Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Lover's Discourse: The Four Tops: "Walk Away Renee"

Or, The Summer of Love With A Vengeance

"My language trembles with desire." Roland Barthes, "Talking" A Lover's Discourse

There are certain voices that can sing anything - and then there are grander voices that are best suited to whatever their voices most suggest. Holland-Dozier-Holland knew what Levi Stubbs' voice was capable of, what it could bear, and wrote songs for him and The Four Tops that only they could really sing. Stubbs' voice is big, pained, noble; it needed a setting and lyrics that could match it.

When H-D-H left Motown The Four Tops were (like everyone else H-D-H had worked with) at something of a loss for songs, when someone - I'm not sure who - found this and knew it would work. (I am writing about this, by the way, as a #2 hit on the NME chart.) I can well imagine them hearing to the original in '66 song by The Left Banke and being impressed by it; the singer is paralyzed with hopeless love. He is stationary, empty, and the world floods around him, the sky cries the tears he can't, the symbol of love - a heart on a wall with her & his names - haunts him. Because she can never be his, she may as well leave; he cannot follow her or even be near her. It is too much for him, he literally cannot stand it. The singer Steve Martin (and here we come to feeling The Four Tops understood) cannot help himself; he sounds as if he is singing from a fugue state, just conscious enough to sing, to say what little there is he can say, that can be expressed in words. The rest is taken up by strings, harpsichord, flute; the elegant and comforting touches around a terrible loss.

He is noble in recognizing what the situation is (she's not to blame; there's no blame here at all) and being able to sing it. (Renee was an actual person, a muse for the harpsichordist/lyricist Michael Brown, and she was present when the song was being recorded, but not during his playing; he was trembling and in no fit state to record when she was around, and he did his part later when she'd gone.)

So this is not mere infatuation or a crush; this is closer to the scary, sweaty but inspirational Robert Graves' The White Goddess situation, where the writer is almost driven to write out his profound and worshipful experiences*. That is the kind of urgency and agony that suited Stubbs' voice very very well, and the grief and baroque pop of the original also suited the Motown's continuing aim of being 'The Sound of Young America' - they had started recording in Los Angeles as well as Detroit in 1967 and the baroque/psychedelic sounds were starting to filter into the songs and production. (Think of "Reflections" by The Supremes or "More Love" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.)

The version by The Four Tops sounds large and perhaps a bit rough compared to the original (there's no harpsichord or flute on it, that I can tell - horns and piano are dominant here). Stubbs dominates the song with his pauses, his soaring exclamations, as he is supported by his group and other backing singers. He isn't so much paralyzed as proclamatory; he is past the agony of the situation, sure, but not so much that every thing - the one way sign, the heart - are just reminders of what he can never have, and he sings about them as if (almost) he is wounded by them, like arrows. He can live without her, but he can never escape her, and the emptiness and literal signs of love will outlive him.

That might sound a bit hyperbolic, but this is a song about one man vs. the world, the awfulness of every particular thing as symbols of what he wants and cannot have. They are noble because they are his; no one will ever feel about them the way he does. For Brown they are actual, for Stubbs they are dramatic (that the song starts with 'And' implies there is something that could come before the lyric, but doesn't - the listener is thrown right into the thick of things). With each high "AWAY" she is willed further and further out of his life**; the song resolves on a downward graceful landing, a note of peace that points back to the beginning - starting with "And" means he will go on, it's not the end of the world, just the end of his possibility of requited love (which can seem like the end of the world, admittedly).

The crushing feeling here is the aftermath of love; the Summer of Love left many heartbroken and in '68 - a time of turmoil and trouble almost as soon as it started - is full of songs where emotion, not reason, come to the fore. From hope comes desire, and from thwarted or doomed desires come drama; an awful lot of drama is to come on this blog. But few of these songs are as cathartic as this one, which leaps immediately in to fill in the once empty air with a near-operatic song. Like I said, The Four Tops understood this, and by extension give the listener a compassionate hug, as well.

"How does love end? - Then it does end?" Roland Barthes, "The Ghost Ship" A Lover's Discourse

*Brown referred to his love for Renee as "mythological."

** The Four Tops did an Italian version of this called "L'Arcobaleno" ("Rainbow") - something else that can be admired but never reached.


Bob Stanley said...

I think this was initially album fodder, no more than a cover of a contemporary hit, on the Reach Out LP. When HDH quit it made for a more than adequate stopgap 45 as did If I Were a Carpenter shortly afterwards.

The original 45 is much less piano-heavy than the version that ALWAYS seems to get radio play these days.

Oh. No Daydream Believer? NME no.2 I think.

Lena said...

I am doing the NME ones when I feel like I can say something about them; I don't have much left to say about The Monkees (as lovely as the song is), sadly!

Their version of "If I Were A Carpenter" is underrated, thanks for reminding me of it...

Unknown said...

What a lovely review!

So good to read something with brains and sensitivity on the products of pop culture.

I would dearly, dearly, dearly love to read (or hear) a musical analysis of some of the great Motown discs. Here I would be thinking of something like Classic FM's series on a Sunday afternoon where a music critic would take a long, detailed, expository look for the layman at a famous classical piece.

It would be wonderful for someone who knew what they were doing - and were as articulate and sensitive as you clearly are - to talk through some of the great achievements of pop, R&B, and even disco...