A bronze statue of a woman sits on a stone bench in Liverpool’s Stanley Street. She appears middle-aged, tired, worn down by life. Her small handbag sits carelessly in her lap. She seems to be gazing down wistfully to her left at a sparrow that perches on a rumpled newspaper. Her hand is in her pocket – she’s felt the cold, perhaps, and nodded off without finishing reading. Her partially empty shopping bag rests on the bench to her right. As you get closer, you observe that she only has the merest hint of a face.
This is Eleanor Rigby, the statue, a slightly spooky and bleak image that fits a slightly bleak song by the Beatles, and its slightly spooky mythology. The statue is the work of entertainer Tommy Steele. It was his own tribute to the Beatles and was unveiled by him in December 1982. The plaque had been stolen by someone else before I got there, but dedicates the sculpture to “All the lonely people”.
Stanley Street is a somewhat seedy thoroughfare, though handy for the Beatles’ trail, because it’s just round the corner from the Cavern. Hessy’s Music Shop, frequented for decades by a string of Liverpool’s key (see what I did there?) musicians, and where John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi is reputed to have bought him a guitar, once stood on Stanley Street. Across the road from Eleanor Rigby, the statue, is Eleanor Rigby, the hotel. Bachelor parties are advertised, and pole dancing. Poles are much sought after for dancing, I understand – along with Lapps, of course. I suspect the hotel would probably not be to Eleanor’s taste.
The Beatles released Eleanor Rigby as a single with the relatively awful Yellow Submarine in August 1966. It stayed in the UK charts for 13 weeks, four of those at No 1. The album Revolver came out at the same time as the single and featured Eleanor Rigby as the second track; Paul’s velvety vocal and the backing of see-sawing strings leaps in without warning after George’s staccato studio-coughing Taxman. Eleanor Rigby is a haunting, sad, song, a little over 2 minutes long. Like so many Beatles’ numbers, its origin, conception and subsequent development is the stuff of pop legend.
Paul McCartney first came up with the tune that became Eleanor Rigby in the little basement music room at girlfriend Jane Asher’s parents’ house, 57 Wimpole Street, London. The singer Donovan recalls Paul turning up with it at his flat where he sang, “Ola Na Tungee/Blowing his mind in the dark/With a pipe full of clay/No one can say” – though some stories have the song starting life as “Daisy Hawkins” – which does not scan so well. Apparently, the song was finished at John Lennon’s Kenwood mansion, with input from the other three Beatles and Pete Shotton, John’s childhood friend. The ratio of input varies according to which account you read; I’ve always thought it was largely Paul’s composition, with John contributing the ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’ line – which kind of sounds right. The ‘Father McKenzie’ referred to in the song, though, started out as ‘Father McCartney’.
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So who was Eleanor Rigby, this somewhat forlorn spinster who lived in a dream and was buried along with her name? Was she just a figment of imagination? According to Paul, the name was partly inspired by Eleanor Bron, actress and friend, who worked with the Beatles on the movie Help!. The ‘Rigby’ was spotted on a shop front in Bristol, where Paul was visiting Jane Asher whilst she was acting in theatre there. Yet, by spooky coincidence, in St Peter’s churchyard, Woolton, Liverpool, close to where Lennon and McCartney first met, is a memorial to Eleanor Rigby, who died on 10th October 1939. Could Paul – or even John – have subconsciously taken in the name? John, in particular, knew this churchyard well. Continuing the coincidence, a few gravestones away is a memorial to Martha and John McKenzie – is that also where Father McKenzie came in, or was he just a convenient name from the ‘phone book? Incidentally, Paul had a dog called Martha.
In 2008, the Daily Mail carried an intriguing article which documented the real Eleanor Rigby’s life and family. Curiously, she was born and spent most of her life in a house in Vale Road, Woolton, which backs onto Menlove Avenue where John Lennon grew up.
If you do the Beatles trail, you will want to include Eleanor Rigby. Next week, we'll talk about JFK, Princess Di, aliens and crop circles. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a link to a YouTube clip of Paul McCartney performing Eleanor Rigby – the Beatles never performed the number live and the only instruments on the original were strings, played by session musicians.