The Merrill & Sabrina Love Theme

Stranger In The House by Elvis Costello, here dueting with the wonderful George “No Show” Jones.

You Tube video

This never was one of the great romances
But I thought you’d always have those young girl’s eyes
But now they look in tired and bitter glances
At the ghost of a man who walks ’round in my disguise
I get the feeling that I don’t belong here
But there’s no welcome in the window anyway
And I look down for a number on my keychain
‘Cause it feels more like a hotel everyday

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
But everybody says he looks like me

And now you say you’ve got no expectations
But I know you also miss those carefree days
And for all the angry words that passed between us
You still don’t understand me when I say

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
But everybody says he looks like me

Fans of Elvis Costello have often debated what the lyrics of this curious song mean. When first heard, the casual listener might think that it’s just another plaintive Country song about a guy who has lost his lover to another man. But then you delve deeper, and it’s something else.

First off, the song was written by an Englishman from an Irish ancestral family. Elvis Costello was born as Declan Patrick McManus but took his stage name from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll plus the maiden name of an Irish great-grandmother. He was born in London and raised on Merseyside, near the Liverpool homes of The Beatles. Secondly, Stranger In The House was written circa 1976 and first released in 1978 by Elvis Costello, an artist who at this time had come to prominence on the popularity of the British Punk Rock / New Wave scene. Costello manipulated the musical mood of the late Seventies with tracks like the brute-force “Pump It Up” and the clever and poetically majestic “Oliver’s Army”. The latter hit single hinted that Declan McManus was not just a thrash metal merchant. Costello went on to dabble successfully in all musical genres, collaborating with established stars from the world of Pop, Rock, Jazz & Blues through to Classical.

So this partly explains why Costello passes through Nashville writing and performing Country Music songs which the likes of George Jones gratefully covered. The story goes that Costello developed a love of slower ballads and sad country songs as a youngster listening to his father, Ross, a moderately successful vocalist fronting old-styled Big Bands. Somewhat unfairly, the biggest claim to fame of Ross McManus is that he was the memorable voice of the hit TV commercial “I’m A Secret Lemonade Drinker” – yes, R Whites! Family connections got the then unknown Elvis (Jnr) a welcome appearance in the TV ad campaign, but around this time, at about age 21, young Declan must have penned his mysterious ditty, Stranger In The House.

To me, the song is not about a rival lover. On the contrary, it is about a man trapped in a love affair who is unable to reveal his true self. This man has kept to himself so many profound secrets that he no longer recognizes his original personality. As he continues and extends his web of deceit, his faithful partner is also feeling the strain of maintaining a loving relationship. How did a 21 year-old dream up this intense domestic scene and then manage to convey it in song in just a few short lines? Not many people know of such a man, do they?

And then I wrote the novel Where’s Merrill …. and then I heard the haunting song Stranger In The House again. I played it over and over again one night. It seemed to me that I had just “met” the lonesome lover in the song. His name is Merrill, and I subtitled the piece as “Merrill & Sabrina’s Love Theme“.

 Back to More Merrill Musings


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