Only two libraries in the world possess original handwritten Beatles lyrics. One is, no surprise, the British Library in London. The other is—surprise!—the Music Library at Northwestern University in Evanston. I learned this in 2003, when the library brought out its collection (seldom displayed but viewable onsite anytime as high-resolution facsimiles) for a special exhibition. I’ll never forget gazing through glass at a crumpled piece of college-lined paper. Scrawled upon it in blue ballpoint were the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”—breathtaking in their simplicity—in Paul’s tight, upright cursive.
The collection includes the lyrics of six songs from Revolver (in addition to “Eleanor Rigby,” there’s “Good Day Sunshine,” “Yellow Submarine,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “For No One”) and one from Rubber Soul (“The Word”). They are remarkable artifacts, a word scratched out here, another wedged in there. And my favorite part: Paul never fully repeated the now famous chorus for “Eleanor Rigby.” After “Ah, look at all the lonely people,” all he noted in the second and third stanzas was a perfunctory and perfectly mundane “etc.”
The university received the manuscripts in the early 1970s from avant-garde composer John Cage, who obtained them from Yoko Ono as part of his Notations Project, a mammoth effort to collect original manuscripts from hundreds of musicians. Cage donated his entire collection to Northwestern, which showed a reverence for 20th-century music that few other institutions at the time shared. It was those other guys’ loss. The project comprises more than 460 documents from greats such as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Igor Stravinsky.
Viewing those Beatles lyrics, I realized that, stripped of all the mythology, the ephemera of creative icons are often humble—and relatable. You might even have something similar in your own pocket. A spiral-bound notebook is a spiral-bound notebook, after all, even when it belongs to Paul McCartney.