Fiction   Essays   Poetry  The Ten On Baseball Chapbooks In Memory

Gary Lehmann all came down to a serious relationship
      with Eleanor Rigby

Just when I thought there was nothing new that any of The Beatles could possibly say to interest me, I stumbled across a quote from Paul McCartney which revealed how he and John Lennon wrote Eleanor Rigby, and I was hooked all over again. The interview appears in a book entitled The Beatles: In Their Own Words [Omnibus Press, 1978].

Eleanor Rigby, McCartney explains, “started off with sitting down at the piano and getting the first line of the melody, and playing around with the words. I think it was 'Miss Daisy Hawkins' originally; then it was her picking up the rice in a church after a wedding. That's how nearly all of our songs start, with the first line just suggesting itself from books or newspapers.”

Of course many a poet who wants to eat and make a living drifts into song writing, but the Beatles were a legitimate musical group, only lyricists by avocation, some said. Yet, it is surprising how similar their writing methods were to those of regular, starving-artist, poets. Scraps come along from real life. They get played back in the tape recorder of the mind. Names get changed, places drift about until they find a happy home, where everything begins to feel right.

“Ah look at all the lonely people,” the song begins. Why “Ah”? We’re supposed to feel sorry for the poor girl. There she is, Miss Eleanor Rigby. She “picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been.”

I think all good poetry starts with a single good line or a set of words that get formed up into a single blockbuster line that contains the whole story in a nutshell. There it is. McCartney continues, “I saw I’d said she was picking up the rice in church, so she had to be a cleaner; she had missed the wedding, and she was suddenly lonely. In fact she had missed it all—she was the spinster type.”

"I saw I'd said"...that’s it exactly. The line spoke to the poet’s subconscious mind first, and only later returned to make sense of itself.

More than ten years after the song was written McCartney still recalls the process of discovery that made the words come forward. Many poets have this experience. Both the waking and the sleeping mind dwell on a set of words that aren’t quite right. They knit at the ideas. They worry the corners. They fidget and squirm while the body is doing something else. That’s what keeps the creative process fresh and interesting.

Next McCartney talks about the incidental circumstances around the writing of the poem. Many times ideas arrive that seriously alter the words of the poem while the poet is busy with life, doing something totally unrelated to the process of writing. The mind on the trail of a poem has its own agenda. It has no respect for the rest of life or whatever the body thinks it is up to that day.

“Jane (McCartney’s actress friend) was in a play in Bristol then, and I was walking around the streets waiting for her to finish. I didn’t really like ‘Daisy Hawkins’—I wanted a name that was more real. The thought just came: “Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice and lives in a dream—so there she was.”

Non-writers read this sort of explanation with tremendous skepticism. “This sort of thing never happens to me,” they say, and they are right. Artists and writers have a certain tap into the subconscious, but it doesn’t turn on when you apply counter-clockwise pressure to the handle. It comes when it comes. “—so there she was.”

Then comes the problem of Father McCartney. “It was going to be Father McCartney, but then I thought that was a bit of a hang-up for my Dad, being in this lonely song. So we looked through the phone book. That’s the beauty of working at random—it does come up perfectly, much better than if you try to think it with your intellect.”

Serendipity created both characters in a way. One arrived half by sound and half by memory, and the other arrived from free-association with the phone book. Of course a phone book is a big book, and you have to start your search somewhere. Is it just coincidence that the boys chose a very British sounding name? I suppose it was a British Post book, but even so, there are thousands of names in a phone book. Did they start with McCartney and work both ways? Some element of surprise was undoubtedly combined with some element of planning in the selection. Still, that’s the magic.

“Anyway there was Father McKenzie, and he was just as I imagined him, lonely, darning his socks. We weren’t sure if the song was going to go on.” Now this is an odd thing for Paul to say. Here he was in the middle of writing one of the finest songs of the twentieth century, and he says he was thinking about tossing the whole thing away before it was done. Why, when it had such a promising start?

To tell the truth, that’s part of the creative process as well. Half the stuff that makes a start out of your mind, never reaches the finish line. Sometimes for no good reason at all, the whole thing skids to a halt, for minutes, hours, days, years, decades. Every writer has this sort of scrap heap somewhere around. Stuff just dies on you, for no good reason. As frequently happens, extraneous ideas float into the words which get them off-track.

McCartney explains that ”In the next verse we thought of a bin man (garbage collector), an old feller going through dustbins; but it got too involved—embarrassing. John and I wondered whether to have Eleanor Rigby and him have a thing going, but we couldn’t really see how.” Or why. Like many poets, the dynamic duo had allowed the story to get shanghaied in a foreign port, where the whole idea got mugged and dropped into an alley somewhere.

Luckily, they deep-sixed the garbage collector and went back to the basic story, which had everything they really needed already. “When I played it to John we decided to finish it. That was the point anyway. She didn’t make it, she never made it with anyone, she didn’t even look as if she was going to.” How right they were to back away and find the heart of the story.

In many ways, “Eleanor Rigby” is classically designed, like an opera, or a play, a sculpture, or any good poem. It stands on three separate legs. In the opening chorus, we are introduced to the general thesis:

Ah, look at all the lonely people

Then we see the main character, who brings home the point of the whole piece with that one, great, blockbuster line:

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream

...with its follow-up, added later:

Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

Open-ended questions are usually a bad thing in poetry, but here the answer is so obvious that it just reinforces the theme.

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

By now it occurs to us that to some extent we all are lonely people like Eleanor Rigby. Our heart goes out to her, cleaning up after other peoples' joyous occasions. “Why can’t we have more joy in our lives?” we ask. “Why is loneliness a factor for anyone? Do the lonely people make themselves or is their loneliness part of the way things are set up in this crazy world?”

While we are lost in this reverie, the poem leads us to the second person in the story, the twister, the character who makes it all a great deal more subtle, and universal. It seems the whole church is inhabited by the ghosts of lonely people.

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near.
Look at him working. darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

Indeed, what does he care about Eleanor Rigby’s loneliness when he has his own problems? I think it was John Lennon who got the Fab Four into such hot water in 1966 when he said to a London Evening Standard reporter, “We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

There always was a kind of anti-Christian slant to the Beatles lyrics which was not lost on the faithful who came out in droves to oppose them wherever they appeared. The lyrics of Eleanor Rigby did nothing to abate their fury. Ultimately, it’s what makes the poem edgy, dangerous, and relevant. It exposes a soft edge of life, one we prefer to hide most of the time. Even the church that is supposed to soften the edges around the hard realities of life exists in a hard world itself where socks need darning. Even priests get lonely. Here the song is doing exactly what all good poetry is supposed to do, stretch the limits.

So now we come to the third leg of the stool that ties the two characters together and completes the circle that the other stanzas were drawing out for us:

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

Eleanor Rigby is ultimately structured like a three legged stool. In his commentary, McCartney takes us through the first two parts, but obviously this last stanza was needed to tie everything together. In fact, this last stanza offers the only way the song could properly end. It has to go back to the church and the lonely ones:

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Lennon and McCartney may have just been writing a song, but in McCartney’s explanation of how this lyric was written he has revealed methods used by all poets. In so doing he reinforces, if reinforcement was ever needed, the notion that The Beatles were true poets, as well as the greatest songsters of our era.

©2010 by Gary Lehmann

Gary Lehmann’s poetry has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His poem “Reporting from Fallujah” was nominated for 2006, and “First in Flight” has been nominated for 2007. He is co-author and editor of a book of poetry entitled The Span I Will Cross [Process Press, 2004]. Public Lives and Private Secrets was published by Foothills Press in 2005. His book American Sponsored Torture [FootHills Publishing] was released in May 2007. His essays, poetry and short stories are widely published—over 100 pieces per year. For more information see his Web site.

  Home Contributors Past Issues Search   Links  Guidelines About Us

Subscribe to the Slow Trains newsletter