the lot we used to pass by, every day.
Just walk away Renée,
you won’t see me follow you back home.
There are some songs, even before hearing them, you just know are going to be great. Or more accurately, you pray are going to be great.
When an artist comes up with a great song title, whether it’s “Candy’s Room”, “Fat Man In The Bathtub”, or “Cold, Cold Heart”, it’s like they’ve entered into a bargain with the listener. Namely, that it isn’t just a tease — they’re going to deliver a song as awesome as its name.
Even the title was was full of mystery. The narrator seems to have broken up with the girl, and yet,
Your name and mine inside
a heart upon a wall
Still finds a way to haunt me,
though they’re so small
...one of the of the great rock & roll verses of longing and broken-heartdom.
Of course, I soon learned that the song was originally recorded by a group from Brooklyn, called the Left Banke. The writer was the band’s keyboardist, 16-year old Mike Brown, whose real last name was Lookofsky, and whose father was a music producer and session-violinist.
I read too, that “Renée” was Renée Fladen, girlfriend of the band’s bassist, Tom Finn. Though Brown had only met her a month before, and they barely knew each other, he was infatuated — also writing “Pretty Ballerina”, and “She May Call You Up Tonight”, about her. In the former, he describes platinum blonde hair (which Fladen had),
“..so brilliant that it hurt my eyes”
Though she was never known to be aware of Brown’s feelings, Fladen was in the studio while ‘Walk Away’ was being recorded, which has to make you wonder. Her presence, in fact, made Brown so nervous, he had to come back to the studio by himself, in order to play the harpsichord solo properly. His hands shook too much while she was there.
Though “Walk Away Renée” was a big hit, and has been covered by Linda Ronstadt, the Four Tops, Bon Jovi, and many others, the Left Banke didn’t last long. With this song and the others, Brown had invented what came to be known as ‘baroque pop’, which featured classical ornamentation, perhaps due to his father’s influence. It was difficult to replicate live, and Brown I think, saw himself more of a Brian Wilson (who was similarly experimenting), ‘in-the-studio’ guy, then as a member of a touring band.
I suppose too, that as the songwriter who received the royalties, touring was less important to him than the other band members. Brown continued to make music, and lived for a time with Mary Weiss, but is a reclusive character. However, I found on a fan site, an interview with him, of unknown date:
EDEN: Was there really a lot and a one way sign that you would pass by every day?
BROWN: The sign was on Falmouth Street in Brooklyn, and the lot was on the corner of Falmouth and Hampton Ave. We used to play in there when we were little children and have praying Mantises drop on our hands, they were the most beautiful creatures you could imagine. And there was a law against killing them, it was a $25 fine because they did good work ecologically.
That really struck me. Something about how this childhood memory had contributed to his art, and one of the great songs of rock & roll heartbreak. Google Maps showed the intersection to be in Manhattan Beach , but the street-view showed buildings on every corner... no lot.
An investigation was needed, so last weekend, I headed over. It was a very hot day, but the neighborhood, about a 10-minute walk from the Sheepshead Bay subway station, is tree-lined, and cooler than the surrounding area. Still home to a large number of Eastern European Jews, it is pretty and quiet, and I imagine it is largely as it was, when Brown lived there, though there are unfortunately now some McMansions scattered about.
When I got to the intersection, there sure enough was a ‘one-way’ sign, but, no empty lot. Looking around, it was obvious that three of the four corner buildings had been there a very long time, but the house on the northeast corner appeared newer than the rest (lower-right in the below pic).
After taking a few pictures, I headed back to the station, glad to get on an air-conditioned train. When I got home, I looked up the City's property-tax info for that house — 101 Falmouth Street. It was built in 1955. Brown was 16 when he wrote “Walk Away Renée”, and it came out in 1966, so he would have been 5-years old, when the house was built.
His entire romance (including break-up), with Fladen had been imagined, and borrowing from the limits of his childhood memory...well, as Dashiell Hammett, Proust, or Edward Hopper could have told you, he created the stuff that our dreams are made of. That’s what artists do.
And Renée Fladen? About a month after the recording, she and her family moved to Boston. As far as I can tell, no one in the band ever saw her again.
Today, she lives in the San Francisco area, teaching music. As to her thoughts on being the muse for one of rock & roll’s greatest songs? She’s kept them to herself.
“I was just sort of mythologically in love, if you know what I mean, without having evidence in fact or in deed...But I was as close as anybody could be to the real thing.”