Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
For some reason, I fell into a deep dive on the Beatles’ lovely song, “She’s Leaving Home,” last week, I think because I read somewhere that the harpist whose performance sets the tone of it died a while back. (Her name, incidentally, is Sheila Bromberg, and she died at age 92, after a long career that saw her play with all the great London orchestras.)
It struck me that “She’s Leaving Home,” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, isn’t your typical pop song. It’s much more nuanced than verse-verse-chorus-bridge-verse, and of course there’s no break for a solo or two. It’s just a story told from different points of view, which makes it very literary, and in fact it alternates between verse and chorus, neatly representing these two voices. The story: A teenage girl has run away from home. Her parents are devastated. She’s living her own life now and having fun. The end.
(Actually, the girl in the story is based on a newspaper item about a teenager who ran away with her croupier boyfriend, got pregnant, and had an abortion! “Meeting a man from the motor trade” indeed …)
Something about this song really hits our emotional buttons though, and it could be in McCartney’s pensive vocal, which subtly teases out the emotions. “How could she do this to me?” Goosebumps, no? “Daddy, our baby’s gone.” Then Lennon’s eerily processed voice takes on the backstory: “We struggled hard all our lives to get by …” Bye bye.
Sheila’s harp is beautiful, but the string arrangement really carries the song (and, believe it or not, it wasn’t done by George Martin). It makes the song feel like a formal salon piece. One critic back in the day compared it favorably to Schubert lieder. Between this song and “Eleanor Rigby,” Sir Paul seemed to have carved out a category for himself, telling stories in a setting of a string chamber group. It worked, but I’m glad he didn’t overdo it with more of those.
I thought to look for covers of the song that might put a different spin on it and found two excellent ones. Unfortunately, most of the artists who covered it tried to copy the chamber-music feel, using harpsichords and stuffy, kind of cheesy arrangements (lookin’ at you, Harry Nilsson). A better way to approach a classic like that is to come at it from a completely different direction.
So check out my favorite, the rendition by jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. It explores all the harmonic possibilities but retains the mood beautifully.
And then listen to Al Jarreau’s version, where his distinctive voice really adds something to the tale. You’ll get chills when he sings, “Daddy, the baby’s gone.” He also makes subtle changes in the lyrics that make it feel like he’s using the original as a starting point and putting his own finish on it. Nice.
Isn’t it wild that a 55-year-old song can keep yielding pleasures?