in concert.
He has always had the gift of communing with his audience to engage them as conspirators in the enterprise of making a song yield up it’s emotional heart.
This version is the heartfelt confession of a man who’s been around the romantic block more than a few times and has the scars to prove it. But not a man who has given up on love or life.
Finally a lovely, lyrical lullaby version courtesy of Linda Ronstadt and Cajun Queen Ann Savoy. It can be found on their fine album, ‘Adieu False Heart’.
There is something of the polished parlour about this performance which glows in the mind the more you hear it (and I’m sure you’ll want to hear it often).
Walk Away Renee is a song you can’t forget. It speaks to you wherever you may find yourself in the deep woods of life.
You may recall it as you emerge, wet eyed and blinking after struggle, into sunny uplands or you may find yourself singing it softly, softly, as the rain beats down again on your weary eyes.
Few songs can make such a claim. God bless you Michael Brown.
Michael Brown after Renee: The recorded legacy of The Left Banke was best captured on the 1982 compilation, ‘There’s Gonna Be a Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966-1969’ on the Mercury label. It includes their 2 albums, ‘Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina’ and,’Left Banke Too’ with an added handful of tracks. Sixteen of the 26 tracks were written by Michael Brown. It is a marvellous record.
On the strength of Renee and the wonderful, ‘Pretty Ballerina’ alone Michael Brown deserves entry into the top echelon of pop songwriters.
Two albums was all Michael managed with Left Banke before he fell out with his bandmates. His later work was with Montage (look out for, ‘She’s Alone’), Stories and The Beckies.
Michael died of heart disease in March 2015.
Renee Fladen-Kamm is now a distinguished singer and vocal coach often working with choirs specialising in medieval music.
More versions of Renee to listen to: