Stepping Outside She Is Free … The girl just wanted to have fun. Doing whatever her parents said didn’t cut it anymore. She loves the folks but it’s time to go. To leave home. It’s just before dawn, literally and figuratively. Who knows what awaits, but youthful perspective, always alluring, promises freedom and fun. She’d jump right into the adult life where freedom and fun go hand in hand. That was her belief, as she wrote her parents “the note that she hoped would say more.”
The critic Ian McDonald was careful in praising the Beatles in his book, Revolution of the Mind, but he called “She’s Leaving Home” “the single most moving song in The Beatles’ catalogue.” “She’s Leaving Home” is the fifth song on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the celebrated Beatles album from 1967. Every track on Sgt. Pepper was radically different from the one that preceded it — with images, incidents and characters unlike those previously fashioned in the modern era of popular music.
Mostly written by Paul McCartney, “She’s Leaving Home” possesses a pleasing and refined melody that accompanies words chronicling a family drama. With taste rising above theatrics, this drama is reported without a soap-operatic treatment. Yes, the mother is devastated when she finds the note and realizes her daughter may not be coming back. She and her husband, the snoring father awakened by the bad news, engage in some self-pity (“How could she treat us so thoughtlessly? How could she do this to me?”), but that’s understandable enough. They recall sacrifices made to provide a good home for their daughter who suddenly appears so ungrateful. There was “never a thought for ourselves.” They gave her “everything that money could buy.” Also apparent is a sense of love that existed in the family. “Daddy, our baby’s gone,” the mother says. The center of their universe has slipped away and they feel lost. And they worry over what will become of their daughter. Will she be safe and sound? Will she take up with a bad crowd?
Based on a news event in which a London girl ran away at the age of 17, “She’s Leaving Home” gives equal weight to the basic desire of a daughter who longs to be free of parental confinement. Still she knows Mom and Dad mean well. Stepping into her new world of freedom, she clutches her handkerchief, crying over the pain her leaving will cause and crying because she knows it’s all she can do. Her parents may have raised her so well that she’s more than ready for the adult world — a place fraught with peril but at the early stages, filled with wonder. Fun, “the one thing that money can’t buy,” awaits.
McCartney, with Lennon adding the lines of the parents that were similar to what his Aunt Mimi had uttered for years, created a scenario that has the listener siding in his head with the daughter and in his heart with the parents. The reflective string arrangement doesn’t portend a time when parents and child will reunite, each one empathetic enough to accept the changes and get on with life’s upcoming chapters. At least there would be upcoming chapters. That wasn’t the case with the title character in “Eleanor Rigby,” from the Beatles’ Revolver album, released in ’66 and often recalled when considering “She’s Leaving Home.” Mom, Dad and their daughter would likely meet again, perhaps the worse for the wear but forgiving and mindful of other perspectives.
John Lennon’s parents were, to put it kindly, peripatetic, not making their son a priority in their lives. No one noticed that more than Lennon’s maternal aunt, Mimi Smith. She persuaded her sister Julia to hand over care of John to her. Lennon lived with his Aunt Mimi and her husband, George Smith, for most of his growing-up days and remained close to her through the rest of his life, telephoning her once a week.
Stories abound regarding the three other Beatles’ healthy relationships with their parents. When George Harrison visited President Gerald Ford at the White House in ’74, he brought his father along with him. At the table in the Cabinet Room, Ford, his son, Jack, Ravi Shankar, Billy Preston, Tom Scott, Harrison and his father convened. A dream Paul McCartney had in which his mother (who passed away when he was 14) appeared to say, “It’ll be all right,” inspired him to write “Let It Be.” McCartney told journalist Barry Miles “it was really great to visit with her again” and he felt “very blessed to have that dream.”
When taking in the Beatles legacy for the film, The Beatles Anthology, McCartney said, “I’m really glad that most of our songs dealt with love, peace, understanding. There’s hardly any one of them that says, ‘Go on, kids, tell them all to sod off. Leave your parents.'”
It was the summer of ’67 — the so-called “Summer of Love” — when Sgt. Pepper was released, a time when many kids were leaving home. Young people in the western world were opening up to new discoveries and new expressions, some laudable and resonant. Many discoveries came through the music of the Beatles and the youth culture that embraced their songs. New and innovative music was all around us. Much of the new music emerging in America came out of San Francisco, a wide open city since the days of the Gold Rush. Ground Zero for those seeking pleasure and enlightenment in San Francisco was the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Some of the young nomads couldn’t cope with too much pleasure. The path to their enlightenment veered off dangerously. The drug scene became the be-all to end-all for many young people, a great number of them runaways in the Haight-Ashbury. Astutely observing the tragic ways of thousands of runaways seeking the new freedom, George Harrison came away depressed. Visiting the Haight-Ashbury, not far from Golden Gate Park, Harrison assumed he’d meet, as John Philips put it, “some gentle people there.” But not so. Instead of a vibrant and enlightened gathering, he saw “drunks and down-and-outs and spotty little school kids” on the streets begging for spare change. Given his middle class upbringing and the wealth he had attained as a Beatle, the Haight-Asbury street scene was bound to startle Harrison. It startled him good, as he recalled, “This was the first thing that turned me off drugs, seeing the Haight-Ashbury. That’s when I stopped taking acid and started trying to make up for all those hideous people we’d seen who’d somehow tripped themselves through us.”
Whatever Colors Are In Your Mind … George Harrison’s disgust at the squalor he witnessed was no different than the parents of America who’d see the stories in the national magazines on what had become of the hippie dream. The drugs scared them. Middle class Americans would sit in bars and diners voicing their disapproval over love-ins and the drug scene. “If I ever catch someone trying to sell drugs to my kid, I’ll kill him,” an otherwise calm gentleman said over coffee at a diner one day. At the same diner, a couple who seemed right out of a Walker Evans photograph sat in a booth, hoping their daughter, Karen, still two years from her 20th birthday would wait on them. Karen did; they were in her station, and she treated them as if she hadn’t seen them in years instead of only the day before. Their daughter was friendly and vivacious; she always had lots to say. One could see the parents were proud of her, but their faces often had worried looks. Karen would soon marry for a second time and already, and even she had doubts about her spouse-in-waiting. But she was in love, or so she told herself and others.
Karen, like the other waitresses at the diner, often headed to the back where the dishwasher loaded and emptied out the Hobart. The dishwasher was at least a year from finishing high school but the waitresses talked to him as if he was wise enough to solve their problems. Troubles with their kids, the husband, the boss. They’d lament and complain as they grabbed a smoke and tugged at their nylons. Some of the comments were stimulating. One day Karen heard Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” on the dishwasher’s radio. She exclaimed, “The first time I spent the night with a boyfriend, that song came on.” Another time, she talked about drugs and their primary benefits. “Once J.D. (the first husband) gave me something and we made love all night long.” It was no surprise that the nocturnal events caused her to be late — quite late — for work on many a morning. The grill cook, managing the diner, hated it when Karen didn’t show up. He hated that as much as he did her first husband. He needed her at work, not only to wait tables but to also hear him out. Karen, to his way of thinking, needed to quit that marriage and take up with him. He’d even allow her to keep working there.
And so he did. In fact, he bought the diner and put Karen in the kitchen, where she spent ten hours a day up to her elbows in flour and sugar. This wasn’t the free life she envisioned upon hearing Dylan croon “you can have your cake and eat it too.” Instead, Karen was baking cakes.
Everyone at the diner liked Karen. She was a favorite among the women who worked at the bank, the barbers next door, the guys at the Army base down the street and the church ladies who were always ready with advice. They all hated what happened with Karen. When it came to husbands, she traded in a Chevy Vega for a Ford Pinto. Her road to freedom had taken a costly detour. Still her parents came by the diner to see her, pretty much everyday.
Karen’s mom and dad evoke thoughts of McCartney’s models for the parents in “She’s Leaving Home.” They may have seemed confining and drab to their daughter who thought the adult world should be bright lights and the big city. But they had done well for her with their lower-middle class means. They didn’t lash her with a strap or pound her with religion. The folks loved her and cared about her well-being. Karen came to realize that. That much was obvious every time the three of them got together in the diner’s back booth. For Karen, now weary, wary but wiser, this was the fun “that money can’t buy.”