Michael Brown and ‘Walk Away Renee’
Michael Brown died this week, aged 65. He was 16 when he wrote “Walk Away Renee” and recorded it with his group, the Left Banke. Countless hearts have been touched by it in the decades since its first appearance.
I love a song that begins with “And”. The listener is thrown straight into the middle of the singer’s emotions: “And when I see the signs that point one way / The lot we used to pass by every day…” So simple, so graphic, so universal. And there’s the sweet sadness of the last verse: “Your name and mine inside a heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me though they’re so small…”
It seems that Brown wrote the song about the girlfriend of Tom Finn, the group’s bass-guitarist, and the quasi-baroque arrangement of the Left Banke’s version, featuring a string quartet with an alto flute solo, was like a protective screen for the teenage protagonist, whose tone of wounded introspection was perfectly located by the singer, Steve Martin. (Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone – neither of them members of the group — are always credited as co-composers, but since neither seems to have done much else in the way of writing hit songs, you have to wonder about that.) The style of the arrangement was also a reminder that Brown, who played harpsichord on the session, had received a classical training.
He was born Michael Lookofsky, the son of Harry Lookofsky, a noted New York session violinist who appeared on countless albums — including a featured appearance, playing tenor violin, on a great Gil Evans session from 1971. The father owned the studio where the Left Banke recorded their debut single, which was released on the Smash label and made the US top five in September 1966.
Just over a year later came the first great cover version, by the Four Tops, in which the composer-producer team of Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier showed their ability to react to new developments by applying their genius to someone else’s song. Brown’s composition inspires one of Levi Stubbs’s finest vocal performances, introduced by that riveting brass fanfare, supported by Eddie Willis’s loosely strummed rhythm guitar and swept along by Benny Benjamin’s finest snare-and-tom-tom fills. And what is that combination featured during the instrumental interlude: muted trumpet and cor anglais, maybe? The textures throughout, and the sense of aural perspective they convey, still inspire astonishment.
Rickie Lee Jones recorded the third great version on her 10-inch album Girl At Her Volcano in 1983. She changes the song’s gender (from “Renee” to “Rene”) and stretches its inbuilt pathos about as far as it will go without disintegrating. As the tempo comes and goes, the singer seems to be slipping in and out of a reverie. It’s one of her most inventive and touching recorded performances. And behind her lovely piano, even the ’80s-style synth washes sound fine.
For me, these are the three indelible versions of a much-covered song which seldom fails to bring the best out of those who take it on. Thank you for that, Michael Brown.