Two electric guitars recite a harmoniously staggered theme, shadowing a couple up a flight of stairs. They pause on every third step, perhaps restating their consent or to check if anyone is watching. At the 4-second mark, a phased rhythm guitar enters the scene, providing a shifting background at the threshold of the story. All the lovers need now is a quick musical hook, and it occurs at 10 seconds. The key is turned, the door is opened.
There’s a rest and they catch their breath. The man looks towards us and offers a plain-and-simple explanation: “There’s no place for us to hide in the neon world outside.”
The tone in his voice carries tenuous acceptance of ecstasy in the midst of conflicted reality. Knowing that their fantasy could end at any moment, they step inside and pull down the shade.
If we don’t already know the song’s subject, Gary Stewart’s voice—a wavering tremolo of intensity and madness—offers an unambiguous clue. Of course he’s slipping around with someone. He wouldn’t expend all that passion and hard-lived anxiety on something socially acceptable.
His next few lines are a declaration, a voicing of constancy: He and his lover will always meet here, above the day-to-day existence of the possibly more faithful people in the street. This declaration, like so many things in and around the song, bears multiple meanings. Does he believe they are not only above the street, but reproach, as well? That their unique situation somehow transcends judgment?
Presumably, the world doesn’t think so. And it’s due to the world’s lack of understanding and grace that they “wake before the break of day, then like the night [they] steal away.” We are expected to suspend belief for a moment: Did their spouses not miss them at home overnight?
Gary deflects our question, countering with a portrayal of a passionate, committed, against-the-odds relationship with more facets than we’d expect. These two lovers offer one another sweetness, trust, reliability, and a certain measure of security. They share concern for the welfare of others, an awareness that the world is bigger than themselves. They show a complete absence of jealousy and competition.
In fact, we are presented with only one real negative, and that would be the existence of spouses.
This is the point which triggers our judgment. Many of us will perhaps set aside all the positive attributes, and judge harshly based on the one negative. Some of us will pause to put ourselves into another’s shoes first. And a few of us will engage philosophically, practicing the “magnanimous mind” proposed by 13th-century Zen Master Dogen:
“Magnanimous Mind is like a mountain, stable and impartial. Exemplifying the ocean, it is tolerant and views everything from the broadest perspective. Having a Magnanimous Mind means being without prejudice and refusing to take sides.”
“In Some Room Above the Street” was a #15 hit for Gary Stewart in 1976. Infidelity was a subject with which he was very familiar, in life and as an artist. His previous hits included “Drinkin’ Thing,” in which he medicates his own betrayed state; “Out of Hand,” wherein he marvels at how he’s become trapped in an adulterous affair; and “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” which details another visit to the medicine cabinet.
Like many of Stewart’s songs, this one stands in the mist of social unacceptability. However, it brings no admission of guilt, no pleading for exoneration. It is much more sensitive than his previous hits, and possesses more dimensions than most songs of this genre. Our understanding is begged, along with our empathy.
Gary’s first words to us—“there’s no place for us to hide”—solicit more than our confidence. They stimulate our ability to relate: Haven’t we all needed to hide at some point in our lives? This shared experience suggests that their lives are as ordinary as ours, and that our lives are as complex as theirs. It’s a reach towards normalcy which challenges our biases.
We see this more vividly through contrast. Consider, for example, the very different timbre of “Dark End of the Street,” a cross-genre hit for multiple platinum artists. Drenched in guilt, the song presents an almost pathological desperation, generating fear and loathing at the end of Desolation Row.
Chips Moman, co-writer of “Dark End of the Street,” stated that he and Dan Penn wanted to write the “best cheating song…ever.” But in comparison with the dimensions of “In Some Room Above the Street,” their effort falls flat. What they provide is a repetitive, one-layered wallowing lament, easily summed up as “doom is coming if they find us sinners, so we have to meet at the dark end of the street because doom is coming if they find us sinners.” Moman’s and Penn’s characters exist in a miserable condition, reacting against social morality by hiding deeper and deeper, becoming more paranoid in the process. It all seems so obvious.
In contrast, the world of “In Some Room Above the Street” is a bright and well-lit one. Gary and his mistress don’t meet at the dark end of a street, but rather in the middle of a neon-light district. True, the street could be full of bars, strip joints, and used car dealers, but it could just as easily be populated with chain restaurants and first-run theaters, as family-friendly as Disney. City lights are ubiquitous. Glowing on the shade, they provide ambience without violating the sanctity of the upper room.
We are privileged a peek into the room because we are not blinded by lights of judgment. Squinting past them, we see an entirely different scene. We now see two people who love each other dearly and deeply, so committed that they are willing to risk everything. It’s a component of the best romances.
“It’s strange that love can come so sweet in some room above the street,” Gary sings. The neon blinks, the bed creaks, the shade rustles in the ceiling fan’s breeze, and it is all marvelous.
To be sure, those tightly-drawn shades are concealing something. For the lovers, they hide the outside world, one which won’t accept them because of their apparent disregard for vows. There could be other reasons for public rejection, such as race, social standing, or even sexuality—for there is no explicit mention of either partner’s gender.
But the shades also protect the world from some very unpleasant facts, hiding an activity that is more prevalent than society chooses to admit. Perhaps they are concealing not only an activity, but a specific person, for whom society wants to preserve a clean reputation. To reveal the hidden couple would be to challenge the status quo. Society doesn’t see what’s happening, because society doesn’t want to.
Those shades, be they linen, silk, or vinyl, have a big job to do. But an even bigger job is being levied upon those two pair of eyelids.
Closing of eyes is prominent in this song, coming in some very intimate moments, such as when each lover is with his or her spouse.
For his part, Gary proclaims that by closing his eyes he can get through all “the hours” he spends with his spouse. By escaping his real world, and making a virtual visit to this room, he is able to cope. But with what is he coping? We don’t know. In this minute glimpse into his domestic situation, Gary has likewise blocked our view and therefore preserved his escape route.
We don’t know what it’s like at home for his lover, either. There are no indications of domestic trouble in either household. No words are wasted by criticizing the homebound rivals. In fact, we see quite the opposite. Out of place though it might seem, we see respect.
For at some point, things are bound to get intimate between Gary’s lover and her spouse. Certainly her husband will want her tonight, or the next, or the next. Go ahead, let him have you, Gary urges. “Don’t hurt his pride…just close your eyes and think of me.”
But does this really work? And what kind of adulterers would carry with them such sensitivity to the feelings of others? This is where we have to completely set aside all previously held notions about who cheats and why, and listen to the story. There is no stereotype.
Whether Gary’s approach is effective or not we can’t say. A “close your eyes and think of me” method seems to assume that all sexual partners are equals, that intimacy is just biological sex, and any partner is a suitable physical stand-in.
But surely, some night, the betrayed husband will wonder why his wife is so distant. As Radney Foster observes in his song, “The Kiss,” betrayal can be evident in a simple and brief brush of intimacy. It is, in fact, almost impossible to hide. “The smell of his seduction makes it hard to breathe,” he declares.
On the other hand, if she musters up a good fantasy, he might wonder why she’s so energetic suddenly, as in the Texas Tornados’ hit, “Who Were You Thinkin’ Of?” “You didn’t want to quit when we was into it last night,” the singer marvels, noting that she “got more out of it than I put into it.” Was she thinking of someone else?
Perhaps the spouses at home have chosen to close their eyes, too.
In George Jones’ song, “The Window Up Above,” a husband witnesses intimate moments between his wife and another man in the street below. The reverse angle between this song and “In Some Room Above the Street” reminds us that windows are truly powerful devices, capable of controlling our comprehension and limiting—or expanding—our empathy.
Alfred Hitchcock used windows to superlative advantage in “Rear Window,” wherein convalescing Jimmy Stewart witnesses a murder that no one else even notices. The overlay of his own window against the windows of his neighbors leads him into obsession for his neighbors’ lives. This obsession leads others to discount his cry of murder.
Classic film noir is full of neon lights projected onto shades. Stories are revealed in fragments, resolving slowly over the course of the film. We cannot make premature conclusions about the characters, their motivations, or their guilt. No one is entirely innocent, and no one is irretrievably guilty. The frames upon frames, obscured by window shades, squinting eyes, and narrator prejudice, build complex intrigue. In some films, the final answer isn’t given. This is the case with “In Some Room Above the Street.” We get a few slices of life, but not the whole pie. Our view is through Gary’s eyes only, and he is inarguably biased.
One thing Gary does offer is his identifying with those outside the law. They are “like thieves and beggars” when they meet in that room.
It’s the only concession he makes that their affair is unacceptable. He offers no excuse. It is a fact, and he does not indicate that they wish for any other status.
And while outlaw status brings alienation, creative categorization provides romance and seduction. It’s one thing to be a common thug in the street. It’s quite another to be a mythic folk hero like Robin Hood or Jesse James. In their secure hideout above the street, Gary invokes a grand us-versus-them stance. Their love is epic, immune to standard judgment. No apologies are necessary.
To prolong their outsider status, it is crucial that they play the proper game when they are in the real world. They behave at home, they embrace propriety when at street level. They rush home before daylight, they keep up appearances. They have a pact to be real behind closed doors only.
Their mythic identification indicates yet another aspect of the room above the street. It is possible that their perfect love, in defiance of norms, has lead to a great disdain for life lived on ground level. They are above reproach because of the epic nature of their romance. Their love sings on more levels than we can comprehend.
The simple description of the world outside as ‘neon’ indicates the degree to which the modern world invades privacy. The darkening night doesn’t provide the anonymity that it once did; one has to work harder to steal. As we’ve already seen, these lovers knowingly meet in a well-lit part of town, regardless of how quickly they pull down those shades.
The advent of cell phones brings the expectation that anyone can be reached anywhere at anytime. In refusing to answer the call, we invite intrusive queries. To answer, however, invites even more unpleasant questions, as the ambience of the secret room is projected through the phone. To further complicate matters, phones with cameras make betrayal very easy. Security systems make surveillance routine, rather than the exception. Internet-based affairs might leave no physical trail, but all those bits and bytes can be tracked. However, lovers are more heroic than technology, and will always find a way to experience mythic romance which challenges our judgment.
In his real life, Gary Stewart was a continual challenge for anyone who wished to pass judgment. Throughout a life of drug busts, addictions, professional unreliability, and bizarre wildness, he remained married to his teenage sweetheart, Mary Lou, for 43 years. When she died, he chose not to live without her. His life was a ready-made koan in the flesh, challenging not only our judgmental tendencies but also those tendencies’ right to exist.