Sunday, May 19, 2019

Eleanor Rigby and Ezra Pound

Despite the controversy regarding his Axis support and subsequent subversive broadcasts, Ezra Pound remains one of the most important figures in American and World Poetry. Indeed "Prufrock" and The Waste Land, Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wouldn't exist without Pound, who, it was noted by Hemingway, only spent a fifth of his energies on his own writing; the rest devoted to writers, from Eliot to Robert Frost to artist Wyndham Lewis. Pound indeed would have been a champion of The Beatles. The poet is said to have "smiled lightly" when he first heard "ER" (Pound's smile came when introduced to The Beatles by Allen Ginsberg); of course he did: two lonely people, living in a church community, cannot connect or associated with their surroundings and those who inhabit them and end up living their lives alone and apart, one burying the other, a grim irony that would be funny if it weren't dreadful. Eleanor dies in church, buried along with her name. Even Ozymandias, despite the "lone and level sands stretch(ing) far away," has his name. In Eleanor Rigby's death we see the death of hope itself, the ultimate tragedy. (Ironically, her name lives on.) It was 50 years ago when Pound extolled the virtues of The Beatles and published The Cantos. He would die, free but insane, in 1972.

Ezra Pound by Wyndham Lewis
The story of "ER" is typical of Paul with its two functioning, unrelated characters brought into ironic proximity in the final scene, as though it were a novel by Bronte, and a precursor to "Penny Lane." One can't help but sense the influence of John upon Paul's particular choices of detailed imagery and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. The song avoids sentimentality by keeping its distance from the subject, presenting the action like a film script: "Look at him working," and uses various tense to imply shift in perspective: Eleanor Rigby "died in the church" (past tense), while in the same scene, Father MacKenzie is "wiping the dirt from his hands" (present tense).

When Paul McCartney first wrote "ER" he had the music worked out before the lyrics, as he often did ("Yesterday," remember, started out as "Scrambled Eggs"). Paul often used placeholder lyrics that he'd subsequently abandon. To be specific, the original version began, "Ola Na Tungee/ Blowing his mind in the dark/ With a pipe full of clay/ No one can say." In other words, a guy with a quasi-Hindu name getting high, a far cry from the English Village equivalent to Desolation Street. Paul later picked the name Rigby from a wine and spirits shop in Bristol,  and the name Eleanor in reference to the British actress, Eleanor Bron, who appeared in Help! The priest was originally named Father McCartney, but John's friend Pete Shotton warned that people would think he was talking about his own father. George reportedly contributed the line "Ah look at all the lonely people," while Ringo contributed the idea of having Father McKenzie darning his socks in the night. There are of course many courses one may take analyzing the iconic single, and a day's worth of interesting research is in store for those who try. Ultimately, despite the subjective nature of the lyrics, Eleanor Rigby exists, at least in name; indeed at the cruelly young age of 44, Eleanor Rigby died in the same house where she had been born, was interred in the graveyard of St Peter's Church in Liverpool, and had her name added prominently on an increasingly crowded headstone. The story, its evolution and its ties to history are fascinating.

In 1964, the Beatles held the top 5 positions on Billboard's Hot 100.  On  April 4th of that year, "Can't Buy Me Love" was No. 1, followed by "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Please Please Me." It was an accomplishment which can never be equaled, but from August 1966 through the end of 1967, the Beatles were at the top of the chart in a myriad of categories.  In August '66, Rubber Soul was the No. 1 album, and would remain so for eight weeks, with the double A sided "Yellow Submarine/Elenor Rigby" at the top of the singles charts for four weeks.  Between January 1967 and the end of the year, the Beatles remained at the top of the charts with the release of three additional LPs, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, followed by the EP release worldwide and the full length LP as released by Capitol in the U.S. of Magical Mystery Tour.  The singles release during this period were: "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields" (which made it only to No. 2, based on The Monkees' "I'm a Believer"); "All You Need is Love" and "Hello Goodbye."  Imagine four unparalleled LPs with two solid No. 1 singles in a little over a year, all from the same band!