Monday, February 25, 2013

Mike Piazza and “Walk Away, Renée"

Mike Piazza batted .318 as a rookie in the Dodgers days.
I was listening to Weekend Edition Saturday yesterday morning—since NPR shows aren't available until 6-7 hours after they air in the U.S., I usually end up listening to things I really like the day afterwards. They were running this interview with Mike Piazza. I don't really know a ton about baseball or follow it especially closely—I'm generally aware that "Mike Piazza" was a baseball player in the same way that I'm aware that "Wayne Rooney" is a soccer player—but hearing him talk about his time as a catcher with the New York Mets jogged my memory of something else: the Belle & Sebastian song "Piazza, New York Catcher."

As silly as it sounds, I had never put the two together. Whenever I heard the song, I thought that it was talking about a piazza in the sense of "Italian town square"—not, as now seems obvious, the actual New York catcher (duh). Read more after the jump...

But this led to a lot of Googling, and some other realizations. Part of the song goes:

San Francisco's calling us, the Giants and Mets will play
Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay? 

At the time, I just thought this was catchy and a little elliptical. But it turns out that it's actually referring to an entire back-and-forth between Piazza and the press over whether he was, in fact, straight or gay in 2002, during which he somehow managed to upset his father, his bishop, the Washington Post, and large chunks of the American LGBT community. And the precision seems to continue:

The catcher hits for .318 and catches every day
The pitcher puts religion first and rests on holidays
He goes into cathedrals and lies prostrate on the floor
He knows the drink affects his speed, he's praying for a doorway
Back into the life he wants and the confession of the bench
Life outside the diamond is a wrench 

Mike Piazza was Rookie of the Year in 1993, when he batted an average of .318. But the problem is that he wasn't playing for the Mets then—he was still playing for the L.A. Dodgers. So he couldn't have been a New York catcher and hit for .318. He didn't catch every day, either, but close: he played 149 out of 162 games.

So that's a tolerable anachronism. But it's further complicated because of the whole bit about the pitcher. It seems to be an allusion to Sandy Koufax, who famously refused to pitch the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. But that was in 1965—and Koufax played for the recently relocated L.A. Dodgers. Nor does it seem like any of the stuff about alcoholism or cathedrals is anything other than elaborate fantasy.

The song seems to move back in time somehow. It starts ruminating over having a taste for historical interior design:

Elope with me Miss Private and we'll drink ourselves awake
We'll taste the coffee houses and award certificates
A privy seal to keep the feel of 1960s style
We'll comment on the decor and we'll help the passer by 

But it doesn't actually claim to be happening in the 1960s. It's just confounding the 1960s, the early 1990s, and the early 2000s in the same historical moment. (The album the song is on, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, came out in 2003.) The song seems kind of 60s-ish, though, and makes one last allusion that I've always really liked:

I wish that you were here with me to pass the dull weekend
I know it wouldn't come to love, my heroine pretend
A lady stepping from the songs we love until this day
You'd settle for an epitaph like "Walk Away, Renée" 

"Walk Away, Renée" was a 1966 one-hit wonder by a group called the Left Banke (sic). It was also pretty much my favorite song when I was 12. (That would have been the same year that Mike Piazza was vehemently denying that he was gay.)

I was really obsessed. I'd stay up late listening to the local oldies station (WQXC, Cool 101.1 Kalamazoo) on my clock-radio solely in the hopes of hearing this song. Once I heard it, I wanted to hear it again. If it came on the radio by chance, it would make my day.

This seems strange just eleven years later. I now have an mp3 of "Walk Away, Renée" that I can listen to whenever I like. And I listen to the "As Tears Go By"-style string lines, and the harpsichord, and the straining harmonization in the chorus, and wonder exactly what it was that made the song click for me—a song that now seems a little dated. But there's something about the slightly sappy wistfulness of the song that still makes it come alive.

Nowadays, hearing it says to me, You are twelve and waiting for your mom to leave work so you can go home. It is late autumn. The sun is setting. There's something so suburban about the whole song—"And when I see the sign that points one way / The lot we used to pass by every day"—something that just sounds like having a crush on someone for the first time in middle school, with that mild note of despair ("Don't walk away, Renée"—so oddly flipped into an imperative in the title).

The first time I heard "Piazza, New York Catcher," the baseball references went completely over my head. But just the mention of "Walk Away, Renée" was enough to make me fall in love with the song. It's about the sense of time passing, even within youth—about confusing the past and the present, not being able to tell the old from the new. Without possibly being intended to be, it's also for me a song about a twelve-year-old becoming obsessed with a piece of pop ephemera from the 1966. It's my privy seal to keep the feel of 1960s style. 

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