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Eleanor Rigby

David Cowles

Apr 2, 2024

“The Beatles were true revolutionaries. They called for the overthrow of the existing social order, replacing it with… a secular version of Galilean Christianity.”

Amid the avalanche of great popular music in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Beatles Songbook stands out. On top of ground breaking harmonies, Beatles’ lyrics often express philosophically interesting ideas. Similar only to Bob Dylan at the time, the Beatles marry melody with meaning, poetry with philosophy.

This contrasts with some of the era’s heavy metal bands whose lyrics are virtually indecipherable and/or mind numbingly simplistic. The best work of this period reflects the intellectual ferment of the times…as it breaks new musical ground!

Eleanor Rigby, a simple elegy, is a great example. I’ll let the music speak for itself and focus instead on the lyrics:

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been,

Lives in a dream, waits at the window,

Wearing the 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?

Chorus: All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

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.

We all seek connection: Ms. Rigby works, no doubt as a volunteer, for her local parish church. She craves human contact; she hopes her service makes a difference, somehow to someone; but in reality, her life is the detritus (rice) of others’.

Fr. McKenzie works on a sermon he hopes will help him connect with the remaining members of his dwindling congregation. A single word could light a fire; but it doesn’t. One theme could resonate with one worshiper and lead to a lifelong friendship; it won’t. In fact, no one will even hear his sermon, either because no one attended church that day or because they merely attended: “What did the priest talk about this morning, Joey?... I dunno!”

Like Picasso or Matisse, McCartney is able to bring a whole ‘world’ into being with just a few lines. Ms. Rigby and Fr. McKenzie live in expectation of a world full of human contact and existential purpose, i.e. a world they will never experience! Instead they stand, thrown onto the deserted beach of Being (by Heidegger of all people), arms wide open, desperately waiting for a hug that, of course, will never come. 

Drawing from Gregory Bateson and Alfred North Whitehead, we say that Being is ‘a difference that makes a difference’. Rigby and McKenzie yearn to ‘make a difference’ and to enjoy the human contact that comes along with having purpose. They are disappointed: nobody came, no one was saved!  

Superficially, the song is about Eleanor Rigby. It’s not! It’s about Fr. McKenzie. “Look at him working…writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear…darning his socks (that no one will see)…what does he care?” (In the same way, Mary Poppins is not about Mary but about Michael Banks, age 5.)

Ab initio, Christ’s ekklesia was an engine of human contact, but two millennia later, at least according to the Beatles, it has become another ossified barrier inhibiting real mutuality. Fr. McKenzie continues to go through the motions. He hopes for a breakthrough that he knows will never come.

Instead, his life comes down to a series of existential dilemmas: Is a sermon a sermon if no one hears it, are socks socks if no one sees them, is liturgy liturgy if no one participates? Is life life if you’re just going through the motions?

“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” That’s easy! They are the products of a dysfunctional social structure. It is almost as if the Whole is afraid of its own parts. It protects itself by keeping people in virtual cages, sorted by gender, caste, class, etc. Cross-pod interactions are discouraged…and tightly choreographed. 

Artificial human interaction (‘getting and spending’ – Wordsworth) displaces real human contact. Result: each of us is alone in the crowd; we are ships passing in the night, islands in the stream. 

“All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” This is not so easy! In fact, Eleanor Rigby doesn’t answer that question…but the Beatles do answer it in a contemporaneous movie, Yellow Submarine. “Where do they all belong?” Why, in Pepperland, of course – a post-Christian Kingdom of Heaven.

Pepperland is powered by Love…and Music is its agent. All barriers break down (“Let’s mix, Max!”)…even the ontological barrier between spacetime (Beatles) and eternity (Sargent Pepper). Pepperland is the World as it was supposed to be, Eden before Babel. 

The Beatles were true revolutionaries. They called for the overthrow of the existing social order, replacing it with a confraternity of the entirety, aka a secular version of Galilean Christianity. 


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