The Women of the Beatles Songbook - Patrick Walsh  Scene4 Magazine Special Issue “Arts&Gender” April 0414

The Women of the Beatles Songbook

Patrick Walsh


April 2014

When you sit down to write about even a handful of songs by The Beatles, you perceive anew their astonishing accomplishment; it's like flying on a plane that you know is bound for Nepal: still, when you lift the window visor and see the Himalayas your jaw drops. As with all the greats, The Beatles made art that transcends its genre. They were supreme innovators–protean, kaleidoscopic, assimilating at the speed of genius. As such, their music teems with nuance and complexity. And like their countrymen and artistic colleagues Shakespeare and Dickens, the four lads from Liverpool created many memorable characters: Nowhere Man, Sgt. Pepper, The Fool on the Hill, Mean Mr. Mustard, Bungalow Bill, Rocky Raccoon, Maxwell (and his silver hammer.)

They also fashioned some lapidary female characters, among them Eleanor Rigby, Lovely Rita, Lady Madonna, and Polythene Pam. These women are not mute idols, the generic recipients of swooning Pop ballads or, dare I say, silly love songs. The Beatles' portrayals of women evolved at the same meteoric pace as the rest of their music.  And the range of portraits dazzles.

Eleanor Rigby

England's great poet Philip Larkin not only adored Jazz all his life but became one of its finest critics. But as much as Larkin venerated Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and Bix Beiderbecke, he acknowledged the phenomenon of The Beatles (something many of his generation–Larkin was born in 1922–could not or would not do), enough so to use the advent of The Beatles as a personal benchmark in his poem "Annus Mirabilis," which begins:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

But even Larkin must have been blindsided by the force and savage beauty of "Eleanor Rigby," which appeared on The Beatles' 1966 album Revolver. If you're familiar with Larkin's poetry, then you know that the words of "Eleanor Rigby" comprise a poem he would have loved to have penned: the poignant details, taut rhythm, hard-hitting rhymes, and, of course, the subject matter itself–loneliness, old-age, and dying.

Paul McCartney wrote most of the song (despite the standard "Lennon-McCartney" credit attribution.)  But as with so many songs from the Fab Four's heyday, "Eleanor Rigby" enjoyed the fruits of collaboration, including the stirring, almost relentless string arrangements of George Martin, their producer (and, really, the "Fifth Beatle.") George Harrison contributed the "Ah, look at all the lonely people" refrain, while Ringo Starr suggested that Father McKenzie was "writing the words of a sermon that no one would hear." Despite its somber message, the song spent four weeks at number one on the British charts.

With a  brevity of brushstrokes worthy of Picasso, The Beatles sketch the sad lineaments of Eleanor Rigby. She's probably a widow, although one gets the sense that she never married. Outward propriety–appearance­–is all she has. There is also the suggestion of poverty–or is it parsimony or senility?

    Eleanor Rigby
    Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been:
    Lives in a dream.
    Waits at the window
    Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door:
    Who is it for?
    Father McKenzie
    Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear:
    No one comes near.
    Look at him working,
    Darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there:
    What does he care?
    Eleanor Rigby
    Died in the church and was buried along with her name;
    Nobody came.
    Father McKenzie,
    Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave;
    No one was saved.

Lovely Rita

Every song on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band astounds in some way; "Lovely Rita" does so if only for its improbable heroine.

In his encyclopedic analysis of The Beatles songbook, Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald states that the song was inspired by what turned out to be a friendly encounter between Paul McCartney and a parking attendant named Meta Davis who had ticketed Paul's car. As with everything that came The Beatles' way, the parking ticket and chat became grist for McCartney's genius mill. Paul, who wrote the words and music, didn't aspire to the penetrating social critique of "Eleanor Rigby." According to MacDonald, the song began as satire but "in keeping with the warm mood of the time, McCartney decided 'it'd be better to love her'."

Whatever his motivation, Paul's choice of a "meter maid" for a musical character sketch reminds us that great artists enable us to see the world afresh–or as Wallace Stevens so beautifully phrases it in his poem "Angel Surrounded by Paysans," "Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,//Since, in my sight, you see the earth again." Ian MacDonald writes: "a silly song in many ways, but imbued with an exuberant interest in life." Stevens would have agreed.

Stevens would have also loved the wonderful alliteration of lines like "filling in a ticket in her little white book," "made her look a little like a military man," and "sitting on the sofa with a sister or two."

As in "Eleanor Rigby," small details allude to bigger issues. The fact that a woman–martial in appearance, no less–patrols the streets speaks to fundamental changes in postwar English society. As if to reinforce the point, Rita pays for dinner. And yet, the take-charge parking enforcement officer lives at home with her sisters, maybe even her parents.

    Lovely Rita meter maid
    Nothing can come between us,
    When it gets dark I tow your heart away.
    Standing by a parking meter,
    When I caught a glimpse of Rita,
    Filling in a ticket in her little white book.
    In a cap she looked much older,
    And the bag across her shoulder
    Made her look a little like a military man.
    Lovely Rita meter maid,
    May I inquire discreetly,
    When are you free to take some tea with me?
    Took her out and tried to win her,
    Had a laugh and over dinner
    Told her I would really like to see her again.
    Got the bill and Rita paid it,
    Took her home I nearly made it,
    Sitting on the sofa with a sister or two.
    Oh, lovely Rita meter maid,
    Where would I be without you,
    Give us a wink and make me think of you.

Lady Madonna

Another composition primarily by Paul McCartney, "Lady Madonna" was released as a single in March of 1968 and later appeared on the 1970 compilation album Hey Jude. In interviews, McCartney explained that he wanted to write a boogie-woogie number. He initially channeled Fats Domino's 1956 song "Blue Monday," a bouncy daily chronicle of a working man's week. (Domino, by the way, would cover "Lady Madonna" the same year it debuted.) Musically, Paul patterned the song on Johnny Parker's piano melody from Humphrey Lyttelton's gem, "Bad Penny Blues," also released in 1956 and which–surprise, surprise–was produced by George Martin.

The song seems to imply that Lady Madonna is a single parent. It's hard to imagine now, but the idea of a commercially viable song about a single-mother–unless she was tragically widowed–would have been an impossibility less than a decade before. (And we hardly notice how additionally scandalous it might've seemed, at least to Catholic sensibilities, with Paul's play on the iconography of Mary and suckling son.)

Lady Madonna could be Lovely Rita just a year later, now a single-mother trying to scrape together the next rent check.  Part of what's interesting about the song is how it gives a tacit nod to her situation, as if to say that Ms. Madonna is essentially just another working stiff–no different than the narrator of "Blue Monday"–trying to hold it all together.

    Lady Madonna, children at your feet,
    Wonder how you manage to make ends meet.
    Who finds the money when you pay the rent?
    Did you think that money was heaven sent?
    Friday night arrives without a suitcase,
    Sunday morning creeping like a nun,
    Monday's child has learned to tie his bootlace –
    See how they run.
    Lady Madonna, baby at your breast,
    Wonder how you manage to feed the rest?
    Lady Madonna, lying on the bed,
    Listen to the music playing in your head.
    Tuesday afternoon is never-ending,
    Wednesday morning's paper didn't come,
    Thursday night your stockings needed mending –
    See how they run.
    Lady Madonna, children at your feet,
    Wonder how you manage to make ends meet.

Polythene Pam

John Lennon wrote and sang this colorful ditty which appears within the magnificent swan song medley on Abbey Road. Like "Lovely Rita," it's an homage to a real person, Polythene Pat, one of the band's early groupies from their Cavern Club days in Liverpool. Apropos that bygone milieu, Lennon pours on the Liverpudlian accent, or "Scouse." In the preceding song, "Mean Mr. Mustard," we learn that Pam is Mustard's sister and that she "works in a shop, she never stops, she's a real go-getter." But there's another side to Pam that involves some unusual sartorial choices. "Polythene Pam" clocks in at a little over a minute, but its subject-matter–androgyny, cross-dressing, latex–is light-years from "Love Me Do" or "I Saw Her Standing There." Imagine the casualties had the Mop-Tops slipped this number into a set on the Ed Sullivan Show!

    Well you should see Polythene Pam,
    She's so good-lookin' but she looks like a man,
    Well you should see her in drag dressed in her polythene bag,
    Yes you should see Polythene Pam,
    Yeah, yeah, yeah!
    Get a dose of her in jackboots and kilt,
    She's killer-diller when she's dressed to the hilt,
    She's the kind of a girl who makes The News of the World,
    Oh you could say she was attractively built,
    Yeah, yeah, yeah!

There are other notable women of the Beatles' songbook–Michelle, Maggie May, Dear Prudence, and Julia. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," while unquestionably a masterpiece, isn't so much an evocation of a girl as an exquisitely textured travelogue of the trip one makes to catch glimpses of her–she proves too elusive anyway, hiding behind kaleidoscope eyes and a sunburst.

And as for "Her Majesty," well, "she's a pretty nice girl but she doesn't have a lot to say."

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Scene4 Magazine - Patrick WalshPatrick Walsh's poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
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