Eleanor Rigby turns 50
By Bernie Brown
August 16 2016Fifty years on, it’s hard to imagine the world without this Beatles classic, writes Bernie Brown. But as a Christian, he ponders its story of loneliness and despair, and reflects that far from being “nobodies”, we are all loved by God, and can know the assurance and inspiration that faith can bring.
I can’t remember the first time I heard it. Too young to remember Beatlemania in real time, I was a second generation Beatles fan. No doubt it floated into my infant ears many times from a radio somewhere when I was a toddler. The first time I really heard it would have been in the late seventies when a school mate gave me a cassette.
But for as long as I can remember, “Eleanor Rigby” has stood out as a unique Beatles classic. Rolling Stone ranked it at 22 out of the top 100 Beatles songs. Personally, I’d have it in my top five. Where would you have it?
Recorded in EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, London, on two days in April and finished on 6 June, 1966, it was released in the UK on 5 August. The single held the number one spot for four weeks in the UK and eight weeks in Australia.
It was the first Beatles track on which no Beatle played at all. Paul McCartney recalls, “I wrote it at the piano, just vamping an E minor chord… and putting a melody over it.” For the lyrics, “I was just mumbling around and eventually came up with ‘Picks up the rice in a church where the wedding had been’… Those words just fell out like stream-of-consciousness stuff, but they started to set the tone of it all.”
Fifty years on, it’s hard to imagine the world without “Eleanor Rigby”. Fans, sociologists, commentators, teachers and students have been analysing the song ever since. The lyrics have appeared in an anthology of English poetry alongside Shakespeare and Keats.
In his fascinating book on the Beatles’ music, Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles, Kenneth Womack writes, “Eleanor Rigby explores the disquieting power of loneliness as a source of isolation and despair” and “asks pointed questions about the failure of interpersonal relationships as a tonic for healing the soul”.
In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, Ian McDonald calls the song, “transfixing, cogent and concentrated,” and suggests that the line “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” is the single most memorable image the Beatles produced.
But the song is not beyond criticism. In The Beatles Forever, Nicholas Shaffner calls some of the lyrics “trite”, particularly the final “no one was saved”, which leads me to my own thoughts and the reason why I think the song’s significant birthday deserves recognition.
What I like about the song is that it remains open to interpretation after so many years. It can be thought about, talked about, read about and listened to, over and over. Forty years after first hearing it I still love it, and yet I can be critical of it too.
For example, the lyrics suggest that Eleanor and Father McKenzie are the lonely people, yet both have commitments and places of belonging. Eleanor, a church warden, cleans her church after weddings so it is ready for Sunday mass. She serves; she is being of use; she has a place. The lyrics contrast her singlehood to the joy of the newlyweds who have found love, hope and romance. And yet, this was the swinging sixties. Already divorce rates were on the rise, yet the song celebrates traditional marriage in a very un-sixties way. Father McKenzie writes “a sermon that no one will hear,” but can’t that be read as a sign of his devotion and belief ? He too serves others.
Eleanor is “buried along with her name”. These days I find this bleak vision of the final meaninglessness of her life a harsh judgment that only a young, inexperienced person could make. Coming from a Beatle in the mid-sixties, at the height of fame and confidence, it’s a little like John’s “we’re more popular than Jesus” line. It’s what fame can do.
But perhaps the line that rankles me the most is the closing one, “no one was saved.” As a line about the waning of organised religion it may be powerful, but it is ultimately too dismissive, too easy a thing to say about a human being. Paul doesn’t go deep enough into Eleanor’s life to justify the sweeping statement he makes about her fate, and how could anyone be sure about any of that anyway? Does Eleanor’s dedication and commitment count for nothing? Can absolutely no one bother to go to her funeral? (Maybe she simply outlived all her friends.) From his unapproachable height of fame and fortune, in the prime of his life, Paul seems to have judged and dismissed a good old lady, assuming she didn’t succeed in life or failed to be the person she should have been, that her loneliest day was every day, and that the lonely end of her life completely outweighed all of the good times. But who is to say that about anyone?
For in fact, most of mankind are little people. Compared to the Fabs, the rest of us are, let’s face it, “nobodies”. Ultimately, maybe “Eleanor Rigby” retains its power because it is about us. The lonely people are all of us. Old, young, rich, poor, married, single. Each of us, in whatever worldly success we can gather, is only ever one step away from loneliness, one financial meltdown away from poverty. And aren’t most of us in the first world protected from most of the suffering most of the world’s “little” people confront most of the time anyway? And isn’t the message of the song really that loneliness sucks? That it shouldn’t be like this? That we were made for belonging, for relationships? And isn’t that cry of the chorus really a cry of pain that any of us should ever be lonely?
Being a Christian also gives me another perspective on the song. Our faith suggests that the circle of loneliness and pain that the lonely people are trapped in, needs to be broken from the outside. That, because of our inherent brokenness, we are largely incapable of loving until we are first loved, and our ultimate lover is Jesus Christ. To quote that beautiful hymn:
My song is love unknown
My Saviour’s love to me
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be.
Our faith argues that the unconditional love of God in Christ is ultimately what our souls are made for and long for, even without our knowing — and as St Augustine wrote, that they will find no rest until they rest in God. The Christian faith, the living Christ, continues to guide, nurture and inspire believers today. And faith is something the song’s main characters both have, in all the supposed bleakness and loneliness of their lives. Maybe it’s what kept them going.
This month we celebrate “Eleanor Rigby”. For ironically, wonderfully, the lonely “nobody” inhabiting this song, who was supposedly “buried along with her name”, wasn’t really buried at all; she came to life. Her supposed ending was, magically, her beginning. She inhabits a place in popular culture alongside David Copperfield and Boo Radley. She’s an immortal. And in the end it simply isn’t true that “nobody came”. Millions and millions of people came and continue to come to where she is. And “Eleanor Rigby” continues to visit them where they are, pouring into their lives with a small string orchestra.
Bernie Brown is a secondary school English teacher and long-time Beatles fan. He worships at St Mark’s, Fitzroy.