RIP, Steve Martin Caro. Renee May Have Walked Away, But I’m Here For the Duration.
Most records, including the best records, need a periodic sabbatical. You send them on holiday so they can return fresh. It doesn’t diminish their greatness.
And then there are a few that never need the break, that you really could hear every day.
My no-break group includes “Walk Away Renee” the original Left Banke recording that became a top-5 radio hit in the fall of 1966.
In theory, I could have listened to Steve Martin Caro’s lead vocal every day for more than 53 years. I didn’t, but the fact I could have tells me we lost an underappreciated talent when Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro died Tuesday, age 71.
Caro, who was Steve Martin on “Walk Away Renee” and later added the family surname to avoid being confused with the comedian, sang for most of his life.
He didn’t publicly sing with the Left Banke after 1978, despite social media postings the last couple of years saying he and other surviving members had reunited.
To most fans, he had drifted into the mists of rock ’n’ roll lore, a romantic place where the ever-growing crowd must have a lot to talk about.
Happily, he and his friends left a magical record behind.
The Left Banke members weren’t exactly one-hit wonders, because they scored a second top-20 hit a year later with the lovely “Pretty Ballerina.” But like numerous other artists — think Percy Sledge — their signature song was so indelible that if you asked a thousand 1960s music fans what the Left Banke sang, between 998 and 999 would say, “Walk Away Renee.”
There’s a reason for that.
“Walk Away Renee” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio. It borrowed from a whole bunch of other popular artists — bass line from “You Won’t See Me” by the Beatles, harmonies from the Beatles and Zombies, flute from the Mamas and Papas — but almost all songs borrow from other songs and “Walk Away Renee” did what the best ones do, which is reshuffle all the old stuff into something new.
Not that many top-40 songs in 1966 featured a string quartet, a harpsichord part and a flute solo.
Even fewer were so evocative. The emptiness of Renee walking away is visceral.
To convey that feeling is particularly impressive when you consider that, honestly, “Walk Away Renee” is not a whole great song. It’s got beautiful lines. It also has “The rain beats down upon my weary eyes / For me it cries.”
Fortunately, by that point it has already won us over. It has become the kind of song you could listen to every day.
At least equally impressive, it’s one of the few recordings that’s better than a Motown version.
The Four Tops also recorded “Walk Away Renee,” not long after the Left Banke, and had a sizeable hit. It isn’t a bad record, because the Four Tops did not make bad records, but it doesn’t have the same haunting resonance.
All that said, both the Left Banke and “Walk Away Renee” come with somewhat ragged stories of their own.
The band got together in New York, one of a few thousand bunches of guys who had heard the Beatles and decided that’s who they wanted to be.
Michael Brown, who played keyboard, was the son of Harry Lookofsky, a session violinist who ran a small recording studio called World United. So Michael and his friends, instead of workshopping in a garage or basement, got to do it in an actual studio.
The others included George Cameron, who switched to the drums when original drummer Warren David-Schierhorst was booted, bass player Tom Finn, guitarist Jeff Winfield and of course then-Steve Martin, who was the son of flamenco singer/dancer Sarita Heredia.
Michael Brown had some classical training and was a competent keyboardist. The others weren’t great instrumentalists, but they could sing really well.
Harry Lookofsky recorded them singing “I’ve Got Something On My Mind” and “I Haven’t Got the Nerve.” That’ll keep a band plugging away.
History says the flashpoint came when Finn started dating Renee Fladen. She was a tall blonde, with some resemblance to a young Joni Mitchell. One day he brought her to a session, sending Mike Brown into what Brown later called teenage love as overwhelming as it was unrequited.
As Brown would later tell it, Renee treated him like wallpaper. So entirely in his mind, he said, he built up an affair from which he envisioned Renee one day just walking away, washing his heart away like teardrops in the rain.
That was the inspiration, he often said, for “Walk Away Renee.” And a couple of other Renee songs, including “Pretty Ballerina” and a lovely non-hit titled “She May Call You Up Tonight.”
As stalking goes, this is about as benign as it gets. As Brown tells it, it’s also not a bad example of turning lemons into lemonade.
There is, however, a dissonant note.
Brown didn’t write “Walk Away Renee” by himself. He cowrote it with Bob Callili and Tony Sansone, and in July 2016, the National Catholic Register asked Sansone about the origin of “Walk Away Renee.”
He said he, not Brown, wrote most of it. He also said this:
“There’s a nonsense story being spread around about the Renée in my song being Left Banke band member Tom Finn’s girlfriend Renée [Fladen-Kamm], but it’s completely untrue. I think Michael Brown said it, or he was misquoted or something, but it’s completely untrue. I totally made up the girl’s name. She’s not meant to be anyone in particular. I was listening to the Beatles’ song ’Michelle’ and thought, “Why not another song with a French name?” That’s when I came up with the idea to write a song with the name Renée. That’s all — nothing else. The entire song was about my life in the Bronx ― specifically, the things around me . . . . It’s all about imagery I witnessed or participated in on Hull Avenue. No mysteries — it’s just the experiences of my life.”
Ah, the loose ends of rock ’n’ roll.
Now there really was a Renee Fladen, and she did hang around the Left Banke for a while. Eventually she walked away from Tom Finn and in 1967 married Howard Kamm. They moved West and divorced in 1974. Since then, she has built a career as a singer and vocal coach, working in areas like Medieval music.
Since “Walk Away Renee” is often described as “baroque” — Sansone calls it “Chopinesque” — there’s a certain symmetry whether she did or did not break Michael Brown’s teenage heart.
Brown isn’t around to debate it any further. He died in 2015, followed by Cameron in 2018. Now Caro. Eventually we all walk away.
But to end on a slightly less somber note, here’s a final fun fact: One of the numerous musicians who joined various incarnations of the Left Banke over the years was Michael McKean, who later became a founding member of Spinal Tap and recently played Chuck, the troubled older brother of Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul.
And none of this alters the happy truth that “Walk Away Renee,” with the haunting vocal by Steve Martin Caro, not only sounds as good today as it sounded in 1966, but it sounds just as fresh.
Buenos noches, Carmelo.