Stranger In The House.
Stranger In The House (live at Hollywood High, June 1978, with the Attractions).
Stranger In The House (with George Jones).
Stranger In The House (live in Boston, 4/18/84).
Stranger In The House (live at the Great American Music Hall, 11/8/07 late, with Clover).
A conversation I had recently, presented as a sort of amuse-bouche to today’s discussion:
In talking to Brian, perhaps my most music-savvy friend, I found myself mentioning Elvis Costello’s “Stranger In The House.” We were driving through a late-night stretch of fast-food joints somewhere in southern California, on our way back from a show, listening to garage rock bluetoothed tinnily off my phone, and in some context I can no longer recall I brought up the song. Brian couldn’t place the title at first. I could have cued it up, but poor guy, I tried to sing him a little of the chorus instead. My voice is awful, so it was a caterwaul, utterly tuneless over the clatter of those electric guitars on the stereo:
There’s a stranger in the house
Nobody’s seen his face
Everybody says he’s taken my place…
Luckily for all concerned, I didn’t have to continue beyond this point.
“Oh right!” Brian interrupted, a lightbulb going off. “That’s that one I always think is a cover.”
“I guess it is a pretty atypical song,” I laughed. “Among the early tunes, at least. It must have taken a lot of folks by surprise when it came out – this young-gun punk guy putting out a straight country song. It does kind of sound like a cover.”
“In a lot of ways,” Brian shrugged, “it is one.”
He didn’t say anything else, and for some reason neither did I. We drove on. I found myself thinking about what Brian had said, though. It wasn’t true, but then at the same time it didn’t seem false either.
More to the point:
There’s a story about Gram Parsons. It comes from Pamela Des Barres’s I’m With The Band, though it’s told best by the songwriter Jim Lauderdale, who recounts it onstage to introduce the song whose title he lifted from it. It seems Parsons was spinning records at a party – perhaps his own, perhaps someone else’s – and as you might expect, he leaned heavily on classic country sides. His audience, whether it was in Los Angeles or London or the Villa Nellcote, wherever it was, was receiving a whirlwind education in a vast genre of music they’d had little to no exposure to previously. One winsome young lady was apparently taken with a particular, velvet-voiced singer, and asked Parsons who it was. “George Jones,” Parsons is said to have replied, tears in his eyes because the music moved him so. You can almost hear his purring drawl articulating the words, because he was almost certainly coming on to her: “He’s… the king of broken hearts.”
Now, Gram had known his share of heartbreak. From Waycross to Winter Haven his family was cursed with suicides, alcoholism, manic depression, and an overabundance of money that proved both door-opening and discipline-killing for a young man who also had an overabundance of talent. He would wind up dead, at twenty-six, in a motel room in Joshua Tree, his pants around his ankles and ice cubes melting in his rectum. It wasn’t quite the backseat of a powder-blue Cadillac, where Hank Williams met his maker at a similarly young age, but it was perhaps the finish Parsons had been seeking for most of his short life. Family drama notwithstanding there was, after all, absolutely no reason why a spoiled little rich kid should have produced one of the great country songbooks, when it seems as though every other name on the all-time list came from scraped-out-of-poverty-type backgrounds and boasted at least a had-to-struggle-to-get-by life story. Ernest Tubb, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Wynn Stewart: these were not men who could have bought their way into the Rolling Stones’ entourage by emptying out a trust fund account to purchase high-end cocaine. Parsons’s songs should have been masquerades, unsatisfying stabs at the deep, tragic, lived-in emotional sagas that make up the best country music. They should be dismissable as playacting; he should have been the jester of broken hearts, at best – not a solid aspirant to the throne. But he meant every word, and from the moment of his live-fast-die-young expiration, his legend was secure.
The best explanation for how Parsons managed this is simply to say that he wanted to be a great country singer so badly he willed himself into the role. He trashed himself on drink and pills until his voice sounded like worn leather; he threw away women and bandmates alike with all the recklessness a not-yet-twenty-seven-year-old can muster; he got fat, he recorded with Elvis Presley’s band for the hell of it then toured with cheaper musicians whose talents were unworthy of him; he discovered Emmylou Harris and recorded some of the finest duets of all time; he died young, and stupid, and his body got stolen and Viking-funeraled and… Whatever. That last bit isn’t particularly country. It’s just interesting. What I’m saying is, Gram Parsons set his sights on being a world-class country singer, and through determination and gift and sheer love of the music, he pulled it off, complete with the early and ugly demise. Too rich and too comfortable to know much of real misery and disappointment, he had to break his own heart, and he did it enough times that he could claim solid kinship with the man he so aptly described as heartbreak royalty. Parsons’s records will live forever: he gets, obviously, a gold star for effort.
Which is to say, country music – as evidenced by Parsons, whose magnificent first solo record GP famously served as Elvis Costello’s entrée into the genre – is not a private club. It can seem that way: the pedal steel work adorning the edges of country songs might as well be a samisen or a sitar or operatic coloratura to unversed listeners; Nudie suits are no more ridiculous than David Bowie’s Kansai Yamamoto outfits or Duran Duran’s Alexander McQueen haberdashery or even those buttless pants Prince used to wear in the nineties, yet to an outsider they can come off like the uniform of a foreign army; the twang in the singers’ voices often seems, particularly to young urban audiences, to denote something unsophisticated and culturally apart – couple it with an aw-shucks attitude and the genre’s indulgence of crying-in-your-beer clichés, and it can feel like a hallmark of redneckism. But like Parsons, you can just put on a cowboy hat. You can allow yourself to be transported, to be made to cry a little, by the quality of the musicianship. You can even, if you’re really insistent on it, live the life – and if you live it hard enough, you can die the death. An infinitely-stretchable budget from your family’s orange-grove empire doesn’t hurt, to be sure, but no matter who you are, country will make room for you. It’s a vast and beautiful and heartfelt brand of music, and it can encompass multitudes. Even if you’re a Liverpudlian relocated to suburban London, working in an office with a wife and a kid and a bunch of songs you’re shilling that nobody wants to hear, country will be happy to accommodate you: just find the right sensibility and pull up a chair.
So, in 1977, Costello did. He dusted off an old melody – his own, for the record – and stripped it of its wordy lyrics but embellished its music in the studio with John McFee’s lush pedal steel part and a fussy Mickey Shine stick rhythm riding overtop Johnny Ciambotti’s bouncy “Happy Trails” bass line. (You could argue it was overembellished, as the tune positively groans under the weight of its country trappings. Only Sean Hopper’s playful honky-tonk piano feels even remotely understated. But cut the track some slack: in those days Nick Lowe wasn’t exactly somebody who went in for subtlety behind the boards.) With this Bakersfield simulacrum underlying him, Costello sang a remarkable new lyric. Gone were the overwrought metaphors of the song’s previous incarnation, “Cheap Reward” (earmarked for our next entry). They’d been replaced with something much more unassuming: clearly Costello was aware that country music politely requests its speakers be a shade less articulate, that they express themselves in fewer polysyllables, and fumble toward emotional catharsis rather than attack it like a boxer pummeling a speed bag. Rising to the challenge of crafting a voice whose command of vocabulary is as limp as his spirits, Costello devised a pitch-perfect opening couplet:
This never was one of the great romances
But I thought you’d always have those young girl’s eyes…
He sings the words with real ache, to match the steel lines bent around his vocal, falling like tears dripping down a cheek. It’s hard to imagine a rawer bit of emotional scene-setting: the speaker concedes his failing relationship isn’t perfect and never has been, which would be sad enough – only now, his partner is older, wiser, maybe less beautiful too but certainly less innocent. There’s no more sparkle in the way she looks at him. Her eyes are “tired and bitter” now, and when they fall upon him they see that he’s no longer the person she used to love – if that’s even the word for the feeling operating in what isn’t and never was a “great romance.” Now, alas, he’s just “the ghost of a man who walks round in my disguise.” He’s become a stranger to her, to himself, to everyone.
The song goes on to offer up one of the more extended of Costello’s early domesticity-as-trap metaphors: the speaker doesn’t belong in his own home, and his woman isn’t eager to have him return there when he’s gone. “I look down for a number on my keychain,” he sighs, feeling sorry for himself but then maybe he deserves to, “’cause it feels more like a hotel everyday…” The song offers no solutions, no way out. The woman insists, unconvincingly, that she doesn’t care that things have gotten so bad, yet the speaker knows her well enough to be aware of the truth: “I know you miss those carefree days.” They’re not even talking to each other now, but it’s not like restoring communication would fix things – he’s tried to tell her about the feeling of alienation that’s gripped him, but despite all the “angry words that passed between us,” which are evidence of just how estranged they’ve become, still she fails to grasp what he’s going through. Worse: though he doesn’t dwell on it, it goes without saying that despite his insistence on knowing what she’s thinking, surely he can’t see things properly from her perspective either. This is an awful, probably irremediable state of affairs – just listen to Costello sing that last line of the final verse: “You still don’t understand me when I say…” The vocal pulsates with pain, stretching the word “understand” into a plea the speaker knows won’t be answered. This is despair. It’s some of the best of our man’s Pathway-era singing. It’s certainly the least arch.
Yet it’s the chorus, which includes those lines I mangled in crooning them to Brian a while back, that packs the most punch:
There’s a stranger in the house
Nobody’s seen his face
But everybody says he’s taken my place
There’s a stranger in the house
No one will ever see
Everybody says he looks like me
You can hear the band kick things up a little here, roused by this part of the song: perhaps they’re just glad for something a shade less overtly lachrymose. Costello too lets his voice lift out of the dumps in this section, sensing that the speaker he’s inhabiting is given momentary life by being able to voice this sentiment – it’s why he’s singing the song: to get this awful, choking feeling off his chest of being unrecognizable, changed by time and circumstance for the undeniable worse. Yet there are weird contradictions operating here. “There’s a stranger in the house, nobody’s seen his face” suggests the speaker is only this altered, new person when he’s alone with his partner – perhaps, as is so often the case with relationship troubles, the couple seems perfectly happy and normal when they’re in public, and their problems only arise when they’re alone. But at the same time, “everybody says he’s taken my place” – which is to say, everyone who knows this couple, maybe everyone else too, would agree that things aren’t what they once were. There’s more: “No one will ever see” this stranger, yet everybody can tell you exactly what he looks like: “He looks like me.” This is really the most painful part of all, because it removes the speaker from his own tragedy. That guy in the house looks like him, but it’s not. He himself isn’t even there. It would be bad enough if the speaker were simply awaking to the ways his life has gone contrary to expectation – if this were the most gutwrenching conceivable version of David Byrne’s famous cry: “This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife…” But in this case, our speaker’s beautifully prisonlike house and his no-longer-beautiful wife aren’t even his own – they’re someone else’s, somebody people see and don’t see, somebody who might look like him but, because nobody’s actually laid eyes on the guy, it’s impossible really to know. The stranger he’s become is invisible, perhaps even to himself. Our guy is separate from him, and alone. He’s lost, and hopeless. In sentiment, the idea brings to mind Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise,” another knife-sharp dissection of a foundering marriage: “When you look at me, you better look hard and look twice… Is that me, baby? Or just a brilliant disguise?” Costello’s work lives somewhere between these other two songs: Byrne is singing about disassociation; Springsteen about deception. Costello, meanwhile, is more concerned with disaffection, the creep of lovelessness into intimacy. The speaker in “Stranger In The House” isn’t even cheating on his woman, so far as we can tell, and she doesn’t seem to be stepping out on him either. This is just a relationship gone sour, gone cold, dying or dead or maybe even long since dead, replaced by something the people in it can’t even recognize.
But, like Parsons before him, Costello is just trying these clothes on, seeing if they fit, finding they do. This was not, by any account, the MacManus domestic situation in 1977; our subject was, at the time, hardly a stranger in his own house. The darkness of the song is a Parsons-ish pose, but the sincerity of its performance despite it being an act brings Parsons to mind as well: Costello, in singing these words, is giving voice to someone else’s sentiment – and the fact that the sentiment, insofar as he was the one who wrote the lyric, is also his own is almost immaterial. Introducing “Stranger In The House” to a Boston audience on his first solo tour in 1984, Costello made a feint at admitting as much: “This is a song,” he remarked, “that I wrote when I used to be somebody else.” Saying this was, certainly, a nod to the fact that his life had changed markedly over the past near-decade, but he was also rough-drafting the startlingly vulnerable admission he would go on to make many years later in his autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. The memoir’s Chapter 13 is an oblique account of the dissolution of his first marriage, filtered through the medium of his own songwriting: Costello draws a line from the “innocent, resolute” Honky Tonk number “Poison Moon” to Get Happy!!’s “incredibly sad, delusion of a song” “High Fidelity,” and in contemplating that downward trajectory he concedes that he “should not be so surprised I could have fallen so far and so fast”:
To explain how, I have to go back to another song written in those hushed hours just before the clamor and temptations of my professional career began and I ran away with that peculiar circus. Back then, I could say things in song that were simultaneously playacting and utterly true. Such a song is “Stranger In The House.”
In my mind, it was a tilt at writing something that functioned like one of a half a dozen abject country songs that I admired, the sort written or sung by Gram Parsons or George Jones. But deep in that conflicted place between reason and impulse that people call the heart, this song was another premonition, a companion song to the faithless theme of “Alison.”
I knew that I could become estranged from all that I held dear: vows I’d made, homes that had and would soon be broken, trust that I could betray, in hotel rooms in which I merely lodged, rehearsing lies to say.
Costello’s notion of songs as premonitions, fantasies providing little windows into personal flaws that might lead to future indiscretions, is an important one, but better suited for consideration when we get to “Alison.” For now, I’ll just say it strikes me as a retrospective version of what I’m postulating as a distinctly Gram Parsons-esque mode of thinking about songwriting: that you can will yourself into the role. You can “playact” even as you’re telling the truth; you can be a country singer solely because you want to be a country singer; you can be the “king of broken hearts” simply by declaring your willingness to open your own heart to the possibility, perhaps the inevitability, of breaking. This, I think, is the allure of country, to Parsons and to many before and after him, Costello most certainly included: the voice you sing in can be someone else’s, and then later it can become your own. “In a lot of ways,” said my friend Brian of “Stranger In The House,” “it is a cover.” And indeed it is. And indeed it isn’t.
That’s a dangerous road, being somebody else and then being that somebody else. Parsons, of course, is the great cautionary tale of self-transformation. Nick Kent called Costello on it in that much-excerpted NME interview from 1977, after expressing “surprise” at Costello’s being “enamored of… Parsons’ blighted life and times.” He gets Costello on the record, after getting him drunk of course, and as is typical for this interview the quote elicited is almost menacingly provocative, to the point where Kent has to balk:
“Yeah,” [says Costello], “Gram Parsons had it all sussed. He didn’t stick around – he made his best work and then he died. That’s the way I want to do it. I’m never going to stick around long enough to churn out a load of mediocre crap like all those guys from the ’60s. I’d rather kill myself. I mean, Parsons’ exit was perfect.”
So you want to snuff it about four years from now, O.D.’d on morphine on the floor of some cheesy motel in the desert with ice-cubes up your arse and some moron groupie giving you a hand-job, do you Elvis?
El considers this for a moment, then replies – “Well, not exactly like that I suppose. I see my exit as being something more like being run over by a bus. But… you think I’m joking, right – but I’m deadly serious about this. I’m not going to be around to witness my artistic decline.”*
Such is the legend of country music: it is a powerful brand of magic, the pop version of that Aleister Crowley stuff Jimmy Page was fooling with in some castle in the countryside. Putting on a cowboy hat is tantamount to taking your first step toward your own doom, which is a funny thing to say, but as Parsons proved it’s not impossible for it to go that way. Kent and Costello can josh about it, but I suspect Costello was, well, serious about being “deadly serious”: his embrace of country, kicked off with repeated spins of GP leading him to compose “Stranger In The House,” is linked to his deciding, firmly and unwaveringly, that he was going to do something great, and his determination not to “be around to witness his artistic decline” can be translated, if you remove the dying-young part that nobody really desires anyway, as a vow never to decline – to keep on making great songs like “Stranger In The House” until… Well, at least until 2016, and probably beyond. That more than a few of them would prove to be country songs – Costello’s love of the genre was greater even than his love of his great band, who eventually had to be discarded because they weren’t quite up to the task of playing the songs he was writing – was barely-dreamed-of in 1977, but we’ll see that “Stranger In The House” was a certain sign of things to come.
“Stranger In The House” itself would go on to have a strange history. It was left off My Aim Is True; it was issued as a standalone single in 1978 but given away with This Year’s Model rather than asked to sell itself. It was a staple of early Attractions performances, though Nieve and the two Thomases would eventually bludgeon the country out of it until it was rendered almost unrecognizable – the Live At Hollywood High performance from June of 1978 is brutal to the point of being hard to listen to, possibly the punkiest this ostensible punk band ever got.** It was covered by none other than George Jones in 1980, and played on a television special as a duet with a mumps-stricken Costello, thick and jowly, looking like death warmed over. In subsequent years Costello would never really let “Stranger In The House” go, but though it pops up sporadically in Imposters sets it’s been happiest in his solo shows, beginning with the 1984 outing through to a smattering of airings on the current “Detour.” (A recent rediscovery of the virtues of “Cheap Reward” has, one suspects, elbowed it out of consideration for play at a lot of twenty-first century gigs.) The song’s greatest value for us, though, is as a lens through which to look at the transformative power of country music upon Costello’s songwriting. In “cosmic American music,” Parsons’s term for the musical stew he concocted in his records – it was the intersection of a thousand avenues of song including country and folk and R&B and rock – Costello discovered a skeleton key to the kind of expressivity he yearned to unlock in his own writing. A Stetson, it appeared, was one of the hats a great songsmith had to wear, and the only way to do that was to plunge in and write a country tune. In this sense, “Stranger In The House” is a new and crucial mask Costello put on: the speakers in earlier songs were Costello dressing up, but always with garments drawn from his own closet – every one of them expressed himself in verbose torrents of image and rhymed with an almost furious cleverness. This one just said what he was feeling, and put it plain: “This never was one of the great romances…” If Costello had borrowed nothing more from this initial two-step with country music than its ability to express a lot with a very little, it would still have been a worthwhile creative adventure. And over the years he took from the genre much, much more.***
Recorded: Pathway Studios, London, late 1976-January 1977. EC: vocals, guitar; McFee: guitar; Hopper: piano; Ciambotti: bass; Shine: drums. Producer: Lowe. Engineer: Bazza Farmer? Released: standalone single, b/w “Neat Neat Neat (live),” given away with early copies of This Year’s Model, 1978. Played live with the Attractions through 1982, then solo thereafter save for intermittent airings with the Imposters in 2002 and 2005.
* For the record, and since it’s come up twice now in this piece, the ice cubes were an old junkie’s trick for reviving an overdose – sadly inefficacious in Parsons’s case. Kent’s reference to a last-rites “hand-job” I haven’t seen elsewhere, and I suspect it’s an urban legend prevalent in the late seventies – though with Parsons, you never really know.
** I feel obliged to concede the falsehood of my flip assertion, on that car ride through Orange County referenced above, that Costello’s recording of a country song in 1977 was an aberration. The fact is, most of the so-called “pub rockers” of the era had a country song or two in their repertoire. After all, the touchstones for musicians of the era included The Band, and Nashville Skyline, and all the country-tinged folk songs of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Some, in fact – Mickey Jupp comes to mind, with the Rockpile-backed first side of Juppanese as the standout example – wound up most comfortable playing a country-inflected rockabilly sound. I would argue, though, that for most of these players this was simply a mode they could arrange a song in: the Kursaal Flyers’ “Tennessee,” for instance, is more of a joke than anything else, while even Nick Lowe’s great “Without Love” is more of a pop song dressed up in country fittings than a real country number. The Attractions, while perhaps the finest musicians on the scene and certainly the ones who most transcended their pub-rock roots, were nevertheless no exception to the general trend of failing to appreciate country, and the stripping-away of John McFee’s steel lines left numbers like “Stranger In The House” vulnerable to the band’s more bombastic tendencies. No small part of Costello’s greatness was his ability to see that there was more to the genre; a significant factor in his eventual parting-of-ways with the Attractions was their proving less than up to the task of playing the country music he would corral them into on Almost Blue, and that he would go on to incorporate with increasing fervor into his own songwriting. But that all lies in the future. For now, let’s just say that “Stranger In The House” was less weird for the Attractions to be playing than you might think, yet at the same time was never exactly the highlight of one of their shows.
***It’s anachronistic to bring up Costello’s Almost Blue-era thoughts on country here, but some of them are illuminating. Again and again, by way of explaining what led him to the commercially-questionable decision to record an album of country music in 1982, at the height (or perhaps just past it) of his pop success, Costello has claimed that he was experiencing a sort of crisis as a songwriter: “After the album Trust failed to set the world on fire,” he said in the liner notes to the Ryko reissue of Almost Blue from 1994, “I decided to take a break from songwriting. [I had] developed the strong conviction that I could better express my current feelings through other people’s songs…” Rewriting those notes extensively a decade later for the 2004 Rhino issue of the same album, he noted that “I had developed the notion that I might better express my feelings through other people’s words and music. Country ballads suited my blue mood most of all.” Slightly more contemporaneous to the album’s release, Costello mused in an interview in a 1981 South Bank Show documentary that he was doing a cover album because he felt his own writing had “become a little precious and introspective,” and “it’s time, maybe, to use singing, the sound of the voice rather than the actual words,” to convey what he was feeling. He wanted to “do songs which say something in a sound that can’t really be expressed in words.” All this is to say, I’ve only touched on what country music eventually gave Costello when I note the difference in his lyric-writing as he composed “Stranger In The House.” Of course, producer Billy Sherrill notes in that same documentary that “country music is all lyric,” so it’s not like there’s any one single answer to the question of what draws people to so complex a musical genre. For the record, Sherrill, motoring along the Cumberland River in his beloved speedboat, goes on to note that “country music is also honesty, and I think Elvis is very, very sincere in what he does…” Part, needless to say, of being “all lyric” is that the musician knows how to prune his lyrics back to their essence, and I posit that that is what Costello learned most crucially from “Stranger In The House.”
Top to bottom: Gram Parsons, ca. 1967; Room Eight of the Joshua Tree Inn, where Parsons left us on 9/18/73; the original “Stranger In The House” single, given away with copies of This Year’s Model in 1978; EC with George Jones (and producer Billy Sherrill), 1978; the “Hank Williams death car,” in which Williams died on 1/1/53.
Thanks for coming back. I think we’re starting to get somewhere.
Little by little, friend! Glad somebody’s enjoying it, and there’s more on the way.