Paul McCartney on writing “Eleanor Rigby”

My mom’s favorite cold cream was Nivea, and I still love it today. This is the cold cream I was thinking of in the description of the face Eleanor keeps “in a jar by the door.” I was always a little worried about how often women used cold cream.

Growing up I got to know a lot of old ladies, in part because of what was called Bob-a-Job Week, when Boy Scouts did chores for a shilling. You would get a shilling for cleaning a shed or mowing a lawn. I wanted to write a song that would sum them up. Eleanor Rigby is based on an old lady who I get along with really well. I don’t even know how I first met “Eleanor Rigby”, but I was going to her house, and not just once or twice. I found out she was living on her own, so I was going over there and chatting, which is kinda crazy if you think I’m a young guy from Liverpool. Later, I would suggest that he go get it. She would give me a list and I would bring back the things, and we would sit in her kitchen. I still remember the kitchen very well because it had a little crystal radio. It is not a brand name; there was actually a crystal inside. Crystal radios were very popular in the twenties and thirties. So I was visiting him and just hearing his stories enriched my soul and influenced the songs I would write later.

Eleanor Rigby may have started with an entirely different name. Daisy Hawkins, isn’t it? I can see that “Hawkins” is pretty cool, but it just wasn’t fair. Jack Hawkins had played Quintus Arrius in “Ben-Hur”. Then there was Jim Hawkins, from one of my favorite books, “Treasure Island”. But it wasn’t fair. That’s the problem with the story, however. Even if you were there, which I obviously was, is sometimes very difficult to pin down.

It’s like the story of Eleanor Rigby’s name on a marker in the graveyard of St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, which John and I have certainly wandered about, talking endlessly about our future. I don’t remember seeing the grave there, but I guess I may have recorded it subliminally.

St. Peter’s Church also plays a pretty big role in how I come to talk about many of these memories today. In the summer of 1957, Ivan Vaughan (a friend from school) and I went to the Woolton village feast together at the church, and he introduced me to his friend John, who was playing there with his group, the Quarry Men.

I had just turned fifteen at the time and John was sixteen, and Ivan knew we were both obsessed with rock and roll, so he took over to introduce us. One thing led to another — typical teenage postures and the like — and I ended up showing myself a bit by playing Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” on guitar. I think I played “Be-Bop-a-Lula” by Gene Vincent and a few songs by Little Richard as well.

About a week later, I was on my bike and ran into Pete Shotton, who was the Quarry Men washboard player, a very important instrument in a skiffle band. He and I talked, and he told me John thought I should join them. It was a very John thing to do – have someone else ask me so they wouldn’t lose face if I said no. John was often showing his guard, but it was one of the great balances between us. He could be quite caustic and witty, but once you got to know him he had that lovely warm character. I was quite the opposite: fairly easygoing and likeable, but I could be tough when needed.

I said I would think about it, and a week later I said yes. And after that John and I started hanging out a bit. I was on school vacation and John was about to start an art school, usefully next to my school. I showed him how to tune his guitar; he used the banjo tuning — I think his neighbor had done it for him before — and we ourselves learned to play songs from people like Chuck Berry. I would have played “I Lost My Little Girl” for him a little later, when I had the courage to share it, and he started showing me his songs. And that’s where it all started.

I do this ‘tour’ when I am back in Liverpool with my friends and family. I tour the old sites, pointing to places like our old house on Forthlin Road, and sometimes pass by St. Peter’s as well. It is only a short drive from the old house. And I often stop to wonder about the chances of The Beatles reuniting. There were four of us guys who lived in this town in the north of England, but we didn’t know each other. Then, by chance, we got to know each other. And then we sounded pretty good when we played together, and we all had that youthful urge to get good at it.

George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, in Liverpool, in 1958.Photography © Mike McCartney

To this day, it’s still a complete mystery to me that this has happened. Would John and I have met in another way, if Ivan and I hadn’t been to this party? In fact, I was gone to try to pick up a girl. I’d seen John around – in the chip shop, on the bus, that sort of thing – and I thought he looked pretty cool, but would we have spoken yet? I do not know. I actually had a friend from school who knew John. And then I also happened to share a bus ride with George to school. All of these little coincidences had to happen for The Beatles to happen, and it feels like kind of magic. This is one of the wonderful lessons to say yes when life gives you these opportunities. You never know where they might lead.

And, as if all of those coincidences weren’t enough, it turns out that someone else who was at the party had a portable tape recorder – one of those old Grundigs. So there is this recording (admittedly of rather poor quality) of the performance of the Quarry Men that day. You can listen to it online. And there are also some photos of the group in the back of a truck. So this day that turned out to be pretty crucial in my life still has that presence and exists in these ghosts from the past.

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