Renee’s Still Walking Away, 40 Years On* (With corrected lyrics!)**

My mp3 player, which can hold about 1400 tracks, now has three versions of “Walk Away Renee”: The 1966 original by the Left Banke, the epic 1968 version by the Four Tops, and a new, delicately respectful version by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy that is mentioned prominently in every review of their new, Cajun-folk duet album, Adieu False Heart.

A little research shows that I could add versions by Latin jazz percussionist and Cal Tjader sideman Willie Bobo; British protest singer Billy Bragg (he mumbles recollections of lost love while he plays the song almost absent-mindedly on acoustic guitar); and the indie rocker Angie Heaton (who sounds like a female Neil Young from the “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” era), among about a dozen other covers. I also have a version by Marshall Crenshaw from his live acoustic album, “I’ve Suffered for My Art, Now It’s Your Turn.”

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*(Update: A clip of the Left Banke lip-syncing “Walk Away Renee” on the show “Where the Action Is” is at the end of this post.)

Quite a journey for a song written by a 16-year-old lovesick kid; and for that kid’s unrequited teenage crush, Renee Fladen, who also inspired the Left Banke’s other hit, “Pretty Ballerina.” According to this nicely-written piece by rock and roll fan Tom Simon:

Violinist Harry Lookofsky owned a small storefront recording studio in New York City that he called World United Studios. In 1965, he gave a set of keys to his 16-year-old son, Mike Brown [real name: Mike Lookofsky], who helped out by cleaning up and occasionally sitting in as a session pianist. Mike began bringing in his teenage friends who tinkered with drums, guitars, amplifiers, the Steinway piano, and anything else they might find. Except for Mike, who had a background in classical piano, none of them were top musicians. But they could sing, especially one guy named Steve Martin.

By 1966 they started to call themselves the Left Banke. In addition to Mike and Steve, they included Rick Brand on lead guitar, Tom Finn on bass, and drummer George Cameron. Finn brought his girlfriend to the studio one day when the group had assembled for a practice session. She was a 5′ 6″ teenager with platinum blond hair. Mike Brown was infatuated with her the instant he saw her. Her name was Renee Fladen.

The group had begun recording songs, and Harry was particularly impressed with Steve Martin’s voice. Mike wrote a song about Renee. Although there was never anything between the two, Mike was fascinated by her and pictured himself standing at the corner of Hampton and Falmouth Avenues in Brooklyn with Renee, beneath the “One Way” sign. In his fantasy, he was telling her to walk away.

Harry played all the string parts on the Left Banke record Walk Away Renee. With Mike on the harpsichord and Steve Martin’s strong vocal performance, the song was a good one with a different type of sound to it. It came to be known as baroque rock, a style of music that included songs such as the Yardbirds’ For Your Love.

Harry took the song to ten different record companies before Smash Records picked it up. It entered the pop charts in the Fall of 1966 and remained there for ten weeks, peaking at number five. Early the next year the Left Banke followed up with another song written by Mike Brown called Pretty Ballerina, and it reached number fifteen.

(snip)

As for Renee, she moved to Boston with her family shortly after the Left Banke recorded Walk Away Renee, and no one in the group ever saw her again.

Dawn Eden, who is described on Amazon as “a Jewish-born rock journalist turned salty Christian blog queen,” claimed credit on her blog, The Dawn Patrol, for unearthing Renee’s whereabouts, at least as of the time of her posting the information in 2003. Renee Fladen-Kamm is a classical singer and vocal teacher in the Bay Area, who was a member of a medieval English music ensemble, The Sherwood Consort, although does not appear to be a member now. I can find no photo of Renee anywhere on the Internet; not on one of the numerous obsessed Left Banke fan sites, nor on any sites devoted to her own music. Perhaps that’s understandable, and prescient on her part to stay away from cameras. The real-life models for other popular works of art — I’m thinking of Alice Liddell of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland — often wished their genius idolaters had never met them.

As for Michael Brown, nee Michael Lookofsky, he was described on this fanzine as

both brilliant and aware of his talent, but extremely nervous and very difficult to deal with -a clear evidence of this were his attempts to form different groups after The Left Banke, which he kept deserting due to differences with the other members or when he realised he wouldn’t be able to work comfortably. I tried to contact him but it was impossible; he’s currently living with his sister, who sees to it that no one reaches the musician.

I’ve loved “Walk Away Renee” since the first time I heard it 40 years ago on WABC. It came out during an outrageously fertile time for pop music. In the top ten during the same month were memorable hits like the Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” the Association’s “Cherish,” Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry,” the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” plus some wacky one-hit wonders like “Psychotic Reaction” and “96 Tears.” What made a great pop hit in those days was the purity of emotion, and nothing was more affecting than this minor-key lament:

**(lyrics corrected…by the lyricist!)

AND WHEN I SEE THE SIGN THAT POINTS ONE WAY
THE LOT WE USED TO PASS BY EVERY DAY

JUST WALK AWAY RENEE YOU WONT 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 RENE YOU WONT 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 THE WAY TO HAUNT ME THOUGH THEY’RE SO SMALL

JUST WALK AWAY RENE YOU WONT SEE ME FOLLOW YOU BACK HOME
NOW AS THE RAIN BEATS DOWN UPON MY WEARY EYES
FOR ME IT CRIES.

As  I write, I have a music-obsessed 16-year-old son of my own. Every chance he gets, he sneaks onto his grandmother’s Mac to compose his own music on Garage Band, and otherwise contents himself with figuring out chords and melodies on a little electric keyboard, and multi-tracking his vocal harmonies on his own disappointingly Windows-based computer. Sometimes he’s inspired by girls, sometimes he’s inspired by the music that inspires him — these days it’s Broadway composers like Stephen Sondheim, but I still hear some Danny Elfman in there too. If he fantasizes about being famous, or writing a song that famous performers will sing 40 years from now, he’s never told me so. He writes music like he does everything else; because he feels like it and can’t stop himself. It’s not a job.

That’s what I imagine Michael Brown was like, too. He just had to write those songs about Renee, and when she was gone from his life, essentially he was done.

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