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A Long Tall Story of a Group Named the Beatles
An e-mail exchange about Mark Shipper's Classic 1978 Fab Four Novel



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,
Scott

  


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 et.al.--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 Iím 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.


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