Sunday, 24 January 2010

Paperback Writer (Mark Shipper)

Donovan exploded. "Don't call me Don!"

With his recording career a failure, Ringo made one last bold move: he cut off all his hair. But it didn't help him and, in retrospect, it's hard to see how it could have.

"You heard me. Top billing."
"You mean Linda McCartney and Wings?" Paul could hardly say it without choking.

Last night I had the unusual experience of meeting someone who seemed actively interested in checking out my blog (hello, if you're reading). He is a big Beatles fan who goes  to see Paul McCartney live whenever he plays London - although he drew the line at attending every night of a hypothetical ten day residency at the 02 Arena by Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, which does rather call his commitment into question.

Anyway, one of the things which came up in our conversation was Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper, a pebble in the cairn of Beatlebooks best described by the author himself:

The Spurious Chronicle
of Their Rise to Stardom,
Their Triumphs & Disasters,
Plus the Amazing Story
of Their Ultimate

It's billed as "a novel" (presumably in case lawyers don't know what "spurious" means), and essentially it's a Rutles-type spoof biography which appeared just before Eric Idle's celebrated mockumentary.

I don't think there's any question of one "borrowing" from the other, however, as the humour is often broader in Shipper's book. Not all the gags work, but there are so many of them that the strike rate is still pretty high. I'll quote a few in the course of this piece but they don't respond that well to being held up to the light individually; the cumulative effect is what counts. He will even use footnotes to apologise for the corniness of some of them.

It's a book I discovered ages ago and still reread periodically, once I've had time to forget some of the jokes. And unlike the Rutles, as far as I remember, there are some fairly serious and poignant moments which are integral to the story, however facetious the accompanying details may be.

As you've probably gleaned from the quotes at the top, it was written before Linda McCartney's death - and before John Lennon's come to that, so a Beatles reunion was still theoretically possible. The first half of the book gives us a distorted mirror image of the Fabs' career - in Shipper's universe, for example, the infamous "butcher" sleeve is designed for the album "Meat - The Beatles" (no connection with this spoonerised variant). Then he deals with their less than scintillating solo careers:
By 1976, Ringo Starr was no longer enjoying hit records with the same sort of regularity that he had in the early 70s. An occasional record appealed to him, like Elton John's Philadelphia Freedom, but by and large he found little to enjoy. Perhaps his negative opinion was due to his own lack of success on the charts.

Eventually the four have a meeting to discuss the possibility of a reunion , but fall back into the old banter instead of talking business:

"Actually, it doesn't really matter what we do," Lennon continued, "so long as we always observe one rule."
"What's that?" Ringo asked.
"Never let George sing, John replied.

"In a sense," Shipper-as-narrator writes in a passage of rare sobriety, "this was the real Beatles' Reunion, not the publicly craved for Beatles' Reunion."

Only those who have risen to the level where they are surrounded daily by those who are either afraid of them or in awe of them can know the terrible loneliness and dehumanization of such a life. [...] It's not surprising they preferred the friendly abuse they were dishing out to each other to the phoney, illegitimate praise they'd heard from everyone else in their individual circles for the preceding nine years. Easy to understand, too, postponing the topic of business that had brought such a terrible and unforeseen loneliness the last time it came up nine years earlier.

Nevertheless, they do finally agree to reform, and Macca goes to Lennon's Benedict Canyon mansion to prepare for the reunion album:
I never knew you to be inspired in the mornings," McCartney reassured him. "You're a night person."
"I know. But I don't get particularly inspired at night lately either."
"When do you get inspired? Afternoons?"
"I don't know. I haven't been inspired for such a long time, I can't remember what time of day it was."
"Well, none of that matters now," McCartney said. "I'm here, and when you and me get together - "
"It's magic, right?"

But things don't go as well as hoped:

"What'd you stop for?" Lennon asked. "That's a great song."
"I know. It was a great song fifteen years ago, too, when we first wrote it."

Frustrated, the pair reminisce about how they used to have songs running through their heads all the time in Hamburg, writing four classics in an afternoon, in a tiny room at the Star Club with a backed up toilet (there is a running joke about Epstein being a plumber). Lennon says he hates talking about the old days, because what he remembers is never a specific thing but a feeling he never gets anymore:

"It's that feeling of satisfaction from knowing that someday you were just going to dump on everyone who'd been dumping on you. [...]  And that dream used to fuel me. I had so much goddam energy in those days, it amazes me now. I used to get more ideas on a twenty minute walk to the grocery store than I do now sitting around for a month in this bloody room." Lennon kicked the silver tray off the coffee table, splattering tea all over the white carpeting.

He and Macca share a moment of closeness as they realise that the dream came true for both of them - and was therefore taken away. And (plausibly enough) it's Macca who provides the reassurance: if they both still have that hunger to create anyway, so what if the end product is inferior to what they once did?

"So that explains your songs these past few years,  doesn't it?" Lennon asked.
"Of course. You think I'd have been writing Silly Love Songs if I had the same juice flowing through me that I did in Liverpool?"

Lennon (again, I think, plausibly) is less willing to admit his own songs in the intervening years might not have been  equal to the Beatles' output; Macca puts him straight, not unkindly, but tells him if he keeps worrying about surpassing his old songs all he'll do is block out the new ones.

"Never mind what people expect from us. We know what our needs are, and that's who we'll write for - ourselves."
"Hey!" Lennon said enthusiastically. "I just got an idea for a song about Gilligan's Island." He started working out a chord change.
"Now you're talking!" McCartney said, and seated himself behind the piano.

The reformed Beatles make an album which is poorly received, and on tour suffer the indignity of being billed below Peter Frampton, brought in to bolster ticket sales. At the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, when they play their new material the crowd are silent but go wild for a medley of greatest hits. Afterwards, in the locker room, Lennon realises they have become like Bill Haley, a prisoner of his audience's past; the news that their label has dropped them comes at that moment as a liberation. Suddenly, there is what feels like an earthquake; the four dive for cover but it's only the crowd going wild as Frampton steps onstage.

The parts I have concentrated on may make the book seem more serious than, for the most part, it is, but it is underpinned by the idea that the audience only wanted, as it were, to revisit their lost youth.

Which reminds me of a cruel irony. Having arranged to see Nowhere Boy yesterday with my Cheapo Gaffe Friend, I was late, having got carried away with the post about Tutti Frutti, and wasn't allowed to enter the cinema as I was just over the thirty minute limit. I wanted to scream: It's not fair! I'm going to appreciate it more than her, what with my extra knowledge about the Beatles, having read all the biographies including the "spurious" one - I've even got a complete book about the "Paul is dead" theory - I mean, c'mon.

But (of course) I didn't. I walked away and mooched around in bookshops for an hour. Ironically, had Cheapo still been open I'd have gone there instead, as this was the Prince Charles Cinema, only a couple of minutes' walk away.

There was, however, a reward of sorts later, when she emerged from the cinema and spoke these words: "I'd forgotten she was run over."

But the feeling I had at that moment - an unlovely male sense of superiority about being in possession of more Beatle fax'n'info, basically - vanished in the act of writing this down.

Who knows what Lennon's life would have been like if that accident hadn't taken place? Would there still have been the same anger-fuelled hunger to create? That part of Shipper's book feels real enough. In the song Dear John, when Lennon sings:

Put the TV on, have a snack
Wash your mother's back
it may be a reference to Yoko, whom he called "Mother", but if it's more than that (just as the White Album's Julia is about both his mother and Yoko) then there's something very moving, likewise, about that line in the later song, even if it was intended as a throwaway: the same wish for intimate contact with someone who can never now be reached, except fitfully and imperfectly ("meaning less") through music - the half-formed nature of the demo is somehow appropriate - and in the light of the more serious point at the end of Shipper's book the song also serves to reassure us that  Dakota John and Beatle John are one and the same, creating out of the same deep need.

Read more about Mark Shipper and Paperback Writer here, here and here and even here. There is also a short story I can't remember in detail; in it, Lennon left the group very early on, and is (possibly) now working in some clerical job. At the end of the story he runs - literally runs away - from possibly rejoining the group. I think Lennon was the narrator, if anyone else remembers it.

You can tell yourself you're chatting to John at the John Lennon Artificial Intelligence Project here. The results are variable, although today he greeted me with:

You are what you are Anthony . Get out there and get peace, think peace, and live peace and breathe peace, and you'll get it as soon as you like.

Happy Christmas in advance, John - wherever you are.


  1. There is also a short story I can't remember in detail; in it, Lennon left the group very early on, and is (possibly) now working in some clerical job. At the end of the story he runs - literally runs away - from possibly rejoining the group. I think Lennon was the narrator, if anyone else remembers it.

    You're thinking of Ian MacLeod's "Snodgrass."

  2. Earlier today, I was thinking of Ringo Starr's song "A Dose of Rock and Roll," a song that was extremely unpopular because it contrasted various diseases with the line "Get a dose of rock and roll!" Needless to say, this didn't happen in our universe, but in Mark Shipper's.

    I haven't owned the book in decades, but you are correct in noting that it makes some serious points, which were appropriate for that decade after the Beatles' breakup.

    Even today, over 40 years after the group's demise, we still keep Paul and Ringo in little boxes. We ask Paul to talk about songs that he doesn't even remember, and we complain when Ringo refuses to sign autographs for people who don't care about what he's done in the 37 years since the "Ringo" album was released.

    However, it's funny to note that Shipper's account of the lyrics to "Pneumonia Ceilings" ended up being cited as an actual event in Bob Dylan's life. That truth is stranger than fiction.

  3. Mnay thanks for your comments. I believe one of Neil Innes's Rutles pastiches, Cheese and Onions, has appeared on a Lennon bootleg. If you're not already familiar with it, the UK show Harry and Paul has a series of sketches about another alternative universe version of the Fab Four: this quartet never took drugs or split with their wives, and are still together, kept in check by the headmasterish George Martin. The music, by Philip Pope, is cleverly done, and I think the point is at least partly to mock our wish, as you say, to keep the surviving group members in those convenient boxes. There's an example and a bit of discussion in this post:

  4. I read the book a long time ago and laughed several times - some great jokes like Dylan finding his lyrics in the dustbin and George saying 'We Should Thank God for Everything'.

  5. I just read a new book that quotes the Dylan writing session as fact. The I googled "Pneumonia Ceilings" and found that a 600+ page Dylan encyclopedia does the same thing! Is Mr. Shipper still around to appreciate this?

  6. Oh, I do hope so! The genius of the book is that so many details feel as if they ought to be right. There's a substantial extract of the relevant chapter here:

  7. Oh, I forgot to mention that Snodgrass, the short story which Allyn Gibson kindly reminded me of, is in the process of being made into a film for TV - details here: