Tag Archives: infidelity

Hi-Fi Infidelity: Blind Love Blues

We enter the theater and find it’s become a hall of mirrors, highly polished and meticulously disorienting. As we take our seats, we can’t tell the real from the carefully projected.

The lights go down and a softly strummed arpeggio summons the spotlight. Our man steps forward, surrounded by the reflections he is curating. As he speaks, we are still not sure which panel to watch. We are reflected along with him, as if the audience is also part of the performance.

Walter Hyatt, who left an indelible mark on American songwriting. Learn more about his music and legacy at www.walterhyatt.com
Walter Hyatt, who left an indelible mark on American songwriting. Learn more about his music and legacy at www.walterhyatt.com

“Early in the evening, she goes out,” he begins. Acoustic guitar, double bass, lilting piano, and the always-seductive brushed snare accompany his words, conjuring cocktails and a lightly wafting cloud of smoke. Our perception becomes elegantly clouded.

His next few lines not only increase our interest but elicit our doubts. She’s gone to see a friend, he readily pretends. “I’m not supposed to know,” he says candidly, indicating that he knows all too well.

Walter Hyatt’s “Blind Love Blues,” with its shifting identities and altered perceptions, resembles Ruggero Leoncavallo’s celebrated 1892 opera, Pagliacci. Leoncavallo’s play-within-a-play involves multiple levels of infidelity, confused identities, and clouds of suspicion. In the opera’s prologue, we are informed that the show is about real people. But with each actor performing multiple roles, we have to carefully watch for the reality.

In the opera’s second and final act, lead character Canio, dressed as a fool in the grand tradition, storms the stage attempting to identify his wife’s lover. In “Blind Love Blues,” however, our leading man plays it closer to Leonard Cohen, whose resignation in “Famous Blue Raincoat” is almost unbearable. Acceptance tempered with grace lies at the heart of Walter Hyatt’s song, and within this respectable context he paces the mirrored hall in the costume of a fool—but certainly a sophisticated and self-aware one. As we listen to his concise story, we must discern his true identity. The song is deceptively simple on the surface but seductively complex once we discern the angle of the mirrors.

Carefully placed, mirrors show us only what we want to see. Simultaneously, they block out things we do not wish to see. That is perhaps their greatest purpose.

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In his second stanza, Walter tell us that though his partner has strayed, “faith is hard to lose.” As if to bolster his statement, he tells us that she still comes home. He doesn’t indicate how frequently she does so, nor how long she stays. But this small gesture, however fleeting, counterbalances all of her other actions and is all the proof he needs.

Walter uses the word ‘faith’ where others might have used the word ‘trust.’ There is wondrous subtlety in this word choice, one which takes the song into much deeper territory. Trust is easily broken, often by one act of transgression. It is almost impossible to rebuild, since each of the transgressor’s subsequent actions can prompt suspicion. But faith is another matter. It does not depend upon the actions of another person, but upon our belief in who the other person is. It cannot be destroyed from the outside, but only from within ourselves. Destroying one’s own faith takes willingness and a fervent commitment. Walter isn’t ready for that yet.

Put another way, trust is tangible: the evidence, positive or negative, is all around. Faith is transcendent: the evidence is never to be seen.

Invoking faith, Walter sets up his camp in the holy land, where Jehovah refused to give up on Israel, in spite of so much infidelity, and where Israel refused to give up on Jehovah, even after 40 years of manipulation in the desert. Like true believers who will never give up on Jesus’ imminent return, Walter will never give up on his beloved. No amount of advice or persuading from others will matter. Some things you believe until you’re ready not to believe.

Religious faith provides present comfort leveraged against future hope and a grand purpose. Those who employ religion are willing to ignore its inconsistencies; this is simply the price of admission. Latent bigotry, endemic xenophobia, and extreme provincialism can be reflected, deflected, or completely obscured. God can harmonize all these dissonant strains. It is said that God created man in his image; and in this song, perhaps Walter sees God in his own reflection.

In his use of words like “faith” and “believe,” he clearly makes his love for his spouse into religious practice. By doing so, he has immunized it against our judgment.

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The Christian apostle Paul stated, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Verging on self-sacrifice, perhaps love can also be considered co-dependent. Walter seems to play into this with a declaration in the fourth stanza: “I know I love her more than someone else.”

This condition, of loving her more than he loves someone else, can easily paint him as a victim. His attachment is so great that it overrides good sense and reason, making him vulnerable to whatever acts she might commit. He couldn’t possible love anyone else this much, and surely she loves him the same way. With love comes great sacrifice, so he’ll cinch up his belt of truth and shield himself with faith.

For him to seek vengeance or retribution would be self-serving. For him to keep track of her transgressions would be to love her less. His selflessness leads to sacrifice, which in turn leads to heroism—or is that a savior complex?

For there is a beautiful ambiguity in his “more than someone else” declaration, and in a song that trades heavily in subtlety, this line’s leverage is almost imperceptible. It sneaks by the listener and delivers one meaning, leaving the other to register later. Which is the mirrored image, and which is the real?

For he could be proclaiming that he loves her more than any other man could possibly love her, and in this we have an entirely different situation. His love is grand, powerful, and able to outlast the love of any other suitor. Now he truly is Jehovah to her Israel, and is confident that, when she realizes the impotency of the neighboring gods, she’ll gladly come back to his altar. Once there, she’ll realize the truth as he proclaims it: “I love her better than she loves herself.”

The bottom line is still the same: he endures in order to be her hero. He drives it home with one more nail: “I can stand the pain,” he says. “I just can’t stand to lose.”

Has his devotion just run into the weeds of narcissism? Is he in the play only to garner applause for his own performance? Has he created an alternate reality for the sole purpose of winning? If so, she is no longer a straying partner, but a game piece, demonstrating daily the grandeur of his love.

No matter how bad she gets, he can always supply more love than is humanly possible. He aims to win. The ruse is up, we’ve identified our man.

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Our man’s stoic stability stands in sharp contrast to the fretting of Tony Villanueva, writer and singer of “Lover’s Lie,” a 1997 song by the Derailers. Tony’s anxiety is well out front, goading his denial.

“I have every right to ask questions,” he says, “but I’m not one to pry.” When faced with a situation like Walter’s, Tony is torn between wanting to know and wanting to stay in the dark. We get the sense that his world is about to collapse, whichever option he chooses. Walter, however, remains cool and collected.

Gary Stewart provides another contrast in his 1974 hit, “Drinkin’ Thing.” Filled with suspicion regarding his partner, he won’t ask her where she’s been. It’s not his reluctance to pry, but rather his fear that she will “probably tell the truth.” Walter clearly knows the truth, so asking would be redundant, not to say rude, and her answers would make very little difference. The beauty of not asking is not having to manage all the messy, capricious details. You only have to manage not asking.

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Sketched with economic candor, “Blind Love Blues” leaves a lot unsaid. Walter’s taken great care to exonerate his beloved. He’s attributed her infidelities to his own mistakes, as he says in the second stanza: “I see the part I’ve played.” But he provides no details about what he has done.  He won’t dish any dirt on her, either. He prefers to carefully adjust the mirrors to reflect her guilt upon himself, and leave it at that.

His reticence is a noble departure from a tradition in which the unfaithful are soundly lambasted. Dave Davies, in the Kinks’ song “Creeping Jean,” expresses utter contempt and disgust with his faithless lover’s “dirty friends and underwear.” He declares that she is, in fact, “a disease.” In Jason and the Scorchers’ incendiary “White Lies,” Jason Ringenberg’s voice is roiled by repulsion at the evening activities of his own friend-visiting Jezebel. Not content to defame only one cheating female, Robert Johnson, in “From Four Till Late,” unkindly generalizes that a “woman is like a dresser, some man always ramblin’ through its drawers.” Walter, ever the gentleman, will not speak ill of those not present.

As for his own mistakes, the easiest conclusion for us to make is the one Walter leads us to: his infidelities provoked hers. She has the right to get even; revenge is a tradition as old as infidelity itself. In the very noncryptic “While You’re Cheating on Me,” the Louvin Brothers sing, “For when you were faithful to me I cheated on you.” They are patient to wait out their tit-for-tat comeuppance, but don’t leave it up to fate entirely. While she’s out cheating, they’re home praying.

Walter’s slight admission of guilt does nothing to tarnish his god-like love, for even Jehovah repented now and then. In the absence of any contrary details, we know only that he is a long-suffering, possibly redeemed spouse of an unfaithful woman. To avoid our harsh judgments of her and to reduce our incredulity of his patience, he’s shrouded the whole affair in supernatural love. And as if divine love were not enough, Walter also invokes the world’s colloquial wisdom. “Wise men say that love is blind.” Or perhaps it’s a reflection of what we wish to see.

Enrico Caruso in his most famous role as Canio/Pagliaccio.
Enrico Caruso in his most famous role as Canio/Pagliaccio.

Risking narcissism to absolve the guilt of another might not be the answer for everyone. Back at the opera, Canio, in his clown-go-to-meeting clothes, rampages the boards trying to suss his wife’s paramour. In a startling confusion of life and art, he breaks character and murders his wife onstage. The last line of the performance declares that the comedy is over, for in fact, the denouement is quite tragic.

Walter, however, declares the tragedy over. He pursues a resolution more apropos classical comedy, one in which the hero’s state improves over the course of the play. He has provided his own deus ex machina, and now stands alone as the reflection of cumulative infidelities, the noble and heroic effect of purposefully hidden causes. And certainly no one’s fool.

Hi-Fi Infidelity: Me and Mrs. Jones

The door swings open as we pass the café. The A/C is turned up all the way, and we are embraced by a coolly seductive rush of air. We catch an irresistible cosmopolitan groove from the jukebox and can no longer stand out in the heat. We duck in, taking a table near the front window so we can watch life pass by.

The song has just started and we smile as we sing along, relishing the lush and sultry rhythm. The rise and fall of the string arrangement is mirrored in our entwined arms, and the serpentine staccato urges us to get closer. We look directly into each other’s eyes as the evocative story reaches into our romantic hearts.

We don’t miss a word, and as we reach the last repetition of the song’s key phrase, we spot the couple in the back booth.

“Me and Mrs. Jones…we got a thing goin’ on…”

Our eyes meet with theirs, and we instinctively lower our voices. As the song goes into fadeout, we turn to see the heat waves rising from the pavement outside.

Candid, proud, and disarming in its tone, “Me and Mrs. Jones” was a #1 Billboard hit for Billy Paul in 1972. It dominated that position on the Hot 100 and R&B Singles charts for the month of December. It has been recorded by numerous artists since, including Grammy-winner Michael Bublé and alt-country chanteuse Kelly Willis.

It’s an enduringly popular song, one people sing along with regardless of their moral inclinations to the contrary. It is sweet without saccharine, sweepingly romantic, and against all odds. Its unhesitant declaration of “we got a thing goin’ on” is both intimate and celebratory. Taken within its own context, it provides an alluring portrait of infidelity in a seemingly innocent setting.

Innocence is an ambiguous quality, it must be confessed. Billy takes the issue head-on, openly declaring that their rendezvous is wrong. But a thorough reading of the lyrics, projected against the setting, indicates that so little ‘wrong’ is really happening.

They meet “every day at the same café,” he says, illustrating their dedication to one another. But no matter how secluded their booth, it offers more limitations than the wedding rings they presumably wear. The most lurid behavior we can identify is “holding hands.” They do a lot of hoping, but hope is not a crime.

The song’s arrangement furnishes a setting of intimacy and comfort. The lilting melody immerses our confidence in a sea of sustained strings as we ease into the tuck-and-roll bassline. The high-hat chips away the precious evening hours while the sparse piano fills invite us to have one more cocktail. Economic lyrics help us imagine every nuance: the café’s fluttering awning, little wrought iron sidewalk tables, large casement windows, and an ever-playing jukebox inside.

By 6:30 PM, dusk is settling in. If the café is in a major metropolitan area, then the surrounding buildings have already cast their shadows inside the room. From the sidewalk, we can see the presence of diners, but we can’t make out their faces.

Inside, however, their faces are clearly seen by the daily staff. The bartender certainly knows them, and perhaps he calls them both “Jones.” The servers, the hostess, the manager, even the busboy, all recognize them. They’re the regulars; they’ve accrued certain privileges. The staff has taken them under their wing and guards their anonymity. Their table is ready and waiting every day at 6:30. Their favorite record is never removed from the jukebox. As Doris Day once sang, “Everybody loves a lover.”

Privileged status aside, “every day at the same café” indicates something very unpleasant: The lovers’ refuge doubles as a prison, enforcing some very significant restraint. In many songs of infidelity we are privy to intimate moments in close quarters, where the lovers consummate their relationship. For example, “In Some Room Above the Street,” a 1976 hit by Gary Stewart, takes us to a neon-lit hotel room, carefully chosen by the lovers to host their very passionate affair. In such a haven, they are free to express every aspect of their love. But with Mr. Paul and Mrs. Jones, there seems to be no such oasis. Dusk can only throw shade on their relationship, not draw a blind between them and the prying public.

We don’t know how long they spend at the café each evening. We don’t know if they’ve ever met elsewhere. We don’t know if they’ve had one single quiet, private moment—and in this the song presents them as relatively innocent. There’s not one mention of sexual involvement, no allusion, no innuendo, no euphemisms. The resulting effect is that it’s easy to find ourselves rooting for the couple. After all, they’re just holding hands. That seems safe enough. As long as it doesn’t get “Out of Hand,” the dangers of which Gary Stewart also sang about, in 1976.

We can deduce that their tryst takes place in a large city. In a small town, everyone would know of their rendezvous, including their spouses. As Hank Williams says in “You Win Again,” “The news is out all over town/that you’ve been seen out running around.” This is not the case in “Me and Mrs. Jones,” judging from Billy’s confident confession. In addition, the smooth R&B style of the song indicates a very urban love affair. This is no honky-tonk, and certainly not a roadhouse. It’s a cozy bistro in Philadelphia, full of international soul.

Honky-tonks and roadhouses have inspired numerous cheating songs, to be certain. And in many of them, the lovers are discovered. An extremely familiar example of this, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1973 song “Gimme Three Steps,” portrays the polar opposite of “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The cheating woman is discovered by her mate, and the other man must flee for his life. A similar situation occurs in the 1964 hit by Jay and the Americans, “Come a Little Bit Closer.” Not one to be outdone by any man in a café or honky-tonk, Doug Sahm recounted his personal barroom infidelities in multiple songs, such as “I Can’t Go Back to Austin” and the title-says-it-all “Cowboy Peyton Place.”

In a public place such as this one, we can expect them to be cautious. They don’t attract extra attention by dancing to their favorite song. Instead, they sit snugly and scheme elaborately–and this is the point which causes Billy’s anxiety. “We got to be extra careful,” he says, “that we don’t build our hopes too high.” For outside their Naugahyde love nest, there are other “obligations.”

These obligations certainly involve spouses, and perhaps children. Billy doesn’t say any more about their respective home lives, but his word choice—obligations—is very informative, telling us how they perceive their home lives. There’s no mention of appreciation or love for anyone at home. In fact, the word love is completely absent from this song, never making an appearance even in regard to their illicit relationship.

With unhappy—or perhaps unremarkable—experiences at home, Mr. Paul and Mrs. Jones have extra reason for caution. It would be easy for them to see each other as an exciting alternative to domestic doldrums. The runaway thrill of a forbidden romance leads directly to idyllic expectations. Perhaps the hopes they are fighting include the hope that they’ve really found the perfect thing. It’s definitely a “thing,” he proudly proclaims. But he doesn’t provide an adjective.

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An important discovery was made in the 1950s: how to properly stock a jukebox. Music historian Charlie Gillett writes: “These records had to have either a beat heavy enough to cut through the raucous clamor of a bar or a message desolate enough to haunt late-night drinkers not yet ready to go home.” What this means is that our lovers, with their attachment to the jukebox, are subject to myriad aural hazards.

The jukebox, an anemic and impersonal substitute for live musicians, can nevertheless influence the activity and emotion of the venue. It can instantly silence the chatter, clear the room, or fill the dance floor. A cleverly stocked jukebox can help an establishment generate repeat business, as aficionados know exactly where to hear a favorite tune or to catch a certain vibe.

The jukebox’s command of a venue’s mood was illustrated in a 1972 episode of “Night Gallery,” in a segment titled, “The Tune in Dan’s Café.”

The tune in question was Jerry Wallace’s country hit from August of that year, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry.” Through the course of the episode, we learn of ill-fated lovers Roy and Red, and how the jukebox itself becomes obsessed with them. Soon, that record—acknowledged as their song—became the only one the jukebox would play. Holding all present and future café visitors in its maudlin grip, it offered its simple message through a few choice words: “Words like love and truth and goodness/Words like till death us do part…”

These words would surely sting our booth-bound lovers, broadcasting across the room the vows that Mrs. Jones and her paramour were potentially violating. The most poignant passage, however, would be the one that hints at their brief time together: “For the hours I’ve spent here with you/Are like words from a poet’s pen.”

In 1972, the R&B poets were prolific regarding illicit relationships. For example, in July, Luther Ingram hit the charts with “If Lovin’ You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right).” Its declaration of love in spite of traditional morality was undercut by the overwhelming condemnation offered by friends and family. Coming out of Memphis, it was hardly a shot of Southern Comfort.

The previous month, Bobby Womack scored with “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” about a woman who needs more than her man is giving her. “Back Stabbers,” from the O’Jays in September, directed its paranoia at alleged friends who “sure look shady,” always “out to get your lady.” Its grim outlook was the product of the same Philly soul factory as “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Yet another Philadelphia International hit, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” depicted romantic unhappiness just in time for Thanksgiving.

A comparatively buoyant tune from October, the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around,” began its promise of constancy with very dire words: “This is our fork in the road/Love’s last episode/There’s nowhere to go, oh no.” Clearly, the jukebox could be a harsh mistress.

With so many rocks along the shore, we have to wonder where they moored their love boat. Perhaps their pier was Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” from earlier in 1972. We can only hope it wasn’t Chuck Berry’s October  hit, “My Ding-a-Ling.”

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“The Tune in Dan’s Café” presented a song as an echo of a tragic affair. Similarly, “Me and Mrs. Jones” contains a reflection back to an earlier unresolved experience.

As the song begins to close, Billy fights against the never-ending cycle of ”every day, at the same cafe.” He reaches deep into their shared past, to a time when they had a more free, unbounded affair. His ad lib during the song’s fadeout is a revelatory departure from the script.

And it’s obvious that he’s no longer talking to us. He’s pleading with her.

“I wanna meet and talk with you at the same place, the same café, the same time, and we gonna hold hands like we used to. We’re gonna talk it over. We know, they know, and you know, and I know that it was wrong…but I think it’s strong. We gotta let ‘em know now that we got a thing going on…”

In the scripted lyrics, he readily admits that their daily meeting is unacceptable by most standards. But in his ad lib, he seems to be singling out a significant and intense moment: “It was wrong,” he says.

His protestations indicate that she won’t revisit that time, no matter how strong their experience was. This is the first indication of a struggle in the midst of their romantic bliss: He wants to go legit, but she’ll not have it.

Does she ever honor his plea? Not within the four-and-a-half minute peek we have into their affair. Billy is stuck in limbo, evidenced by the skintight frustration of his voice as the song fades out.

Soon we hear the jukebox’s mechanism return this record to its slot. It seeks out the next selection, perhaps a classic from B. B. King, penned by Jessie Mae Robinson. It won’t make things easier for our couple.

“I want to meet you in the sunlight/Not in some secret rendezvous/Because I’m so tired of sneakin’ around with you.”

Hi-Fi Infidelity: In Some Room Above the Street

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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hi-Fi Infidelity: Your Cheatin’ Heart

My brother and I sat on the front stoop, with impressively out-of-tune plastic guitars in our hands. With sibling harmony decades removed from the Louvins, we proudly proclaimed, in front of god and everybody, things we couldn’t possibly have understood.

I was six, he was nine. The song we sang was “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

People stopped to listen, remembers my brother. It could be that we were charismatic beyond our years, two prepubescent Elvises commanding the attention of all passersby. Or it could simply be that our audience was amused, just as I am now, by the dichotomy of life in a Bible-brandishing nation.

I was raised in a traditional, Christian, conservative home, firmly docked in the blue-collar mainstream. A scion of generations of preachers, I went to church three times a week. I was not sure what adultery was—except that it must be reserved for adults. Yet there I was, bellowing at the top of my lungs about a wife’s infidelity and the miserable night of judgment that she was enduring.

It’s fitting that such a contradiction was fostered by Hank Williams, a man whose personality was so complex that he had to establish an alter-ego just to manage it all.

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“Your Cheatin’ Heart” paints a dire picture: An unfaithful woman finds herself tormented by her own heart, during a seemingly endless night. She can’t sleep, she can’t sit still, she can’t stop crying tears of remorse. Heartbroken by her own actions, she can only pace around her room, calling the name of the man she did wrong.

As for the man himself, all he can do is predict deepening despair for her. Tonight, she’s certainly tossing and turning, crying out for him; this will soon give way to cravings for his love, immersing her more deeply in the blues. That’s as happy as the ending gets.

There is one shared experience between them: “You’ll walk the floor the way I do,” he tells her. Possibly, they have different motivations for wearing out the linoleum: For her, it’s the pain of her guilt. For him, it’s the sting of being done wrong.

In the lyrics’ austere narrative, we get the sense that he’s content to let her heart torment her. He doesn’t relish condemning her, and her pending collapse doesn’t bring him any satisfaction. He’s simply telling her, almost clinically, what happens in these situations. There is a sense of knowing behind his words.

Her life crashing down in an eternal, sleepless, apocalyptic night might happen only in his imagination. His claim of “the time will come when you’ll be blue” is only a prediction. He could be dead wrong on that.

In truth, she might not have had one unrestful moment. But it’s obvious that he has.

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A model of economic poetry, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” contains only 117 words. Fifty-eight of them are used in the two repetitions of the chorus. The song has only three words consisting of more than one syllable: cheatin’, away, and fallin’. Dr. Seuss could hardly make it easier to read.

If it didn’t focus on matters of the heart, we could be dismissive about its status as poetry. Yet it transcends its simplicity, for Williams, as all good poets, had a command of the words he knew. His literacy was no match for Shakespeare’s, but he was on equal footing when it came to understanding the soul.

Whether consciously or unaware, Williams frames his message in a non-durational, future tense. In so doing, he’s made the night seem perpetual. It’s not just tonight or tomorrow night. It’s a relentless lifetime of nights.

When the word day finally appears, it’s only as a marker of time. That day is far from cloudless and bluebird-filled. Rather, it brings another curse: She will pine and crave his love. Pining is leagues deeper than wanting, a significance that would be clear to Williams, with his roots in southern vernacular. She would yearn endlessly for something that was no longer attainable. He is clearly not taking her back.

In concert with his stark lyrics, Williams’ delivery is visceral, naked, and unpretentious, yet it is far from unadorned.

There is a harrowing quaver in his voice, borne not of uncertainty, but from hard-earned cataclysmic fear. He sings as if he’s just had the very literal Hell scared out of him by an Alabama fire-and-brimstone preacher, expounding the darker side of the gospel. He underscores his pronouncements by elaborating each line’s ultimate word, stretching out the vowels and lingering on the consonants m and n. These nasal constrictions provide the ubiquitous moan behind his blues.

As a vocal stylist, Williams has had many followers but few peers. His attention reaches deeper than a phrase or a word, expressing itself syllable by syllable. The elongated finish he applies to some words is matched by his halting delivery on others. This serves to create tension and imbalance, a clear portrait of his own suffering.

As music writer Cub Coda states, “Williams’ vocal is filled with regret and recrimination, coming from the bleakest of feelings, absolutely brimming over with despair.”

From his first utterance of the word make it’s obvious that he’s holding back his emotions. It matters little whether he’s filled with misery at his own state, or with pity for hers. There are plenty of heartaches and tears to go around, as indicated by his following the word weep with the phrase “cry and cry.” A less confident poet might edit such repetition. Williams self-assuredly resisted such editing, however. He knew that repeating the right word at the right time added incomparable impact. For example, to refer to a “Cold, Cold Heart” as a ‘very cold heart’ would leave it eviscerated.

From the opening liquid twang of Don Helms’ steel guitar, the Drifting Cowboys support every intonation of Williams’ voice. The song is resplendent with pathos.

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Leonard Cohen is justifiably impressed, as he indicates by placing himself below Williams in the “Tower of Song:”

I said to Hank Williams, How lonely does it get
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

Cohen’s portrayals of extra-marital entanglements are complex, such as in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” wherein he expresses thanks to his partner’s lover for taking the sorrow from her eyes. While Williams’ relationships were also comprised of many overlain triangles, his representation of them is positively Spartan.

Songs by Cohen, Dylan, and similar singing poets can demand a great degree of deciphering, but Williams’ art is direct enough to be understood by all. In visual terms, his songs are more like Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” and less like Pollack’s “Blue Poles #11.” We don’t have to stand mystified by a cubist’s alternate reality or by the angels of Chagall. It’s obvious what is being said. And in its way, void of veneer and obfuscation, Williams’ approach requires more of us, for we have to look unflinchingly at real life, acknowledging its potential for shame. His art embodies stark, stoned-in-the-gutter minimalism, a grimace in the glow of the tavern lights.

Likewise, he didn’t dull his pencil with metaphors. He kept it sharp and took deadly aim. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” contains a lone but wondrously efficient simile. As stark in its construction as is the remainder of the song, it compares her tears to the rain. With his relentless references to weeping and crying, by the time this simile appears we understand this is not the ordinary teardrops-as-raindrops comparison. We’re looking at a biblical deluge.

Like most folk art, this song is backed by a philosophical understanding. At its core, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” magnifies the heart as if it were the sum total of the person. It is a living, breathing conscience, standing in the center of the being, evaluating every misdeed, and mandating the appropriate punishment. But it’s not really that simple: With an Escher-like sleight of hand, the heart is also held responsible for the very desire to cheat. The heart is the instigator, snitch, prosecutor, and persecutor. It’s unrelenting. Just like those tears.

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Aristotle considered it important that there be a certain distance between the work of art on the one hand and life on the other; we draw knowledge and consolation from tragedies only because they do not happen to us. It is important, however, that the observer be able to identify with the text across this distance. If this doesn’t happen, then we cannot empathize with the characters. In short, the play or song must be both distant and recognizable.

When a stylist such as Ray Charles or Beck Hansen records “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” it is evident that they are removed from the tragedy itself. They sing it as interpreters or commentators, but not as participants. As Williams’ alter-ego Luke the Drifter might term it, they are only describing a “Picture From Life’s Other Side.” Williams, however, lived on that other side every day of his life.

Legend has it that Williams wrote the song following a suggestion from Billie Jean Jones, his second wife, that he write something about how Audrey Mae Shepherd, Wife Number 1, cheated on him. He dictated the words to her as they drove around town. Audrey, however, maintained that Williams wrote it about the misery his own heart was giving him.

Their mutual infidelities are the stuff of daytime television, not to mention country songs. Hank wasn’t faithful on the road, nor was Audrey faithful in the town. Williams’ struggles with his unfaithful wife—and his own darker tendencies–inspired many of his songs. “The news is out all over town, that you’ve been seen out running around,” he sings in “You Win Again.”

Apart from cheating, domestic unrest was also prevalent. “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do,” “Why Should We Try Anymore,” “I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin’,” and “You’re Gonna Change or I’m Gonna Leave” stand in the core of his canon. The titles call to us like tabloid headlines.

Williams did have songs that reflected the euphoria of love, too, such as “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” in which he suggests they paint the town with their romantic fervor.  “Comb your hair and paint and powder/You act proud and I’ll act prouder/You sing loud and I’ll sing louder/Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire.” But gleeful celebrations too often succumbed to the steamroller of reality: Williams and his partners were simply too dysfunctional to make it last.

Lucky for Williams, he had not only tailored suits and a fine Martin guitar, but a gift for putting his life into meter. He also had a shepherding manager and a recording contract. While he missed many live performances—either due to his physical absence or his inebriation—his truancy was offset by his reliability in the studio. He was jukebox gold, and his records sold by the millions.

Audrey, although she was a major factor in Williams’ success, hadn’t similar talents. The duets she recorded with Williams are models of a warring partnership. Country biographer Colin Escott writes:  “Her duets with Hank were like an extension of their married life in that she fought him for dominance on every note.” Or as Williams himself said above: “you sing loud, and I’ll sing louder.” Loud was the only way she could sing, and that came through sacrificing pitch and control. She simply hadn’t the voice to carry her counter-propaganda.

Hank’s version of their story prevailed. And as if she needed it to get worse, soon major pop stars were crooning about her infidelities, and a movie loomed on the distant horizon.

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Leo Tolstoy described art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. In a particularly creepy example of this, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was released shortly after Williams’ death on January 1, 1953.

Says Nathan Rabin, of the AV Club: “Williams’ passing adds immeasurably to the haunting, almost ghoulish nature of the song; it’s as if he’s accusingly pointing a bony finger from beyond the grave, getting in one last good kick in his longtime war of wills and words with Audrey.”

In this context, the characteristic moan in Williams’ voice is amplified by the chill of death. His lyrics are a harbinger of judgment to come, grounded in his own after-life torment, validating all the Fundamentalist warnings he’d known from childhood. His warnings from the grave are wholly compassionless. Apocalypse is a dish best served cold in a diner on the Lost Highway.

Cohen adds relish: “You’ll be hearing from me, baby, long after I’m gone/I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song.”

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“Your Cheatin’ Heart” and its writer weren’t the first in any category. The marriage of cheating and country blues existed long before Hank Williams sharpened his first pencil, as in songs like the wildly successful “Frankie and Johnny,” a genre-hopping hit for Jimmie Rodgers in 1929.

A heavy influence on Williams, Rodgers had already fused hillbilly, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, and folk styles, and was a bona fide superstar. He wrote many of his best recordings, and was able to relate with the common people. He felt what they felt, thought what they thought, worked the railroads, and died young of tuberculosis. Through his recordings, he proved the commercial viability of country music.

Vernon Dalhart, who mastered opera, pop, and country, had already set a high-water mark for record sales. His 1924 rendition of “The Wreck of the Old 97” was the biggest selling non-holiday record during the first 70 years of recorded music. The Carter Family also preceded Williams with their singer/songwriter ethic, aided greatly by the nationwide reach of legendary border station XERF.

The difference with Williams was the depth of his darkness, and his ability to articulate it with more grit and guts than his predecessors. His was not a good-natured confession of “I’m a rounder,” but a rather curdling acknowledgment that “I’m a wretched sinner.” He laid his soul bare in a way that transcended his class and origin.

Another advantage Williams enjoyed was having a pop music veteran, Fred Rose, act as his publisher, manager, and producer. Through Rose and other A&R men like Jerry Wexler and Mitch Miller, Williams sold his songs to a large variety of pop singers.

Joni James, with Williams’ sanction, was the first pop artist to record the song. Eerily, she recorded it on the day of his death. Her version reached Number 2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1953. Frankie Laine soon followed suit, as have Ray Charles, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, Glen Campbell, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Van Morrison, Don McLean, Beck Hansen, and anyone who’s ever stepped onstage in a disreputable—and therefore self-respecting—honky-tonk.

While Williams’ legend grew, someone had to collect the royalties. The terms of their divorce had already promised half of them to Audrey. She later secured, for $30,000, the right to use the title “Hank Williams’ Widow.” She also established herself as a behind-the-scenes force in the industry: music publisher, booking agent, label owner, talent agent, and touring all-star show woman. She even served as a consultant on the 1964 film of Williams’ life, “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Williams might have delivered the final word with no chance for a formal rebuttal, but Audrey held the option of laughing all the way to the bank.

Hank’s cumulative portrayals of Audrey suggest that she had never listened to a word he had said. She developed a reputation for out-of-control emotions and substance abuse, as if she hadn’t witnessed the slow death of her ex-husband. Forty-two years after Hank died, Audrey herself died—one day before the IRS was scheduled to repossess her home.