Decoding “Eleanor Rigby”

The Beatles’ most enigmatic, operatic song. 

eleanor rigby cover.
Sheet music for “Eleanor Rigby,” illustration by Klaus Voorman, a friend of the Beatles from Hamburg.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image courtesy of Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

Excerpted from The Beatles Lyrics: The Stories Behind the Music, Including the Handwritten Drafts of More Than 100 Classic Beatles Songs by Hunter Davies. Out now from Little, Brown and Company.

It was thanks to “Eleanor Rigby” that I got to meet Paul McCartney 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 in the Sunday Times,
 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, London—which he still has to this day. 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.” 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.

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.

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 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.’

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 film Help! Pete Shotton, John’s best friend, 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. 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.

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. 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 10 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.”

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, has 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 along 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 killed herself.

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 makeup (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.

handwritten lyrics.
“Eleanor Rigby,” from Revolver, September 1966, in Paul’s hand but the signature at the end is by someone else, possibly Yoko.

Sony/ATV Music Publishing

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.

*Correction, Feb. 19, 2016: This post originally misquoted a lyric from the song as “buried alone with her name.” The lyric is: “Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.” (Return.)