Wednesday, June 06, 2007

“She’s Leaving Home” / The Beatles

When Sgt Pepper’s first came out, I knew what “She’s Leaving Home” was all about -- an oppressed young woman’s courageous bid for freedom. Now I’ve got teenage kids of my own, and I’m not so sure that’s the whole story.

Really, it’s amazing that the Beatles – icons of youthful rebellion – saw the parents’ side of the story at all. The Who certainly didn’t back in 1965 with “My Generation”; in 1966, the Kinks’ “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” took the perspective of the deserted family, but that song’s more about class confusion. “She’s Leaving Home” is the classic expression of the generation gap, a term coined only in 1966. Parents and children have always fought, but it WAS worse in the 60s, with youth culture gaining in power. (Today we have nothing but youth culture.) It was a hot topic; no wonder the Beatles were drawn to it.

For a change, Paul takes a third-person, novelistic approach. “Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins,” he begins, singing tremulously over a string quartet that I should find schmaltzy, but can’t. It unfolds like a film: the nameless girl laying down an ominous letter, shutting her bedroom door, creeping stealthily down the stairs, sneaking out the back door. (Love the anxious detail of her “clutching her handkerchief”). I picture a long narrow walled suburban garden, dew-soaked and shadowy, and hear the latch click as she slips out the back gate. The melody is legato and delicate, furtive and suspenseful – perfect.

Then, in the chorus, counterpoint sets in – the soaring sustained notes of “She’s leaving home” juxtaposed with Lennon’s depressed voice intoning the parents’ protests (“We gave her most of our lives” blah blah blah). Cliches they may be, but they ring home. As the two melodies dovetail, it pours into the final irony: “She’s leaving home / After living alone / For so many years.” Sound familiar? Of course: Paul's borrowing the melody and arrangement from his own “Eleanor Rigby” (“all the lonely people”). But there’s something self-conciously literary about “Eleanor Rigby” that’s more authentic here. If “Rigby” was inspired by Dickens, this one’s straight out of Alan Sillitoe. This was a real scenario, played out night after night all over the world. After so many songs proclaiming progress and revolution, the poignance of this song about breaking free stops us in our tracks.

Sure, as we focus on the old folks in verse two, we see that they are self-centered hypocrites (”Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly / How could she do this to me?”). But simply by giving them the most plaintive, downward swooping part of the song, McCartney betrays his secret sympathy. Paul McCartney has always been a family man at heart -- remember, Paul and John first bonded over losing their mothers. How could they sing about an abandoned mother without at least a little grief leaking out?

Verse three moves forward in time -- “Friday morning at nine o’clock she is far away” – though we only get one cryptic detail about the girl’s new life: “Waiting to keep the appointment she made / Meeting a man from the motor trade.” A second-hand car spiv, eh? Doesn’t sound too savoury -- although I’ve also heard that this was code for a back-alley abortionist. Either way, it’s hardly a joyful new beginning. Even though Paul wraps it up with the comment that “she is having fun / [Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy],” I don’t feel like she’s having fun, do you?

This song haunted me when I was a kid. It wasn’t a simple call to rebellion, it saw the heartbreak lying under the rebellion. It kept a lot of us from leaving home, whether we knew it or not.


G12 said...

I can't argue with a word you say, but I do have an issue with this song musically, which is how I like to take a song first of all. I know I am NOT in the majority, but it's FAR too slick, it's overproduced, and the strings swamp a really beautiful skeleton track.

When I think how this song could be, with Macca's voice and piano, and maybe a soft string part over Lennon's parts......ah well. When I read Macca's thoughts about what Phil Spector sticking inappropraite strings on Let It Be, I always mutter to myself "She's Leaving Home". It's such a great song, and that's why it irritates me over all others on Sgt Peppers, becuase what was a greta song is such a bad presentation.

Anonymous said...

I love this song.
And, G12, I don´t agree about the producing. Every bit fits in perfect.
But it might also be fantastic in a more ¨naked¨ version.
I remember an interwiev with Brian Wilson, when he talks about Paul playing the song for him and just playing the piano. Brian said he cried. It was so beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful take on this tune Holly!

I pulled this out the other day. It still has that haunting quality to it as you said. It didn't make "leaving home" sound too desirable. Yet, we all leave home in different ways during those not so "innocent" years. And I always felt so sad for the parents.

I love the arrangement. Like "Eleanor" or "Yesterday", only the Beatles can really pull of those full strings songs. Bravo to George Martin!

Love this blog!

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, Spencer! I agree, the strings work here in a way they don't work on Let It Be or The Long and Winding Road. They're not tyring to inflate the material, or add pomposity; it's just a bit of heartstring-tugging, IMO throughly appropriate to the sad story.

G12 said...

I did say I was in the minority, but for the record, I think Yesterday is also swamped by strings, though Eleanor Rigby isn't, it DOES work there. Maybe because Rigby's strings are used for melancholy instead of sacchirine!