There was a moment in the summer/fall of 1966 when The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and The Critters’ “Mr. Dieingly Sad” were both in the Top 20. Also spinning around in the musical air were “Eleanor Rigby,” “Cherish,” The Four Seasons’ “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Then came The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Rain On The Roof,” The Cyrkle’s “Turn Down Day” and The Mama’s and The Papa’s “Look Through My Window,” and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was weaving its melancholy beauty. It was a particular type of ornate ’60s pop with undertones of sadness, wistful melodies and lyrics about things that were just out of reach. “Wouldn’t it be nice?,” the songs asked. You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could hold you. I feel my tears, they fall like rain. All the lonely people. All that rain: The Spoonful’s, and The Mama’s and Papa’s’ (“And the rain beats on my roof”). What was going on here, all this minor-key meditation? It was as though the freedom to run wild musically, throw in elements that were new to pop, tapped a well of emotion. McCartney, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, John Phillips (and you can throw in Paul Simon, whose songs on that autumn’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme included “Cloudy,” “The Dangling Conversation” and “Homeward Bound”), they were all in their 20s, these contemplative young men.
Michael Brown was even younger, in his teens, when he co-wrote “Walk Away Renee” for his group The Left Banke, and unless you were tuned into the radio at the time, you don’t know what a shock it was. Not simply the strings, so abrupt and prominent, although that’s what led people to tag the record “Baroque-Rock” (which meant nothing, really), but the whole momentum of the record, how the chorus just erupted. How could a song be so abstract and cut so deeply? If you begin a song with the word “and,” you’d better have something special up your sleeve, because you’re dropping the listener into mid-conversation (The Zombies did it on “Tell Her No”: “And if she should tell you, ‘Come closer’,” like you’ve wandered past two guys talking in a bar, and you think, uh oh, I’d better steer clear of this…, and “Look Through My Window” starts mid-thought also). The first line we hear Steve Martin, The Left Banke’s singer, utter is, “And when I see the sign that points one way.” That’s an entrance like no other song I know, and the fact that it’s been set up by that gorgeous four-note string intro makes it even more intriguing. It has all the signs of a break-up song, but the verses are so short — only two lines each — that we have to fill in the narrative. “You’re not to blame,” he says, but for what? The rain is beating down, the sidewalks are empty, all this anguish is evoked with so little actual information.
That melody is so damned pretty, and the hook is so dramatic, that the song has had an amazing afterlife. It was a hit for The Four Tops, and Levi sings the hell of it, but he throws off the rhythm of the chorus when he hits the “me” hard on “You won’t see me follow you back home,” where Steve Martin makes “won’t see me” one seamless phrase. In the ’60s there were a number of covers (The Cowsills, The Tremeloes, The Blades of Grass, Orpheus), and through the decades it’s been picked up by a whole array of artists: Rickie Lee Jones, Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy, Marshall Crenshaw, Elliott Smith, Badly Drawn Boy, Tori Amos, Southside Johnny. Billy Bragg took the tune, played on guitar, as a thematic backdrop for a monologue about young love and disillusionment.
It’s the most famous song that Michael Brown, who passed away this week, leaves behind, but among Left Banke fans it’s not the universal favorite. Some, like me, like “Pretty Ballerina” even more, with this ingenious lyric:
I had a date with a pretty ballerina
Her hair so brilliant that it hurt my eyes
I asked her for this dance and then she obliged me
Was I surprised? Yeah
Was I surprised? No not at all
Some think “Desiree,” a thrilling, dynamic tour de force, is his masterpiece, his “Good Vibrations,” and I wouldn’t argue with that. A keyboard player I know is inordinately taken with “Barterers and Their Wives,” and another friend posted “She May Call You Up Tonight” on her Facebook wall. And there are wise folks who swear by Brown’s first album with Stories, or his lesser-known work with Montage and The Beckies.
Up at the top, I mentioned The Critters’ “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” a song that shared a moment on the charts with “Walk Away Renee.” The group’s bass player, Kenny Gorka, also passed away within the last few days. For years after his stint in The Critters, he ran The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, and presided over the club’s activities with warmth and grace to all, especially the talent and the industry freeloaders who congregated by the bar. I’d always wanted to ask Kenny if that’s his bass line on “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” or if notorious producer Artie Ripp brought in a session ringer, but no matter. It’s the pulse of the thing, the record’s center, so I’m going to go on thinking it’s Kenny’s part. He was the last link to the golden years of Bleecker Street, and will be missed.