By Crispin Kott
Frank Sinatra – “In the Wee Small Hours”
Billy Bragg – “Walk Away Renee (Version)”
The Temptations – “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”
The Monkees – “As We Go Along”
The Incredible Moses Leroy – “The 4a”
Harlem – “Cloud Pleaser”
Maybe I’m a cliché, and maybe this is what clichés do.
I arrived home, my parents’ home, still shell-shocked, and scanned my old bedroom as though only then realizing I’d flown across the country to get away from her, or how she made me feel or the very likely chance I’d run into her on the street before I was really over her. Because I’d never really be over her.
I tried not to think too hard about what I was doing, how foolish I was to lock practically everything I owned in a small water-damaged room the sixth floor of a dingy storage facility. It was my whole life save a pile of dirty laundry, a laptop, an iPhone with spotty service, and an iPod, and all I’d left to protect it from the roving hordes of marauders in the San Fernando Valley was a bargain priced padlock on a rusty latch and the hopes that $124.99 a month bought the promise of some small level of security.
My room at home wasn’t the same, though I hadn’t really expected it to be. I hadn’t been there in more than two years, and even then it wasn’t like my parents had felt the need to keep my shit frozen in time like I’d died. I always said I’d come back, and here I was, tail between my legs, to prove it.
But they’d had guests over the years, and I guess it’s hard to be hurt that they didn’t want people they invite into their home to have to try to fall asleep with high school “art” pieces like a sketch of Mick Jagger making out with Keith Richards staring down at them no matter how abstract and cool I used to think stuff like that was.
The books were the same, those I’d felt I could live without when I left for college. Mostly Star Wars novels, a beat to shit copy of The New Rock & Roll published in the early ‘80s, and a bunch of British music rags I’d had a curiously difficult time simply throwing away; I sat on my old single bed and absently flipped through a few while pondering my next move.
Thirty years old and living at home. Jesus, what the fuck was I thinking? Rather than take on more than I was in any condition to handle, I decided to compartmentalize. And by compartmentalizing, I mean I started obsessing over Renee.
Despite a worrying connection to music and an inability to leave home for more than five minutes without taking the tens of thousands of songs on my iPod along for the journey, I’ve never been too big on playlists, generally preferring to let the iGods determine what I should listen to. Sometimes that’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t, and I fully admit to skipping song after song until I hit something that sounds absolutely right at that moment. But you know, when fate randomly shuffles “I’m So Green” into “Ganges a Go-Go,” that’s an invitation to a party you can’t pass up.
Okay, sure. I’ve got a shitload of playlists, stuff I cobble together with a very specific purpose, like if I know I’ve got a sink full of dishes: I’ll spend an hour assembling a 45-minute compilation for a chore that lasts less than 20. And chances are I’ll never listen to the playlist again.
One of the great clichés music nerds like me can’t seem to get away from is the heartbreak mix. Yeah, I’ve got one or two of those at my disposal, though I can’t remember why I wasted the time in the first place. Anyway, this was different. This was real heartbreak, unlike any anyone has ever felt before. Because that’s the kind of ridiculous shit that goes through your mind. Know how easy it is to tell a friend of yours they’re gonna get over whoever it was that didn’t recognize how terrific they really are? It makes perfect sense when you’re on the outside looking in, but when it’s you crying snot into your favorite sweater because you’re so busted up inside, logic goes out the window.
Everyone has their own opinion about everything, which can kind of be irritating, especially when you’ve just had your heart squashed into jelly and people want to steer you to their favorite breakup albums, like you really need someone curating your misery. Don’t get me wrong, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is a monster, and Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear is a brilliant piece of focused rage. But for me, the toppermost of the poppermost has always been In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra’s lush, devastating response to his breakup with Ava Gardner. Released in 1955, it proves if nothing else that music is timeless, in part, I guess, because if the emotion was real in a Hollywood recording studio, it’s gonna stay that way forever.
I’d tried to think of us as Sinatra and Gardner, though I was certainly no Frank. Renee, though, was as beautiful as Ava, and then some. They didn’t look at all alike, and there was nothing tangible to make the comparison, except that I knew when Renee walked into a room what Frank must have felt like. And I certainly knew what he felt like when Ava walked out of the room.
Sinatra re-recorded different songs throughout his career, as he did with “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” the album’s breathtaking opener. In 1955, he was on Capitol Records, and the version of the song on In the Wee Small Hours, I feel, simply cannot be beat. Later, Sinatra released a remake on Reprise, and while it too is lovely, it’s not the same. I don’t even know if the stories of his bringing heartache into the studio the first time around are true, I only know there’s something in his voice, and in Nelson Riddle’s delicate arrangement, that absolutely speaks to me. It did before we split up, and it cut especially deeply after.
There were other songs – everything from the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” to “The 4a” by the Incredible Moses Leroy to “Cloud Pleaser” by Harlem to “As We Go Along” by the Monkees – and I thought maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have them all together, because feeling shitty and alone is always more preferable to feeling nothing at all.
I thought about making a Renee playlist, and instead I took my iPod and speakers into the bathroom and sat in the tub. And the fucking iGods struck again, giving me not the Left Banke or the Four Tops, but Billy Bragg’s take on “Walk Away Renee,” officially dubbed “Walk Away Renee (Version),” because I guess Bragg’s a poet and he can’t be bothered to stick to the original. And in this case, as in most cases, Bragg was right on the mark, because if you’re still raw, still hearing someone’s voice in your head and you can imagine seeing the corners of her mouth turn up just before she laughs, his version will tear you apart.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and every time I switched on the radio there was somebody else singing a song about the two of us.”
Bragg’s version of the song has a satisfying denouement, “And then one day it happened, she cut her hair and I stopped loving her.” But I wasn’t there, not yet.
I took his advice and let the bath water go cold around me.
Crispin Kott is the co-author of the forthcoming New York Rock & Roll Explorer, and is completing what he hopes is a final revision of his debut novel, A Record Collection Reduced to a Mixtape.
Photograph by Crispin Kott, featuring needlepoint by Amy Chase