Michael Brown passed away March 19, 2015. He was sixty five years old and his musical career had spanned for almost half a century. He recorded some seven or eight albums all along his musical life and his first band, The Left Banke, is highly regarded as one of the key figures of Baroque Pop genre. He might have achieved a room among the Pantheon of Illustrious Musicians and his creations shall prevail for decades. However, apart from a couple of barely interesting compositions, every single worthy piece of art he ever did was conceived before he reached the age of majority in his own country. Anytime I listen to Michael Brown’s music I wonder what talent is and how come it appears so early and vigorous as suddenly and incomprehensibly it wanes later on.

michael brown

I’ve been so long fascinated by precocious talents. No, I’m not talking of an early ability to master an instrument to virtuosity nor to become a brilliant Elvis impersonator at fourteen. I’m not talking about those circuses early talents on TV shows that turn out to be creepy and absurd. I’m not thinking of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart playing piano backwards in front of the Emperor Franz Josef or Frédéric Chopin composing decent mazurkas at five. I’m not picturing a seven years old nailing a shred guitar Pachelbel’s canon version on YouTube, either. Precocious talent is something so confusing and indiscernible that it usually leads to misconception. We could waste many lines and arguments trying to tell real precocious talent from mere stravaganza but that’s not the point. My aim here is not to discern what precocious talent is, but trying to understand and analyze those cases which are absolutely and definitely unquestionable. Sometimes, in exceptionally rare cases, we find ourselves astonished to find out that some human beings of mature and enviable artistic clarity are no more than sixteen or seventeen. We immediately search back into our own biography and try to remember what were we doing at that age. Those geniuses are so overwhelmingly enormous that nobody would have any doubt about them. The most interesting thing about precocious talent is that it exposes the most genuine and pure nature of talent itself. And by studying these cases we can understand it for better.

Steve Winwood joined The Spencer Davis Groups at fourteen and shortly afterwards was de facto leading it. He founded Traffic at seventeen and Blind Faith a couple of years later. When he succeeded in the Eighties as a blue-eyed soul solo performer, he had a twenty years career behind, even though he hadn’t turned fourty yet.

 

Tim Buckley offered his brilliant debut in 1966; his powerful yet sensitive voice and profound lyrics were sometimes enhanced by Larry Becket’s existentialist pen. They both were nineteen years old at the time, but some of its songs had been written a couple of years earlier. When the former died at 29 he had recorded nine albums, gone through several stylistic changes and found the time to combine deep vocal experimentation with sex inspired funk.

 

Nick Drake is a well known artist on enumerations of this kind. Many high level scholars have spend hours and hours analyzing and threshing multiple meanings from songs such as “River man” or “Time has told me”. He was just twenty at the time but he was capable to create some of the most symbolist lyrics ever written.

 

We could keep on throwing out lots of examples of those precocious talents.  John was a thirty years old veteran and Paul had just escaped the infamous club of 27 when the Beatles decided to disband. The great Scott Walker had released three albums with the Walker Brothers and two solo recordings before his twentieth birthday and at a similar age Syd Barrett had already found the time to go crazy several times and almost disappear forever.

 

It seems like all these people and artists matured and aged at breakneck speed. For some of them, looks like talent came as fast as then faded prematurely. Some of them, disappeared à la Rimbaud and did nothing for all of their mature life. Some others kept trying to prop up their trembling careers with no success at all all through the years. Nowadays, we still find lots of old glories who insist on trivialize their own legacy, forged up some fifty years ago. Therefore, it seems rather obvious that a stunning beginning won’t predict neither a steady nor a prolific career. Furthermore, it looks like a quick success usually leads to an unstable production. There are many psychological and sociological reasons that could explain so, but this is not matter of this article.

As I’ve written above, what fascinates me mostly about these precocious talents is how they make us think about the real nature of genius: Where does it come from? Where does it go to?  But there is something else that also fascinates me about them and this is something that Michael Brown and his band, The Left Banke, perfectly exemplifies.

Michael Brown, né Michael Lookofsky, was born in 1949 in New York, the son of a remarkable violinist specialized in jazz recordings. After he met three vocalists in his father’s studio, The Left Banke were founded, becoming the first of several pop groups that Brown masterminded.  The group helped start a mini-movement in rock – “baroque-pop”, which involved lush orchestration, intricate harmonies and manierist arrangements (not necessarily drawn from baroque music) in the vein of “Eleanor Rigby“.  Alongside The Beach Boys or some less successful bands like Honeybus, The Left Banke became one of the most well known groups in this sub-genre. However, their success passed as quickly as the fad and their recordings kept out of print for decades.

The history of this New York band is very short, as it left behind only a couple of records and no more than four or five good songs. They reached a moderate hit with “Walk Away Renee“, which eventually became a classic and is their most recognized and celebrated song nowadays. In that song, apart from the adolescent voice of Steve Martin Caro, a preeminent harpsichord by Michael and a wonderful oboe solo which reminds of California dreaming’s flute stands out among the rest.

 

Then they released their second and final single, “Pretty Ballerina“, arguably the most delicate song ever recorded and a regular in every most-beautiful-songs-ever list. To be honest, “Pretty Ballerina” is the only reason for this band to transcend as a classic.  Almost thirty years ahead of Belle & Sebastian, “Pretty Ballerina” is based on simple melodic piano and subtle string arrangements, above which Steve Martin Caro’s soft teenager vocals stand out. The latter, the son of Spanish flamenco singer Sarita Heredia, had a voice that fitted in as the perfect vehicle for Michael’s Brown original universe. “Pretty Ballerina” is that little masterpiece every musician would ever dream to write.

The LP “Walk Away / Pretty Ballerina” came out in 1967 and included the first two singles of the band and some other good songs such as “Something in my mind”, “Evening Gown” or “Barterers and Their Wives”. “Shadows breaking over my head” was another highlight from this record.

Sadly, The Left Banke’s time at the top did not last. Their next single, “Ivy Ivy”, flopped and caused the band to split after Brown replaced all the other band members with session players for the recording, just the same as Brian Wilson had done in The Beach Boys not long before. Brown and the original members were reunited in 1967 and The Left Banke released Desiree, a decent song lacking the genius of the formers. Inadequately promoted, it only reached number 98 in November 1967. Brown then left the group for good and the three remaining components of the band gave birth to two further insignificant albums.
Meanwhile, Michael Brown, in collaboration with a group of similar trends, Montage, would eventually record his latest masterpieces, a long self-titled album. “She’s alone“, from that album, would become his shivery final scream, just before falling in that early and inexplicable darkness in which only the biggest and earliest artists can sink. Well, he was part of two more bands all along the seventies, The Beckies and The Stories, but they are so dull we won’t waste a word on them.

So, as I pointed out several lines above, the most appealing matter regarding these early geniuses is not their remarkable ability at addressing and performing a commendable piece of art at a young age. The most appealing matter regarding precocious talents in general and The Left Banke in particular is that, being a quite mature and effective group at a really early age, they can draw us into a pure and genuinely teenage world that no adult, no matter how mighty his qualities might be, would be able to recreate. Only a person who is both a solid artist and a real teenager could transmit in such a powerful way what being a teenager is. As far as music and arts are forms of expression, we need those precocious talents to find out or to remember those adolescent feelings.

When we hear “Pretty Ballerina” or the aforementioned “Shadows breaking over my head“, we dive into that megalomania, innocence, angst and arrogance that only a teenage mind is capable to harbor. Only some privileged vocals like those of Steve Martin and some varicolored ideas like those of Michael Brown can recreate that exact sensation. A teenager feigning to be a man or an adult pretending to be a child is pure aberration. But an artist that is able to convey the deepest adolescence, as Michael Brown did, is authentic and daunting stuff. It’s the same Johnny Cash did on his later days, when he spoke neatly with the scariest wisdom of his old age like nobody had spoken before.

However, apart from the superb “She’s alone“, by Montage, Michael Brown never managed to write any song as good as the former ones. In fact, he just recorded one solo album later than 1976, which seems almost impossible to find nowadays. Then, how this teenager who wrote “Pretty Ballerina” grew up to become an adult incapable of writing a good song? Did he tried at least? I’m not an expert on Michal Brown’s life and that’s not my business anyway, but I keep on thinking and thinking of him and “Pretty Ballerina” and there’s something I can’t understand. When he was my age, he was already retired, had written some superb songs and seems like he didn’t want to write any more music. Had he already done enough?

 

Sometimes I ask myself the following question: Is excellence acquired through a long path of hard work, perfectionism and evolving and maturing creations or it’s just an accurate glint of pure genius what justifies a whole existence? Should I persevere in shaping a balanced and coherent career, rich in variety and counterpoints or must I pursue more than anything that glorious and short, yet eternal, moment?
While I usually answer myself that only a whole life of dedication would lead to real success and satisfaction, deep inside I’m afraid I know the actual response which seems to be awfully far from the former. Yes, I know everyone would preach for a productive self demanding way of life; none of them have given birth to a quintessential epitome of beauty as the song “Pretty Ballerina“.

“Pretty Ballerina” is that accurate glint that justifies a whole life. “Pretty Ballerina” is that unique and naïf glint that overcomes a balanced and coherent career.  “Pretty Ballerina” is that simple glint I would change all my work for.  But a song like this could only happen once in a lifetime so, until I find my own “Pretty Ballerina“, I’ll keep working hard and trying to produce good music, just in case I never find mine and someday I find myself in need to prove everything’s been worth it.

Well, Michael Brown found it and I really hope that, on his later days, he did feel everything had been worth it.

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About The Author

Ignacio Simón
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Ignacio Simón is a Spanish born musician and writer, currently living in UK. He is the only constant member of the psychedelic folk band Al Berkowitz and has released a bunch of albums with them since 2006. Besides, he has also produced tons of experimental music under different monikers such as Simon Aschenbach, Traummerstzung and Elektronische Gulag and scored several films and commercials. In 2014 he founded the record label Tempel Arts. Having earned a degree in Musicology, he likes to write down his reflections on Music and some of its less known exponents.