52 GIRLS"Walk Away Renee" /
The Left Banke
One of my first 45 singles, and I played it to death. It was just the sort of song that an adolescent girl would moon over, a classic expression of tremulous young love by the shoulda-been-bigger band The Left Banke. (Extra letters tacked onto words in a band name are a sure marker of the 60s.) It’s very much a song of its time – and yet it’s timeless, too, with all that angsty emotion. It still chokes me up.
I needed the internet age, however, to learn that this massive 1966 hit was written by the band’s keyboard player, Michael Brown, who was only 16 at the time – and it was written about the bassist’s girlfriend, Renée, on whom Brown had a giant unrequited crush. So that’s why it captures so perfectly the whiny anguish of love lost! Brown apparently also wrote my other favorite Left Banke number, “Pretty Ballerina,” about Renée. (And how did that bassist feel, knowing Brown wanted to cut in on his girl?) The story goes that Brown was about to record his harpsichord part when Renée herself walked into the studio, and his hands shook so badly, he couldn’t play. I love that story.
Using a girl’s name in the title was no doubt inspired by the Beatles’ recent “Michelle,” just as the classical touches in the arrangement came out of “Yesterday” (though the flute in the middle also reminds me of “California Dreamin’,” also a recent hit at the time). But since the Left Banke did have a kid who could play the harpsichord, why not go for the folk-baroque sound?
The odd thing, when you realize it, is that the singer isn’t begging her to come back – in the chorus, he’s not saying “Don’t walk away, Renée,” he’s saying “Just walk away, Renée / You won’t see me follow you back home.” This unrequited love is too much for him to bear, and he needs out of it -- there’s passion for you. With no other details, these lines summon up a vivid scene; I can just see the girl’s back as she walks away. We’ve all watched someone we love walk away like that. We know how it rips your heart out.
But for a 16-year-old, Brown pretty shrewdly pinned down the life-altering power of this emotion: “And when I see the sign / It points one way / The life we used to lead / Every day.” There’s no going back, is there? “The empty sidewalks on my block / They're not the same” (though he does cut her a break, adding “You're not to blame”).
Here’s my favorite verse: “Your name and mine inside / A heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me / Though they're so small.” Was there ever a sweeter lyric about lover’s graffiti?
So we leave Mike Brown, fumbling blindly on his harpsichord, “Now as the rain beats down / Upon my weary eyes / For me I cry.” Yeah, that’s it, that’s the perfect note of self-pity. You nailed it, man.