Saturday, April 29, 2017

After Living Alone For So Many Years . . .

Continuing my look back at the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album on its upcoming fiftieth anniversary . . .
The songs Paul McCartney  contributed to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featured characters that he'd "made up like a novelist," as John Lennon once said, from Sergeant Pepper himself to Rita the meter maid (the name an assonance rhyme with "meter," the assonance inspired by the mildly misogynistic Americanism for a female parking meter attendant).  But "She's Leaving Home," melodramatic as it may sound, was inspired by a real person . . . and it was someone whom Paul, without realizing it,  had met more than three years before he wrote it.
In late February 1967, Paul read an article in the Daily Mail about how a young London girl named Melanie Coe had left her parents, abandoning her car and disappearing.  Her father was flabbergasted by Melanie's decision to run away.   "We gave her everything money could buy," John Coe told the press.  But, Paul thought as he read it, they obviously didn't give her any love or affection, and they failed to grasp what he himself had said back in 1964 - money can't buy you love.  The story inspired the song.     
Melanie Coe was a seventeen-year old girl in 1967, and she did indeed have a lot of possessions that left her unfulfilled.  She left to go off with her boyfriend, a casino worker, and she was found a few weeks later and returned home.  At eighteen, she married to get out of her parents' house, fed up with coldness of her parents.  "They gave me everything - coats, cars," she later said. "But not love."  Melanie found herself in going out to clubs, dancing, and enjoying the music, and she could have cared less about her material possessions.  
Her parents didn't get it.  The Daily Mail didn't get it either, as evidenced by the headline: "A-level girl dumps car and vanishes." The paper was utterly clueless as to how a girl who was in an advanced placement in the British public school system and had her own car could be unhappy.
As the article reported, she had an Austin 1100 like the one above.  Not a Rolls-Royce, but not a shabby car by any means.  But that wasn't important to Melanie Coe.
What Paul McCartney didn't realize is that the Beatles had met Melanie Coe before.  She won a lip-syncing competition on the British pop music show "Ready, Steady, Go!" in October 1963, and it was on the very first installment of that program to feature the Beatles.  Paul himself gave Melanie her award for her win.  Melanie had been a regular backup dancer on the show, much to the chagrin of her parents.
The song is part of Sgt. Pepper's concept of innocence and experience, and the adventures the girl has as she strikes out on her own conveys both.  It was also written with an acknowledgement of a growing trend in late-sixties Britain and America.  More kids in both countries, tired with the stuffy bourgeois trappings of their lives, were going out into the world to find themselves.
The Beatles play none of the instruments featured on "She's Leaving Home," as it was entirely orchestrated.  It sounds a little melodramatic, and if you think it's uncharacteristic of George Martin's style, that's because Martin didn't arrange the score.  Martin, by then a freelance producer and no longer employed with EMI, the Beatles' record company, was away on another session, so an impatient Paul got Mike Leander, who had scored the Rolling Stones' recording of "As Tears Go By," to arrange it.  Martin was unhappy with Paul's move, but, ironically, it mirrored the song.  Though Martin was a father figure to the Beatles, they weren't above rebelling against him when they thought the situation called for it, though they rarely did.  (Legend has it that when John Lennon stood up for the group against Martin when he wanted them to record Mitch Murray's "How Do You Do It" as their first single, despite the fact that it was a song that the Beatles weren't enamored with, Martin asked him, "Are you trying to tell me my business?"  Lennon is said to have replied, "Not at all.  We're trying to tell you our business.")  
Martin, good sport that he was, produced and mixed the final recording of "She's Leaving Home."  The strings are still rather stirring. The introductory harp, by the way, was played by Sheila Bromberg, making her the first female musician to appear on a Beatles recording.
Paul made up a few details in "She's Leaving Home." Ms. Coe left home in the afternoon while her parents were at work, and she briefly hid at the house of a friend - who happened to be married to Ritchie Blackmore, later of Deep Purple - before running off with her boyfriend, a casino worker.  In the song, the girl leaves home at five o'clock in the morning and meets up with a car salesman - "a man from the motor trade," presumably to buy her own car and start her own life.  
Ms. Coe turned out to be pregnant, but she didn't know that before she left home; she had an abortion after being found.  There's no evidence that Paul McCartney knew of that when he wrote the song, but when Sgt. Pepper came out, Americans decided that the song was about a girl who is indeed aware of her pregnancy when she leaves home and meets the abortionist on Friday morning at nine o'clock - the "man from the motor trade" being the euphemism for the abortionist.  In fact, the motor trade man was inspired by car salesman Terry Doran, an associate of Beatles manager Brian Epstein.  The irony is monumental; American listeners found in "She's Leaving Home" an unintended meaning that turned out to be true.  The opening lyric, "Wednesday morning at five o'clock as the day begins," is not, though, a reference to Paul McCartney dying on November 9, 1966 from injuries sustained in a car crash.
Ms. Coe (above), who is 67 today, settled down and had two children, and she worked first as a jewelry designer and later as a real estate agent.  She never reconciled with her now-deceased  parents, alas, though she wouldn't recommend running away to anyone; she considers herself lucky to have survived the experience.  She does appreciate being the inspiration for a Beatles song - a song covered by Harry Nilsson, Richie Havens and Joel Grey, among others - but she does add that "it would have been nicer for doing something other than running away from home."


Mitch Michael Coburn said...

'Lovely Rita meter maid' was also a real person, a London traffic warden who gave Paul a ticket.

Steve said...

Mitch: I've heard different stories about how that song came to be.