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The great escape: ‘Up on the Roof’


Story By Jim Shea

I was born to a family with a mom and dad and three sisters; two older and one younger. I had no choice in this. Every kid at some point runs away from home and returns hungry at dusk, but I was obsessed with permanent escape.

I read the tale of Toby Tyler, who ran away to join the circus and made friends with a chimp named Mr. Stubbs. Why not me? With hope in my heart I’d walk to the international boundaries of my world, hoping to catch that ride, but alas, no circus.

And yes, this seems crazy now. We had food and toys. But I sensed that somewhere there were starving children who were content nonetheless and I wanted to know why. My eldest sister, Marilyn, made the spot-on retrospective adult observation that each of the six of us was happiest when we would walk in the door and nobody else was home.

She was smart and sturdy and trudged through her young life like Good King Wenceslas, warming the path for us, and shouldering much of Mom and Dad’s load, even being the bad cop at times. When nobody else was home she was off-duty from much of the thankless grunt work. She was the true North Star toward which I pointed my empty drinking gourd, thirsty for knowledge.

She worked various jobs that to me seemed unimaginable until I’d see her do them. One time, the five of us and our grandparents all strolled in to the colonial-themed restaurant near home. She walked up to our table with a notepad, looking like Paul Revere (“The waffles are coming! The waffles are coming!”). I saw her take our orders, make our milkshakes, rush in and out of the steamy loud kitchen and still give us the cool professional courtesy while babies and bosses screamed. After seeing this I started to understand her sometimes dark moods.

One of the perks of her job was all the records you wanted from the jukebox each week when the man came and replaced the titles nobody was selecting. She would come home with bags of 45s from groups I’d never heard of, like Hello People and Sopwith Camel. She would put a big stack on our stereo’s record changer and make sure the last one was the best because it would play that one over and over again as a sort of default setting because nothing else dropped down. One day that sweet spot went to another group I’d never heard of: The Cryan’ Shames.

She insisted that I must listen to this song. It started with an intro that would have nicely accompanied the waving of a wand or the spreading of pixie dust. The dreamy vocal began, “When this old world starts getting me down and people are just too much for me to face, I climb way up to the top of the stairs and all my cares just drift right into space.” The emphasis on the first syllable of the word “getting” conveyed my innate obsession with escape, and I didn’t even have a job.

She closed her eyes as if deep in prayer as the song told its tale of exile on an urban roof: “at night the stars put on a show for free, and darling you can share it all with me.” The refrain was strong and cleaned you like a good shower: “when I come home feeling tired and beat, I go up where the air is fresh and sweet.” There was a sublime vocal bridge leading to the final refrain and it finished with the voices reaching up to Orion the Hunter and spilling over like the Milky Way. We had to hear it again and again. And we did. At last I wanted to stay right where I was.

Later I discovered the original version by the Drifters and found it bouncy and pleasant, but with none of the sheer bliss conveyed by this Chicago group.

Everyone needs that special place to escape from life. I have found that the key is as much in finding that special place for yourself as it is to be that special place for others. My eldest sister will always signify that special place for me.

Jim Shea, a Kenosha resident, is a longtime radio host. Feels Like the First Time is a series of essays devoted to first impressions of classic music.