In this early Live hit, lead singer Ed Kowalczyk uses religious imagery to represent his quest for knowledge. The lyrics reference the biblical Garden of Eden, where Eve was tempted by Satan to eat from the forbidden tree that would bestow the knowledge of good and evil but also get her and Adam banished from the garden.
"It's hard to write about spirituality without it being corny," Kowalczyk told Louder Sound
in 2021. "But that was a period in my life when I was questioning all the big issues. The lyric was like a montage of all these meaningful little phrases. I was creating a sense of intimacy, in this mystical environment, like a church, a temple, or even a secret garden. Everything built up to this sort of fever in the chorus, which was about the idea that there's a singularity to love. It became known as this obsessive love song, but I was actually between relationships."
The lyrics also loosely reference another story in the Bible, Luke 8:22-25, in which Jesus calms a storm while he and his disciples are at sea. This is just one of many Live songs that contains religious imagery - both Christian and Eastern.
One of Live's first important singles, "I Alone" was their first hit and led the way for "Lightning Crashes
Live played "I Alone" at Woodstock '94 and again at Woodstock '99. The 1994 set was a watershed for the band, which had recently released the Throwing Copper album and were one of the exciting new acts at the festival (Green Day was another). By 1999, their sound was out of favor and fans at Woodstock were there for Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit.
The Pennsylvania alt-rock band released their debut album, The Death Of A Dictionary, under the name Public Affection in 1989. Adopting the name Live, they released a follow-up, Mental Jewelry, two years later and earned moderate success but little money. By the time they started work on Throwing Copper, Kowalczyk was living in an old barn that's only heat source was a coal stove. That's where he got the idea for "I Alone." He recalled: "I remember exactly what it felt like sitting by that stove with an acoustic guitar, slipping into that chorus."
With Throwing Copper
, Kowalczyk says the band was discovering a new level of guitar sound and wanted to push for more sonic experimentation "as a means to communicate the big ideas that I was coming up with lyrically… something to encapsulate that." He told Songwriting Magazine
in 2019: "It was a really exciting time, because sitting there in that barn apartment was an acoustic guitar on which I started to write the chords to 'I Alone.' Knowing that it was going to go into this big open E chorus, I knew what the band could do. Even though I was sitting there with an acoustic guitar, I knew once the band got hold of it they would make the sound as big as the idea. That was a really exciting time for me as a writer because I had this incredible arsenal of a band that was really finding its way."
Kowalczyk credited his then-novice songwriting skills for giving the song a sense of spontaneity he had trouble recapturing as a mature artist. "I was still a fledgling as a songwriter, I was still learning, so there's a spontaneity to what happened between the verse and chorus in that change," he explained to Songwriting Magazine. "It still surprises me that I went for that chord progression. It almost sounds like two songs that are married together by just that transition chord between the verse and chorus. It's what is so unique about it."
He added: "As we matured and the band got more sophisticated, there comes a desire to want to rediscover the innocence of that period when you were just learning. But you can never get there again - it's the most frustrating thing."
Kowalczyk told Songwriting Magazine the meaning behind the song's opening lyrics. He said, "The opening line, 'It's easier not to be wise,' was based on me always having had an interest in spiritual traditions and philosophy and finding answers to the big questions in life. That initial lyric is a surrender to the obviousness that it's easier not to be a wise man. It's easier to be what we are: fledgling beings trying to find our way through life. It's a pretty obvious statement but it's also a kind of surrender, an acknowledgement of our weakness. Then the verses are setting up this meditative place – they even mention a church – just trying to put together an image of a man in contemplation about these bigger ideas. Then it was really a matter of putting these little pieces of meaning together, in almost a montage. Rather than thinking, 'I'm going to start with this, end here and this is what I mean,' it's a piece that comes from a lot of little pieces. I love to work like that and listen to other music that I think is made in that way, because it leaves it wide open to whatever you want to make it."
It's no use arguing over the meaning of this tune because Kowalczyk thinks all of the various interpretations are valid. "It's impossible to misinterpret that song," he told Louder Sound. "People make it their own. I grew up as a fan of U2, REM, Peter Gabriel, and artists where I could sink my teeth into the lyric. When I hear 'Where The Streets Have No Name
,' I don't really know what the song means, but I don't care. It takes me somewhere and just makes spiritual sense to me. And that's what I think 'I Alone' does."
Throwing Copper went to #1 in the US, where it sold 8 million copies. It got plenty of exposure thanks to the video for "I Alone," which was on heavy rotation on MTV. Directed by Tim Pope, the mastermind behind a series of offbeat clips from The Cure, the video featured a shirtless Kowalczyk mugging for the camera with the band rocking out in the background next to a dead tree.
"I was taking my shirt off a lot in those days," the singer recalled. "And the haircut was my idea – I had a nice little Fu Manchu [braid] going, which I kept for about a year until it became too hard to stop it looking disgusting. These days my daughters are like: 'Dad you look so weird.' But I loved it."
This was used in the 2017 movie Kodachrome, starring Jason Sudeikis and Elizabeth Olsen.
Live performed this in the January 21, 1995 episode of Saturday Night Live.