So I’m wandering back in, having been spending my days covering news during an industry event — which is always a thrill, since I’m an editor, not a reporter, and I have the journalistic instincts of a house plant.
So now, as we continue down our road of songs that, heard in the right moment, might genuinely bring a tear to the eye of an attentive listener, I’m going to do something that is probably really dumb. I’m going to write about one of the most beloved and commented-on songs of all time.
“Eleanor Rigby” spent a few weeks at number one in the UK in 1966, but didn’t quite make the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. It wasn’t a good fit for American Top 40, since it features, of course, only string quartet and voice; it’s yet more proof of the Beatles’ extraordinary power and popularity that it was released as a single in the U.S. at all.
“Eleanor Rigby” was also covered, over and over again, within a year or two of its release. That seems surprising now, in a time when classic rock fans have habit of thinking of important artists and songwriters as auteurs. It it were a hit today, an obviously exceptional song like this would be considered something close to untouchable. But multiple covers of interesting or successful records were not unusual well into the ’60s; fewer artists were writing their own material and many may have been more interested in great songs than any sort of unified artistic vision. Me, I developed my ideas of pop propriety in the (barely) post-Beatles era, so I do have a bit of a hard time getting my head around the fact that something like “Eleanor Rigby” has been covered dozens of times.
But anyway, here it is.
“Eleanor Rigby” link for the e-mail people.
The premise is bluntly stated: “I look at all the lonely people.” The ageless, solitary Eleanor keeps up appearances, that particularly British concern — but “Who is it for?” Not Father Mackenzie, the priest quietly working on his sermon for a nonexistent or perhaps merely indifferent congregation, and making sure to do his homelier tasks out of view.
“I look at all the lonely people.” From someone in McCartney’s position, that has every reason to come off as merely sentimental — or poisonously condescending. But his voice is precise and intense, emotional without earnestness, and the lyrics decline to fall into treacly traps.
Died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Wiping the dirt from his hands
As he walks from the grave
No one was saved
The strings are staccato and propulsive in the verses, smoother in the brief chorus, sometimes emphasizing particular lines in the lyrics. On the last verse, the falling figure that underlies “buried along with her name” provides perhaps the song’s emotional peak, followed by what sounds rather like a warning: “No one was saved.” Price of the world’s indifference?
“Where do they all come from?” “Where do they all belong?” A young person’s questions, from a songwriter in his early 20s. But so urgently and sympathetically expressed that they still have impact, over all these years.