In 1950, the movie In a Lonely Place was released, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Produced by Bogart’s production company, the film is a dark story about a screenwriter “Dix” (played by Bogart) with a brutal and nasty temper who is accused of murder. A lonely neighbor “Laurel” (portrayed by Grahame) provides the screenwriter with an alibi to the police; subsequently, a mutual attraction is evident between the two. As their relationship deepens, Laurel witnesses Dix’s violent behavior and begins to doubt whether he is truly innocent of the murder. Without spoiling too much, the film depicts the far-from-glamorous life of a Hollywood grunt, infused with cynicism, paranoia, and threat of danger. It’s a true film noir in the noir-est sense of the word, representing one of Bogart’s most complex and disturbing characters.
In a Lonely Place is a story that hinges on the concept of an alibi, a situation in which one person vouches for the other, not only in affirming that they were in a specific location at an exact time, but also provides a tacit reflection on the other person’s character. The film presents questions related to alibis such as: “Can I truly account for another person? How much do I really know about them?” An alibi can be far from airtight and can be the beginning of a story, not an end.
Throughout his career, Elvis Costello has embedded his songs within the world of noir, most notably “Watching the Detectives” and “My Dark Life.” Once again he returns to the same cynical ambience of those songs, applying the language of noir in the suitably named “Alibi”:
“I see [When I Was Cruel] as kind of a return to the guitar. This time I felt as if we’d got something fresh on the instrument. The guitar was all new to me again, and the fact that I put it back central to the compositional structure of the songs is something that I’m really proud of.”
Looking back on the time in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello writes:
“I started that album as a solo enterprise armed with a cheap drum machine, a Danelectro six-string, and a Sears and Roebuck amp, trying to find a new way to play rock and roll with looped beats and a fuzz box. By the end of the sessions, I had accidentally formed a terrific band called The Imposters.”
The band formed out of the wreckage of The Attractions, Costello’s former back-up band. The Imposters are nothing more than The Attractions with a new bass player as they are composed of Pete Thomas on drums, Steve Nieve masterfully handling the keyboards, and Davey Faragher, who Costello described in his memoir as “a swinging bass player who could sing like a bird.”
The loud guitar sound central to the album as envisioned by Costello is evident immediately as “Alibi” begins. It sounds as if someone kicked an amplifier and the resulting reverberations are exactly what Costello wants in the song. The Imposters join in during the guitar crackle and create a solid groove as Costello sings the first verse:
You did it ‘cos you wanted
And you took it
‘Cos you need it
This verse sets up the pattern for the song as the first line is an accusation showing the narrator’s mindset. Costello sings “Alibi, alibi” after each charge as if the narrator is mimicking the other person’s response: “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard these excuses before. Here’s another alibi.” The song moves to the first chorus:
But if I’ve done something wrong there’s no “ifs and buts”
‘Cos I love you just as much as I hate your guts.
The anger of the narrator is on full display, noting that if he “does something wrong,” he’s even allowed the chance to explain or provide his own alibi. This is immediately followed by: “’Cos I love you just as much as I hate your guts.” This reveals the full, contradictory spectrum of the narrator’s emotions. Love and hate are now ingrained into every conversation and exchange. The next verse continues:
And you don’t need anybody
But you are the only one who knows this
There’s a sense that the narrator is unburdening himself of pent-up observations and judgements that he has allowed to build over the years of their relationship and is spitting them out in response to the next alibi. Costello sings further castigation by the narrator:
You deserve it ‘cos you’re special
Maybe Jesus wants you for a sunbeam
The “sunbeam” line is a reference to a Christian hymn titled “I’ll Be a Sunbeam” or “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”:
In 1988, the hymn was transformed into something new by the Scottish band The Vaselines:
This re-written hymn received much more attention when Nirvana performed it as “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” during their November 18, 1993 performance for the ubiquitous television series MTV Unplugged and later released on the standalone live album called MTV Unplugged in New York:
Nirvana’s version is a straight-ahead cover of the Vaselines’ song, yet mutated into something else because of Kurt Cobain’s unique delivery, which is both sardonic and earnest at the same time. Nirvana’s performance on MTV Unplugged was disconcerting and chilling because it was presented as if it was a funeral, further underlined by Cobain singing lyrics such as “Don’t expect me to cry/ Don’t expect me to lie / Don’t expect me to die for me.”
Costello’s lyric — “Maybe Jesus wants you for a sunbeam” — does not include the negative that the Vaselines/Nirvana version does, but Costello starts the line with the word “maybe” leaving uncertainty about the song’s subject and Jesus’s desire for that person. Costello moves to the next chorus:
But if I’ve left something out
But if you look in my eyes
Then I’m sure you’ll see…
Alibis, alibis, alibis.
The narrator offers up an apology, not about his having any regret of presenting these judgmental observations, but rather for overlooking anything. The narrator also admits to having his own alibis. Everyone in the song is trying to account for their whereabouts and justify their innocence. Like in In A Lonely Place, the song’s continual insistence of innocence through alibis creates further mistrust and paranoia. The narrator expresses these same emotions in the bridge:
Sometimes I’m so forgiving
Everything seems bad to me
But I can’t go on living
With this alibi, alibi, alibi.
The continual suspicion is too much for the narrator; he is reaching a breaking point. Yet the relationship continues as does the song as Costello sings:
“Insane,” what a mundane
The narrator is not only suspicious about the latest alibi — an insanity plea — but even finds the suggestion banal. It’s as if the narrator is saying, “Come on, can’t you come up with something better than insanity?”
And you only wanted to be famous
Sorry, but your mummy doesn’t love you
Here, the narrator is trying on the role of an armchair psychiatrist to seek motivations for the other person’s actions, but then Costello sings:
Stop me if you’ve heard this…
The band performs a stop-start action to underscore Costello’s words. It’s an old line that usually precedes the telling of a joke that’s been repeated over and over again. In this usage, Costello recognizes the repetitive nature of the song, but also acknowledges that the continual need for an alibi is a joke that’s been told so many times before that it’s no longer funny. The song doesn’t stop though as Costello and the Imposters go back to the chorus again:
But if I’ve done something right then don’t be surprised
There are soldiers who will kill but refuse to die.
The narrator is trying to express the impossibility of being in this relationship with the continued expectation that he will always do wrong. There is a kind of a mock surprise if he actually does something right. With the line “There are soldiers who will kill but refuse to die,” Costello is conveying the feeling of being a people pleaser paired up with someone who is never satisfied. The narrator likens it to military service for which one can’t ever leave, even through death.
Costello and the band then repeat the earlier chorus to reinforce the “right” and “wrong” actions of the narrator. After the double chorus, there’s a musical interlude. Costello doesn’t sing and there’s not a solo from the musicians. Rather, they continue to play, showing off the musical foundation that they have created for Costello’s singing. As Costello continues the next verse, there is even more dark humor:
You were weak…
You couldn’t help it
But you never had a pony
The narrator acknowledges the supposed shortcomings that could explain the behavior of the song’s subject and says in mock sympathy that “you never had a pony.” Mark it up as another just another alibi to add to the list of alibis.
The toxic impulses of the narrator is on display in the rest of the song: “I will be true to you forever” which is followed by “But you’re stupid and you’re lazy,” and finally “Maybe we can make the future better.” There’s codependency in these lines as the narrator still can’t find it in himself to leave despite knowing that the other person in the relationship treats him with contempt. The narrator knows he is being treated like garbage but can’t leave. Even worse, he won’t leave. He’ll stay true forever and still believes, no matter how jaded he may feel, that he can “make the future better.”
This twisted relationship in which the two are connected in mutually unhealthy ways is found in the language. The origins of the word “alibi” is “a plea of having been elsewhere when an action took place.” Further, the narrator offers up apologies at two different moments in the song. The Greek equivalent of “apology” is apologizesthai, which means “to give an account.” On both sides of the relationship, they are trying to explain their actions through either an alibi or an apology. The intent of their words are being heard differently by the other person. Ultimately, the narrator’s repeated use of the word “alibi” shows that rather than accepting each explanation of events as valid, the narrator is acknowledging that there is one answer that creates several more questions. Despite the narrator’s wish of a future together, he knows that he is in hell, a hell similar to that of the Gloria Grahame character from In A Lonely Place. Both are never able to truly believe the other person in their relationships. They are living in lives of false explanations, suspicion, and eventually violence.
Is “Alibi” an autobiographical piece for Costello? In his 2015 memoir, Costello writes about the time in his life when he finally decided to leave his second wife Cait O’Riordan:
“It hadn’t been easy to find my way out the door, but when I was outside again I realized that everything had been in plain sight all along. Anyone could see what was on my mind: ‘I Want to Vanish’; ‘My Dark Life’; ‘This House Is Empty Now’; ‘The Name of This Thing Is Not Love’. These were the songs that I was writing. My opinion of myself was lower than the ground.”
Though “Alibi” is not mentioned specifically by Costello in his memoir, it fits the mindset of that time period. He divorced O’Riordan in 2002, the same year that “Alibi” was released on When I Was Cruel. The previous Recliner Notes post examined the title song of the album, “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” and how Costello rewrote the song — later released as “When I Was Cruel No. 1” — to shift the viewpoint of the song away from any personal feelings to a more external, observational mode.
This is not true for “Alibi.” The song proves that the phrase “when I was cruel” should not be considered in the past tense for Costello. “Alibi” is all present tense. It wipes away any kind of detached perspective achieved through age that Costello might have sought for by embracing the idea of “when I was cruel.” This is when the narrator/Costello is cruel. “Alibi” is a song of cruelty by design, not only in the words, but especially in the vocal delivery by Costello. His singing in “Alibi” is exceptional, representing all of the necessary emotions needed to carry the song: bitterness, dismay, disgust, and desperation. It’s as if he is spitting, laughing, and crying all at the same time, making sure to anyone listening that “Alibi” is a deeply personal song.
Image: Corporate author: Columbia Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.