Pop music hasn’t tackled unrequited love nearly as often as one might believe, and certainly not as often from the male perspective. The more I study this, the more amazed I am that the species didn’t just cease to exist from the start.
There is an extremely narrow channel by which the male commonly approaches the female, with the right ratio of interest and detachment, be it real or fabricated. On either side of the channel are the connection-killing extremes. To this side there is accessibility-to-obsession. This is a state that is constantly reinforced by societal constriction. After all, as men, we’re taught to never give up, work harder, keep your eyes on the goal and never, ever, take no for an answer. In so many cases, the person feels like he didn’t go far enough, when in actuality, he has gone way too far.
To the other side, there is indifference to the point of near-complete disregard, and instead of being intriguing to the potential partner, you turn them off entirely. Not only do I not want you, I don’t even want to want you. Go, leave, die, whatever, just don’t bother me.
But unrequited? That state of mourning a love that never fully existed to start with? In that arena of “Well I take whatever I want, and baby, I want you,” and, “Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand,” there never seemed to be room for that degree of reflection. In the few times it happened, the final product generally turned up whiny, mopey, sad-sack and not attractive at all. Petulance is a downer, and tends to bring out all negative associated sounds and moods.
In the mid-60’s however, The Left Banke got it right, but it was one of scant few. Everyone knows “Walk Away Renee” (1967). It’s one of those evergreen ’60s pop tunes that came from bands whose names dissipated not long afterward, burning brightly for a year, fizzling later, but that tune that propels the first-stage launch manages to thrive on its own. They weren’t alone. I hear “I love you more today than yesterday,” and swear it is early Todd Rundgren, but it is The Spiral Starecase. You’ve definitely heard the song, but unless you are a rabid pop music jerk like me, your first thought is not, “Oh, that’s the Spiral Starecase!”
The Left Banke had both the great and terrible fortune of having Michael Brown, the keyboardist and primary songwriter, as its guiding voice. The great side of that was his immense talent, his understanding of how to make a pop song with seemingly uncooperative instrumentation, the maturity to elevate the lyrics above the common fare of boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-screws-around-to-show-her-what-she’s-lost. These were the “standards” of the day mostly, barring the time’s rampantly popular alternate category, boy-dies-hideously-in-a-car-race-and-girl-realizes-what-she-lost.
The terrible part of the Brown connection was with manager Harry Lookofsky who molded the group in many ways, and each way was seemingly to the benefit of his son Michael Lookofsky, taking the name Michael Brown. Even though many of the initial choices the elder made were the correct ones, propelling the band to success, nepotism both real and perceived caused great strain within the unit. Members fell in and out with frequency, and several of them never actually played on the songs, instead filled out by crack session musicians. One could imagine how hard it is to be in a hot new band, but you don’t actually contribute to anything but the pose in the pictures and pray you’re still in the group when the touring begins.
The Left Banke was riddled with even more identity issues, the primary one being the muse of both of the band’s biggest hits. Renee the pretty ballerina was Renee Fladen, bassist Tom Finn’s girlfriend and not once, but twice, the chief songwriter has put his left-field longing straight out there for the world to ruminate, dissect and debate. To complicate matters, Brown wasn’t even the lead singer on the tracks; that fell to Steve Martin, also known as Steve Martin-Caro, born Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro. So what you have is the songwriter projecting his desires for the bass player’s girlfriend through the singing voice of yet another party, and if you’re still curious as to why there might be tension in the group, feel free to read this entire paragraph again.
There is, even amid this morass of stage names, manque and projection a sort of purity about “Walk Away Renee” that undercuts the gossip and drama surrounding it. Martin-Caro’s vocal is plaintive, impeccably enunciated, and blends into the three-part harmony so completely that it becomes synonymous with the interpersonal band dynamic – three voices collapsing into one, just as these three individuals all morph into the voice of Michael Brown, wanting what he cannot have, and sending it away from him. The bittersweetness is a stark reversal of the song “Jesse’s Girl” from several decades later by Rick Springfield. In that song, it is a testament of flat-out envy that gets by because of a really great hook. In it, the ‘voice’ of the protagonist wants Jesse’s girl, has already dreamed of having her, yet is on the way of shaking her off, singing, “Where can I find a woman like that,” hoping she’ll ditch his friend and take him up instead.
For Michael Brown and “Walk Away Renee,” he’s saying goodbye before he goes one step too far. It runs counter to the testosterone-infused, cock-rock Darwinian traits we find too often and, in that, all the possibilities of musical failure are evident, yet the song fails to fail. It is a beautiful arrangement, in something we’d later call “baroque pop,” which is itself a crisis of identity. Strings, woodwinds, harpsichords and the like were uncommon in top-40 pop, but not completely foreign to the standards of only a generation or two before. The Left Banke wasn’t really daring to bring pop music into the courts of the Edwardians so much as it was claiming for pop what the “grown-ups” were allowing for themselves, the widest musical canvas possible.
In some of us, “Walk Away Renee” has a deeper meaning because we’ve allowed ourselves the luxury of our silence. The woman of your dreams is virtually sitting next to you, five work days a week, separated by the thinnest of partitions but you, the singer of this song, have arrived in her life too late. Sure, you could make that leap and likely make an ass of yourself, turning this situation you’re both in into an awkward and uncomfortable circumstance, prompted by the wrong series of words, or the attempt to say the words at all. Not only has she established a life already, but she’s happy in it. You are just someone occupying space within it for a brief period of time. It’s better to mentally tell her to walk away, and keep your mouth shut.
That middle road between the extremes is the finest of lines. Sometimes it is best not to walk any of them.