There are a few Left Banke songs I like more than “Walk Away, Renee”, but few are as piercing. I’ve known the song for the better part of two decades now, and only until about a month ago did any of the lyrics make the least bit of sense. It was a rendition performed on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, of all places, that finally laid the words out plainly enough for me to understand. Isn’t it strange how some songs steadfastly deny any glancing contact with scrutability? I simply had no idea what vocalist Steve Martin was saying; his delivery was garbled too badly for me. And apparently I never paid enough attention to the Four Tops’ version.
Still, I could always understand the chorus, and naturally the weeping strings were obvious enough to get. So it’s always been one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s in the same vein as the Four Seasons’ “Dawn (Go Away)”, with the poor boy urging the girl he loves to just pack it in and leave him alone. Ouch, that’s painful. But it’s such a good pain. A nagging pang, tolling loud deep down inside.
And now that I know the lyrics–or now that I’m listening closely enough–what a withering song! What can I say–I love a song that can swoop down from the rafters and make you want to cry just because. A real, down-in-the-gut emotional purge.
Conversely, we have “And Suddenly”, as distant in spirit from “Walk Away, Renee” as you can get. It’s practically an antidote, though if you really want to feel good and awful, you should follow up “Renee” with “Pretty Ballerina”. “And Suddenly” is chirpy and twee, a real pain in the ass unless you’re enjoying a sympathetic stroke of fortune, in which case it’s a soaring and reasonably accurate impression of new love. It could practically be another band.
Whoops. It practically was another band. It was, in fact, lead songwriter Michael Brown with a gaggle of session musicians and another vocalist (Bert Sommer). Brown also wrote “Walk Away, Renee”, the Left Banke’s only real claim to success, and his dad was the band’s producer, so I suppose he naturally felt he was the band. His bandmates did not agree and actively turned their fans away from it. Besides being a crappy thing for Brown to do, it had also been less than a year since “Renee” charted, so he essentially tanked everyone’s careers.
The Left Banke’s entire output (including Brown’s ill-advised alternate “Left Banke”) was made available on Mercury’s 1992 There’s Gonna Be A Storm, but it has since been deleted. It’s well worth giving a listen, if only for noting that, in the ’60s, for every outstanding band like the Lovin’ Spoonful there was a less successful, doomed band like the Left Banke.
Just a bare notch above one-hit wonderdom, the Left Banke could never have survived outside of captivity. But “Walk Away, Renee” and “And Suddenly” are inexpressibly moving.