Paul McCartney is set to publish his whopping 900-page book, The Lyrics, that explains the stories behind many of his biggest Beatles songs and his solo material on November 2. Weeks before its arrival, he shared an excerpt with The New Yorker that delves into the making of The Beatles classic “Eleanor Rigby.”
All the lonely people, where do they all come from? In Eleanor Rigby’s case, she came from Macca’s childhood. He explained that the song about the lonely elderly woman is based on an “old lady that [he] got on with very well.”
“I would go around her house, and not just once or twice. I found out that she lived on her own, so I would go around there and just chat, which is sort of crazy if you think about me being some young Liverpool guy,” he wrote.
“Later, I would offer to go and get her shopping. She’d give me a list and I’d bring the stuff back, and we’d sit in her kitchen. I still vividly remember the kitchen, because she had a little crystal-radio set. That’s not a brand name; it actually had a crystal inside it. Crystal radios were quite popular in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. So I would visit, and just hearing her stories enriched my soul and influenced the songs I would later write.”
As McCartney explained before in numerous interviews, he initially considered naming her Daisy Hawkins, after actor Jack Hawkins and the character Jim Hawkins from Treasure Island, but that wasn’t a good fit. “Father McKenzie” was also initially called Father McCartney—but The Beatles member didn’t want people to think he was talking about his actual father.
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He landed on “Rigby” after going to Bristol and seeing a shop sign with the surname. He named her “Eleanor” after actor Eleanor Bron, who worked with the band on their film Help!
It’s long been told that McCartney and John Lennon stumbled upon a tombstone in a graveyard at St. Peter’s Church marked with the name “Eleanor Rigby” but The Beatles member clarified that though the bandmates “certainly wandered around” the grounds in their youth, he doesn’t remember seeing that grave there—so that lore of the title’s origins is now discarded.
As for the lyrics, McCartney recognizes that some of the narrative doesn’t make much sense. Like, why is Eleanor picking up rice off the floor after a wedding? Sure, she’s lonely, but why is she cleaning up after someone else voluntarily?
“Those opening lines—’Eleanor Rigby / Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been / Lives in a dream.’ It’s a little strange to be picking up rice after a wedding. Does that mean she was a cleaner, someone not invited to the wedding, and only viewing the celebrations from afar? Why would she be doing that?”
For more insight into the “Eleanor Rigby” writing process from McCartney himself, head over to New Yorker for the full piece.