“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.