The Birth of Eleanor Rigby

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The Beatles wave as they leave London Airport on their trip to the U.S. and Canada in 1966. In his book, 'The Beatles Lyrics,' author Hunter Davies writes about the origins of The Beatles' song 'Eleanor Rigby.' AP

Excerpted from the book THE BEATLES LYRICS by Hunter Davies. 

It was thanks to “Eleanor Rigby” that I got to meet Paul properly. When it first came out, as a single but also on the Revolver album, I was so impressed by its words as well as its music that I was determined to talk to Paul about it. I assumed, like all Beatles fans, that he must have written it, because he was the person singing it.

Being a journalist, writing a column called Atticus in The Sunday Times, London, I had a slightly better chance than most fans of actually getting to see him, though if he had written it two years earlier I might never have managed it as The Sunday Times did not write about pop artists, however successful, at that time.

By 1966 the chattering classes were in awe of the Beatles, and how they were creating such marvelous music without being able to read or write a note, and writing such great verses, despite not having had the benefit of a half- decent university education.

So I went to see Paul at his house in Cavendish Avenue, St John’s Wood – which he still has to this day. I do like people who are consistent, who know what they like and don’t like. He moved in in March 1966, having at last decided he should have a place of his own instead of using his then girlfriend Jane Asher’s house, which he had made his home for about three years. The other three Beatles had, by this time, established themselves in deepest suburbia with lush gardens and rolling lawns, but Paul preferred to be in central London.

I remember the house as being nicely lived in, even though he had not been there long, with lots of interesting objects and paintings (over the fireplace in his main living room was a Magritte). The garden, from what I could see, was totally overgrown, left to its own devices while he decided what to do with it. It added to the bohemian feel of the place; it was very much the home of a wealthy but artistic young bachelor. There was no sign of Jane Asher, though she was still very much part of his life. In the article, I said he lived alone.

The interview followed the format popular at that time, letting the subject talk with minimum intervention, but I did manage to drag in my opinion about ‘Eleanor Rigby’: ‘No pop song of the moment has better words or music.’ Note that I referred to them as Mr McCartney and Mr Lennon. Was I being facetious, given their youth and status as pop stars? No, I was being polite and formal, as we tended to be, back in 1966.

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The Sunday Times, London, 18 September 1966

Paul McCartney was in his new mansion in St John’s Wood. He lives alone. A Mr and Mrs Kelly look after him. Nothing so formal  as a housekeeper and butler. Their job, he says, is just to fit in.

The house has a huge wall and an electrically-operated black door to keep out non-Beatle life. Inside there is some carefully chosen elderly furniture. Nothing flash, affected or even expensive-looking. The dining room table was covered with a white lace tablecloth. Very working-class posh.

Mr McCartney, along with Mr Lennon, is the author of a song called ‘Eleanor Rigby’. No pop song of the moment has better words or music.

‘I was sitting at the piano when I thought of it. Just like Jimmy Durante. The first few bars just came to me. And I got this name in my head – Daisy Hawkins, picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been. I don’t know why.

‘I can hear a whole song in one chord. In fact, I think you can hear a whole song in one note, if you listen hard enough.

‘OK, so that’s the Joan of Arc bit. I couldn’t think of much more, so I put it away for a day. Then the name Father McCartney came to me – and all the lonely people. But I thought  people would think it was supposed to be my Dad, sitting knitting his socks. Dad ’s a happy lad. So I went through the telephone book and I got the name McKenzie.

‘I was in Bristol when I decided Daisy Hawkins wasn’t a good name. I walked round looking at the shops and I saw the name Rigby. You got that? Quick pan to Bristol. I can just see this all as a Hollywood musical …

‘Then I took it down to John’s house in Weybridge. We sat around, laughing, got stoned and finished it off. I thought of the backing, but it was George Martin who finished it off. I just go bash, bash on the piano. He knows what I mean.

‘All our songs come out of our imagination. There was never an Eleanor Rigby. One of us might think of a song completely, and the other just adds a bit. Or we might write alternate lines. We never argue. If one of us says he doesn’t like a bit, the other agrees. It just doesn’t matter that much. I care about being a song writer. But I don’t care passionately about each song.

‘“Eleanor” is a big development as a composition. But that doesn’t mean “ Yellow Submarine” is bad. It was written as a commercial song, a kid ’s song. People have said, “ Yellow Submarine? What’s the significance? What’s behind it?” Nothing. Kids get it straight away. I was playing with my little stepsister the other day, looking through a book about Salvador Dali. She said “Oh look, a soft watch.” She accepted it. She wasn’t frightened or worried. Kids have got it. It’s only later they get messed up.

‘I tried once to write a song under another name, just to see if it was the Lennon–McCartney bit that sold our songs. I called myself Bernard Webb – I was a student in Paris and very unavailable for interviews. The song was “Woman”, for Peter and Gordon. They made it a big-hit. Then it came out it was me. I realized that when I saw a banner at a concert saying “Long Live Bernard Webb”.

‘We’d need a properly controlled experiment to find out how much our names really mean now, but I can’t be bothered.

‘I can’t really play the piano, or read or write music. I’ve tried three times in my life to learn, but never kept it up for more than three weeks. The last bloke I went to was great. I’m sure he could teach me a lot. I might go back to him. It’s just the notation – the way you write down notes, it doesn’t look like music to me.

‘John’s now trying acting again [in Richard Lester’s How I Won The War], and George has got his passion for the sitar and all the Indian stuff. He’s lucky. Like somebody’s lucky who’s got religion. I’m just looking for something I enjoy doing. There’s no hurry. I have the time and money.

‘People think we’re not conceited, but we are. If you ask me if I wrote good or bad songs, I’d be thick to say bad, wouldn’t I? It’s true we’re lucky, but we got where we are because of what we did.

‘The girls waiting outside. I don’t despise them. I don’t think fans are humiliating themselves. I queued up at the Liverpool Empire for Wee Willie Harris’s autograph. I wanted to do it. I don’t think I was being stupid.

‘I think we can go on as the Beatles for as long as we want to, writing songs, making records. We’re still developing. I’ve no ambitions, just to enjoy myself. We’ve had all the ego bit, all about wanting to be remembered. We couldn’t do any better than we’ve done already, could we?’

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We now know, all these years later, a little more about the background to the song. Or think we do. Paul has confirmed that the name Eleanor came from the actress Eleanor Bron, who had appeared in the [Beatles] film Help!.

In the eighties, a tombstone was discovered in the graveyard of St Peter’s Church at Woolton, where Paul met John, marking the grave of one Eleanor Rigby. Could Paul have subconsciously stored it in his brain? Possibly, but I think it unlikely.

Pete Shotton, John’s best friend, has shed more light on the subject. He was at John’s house when Paul arrived with the tune completed but only half the verses done. He tried it out on John, George, Ringo and Pete, who all chipped in with suggestions.

01_14_Beatles_02 Sheet music for ‘Eleanor Rigby’, illustration by Klaus Voorman, artist and musician, a friend of the Beatles from Hamburg. Little, Brown and Company When Father McCartney was dropped – for the reason Paul gave me – Pete Shotton got out a telephone directory and found the name McKenzie. It was Ringo who suggested he was darning his socks. George came up with the line “all the lonely people.” Paul was then stuck for an ending and Pete says that it was he who first suggested the two characters should be brought together: Eleanor, the lonely spinster, and Father McKenzie, the sad priest.

Extraordinary that a lyric with input from so many contributors turned out near perfect – not a line wasted, not a word wrong, not a corny image.

It has the simplest accompaniment – a string octet, arranged by George Martin, without any drums or guitars – which adds to the ethereal, disembodied atmosphere of the piece.

But there are so many things we still don’t know. Eleanor, picking up the rice after a wedding: is she a cleaner, a guest at the wedding or just an idle visitor? Then we see Father McKenzie, another lonely person, writing a sermon which no one will hear. Why not? Is he retired, have the congregation abandoned him?

They come together when she dies. “She died in the church”: is that confirmation that she was a cleaner, dying on duty, or does it just mean she was still a member of the church? Father McKenzie leaves the grave, presumably the only person who attended the service, wiping the dirt from his hands.

She was “buried alone with her name.” I take that to mean she was unmarried, had no family, had done nothing with her life, a nobody – but some commentators have suggested that she committed suicide.

Novelist A.S. Byatt, in a BBC talk aired in 1993, remarked on the phrase “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” If it had been kept by a mirror, we would immediately have thought of make-up (women often refer to putting on their face before going out), but there is no mirror mentioned, so the image becomes broader, more metaphorical.

Staring out of the window, wearing a face, she is a nobody, nobody sees her, nobody knows her. She is one of the true lonely people. When she does venture out into the world, she hides behind the face she wears, preserving her anonymity.

Was she a victim of the First or Second World War, when so many women were left alone, having lost the man they might have married? Some, more cynical, have suggested she is a prostitute – waiting for a client: that’s who her face is for. The phrase ‘no one was saved’ has been seen as anti-Christian, anti- Catholic. Rich pickings, then, in one short song, for eager analysts.

The longest, most sustained analysis of the lyric I have read is an unpublished 29,000-word essay by Professor Colin Campbell of York University in England (co-author of the definitive concordance of Beatles lyrics, Things We Said Today). Fascinated and mystified by the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ lyrics, he likens them to an opera or ballet, in which the first and third acts are there, but we are missing the second, middle act, and have to imagine it. He discusses the power of the images; the economy of expression; the enigma at the heart of the two stories; the tragedy of their lives, as in a Greek drama, balanced by the humanity of the chorus.

Campbell points out that it is the only Beatles song with a story that takes place over a period of time, and is also unique in that it is about two characters, presented separately, who are then drawn together. It’s also their first song about a named individual (but only just: ‘Dr Robert’ was recorded ten days later), and the first Beatles song not to contain the words I, me, mine, you or your. It is a third person song – not directed at someone, like ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’. Fascinating stuff. Shows what you can find out if you really study the lyrics. Let’s hope he gets it published.

01_14_Beatles_03 ‘Eleanor Rigby’, from the Revolver album, September 1966, in Paul McCartney's hand but the signature at the end is by someone else, possibly Yoko Ono. Little, Brown and Company

The manuscript, now in Northwestern  University, is in Paul’s hand and looks like a fair copy rather than an original working version, though it was missing the last verse. There are a couple of corrections, but they appear to be simple spelling mistakes. The signature at the end is possibly in Yoko’s hand, to identify it for John Cage.

Excerpted from the book THE BEATLES LYRICS by Hunter Davies. Introduction and text copyright (c) 2014 by Hunter Davies. Beatles lyrics copyright (c) by Sony.  Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.