52 GIRLSOkay, back to business, and making up for lost time . . .
Four Fab Four Girls
Who could possibly pick just one Beatle song about a girl, when there are so many, each telling its own short story? And none of them is a simple love song.
"Eleanor Rigby" -- from Revolver1966 -- the year the Beatles turned literary. Suddenly their singles included French ("Michelle"), existential imagery ("Nowhere Man" and "Rain"), and media satire ("Paperback Writer"). "Girl" quotes from Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class ("Was she told when she was young that pain would lead to pleasure?") and "Eleanor Rigby" -- as we've all been told many times -- is based on a character from Charles Dickens.
But listen to the song more closely. If Miss Havisham from Great Expectations inspired "Eleanor Rigby," Paul McCartney was smart enough to make this portrait of a lonely spinster more riddle than literary footnote. We see Eleanor picking up the rice after a church wedding, but he never says whose wedding it was. The haunting image of her waiting by the window, "wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door" could just as easily be Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. We don't know if she's old or young; we never get inside her head, only watch from a cinematic distance.
And -- surprise! -- the next verse isn't even about Eleanor, but a drudge of a priest named Father MacKenzie, presiding over a church that has lost all relevance. When I first heard this song, I hoped Eleanor and the Rev. MacKenzie would find each other roaming around that empty church and there'd be a happy ending. But no dice. Verse three brings them together at last, but -- downer alert! -- only as MacKenzie buries her in the churchyard. With no mourners.
That heart-tugging refrain, "Ahh look at all the lonely people" -- it has a hint of satire, but more of sorrowful compassion, especially with the string quartet counterpointing through it. (If a cello worked on "Yesterday," then why not let the brilliant George Martin score a full quartet?) No longer were the Beatles writing coded messages to their girl fans, e.g. me. Pop music was ready to take on a bigger slice of life than just teen romance.
Although, just to be safe, let's put the jolly "Yellow Submarine" on the other side of the single . . . .
"Lovely Rita" -- from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club BandA happy-go-lucky song about a guy trying to pick up a cute traffic officer? I don't think so.
For our Rita is a brash New Woman, a new sort of character for 1967. He asks her to tea and she promptly makes it dinner instead, then pays the bill. (Such emasculation!) He requests a second date; in charge of her own sexuality, she cuts to the chase and takes him straight home. But then things get weird – he finds himself “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two.” (I love that word-crammed rat-tat-tat staccato line). Does she live with her family? Is she a feminist with equally liberated roommates? Is she a lesbian, or even a transvestite (have I been listening too much to the Kinks’ “Lola”?)? For all his declarations – “nothing can come between us,” “where would I be without you,” and the sublimely silly “when it gets dark I tow your heart away” – it's not your garden-variety Paul love song. Believe me, I wanted every song Paul McCartney sang to be about me, but I never identified with this Rita chick.
Yet there’s something so compelling about the scenario, you want to get inside and figure out what’s going on. Although Paul's lead vocal promises a good-time rock shuffle, tweaks of bizarreness keep us off balance -- the psychedelic-textured intro, the woozy double-tracked chant “Lovely Rita meter maid,” the sarcastic zing after “Nothing can come between us” (George did that on slide guitar), the snide scrap of military march after “Made her look a little like a military man” (a little comb-and-paper orchestra John set up), the honky-tonk piano in the break. And at the end, the heavy breathing over the pounding piano, chords modulating uncertainly – they nearly make it – then John snaps “I’m leaving” and a door slams. It's Paul’s “Norwegian Wood” – a surreal hook-up gone wrong.
"Dear Prudence" -- from The White AlbumAs the jet plane of "Back in the USSR" whizzes away, a haunting circular guitar riff moves in, those top notes striking like fingerbells or a gong. "Dear Prudence" croons John Lennon, pleadingly, "Won't you come out to play / Dear Prudence / Meet the brand new day." So who is this Prudence, and why won't she come out? Is she an invalid? A sheltered child? A recluse? In "Eleanor Rigby," Paul drew his haunting portrait from a distance, but John is trying to change things, coaxing Prudence into the world. "The sun is up, the sky is blue / It's beautiful, and so are you" -- why won't she listen?
Prudence would be a great made-up name for a girl too tentative to taste life, but as it happens, she was a real person -- Mia Farrow's sister Prudence Farrow, whom the Beatles met in India while worshipping with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Prudence was so intense about her meditation that she'd run straight back to her cottage after group sessions and meditate alone, and John was asked to intervene, to get her to lighten up. He wrote this song and played it for her there -- whether or not it worked, I don't know. She did teach meditation for many years after; among her students was comedian Andy Kaufman. (That has nothing to do with this song but it's a detail I love.)
So often we think of John Lennon as a bitter cynic, but the innocence and sweetness of this song show another side to him. He begs Prudence to open her eyes to the world, to feel "a part of everything." The chant-like opening becomes overlaid with rich textures -- a boingy bassline, slapping drums, plinky piano, tambourines, handclaps, a backing chorus that howls like a wind. The tempo changes to a march as the great parade of life barges in. And there is Prudence, cross-legged, eyes screwed shut, obliviously humming her mantra through all of it.
"Polythene Pam" -- from Abbey RoadYears of LP-listening habit run deep, so it's hard for me to isolate any single section of the great Side Two medley on Abbey Road -- but Pam deserves to stand alongside her sisters. We've just learned that Mean Mr. Mustard has a sister named Pam, and now, introduced with a brusque electric guitar flourish, we meet her. "Well you should see Polythene Pam, / She's so good-looking but she looks like a man." Is Polythene Pam one of Lovely Rita's ambiguous roommates?
Songfacts.com claims there was a Cavern-era Beatle fan nicknamed Polythene Pat -- she liked to eat plastic -- and that name popped into John Lennon's free-associating mind. But this is a new girl entirely. Just two years after Sgt. Pepper, John can be explicit about Pam's alternate lifestyle -- "Well you should see her in drag / Dressed in her polythene bag." (As a American teenager, I had no idea what "polythene" was -- I now read that the incident that inspired this song involved sex on a plastic garbage bag.) Later we also see her dressed mannishly in "jack-boots and kilt"; this is a vinyl get-up well beyond anything The Avengers' Emma Peel would wear. She's a tough babe for sure -- "She's killer-diller when she's dressed to the hilt." (Dig how John goes full-on Liverpudlian with his accent here.) And there's a whiff of scandal about her: "She's the kind of a girl who makes the News of the World" -- even without knowing about British tabloid culture, I could get that line.
It may just be a scrap of free-associated lyrics, but it's a vital part of the Side Two mosaic. Listen to the nervy chromatic chord shifts at the end of each verse, the machine-gun drum track, the whip-like steel guitar. Segueing from the lazy shuffle of "Mean Mr. Mustard," this hard-edged song tightens the screws, pushes the energy upwards, until it explodes -- a musical orgasm -- as Pam finally makes her entrance: "She came in through the bathroom window / Protected by a silver spoon." Coke addict, burglar, strip-club dancer, the heroine of this song is a lost soul who doesn't even know it. But the singer loves her, "And so I quit the police department / And got myself a steady job" -- classic Lennon political snark.
Man, I miss the Beatles.