Hearing John Lennon’s “No Reply” in the autumn of 1964, music publisher Dick James remarked to the songwriter that he—and the Beatles—were making progress. Asked what James meant, the publisher responded by saying that “No Reply” told a complete story. It had an arc, and ended with a resolution.
The implication was that the other Beatles songs hadn’t, though that wasn’t the band’s intention to produce songs of that nature. They were bursts of sounds long on energy, with chord changes and acts of melodic derring-do that continue to thrill us, overlooked as the Beatles early catalogue has become.
Lennon and Paul McCartney utilized an abundance of pronouns to up the urgency of those songs, as if they were secrets meant just for one person—you—that all the world could hear, which was OK and in keeping with what felt like loyalty.
But the Beatles didn’t tell stories in their songs. Few did in rock and roll. In folk there was Bob Dylan, and in the rock arena, come the middle 1960s, the Kinks’ Ray Davies began to mine a narrative voice in which his songs traced the actions of characters.
Still, there had been nothing like Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” a short story that also just happens to be a song, a full-on work of literature meriting fresh commendation in modern times with the release of the mega Revolver box set.
My earliest memories of the Beatles involved car trips with my parents. Just as Bob Dylan had to pull over to the side of the road in 1964 after hearing one Beatles song after another on a local station, so too did the Beatles continue to rule the dial—or at least the oldies station—in my 1980s boyhood. I liked them and the Beach Boys for one simple reason that many people have always liked the Beatles and Beach Boys: melody.
Often it goes no further than that. We enjoy a song we can hum, sing, whistle. I’d suggest that we also like a story we can hum, sing, whistle, which is how language works, as well as a story well told. Read the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead” or one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best short stories, and the language carries you, the same way a melody does. You’re not doing the work. You’re riding a wave.
I bopped my head to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Love Me Do,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “She Loves You”—which remains the most exciting music or art I have ever experienced—but it was “Eleanor Rigby,” and the story it told, that hit me so squarely as to give me nightmares.
Lennon and McCartney innovated in equal measure, which is a truth that people have been slow to grasp. The consensus is that Lennon was the arty guy, McCartney the consummate pro. Where Lennon was radical, McCartney was a master of tried and true.
This is ahistorical hogwash. I think each man, with the talent that each had, and the fear both had of the other—healthy fear, but fear all the same—pushed each other to do everything they could do.
Competition works that way. If you’re competing with someone who is awesome at what both of you are undertaking, this isn’t a relaxing situation. They might be your best buddy, but you will have nerves, and the only way to undue that bundle of nerves is to throw yourself into the competitive task at hand.
Lennon had been the storywriter in the band, and before the band, going back to his days at school when he put together a semi-regular mock newspaper or satirical literary magazine—which is essentially what it was—of his own making called The Daily Howl.
But while it’s not as flashy as the Beatles advancements we normally talk about—“Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life”—nothing in the band’s output was as out there, as bang-on new, as progressive, as McCartney’s story-song “Eleanor Rigby” in 1966, and that has to do with its literary quality.
My first memory—or my first sense of myself—was that I would write. I knew it. I knew it before I knew I was a boy or my parents loved me. It was a knowledge I seemed to have entered this world with, but it went beyond traditional stories—of the bedtime variety—and books. It had a lot to do with music, and it was to music I turned, in formative years, more than anything else.
Not like any other Beatles song
When we read, we are hearing a story—if the writer is any good—as much as anything. We see the narrative in our head as well. Reading has very little to do with the page. That’s just the messenger, and the messenger all but dissolves in our hands, because we are transported. The best writing never makes you feel like you’re reading it.
“Eleanor Rigby” brought that point home to me, even as it gave me nightmares. I didn’t experience the song as music. Or, if I did, it was extra-musical, post-music, in the way of the finest stories.
From the first, I knew this was not like any other Beatles song. “Eleanor Rigby” was unlike any song I had heard. Beatles songs centered on me, you, us, but not “Eleanor Rigby.” No personal, “reach out-and-connect”-style pronouns. All third person.
The first line of “Ah, look at all the lonely people”—which had actually been suggested by George Harrison, and happily scooped up by an accepting McCartney—starts us in medias res, and that “ah” lent a touch of literary gravitas.
You saw it in poetry, and in Shakespeare’s plays. The line immediately establishes we, the listeners, as onlookers, people who have foregathered in order to witness. We feel a part of this song—this story—like we have a job to do, the same way consultants are brought in to oversee and vet, which is itself a lot like reading.
We then see the first of our two main characters, in Eleanor Rigby herself, cleaning up after a wedding, so we know it wasn’t hers. The description is pithy, but it’s so well-written that we also know that no one else features in this scene. She’s the lone cleaner-upper.
“How many of us do a version of what Eleanor and Father McKenzie do? Hit that refresh button. Lie about the grandeur of our just-passed weekend. ”
Do you see how that detail tells? Why is no one else helping? Did someone ask her to do this? Why just her? That’s unlikely, and more probably she took the sad task on herself, because that’s what she does. And she’s seen all that she can bear to see about the happiness of others. We know a lot about this character—this person—in barely no words at all. This is how superior writing works.
We’re then told she lives in a dream, which is an alternate reality, as so many people in our world now do. People don’t answer to the truth; they flee from it, and attempt to erect something else in its stead, seeking out others who will enable the process. That’s Twitter, yes? Internet identities. She stares out the window, meaning she’s passive, a watcher of the lives that are not her own. Then we get the first line of mind-blowing psychedelia in all of rock, though rock has never sounded like this: “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.”
That got little Colin. I thought, “What the hell, man?” I was scared. I understood metaphor was at work, but there was also a sort of elbow into your sides that suggested she might as well as had a bucket of faces that she slipped on and off. We all do. I remember looking extra hard at my parents in the front seat, as though their visages would slip into faces I didn’t recognize as we drove home in the fading autumn sun of a Sunday afternoon. And the kicker? The narrator asks who the face is for. Clearly it’s for Eleanor herself, but it’s not even a fit for the person to whom it belongs. Thus, we’re told—signaled—that here is someone who doesn’t belong in the world, and what is more terrifying than that?
The second verse introduces Father McKenzie, and again we join a character in the middle of their activities. He’s darning his socks, and our immediate impression is that this is the veritable highlight of his social calendar. It’s what he does when his duties are complete. This is what he has to look forward to.
When he’s not performing a task of his profession, he’s alone, the same as Eleanor. They are ensconced in versions of the same activity—and aloneness definitely feels like a horrid chore and slog—but apart from each other.
We think that they’d be comforted were, say, the priest to hop on his bicycle—as it feels like we’re in a rural parish, in Edwardian times—and head over to Eleanor’s for tea and some harmless gossip about the locals, and the state of Mr. Browning’s favorite hog who has taken ill. But we also surmise that that won’t happen.
George Martin utilized a double string quartet, which has a staccato push and urgency to it, an ever-so-slight scabrous strain, that we don’t normally get with string quartets. It’s akin to a more tuneful variant on Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score. I barely notice that backing, because I am locked in on the narrative, the same as when you read a book that you cannot proverbially put down. The car alarm is going off outside, but that car alarm is dead to you, so to speak. Not a flicker on the radar to mar your intent concentration, absorption, in needing to know what happens with these people.
That’s what writing comes down to: making people need to know. Successively. The priest writes sermons he won’t deliver in order to have an activity to do. Again, I believe this is the Edwardian era—though we’re not told, and we don’t need to be—but how recognizable is this behavior now? How many of us do a version of what Eleanor and Father McKenzie do? Hit that refresh button. Lie about the grandeur of our just-passed weekend. Make claims of our best lives, and living each day as if it were your last, which, when you think about it, is among the worst advice ever suggested.
Eleanor Rigby does have the last day of her life in the final verse of the song. You don’t know it’s coming, but when it comes, so, too, does sense. The death tracks. This has been a song about death—in life—and formal death seems to be but a banal box that gets checked as all of the others had previously been checked. Box checking for the sake of box checking.
The two people who ought to have met and helped each other, now do “meet,” but that’s because Father McKenzie has presumably said words at her funeral. We don’t need to know the details.
We’re completely invested with a good story, and a little mystery goes a long way, because it allows us to have a role and a voice, and do some filling in. That’s another hallmark of the best writing—you compel the readers to be writers, too, as they read your story. No one came to the funeral, and Father McKenzie, at a later date—or it always struck me as one—cleans the dirt from Eleanor’s grave. He goes back there, for visits. To pay respect. But who is he visiting? To whom is he paying these respects? Her? Him? People who live lives like this? Us? We’re told that no one was saved, which also means, save yourself, the same advice that Jacob Marley gave to Ebenezer Scrooge.
John Lennon claimed he wrote a lot of this song, which seems highly unlikely, and runs counter to the recollections of those who were there, or as close to being there as possible. In their post-Beatles interviews, Lennon and McCartney rarely diverged in their statements about who wrote what. It’s just this song and Lennon’s “In My Life.”
I think Lennon recognized “Eleanor Rigby” for what it was, and his insecurity—for a spell—got the better of him. He was now the Dick James figure, who had experienced a song that was a short story. Or a short story that was a song. They are the same, when neither can be improved. Which speaks to Paul McCartney’s accomplishment with “Eleanor Rigby,” if not the lives it holds.