John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Youthful Genius of Michael Brown

Brown, who died last week, created “Walk Away Renee” and “Pretty Ballerina.”

By - Mar 26th, 2018 12:50 pm
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The Left Banke, 1966. Photo is in the Public Domain.

The Left Banke, 1966. Photo is in the Public Domain.

Here’s the bad news: if you haven’t written something as beautiful and timeless as “Walk Away Renee” before you’re twenty, you are probably not a genius and the odds are against you ever creating something that good. Michael Brown, who wrote that song at 15 or 16, depending on which account you believe, left the world last week secure in the knowledge he had created at least one classic. At least I hope he knew that. I would also cast my vote for the second hit by his band The Left Banke — “Pretty Ballerina” — a song that is equally captivating in its swooning lushness.

Brown was the chief songwriter for that short-lived Baroque-Pop band, a genre that was born when George Martin added his meticulously arranged strings to The Beatles “Yesterday.” Other groups got on the bandwagon with varying degrees of luck. Too many sounded like they were eager for some sort of validation from the grownups over in Classical Town. It was the beginning of the end if you enjoyed the free for all that 1960’s music represented. What was missing from all those lesser efforts was emotion and melody, two elements that make a touch of pretension forgivable.

By all accounts, Michael Brown was sensitive to a fault. He poured his heart into those first songs. Renee was more than a pretty name others forgot to use in a song — she was the girlfriend of a bandmate and off limits to our pining composer. If you can remember how a crush feels at age 15, you can imagine how overwhelming the ache in his heart must have been. How he avoided a full-on wallow in his misery and instead channeled it into a song is beyond me. His bandmates, especially the one who had won this young lady’s affections, managed to hold off on any criticism when they heard what he had come up with.

If it wasn’t obvious when they first heard him play it, they had to be bowled over when Michael’s father, Harry Lookofsky, a studio owner in New York who was also a classical violinist and arranger, worked his magic on the tune. Adding strings and and other unidentifiable — to me at least —  reeds, he took it back a century or two, to a more romantic age. Though the younger Lookofsky (who wisely went with a more show biz surname) didn’t sing the song, you could feel the unbearable teenage rapture from the first measure. The singer, who looked like Paul McCartney’s twin, was Steve Martin, but not the one with an arrow through his head. It was more like an arrow through his heart — he did a fine job of selling these lyrics:

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

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

©  Bob Calilli / Mike Brown / Tony Sansone

Song lyrics by necessity aren’t poems. There are plenty examples of writers who can’t help themselves, though. That works better when the music isn’t as moving as this. This lyric is nothing earth shattering in its inventiveness, but it is a generous partner, allowing the emotion to shine. It neither dominates or disappears. It even manages a couple nice lines, my favorite two are in the third verse: “Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall — Still finds a way to haunt me, though they’re so small.”

When I mentioned I was writing about this, my wife said the song immediately stuck in her head. In this case an earworm is a good thing. This song has been stuck in a lot of heads for a long time and you hear few complaints. Another tribute to its solidity was provided by the mighty Four Tops. Their version, in which the earth-scorching baritone Levi Stubbs is reduced to a puddle of tears, is as good as the original.

Some people are made made for show business and some just aren’t. Introspection and shyness are not not found in great quantities in showboating front men. But without these thoughtful, quieter artists there would be way fewer songs worth listening to. It’s a truism, but you have to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues. This also applies to Baroque Pop. How you manage to pay that much at 15 is anybody’s guess. But young Mike Brown was paid in full and we are the beneficiaries.

Brown was out of the band after the second album, then in and out of the spotlight the rest of his life. There were brief stints in other groups —  all of them glad to have him I’m sure. One of them, Stories, scored a hit with “Brother Louie,” but only after he had left. He also reunited with The Left Banke from time to time. He would never repeat his early success, but he’s in the mix when the topic is young geniuses. Even though it’s only pop music, I think the word applies.

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Youthful Genius of Michael Brown”

  1. Davied Hoose says:

    “Renee” is one of my all time favorite songs. I recently came across a gorgeous version of it by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy on a 2006 record called, Adieu False Heart. Lovely.
    There was a Madison band, circa ’67-’68, that performed great versions of Left Banke songs. Sadly, I don’t remember the name of the band.

  2. Barbara Smith says:

    My friend Bob Schwarz, a well-regarded, long-time sound engineer of Milwaukee, took part in recording the LB song “Walk Away, Renee” in New York (possibly when he worked at Landco Labs, owned by Bob Landers, who invented the once-popular ad phrase — “Taste that beats the others cold, Pepsi POURS it on.”) I have a LB photo somewhere.

    Mr. Schwarz also once did the recording for a band of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha, Ha,” and purportedly turned down a 1% cut of future record sales for a lousy $1,000 fee. Upon hearing the song and lyrics, he incorrectly surmised the song would most likely never go anywhere.

  3. John, thanks once again for taking me deeper into an amazing song…
    Jimmy LaFave has a profound version
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_OSQqutYxY

  4. Margaret Casey says:

    Hi John, another great article. Went to Youtube to listen to this song, which I’ve always loved, and the next song up was We Five’s “You Were on My Mind” – realized I could sing along to every word of that great song too!

  5. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Michael Brown really is a genius in the area of our emotions. He clearly states what happens how it breaks his heart (in Pretty Ballerina, my favorite, too). I remember where I was and what I was doing when I first heard Don’t Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina.

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