John Jos. Miller’s CREATURE FEATURES

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FUN WITH MY IPOD

I love movies, but sometimes (like now) I need a break from them, so I thought I’d go with another Cheese Magnet staple, and write a musical column. But what should I write about? Looking for inspiration, I took a look at my ipod, and the answer was obvious. There’s only one song holding down two positions on my most-played list (#3 and #10), so we’ll go with that. (Next time I’ll go with the number one song. In fact, just to check on who’s paying attention, I’ll give away a signed copy of the brand new anthology A CAREER GUIDE TO YOUR JOB IN HELL to anyone who can guess what song it is. It’s a tough one. Maybe I should give a clue.)

The Left Banke was an American baroque pop band that formed in New York City in 1965 and broke up in 1969. Continually plagued by controversy, they went through a number of break-ups and line-up changes. Lawyers got involved, and things got ugly. They left a legacy of a couple of hits, and one all-time great song, named by ROLLING STONE magazine in 2004 as the 220th greatest song of all time.

I’m talking, of course, about “Walk Away Renee,” a bittersweet love song that scored both The Left Banke and The Four Tops a top hit in the late 1960’s. Not only is it a brilliant bit of music, but there are several interesting stories about it, as well as a personal association that makes it a bittersweet favorite of mine.

My favorites songs have equally strong musical/lyrical sides, as does “WAR.” I don’t know if The Left Banke invented baroque rock, but they were early practitioners. WAR has a lush string accompaniment, nice harmonies (with a haunting lead vocal by Steve Martin Caro), a sparsely beautiful flute solo, and an unusual harpsichord line. The lyrics are understatedly elegant with an excellent and smooth rhyme scheme. One line is slightly forced, but I’ll overlook that since Mike (Lookofsky) Brown (the band’s harpsichord player) was only sixteen years old when he wrote the song with bandmate Tony Sansone. And for a sixteen year old the lyrics are remarkably emotionally mature. Since a couple of the lines are somewhat hard to hear, here they are:

And when I see the sign that points one way,
The lot we used to pass by every day,

Just walk away, Renee,
You won’t see me follow you back home.
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same.
You’re not to blame.

From deep inside the tears that I’m forced to cry,
From deep inside the pain that I chose to hide.

Just walk away, Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home.
Now, as the rain beats down upon my weary eyes
For me, it cries.

Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me though they’re so small.

Just walk away, Renee,
You won’t see me follow you back home.
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same;
You’re not to blame.

Here’s the kicker. Renee was a real person. She was the girlfriend of the band’s bass player and Mike Lookofsky was desperately, unrequitedly in love with her. In an interview he gave after the band dissolved, he recounted that she was in the control room when it was recorded. His hands shook so hard that he couldn’t play the harpsichord and he had to wait until she left before he could lay his track down.

This was the first song the band recorded. Mike Lookofsky’s father, Harry Lookofsky was a well-known session violinist. He plays on the song, and produced it. The idea for a flute solo came from “California Dreaming” which had just been released. The flute was played by a studio musician whose identity is unknown. It spent six weeks on the chart in 1966, peaking at number five. The video I’ve included below isn’t sharp, but it’s the best I can find of the Left Banke version. Interestingly, it appears to be a very early attempt at a music video. I have no idea where it came from.

It’s been covered several times, notably by the Four Tops. They transformed it from baroque rock into a quintessential Motown song. In 1968 it hit #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on the UK singles charts.

Now, for my personal anecdote. I attended Goshen Central High School through my junior and senior high school years. As the name implies, it was a centralized school district that drew together students from the rural area where I grew up, about eight miles outside of Goshen, which was a village of about five thousand. “Walk Away Renee” was released when I was in junior high.

There was a girl in my class named Renee D. (I’ll abbreviate her name here.) She was tall, slim, and pretty, with long dark hair and large dark eyes. I had a bit of a crush on her but of course I was too shy to ever tell her. I remember, quite vividly, maybe a week before school let out for the summer, we were in English class. She was wearing a long green dress patterned with small white flowers. Someone, perhaps her or the teacher said something I don’t recall, but it was funny and the whole class was laughing. The teacher took her hand to pat it, and remarked, “Oh, you look so wan!” and Renee just smiled her sweet smile. School broke for summer vacation shortly after. In those days, before I had a driver’s license or was allowed to ride my bike far distances, I never saw any of my friends in the summer except for the few kids (mostly from my extended family) who lived on the same country road which wandered through the black dirt. It was a constrained existence, though I had my books, my dog, the forests and wild meadows that surrounded the fields where I worked.

I never saw Renee again. Sometime in the summer, before we all came back to school, she died of leukemia. I felt gut-punched when I learned of her death. Listening to this song always takes me back to those days long gone now, and yes, as the lyric says, still finds a way to haunt me.

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