Rockcritics Bookshelf: Paperback Writer (w/guest correspondent, Richard Riegel)

Richard Riegel and I recently exchanged some thoughts via e-mail on Mark Shipper’s classic novel, Paperback Writer.

From: Scott Woods
Date: Wednesday, September 19, 2007
To: Richard Riegel
Subject: Paperback Writer (I)

Hi Richard:

Thanks for agreeing to chat with me about Paperback Writer. I’m interested to hear what you have to say about the book because you mentioned in your rockcritics interview what a big fan you were of its author, Mark Shipper. I’ll quote what you said in its entirety because it actually fills in a few details of this mysterious fellow you referred to [in an earlier e-mail] as the “J.D. Salinger of rockwriting”–in fact, I bet it’s the most detailed thing anyone’s ever written about the guy.

“A rockwriter who was as influential upon me as Lester Bangs early on, but who’s barely known now, since he left the field, was Mark Shipper–his Flash fanzine of 1972, which celebrated bargain bins and his (and Teresa’s) beloved Paul Revere & The Raiders, and brilliantly ridiculed all sorts of rockstar/rockcrit pretensions, was a major major inspiration to me that year. His later Paperback Writer and How To Be Ecstatically Happy 24 Hours A Day For The Rest Of Your Life books were just the kind of satires I would like to have done myself, if I’d had more time. Unfortunately Shipper vanished from the rockwriting scene in the early ’80s, but I still revere (so to speak) the sarcritic impulse he gave me back in the day.”

I confess that, beyond Paperback Writer, I have not read a single other word by Shipper. On the back of my copy of the book (a 1980 edition published by Ace), it is noted that he wrote for Creem, a fact that has long intrigued me, as I have never tracked down anything by him in those pages (I’ve scanned dozens of issues from the early-mid seventies, and have never noticed his byline). In fact, before your interview, I had no idea he had even written another book (love that title, BTW). You’ll be glad to know that when I type “mark shipper how to be ecstatically happy” into Google, your rockcritics interview is the first thing to come up; you may also be saddened to know, that it’s the only thing of relevance to come up. Though we’re here primarily to discuss his Beatles tome, I’m curious to know anything else you can tell me about Shipper himself–stuff he wrote, any personal dealings you had with the man, etc.

Another reason I wanted to discuss PW with you is because I know you actually reviewed the book in Creem. I don’t own that issue, so it’d be great if you could summarize your review, and discuss how you feel the book holds up today as measured against what your impressions of it were at the time.

Okay, the book… I think the sub-title gives a pretty good hint of what’s inside: The Life and Times of the Beatles, the Spurious Chronicle of Their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion. This “spurious” re-telling of the Fab Four’s story (it’s in fact classified as a novel) is both factually absurd and emotionally honest. For as silly and as nasty and as far-fetched as Shipper’s telling of the Beatles story gets, you never doubt for a second that he’s writing it from the inside–that is, as a huge fan of the group, as someone whose life was transported by their music, as someone who completely gets it. He chops away at so many pretensions that are part of the Beatles mythology, but it’s not a hatchet job–though it is vicious, in spots–and you feel throughout that he’s poking as much fun at himself and at other critics and at the rest of the Beatles audience as he is at the four members of the group themselves. I love how he twists details from the actual Beatles story way out of proportion–like the way A Hard Day’s Night is played as a Bergmanesque meditation with the lads spending the duration of the film in a library.

This was not my first time reading PW, but I hadn’t picked it up in probably 15 years. To be honest, I was geared up for a slight disappointment, worried that the jokes wouldn’t hold up or that the entire premise would maybe seem a bit quaint, but I’m pleased to say my worries were unfounded. I got as much out of it this time as I did on my first read, which was probably 20 years ago. I think I’ve laughed out loud more to this book than I have to any other music book. Not every joke works, of course, but the batting average is surprisingly high. Also, Shipper has great instincts about how far to carry some of his running gags–I didn’t feel that any of them were overplayed, and I was usually pleasantly surprised when a gag would re-appear later in the text (my favourite is the one in which every sordid piece of Beatle trash becomes a “valuable collectors item,” a joke that reaches its apotheosis following Lennon’s much-publicized ’70s episode with his pal Harry Nilsson). In one, and only one, instance did I feel Shipper winking at me, and that shows up in a footnote (p.161 of my copy, when he writes, “Any time you get tired of this joke, just raise your hand. I have others.”). I mean, maybe some other instances of winking and nudging passed me by–it’s entirely possible, given the sheer quantity of the jokes and the speed at which they arrive–but nothing made me cringe, and like I said, most of the book had me laughing pretty hard.

I have a few other points I’d be interested in raising here, but I’m anxious to first hear your own thoughts. So, um, over to you, Richard…

Yours in mock,

From: Richard Riegel
Date: Friday, September 21, 2007
To: Scott Woods
Subject: Paperback Writer (II)

Hey, Scott —

As you don’t have a copy of my original Creem review of Paperback Writer on hand, I thought I should just repeat it here–it’s not too long. It ran as the lead review in the “Creemedia” section of the September 1978 issue.

To wit:

Paperback Writer is a wildly humorous, absurdly revisionist history of the Beatles, by Mark Shipper, one-time wunderkind of the fanzine Flash, and more recently resident hot dog of the ‘Pipeline’ column at Phonograph Record Magazine. Paperback Writer combines all the qualities Shipper brought to those gigs–automatic irreverence, goofball puns, brilliantly satiric visuals–into a new whole which may be the best last word on the Fab Four yet.

It’s unfortunate that Shipper couldn’t find a major publisher for his book (circulated in a private edition since the summer of ’77) until now, as the rock populace may think that Shipper stole his whole concept (which has many parallels) from Eric Idle’s widely-regarded Rutles TV special and concept LP of early 1978.

But Shipper’s Beatle-saga, besides being the likely original, is in the end the more effective, too. As a veteran Monty Python madcap, Idle naturally approached the Beatle-myth with suitable irreverence, but as his ambitious dramatic and musical re-creation expanded, he seems to have been sucked into the glamour of the legend himself. The resulting Rutles product came off as one more mod-throwback competitor for the Beatles’ fame (as well 1940’s-born Englishmen like Idle and co-Rutle Neal Innes, who sat out the U.K.’s Swinging ’60s as clowns, might wish to validate themselves now.)

Shipper is cooler and more detached in his dissection of the Fab Four, an attitude essential to any discussion of the group here in the overheated Beatlemania of the post-Breakup decade. Paperback Writer has already been acclaimed as a ‘novel’ in the press, but in its own methodical zaniness it’s an accomplished rockcritical treatise, in the classic fantasy-as-expose tradition of manifestoes like Lester Bangs’ ‘Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.’ [i.e., Lester’s original long essay on Count Five, not the later collection of his writings which shares that title.]

By propagating such wonderful distortions as an album entitled Meat The Beatles (the infamous ‘butcher cover’ LP), or Yoko Ono being discovered as an artist while cooking short orders in a pancake house, Shipper has smashed for good (hopefully) all the false sentimentality the more rabid Beatlemaniacs have been heaping on their (and our) heroes. Paperback Writer is the true Beatles myth, with all the 1964 cheekiness still intact.”

I stand by every word of that review 29 years later. In re-reading Paperback Writer now, I note again that even with all of Shipper’s ersatz albums and historical mangling, the book is a very accurate critique of the Beatles’ real-life strengths and weaknesses, especially as the latter attribute manifested itself in much of their solo work. At the time I reviewed PW, John Lennon was of course still with us, which meant that a Beatles reunion was technically possible though highly unlikely. And I think some of us who wrote about music then really didn’t want to see that reunion happen, both because the Beatles would be hard-pressed to recapture their ’60s magic, and because the reunion would be taken as vindication by all the Classic-Rock businessmen, from RS‘s Jann Wenner to Cincinnati’s WEBN-FM, which was playing tripe like the Eagles and Elton John and presenting them as the legit heirs of the Beatles. In 1978, I wanted the newer artists–the Ramones, Blondie, Elvis Costello–to take over the scene, and if that meant that the scattered Beatles should stay out of the way, so be it. I don’t think Mark Shipper was as dialectical about the punk revolt as I was, and yet the conclusion of his Paperback Writer is a bittersweet prediction of the inevitable disappointments inherent in a Beatles reunion. Beneath the radar flashes of his jokes, Shipper was warning all of us not to pin too many hopes on such a tenuous prospect.

As for Mark Shipper himself, I’ve learned via the magic of Google that he now writes something called “The Shipper Report” (stories about celebs) for Premiere Radio Networks. Of more immediate concern to us, Christopher Stigliano did a characteristically exhaustive report on the history of Shipper’s Flash fanzine (complete with an image of #2’s cover) on his Blog to Comm this past February. Amazingly enough, the now-mysterious Shipper wrote back to Stigliano, expressing his appreciation of the piece, and providing some more tidbits from those heady days. This sentence of Shipper’s really intrigues me: “Right now I’m a little too busy [to reissue Paperback Writer], plus I did it then to get known, now I prefer to not be known.”

I think Mark Shipper may have had a few reviews in Creem early on, but I can’t place what they were now–would have to go through my archives for that. As noted, most of his ’70s ‘zine writing ran in Phonograph Record Mag. And as luck would have it, my own first paid publication in Creem (May 1974) was a review of Shipper’s Sonics reissue album. I don’t want to invade his privacy now if he wishes to stay low-profile, and yet I want to see him get credit where due etc. I owe this guy big time, for all time.

That’s my take for tonight, Scott–my review and the fascinating Blog to Comm material should give you plenty more ideas to grapple with. Perfect timing on beginning our dialogue at this historical moment, with the US and CDN $ at exact parity for the first time in over 30 years–if either of us should mention any money figures, the readers won’t have to convert!

the long & (un)winding road,
Richard R.

From: Scott Woods
Date: Sunday, September 23, 2007
To: Richard Riegel
Subject: Paperback Writer (III)


Thanks for sending your review of PW. It makes perfect sense of course that you compare the book to the Rutles. In fact, I’ve been thinking of PW in relation to a number of other things from the seventies that satirized or criticized the Beatles myth–and maybe in doing so, created a new counter-myth–of which The Rutles is one of the more striking examples. I’d also include Lennon’s own Plastic Ono Band LP and Rolling Stone interview from the period, while noting that the skewering he took in “Magical Misery Tour” from the album National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner was itself pretty hysterical and dead-on (and much in the spirit of the Shipper book). (National Lampoon also devoted an entire issue in 1977 to the Fab Four.) On the critical side, there was Lester Bangs’s great 1975 essay, “Dandelions in Still Air: The Withering Away of the Beatles,” which I’m guessing is one of the earliest instances of a rock critic coming down hard not just on the solo Beatles projects but on the group’s legacy. Also, there was Lorne Michaels’s aborted attempts on “Saturday Night Live” to reunite the Beatles (what was the going price again? $3,000?), and the possibly apocryphal story of Johnny Rotten booting Glen Matlock out of the Sex Pistols because he was a “Beatles fan.” My punk friends and I got great mileage out of that last one.

I agree with you that PW is a more effective satire than the Rutles. I’ve seen All You Need is Cash a couple times–years ago, mind you–and in both instances found it disappointing. I thought the music itself was a convincing collage of Beatle-like gestures, but the jokes were pretty thin. (Granted, it has to be a lot more difficult to satirize the boys on film rather than in a book, so ingrained are their images and personal quirks.) Shipper’s book seems much nastier, much sillier, and much smarter than Eric Idle’s version. And ultimately, just a lot funnier. It’s amusing how, in the Rutles, the George character is portrayed by an east Indian actor, but it pales next to the joke in the book where the group of starving musicians in Bangladesh plan a benefit concert for a beleagured Harrison (releasing albums even he can’t make sense of) “to help him cope with his heavy load.”

That Blog to Comm article is interesting, and it was great to read the editorial from the 1972 debut issue of Flash. I was happy to see Shipper give a shout-out to Nik Cohn, as there are definite similarities between those two, mainly in their love of the cheapness and thrillingness of pop (in fact, the word “flash” shows up a lot in Cohn’s Pop From the Beginning) as well as in their distrust of musical pretension. I don’t wholly share their distrust, mind you (hey, I grew up loving certain Yes and Genesis songs–and Elton, too, for that matter), anymore than I profess eternal fealty to the “punk aesthetic” or to “super-pop”–as important as both of those things have been to me. But I can understand the utility and maybe even necessity of these sorts of ideas as they circulated in the early seventies, especially when seen as a reaction to what was no doubt loads of critical gibberish being expounded on some of the more drecky singer-songwriter and post-Pepper “concept” nonsense from the era. (Sorry, I’m straying a bit off topic here, aren’t I?)

Bozo that I am, I didn’t even realize that I am actually in possession of one of Shipper’s “Pipeline” columns, from the October 1973 issue of Phonograph Record Magazine (a super-extravaganza N.Y. Dolls issue). This particular column is full of small gems, like his mentions of the Spencer Davis album entitled My Solo Career Bombed and I’m Just Barely Hanging On and the Allman Brothers track, “We Wanna Boogie With Us Blues” (“Was hoping to see it on the album but no such luck.”) Based on this one column, you can almost trace his steps directly to Paperback Writer, with its barrage of made-up facts and fantasy scenarios. Great stuff.

From me to you,

From: Richard Riegel
Date: Saturday, September 29, 2007
To: Scott Woods
Subject: Paperback Writer (IV)

Scott —

Not too much more to add at this point, as we’ve covered many of the highlights of Paperback Writer, but I wanted to comment on your examples of the hostility the Beatles Myth tended to attract by the mid-’70s, with ridicule and hard questions from all sides. That was in the air then, and Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer certainly partakes of that zeitgeist. I began thinking that I’d gotten into the act too, by having written a negative review of John Lennon’s Shaved Fish solo-greatest-hits compilation for Creem, but when I looked back at it now (March 1976 issue), I see that I liked the record as such, but created this long conceit as to how John was really “supremely cynical” about peace & love and all that because he always sang with a “beautiful sneer” in his voice, no matter what the lyrics said. Hmm… Would I have been less harsh toward John if I’d somehow known then that he’d be killed by a deranged fan five years hence? I dunno–I think all of us who’d lived the promise of the ’60s were really hurt by the subsequent crashes, and that pain came out by the mid-’70s both in John Lennon acting a fool with a Kotex on his head, and in us writers taking potshots at him. Again, Mark Shipper had the “best last word” on that decade’s Beatles, as my original review sez–and as we’ve noted, all of his jokes, no matter how barbed, seem to spring from a genuine love and understanding of the Beatles. Glad he did it.

All you need is luft,
Richard R.

Click here for an archived version of this exchange.


10 thoughts on “Rockcritics Bookshelf: Paperback Writer (w/guest correspondent, Richard Riegel)

  1. I just googled “Mark Shipper Pipeline” and could not find hide nor hair evidence that this great column even existed except for the dialogue between you two experts. MARK SHIPPER is one of the greatest rock writers ever, right up there with Meltzer, Bangs, Marcus, Tosches, etc. But I can’t find anything about him. If this site is to do a community service, we need to find this guy and give him the accolades he deserves. I don’t want to read opinions about his writing: I WANT TO FIND THE GUY AND LEARN WHERE HIS CRAZY HEAD IS AT THESE DAYS. LET’S GO!

  2. For some strange reason, I found myself thinking of Ringo Starr’s release of the song “A Dose of Rock and Roll,” which turned off its potential audience by its detailed descriptions of various illnesses. Of course, this wasn’t the REAL version of the song; it was Shipper’s version, vaguely remembered in my brain. I got rid of my copy of Paperback Writer years ago, but it was truly a classic, both in its humor and in its underlying serious meditations on fame and our remembrances of youth (namely, the reaction to the reunion itself).

  3. I was glad to see all this discussion of this book, which a friend and I–both Beatles fans–read and enjoyed in high school over thirty years ago. I wish I still had a copy. As I recall, on the back cover of the book there was a blurb which described it as “the most inviting look at rock since Rock Dreams”–the latter was also a great book. Maybe there is something appropriate in these books no longer being published or widely available, but all the more fondly remembered for that, like a cabin hidden in the woods.

    Carl Rosenberg
    Vancouver, BC

  4. Thanks for the feedback, Carl. Yeah, I think both of those books are not only fantastic (Rock Dreams is in my personal pantheon, no question about it), but they make an interesting pair in that they’re such wildly successful *fantasy* versions of pop music — pretty unique in that regard, certainly for their time. Neither really fits all that comfortably in the rock critics canon, but they may be as good as it gets.

  5. Perfect timing for Mr. Rosenberg’s comment on our much-earlier discussion of Mark Shipper’s writings, for as it happens, Shipper has just recently signed on as one of the listed rockwriters on the Rock’s BackPages website. He has two pieces in the RBP library already, an excerpt from “Paperback Writer,” and a newly-written memoir of Greg Shaw, the Bomp! and PRM editor Shipper knew in those early-’70s formative days:
    The spoiler alert is that you have to subscribe to RBP to read the full pieces, but at least they’re now available, if you’re so inclined.

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