Who was the real Eleanor Rigby? It is this question that has puzzled Beatles fans ever since the group released this enigmatic riddle of a song back in 1966. But now that Paul McCartney has given a detailed account of how the Revolver track came to be, it looks like we might finally be getting an answer.
The song is one of those Beatles numbers that, with just a few finely crafted turns of phase, manages to evoke an incredibly diverse range of interpretations. For some, it speaks of solitude, for others, it is a lament on the impossibility of remembrance. However, as McCartney revealed, the inspiration behind ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is far more complex and surprising than originally thought.
“My mum’s favourite cold cream was Nivea, and I love it to this day. That’s the cold cream I was thinking of in the description of the face Eleanor keeps ‘in a jar by the door’. I was always a little scared by how often women used cold cream,” he explained. That’s how McCartney begins his breakdown of how he wrote ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Despite being one of The Beatles’ most melancholic numbers, many of the images in fact come from fond childhood memories. “Growing up,” McCartney begins, “I knew a lot of old ladies—partly through what was called Bob-a-Job Week, when Scouts did chores for a shilling. You’d get a shilling for cleaning out a shed or mowing a lawn. I wanted to write a song that would sum them up.”
And that’s how McCartney met the real-life Eleanor Rigby, a character based on “an old lady that I got on with very well,” he explained, adding: “I don’t even know how I first met ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ but I would go around to 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. 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.”
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“I still vividly remember the kitchen, because she had a little crystal-radio set,” he continues. “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.” A decade later, when Paul sat down to write ‘Eleanor Rigby’, he was reminded of those conversations, of the sheer isolation of it all — the unbearable loneliness of that woman hauled up all on her own.
It’s possible that the real ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was actually called Daisy Hawkins, and that McCartney picked up the name for his mysterious character during one of the long walks he and John Lennon would take around Liverpool. As Paul recalls, he could well have plucked the name from “a marker in the graveyard at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, which John and I certainly wandered around, endlessly talking about our future. I don’t remember seeing the grave there, but I suppose I might have registered it subliminally.”
Interestingly, it was this same churchyard where Paul was introduced to John Lennon for the first time: “Back in the summer of 1957, Ivan Vaughan (a friend from school) and I went to the Woolton Village Fête at the church together, and he introduced me to his friend John, who was playing there with his band, the Quarry Men,” he says.
So, there you have it. Finally, we know who ‘Eleanor Rigby’ really was: an old lady who lived on a quiet street in Liverpool and filled Paul McCartney’s imagination with stories of her youth. The world is full of Eleanor Rigby’s, and we’ve all met a fair few in our time. Perhaps that’s why McCartney’s song stands out as one of the most poignant numbers in The Beatles’ catalogue. It serves as a reminder that, on every street in the world, there are countless more “lonely people”, all bursting with innumerable stories just waiting to be told. Paul McCartney was wise enough to listen.
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