Book Review: Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper

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“Rock and roll is a joke
and the joke is on
anyone–performer or
audience–who ever takes it for any more than that…”
(p. 11)

Writing about music, as I’ve said before, is tricky. The ones who do it well–P.F. Kluge, Sheila Kay Adams, Lee Smith–take it very seriously. So it follows that writing a parody about music, one that’s simultaneously respectful and hilarious, is even trickier. Writing that parody about the greatest rock and roll band ever, the Beatles, is the greatest trick of all. Yet in 1978, a writer named Mark Shipper did it, in a novel called Paperback Writer, subtitled 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.

The date of publication is significant. John Lennon was murdered in 1980; after that, any book like this would’ve seemed tacky, if not downright heartless. But in 1978, with Paul and John both still vital presences in the music world, it seemed reasonable to poke fun both at their excesses, and at the fans who would never let them forget their past.

And fun is most assuredly poked. I’m only going to mention a couple of the jokes, because I certainly don’t want to spoil it, but here are some examples:

Lennon proceeded to explain to the roomful of reporters that his statement about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus” was misinterpreted.
“What I meant,” he said, “was that we are all taller than Jesus.”
“Oh, Jesus,” [Beatles manager Brian] Epstein said from the front row.
(p. 82)

Or this bit, post-Beatles breakup, when Paul argues with his wife Linda about their group, Wings:

“What’s it gonna take for you to stay in the group, Linda?”
“Top billing.”
“What?”
“You heard me. Top billing.”
“You mean Linda McCartney and Wings?”
(p. 185)

And the book is filled with alternate lyrics to the best-known Beatles songs:

Instant karma
Mix it with milk
Goes down your throat
Smooth as silk

And this, the bridge for “A Day in the Life”:

Woke up
Fell out of bed
Tried to get off the floor
Couldn’t
So stayed on the floor
All day long

Finally, there are the extended scenes of alternate history, such as Lennon and McCartney getting stoned while writing a song with Bob Dylan, or meeting the Beach Boys and Donovan (“Don’t call me ‘Don!’”) during their meditation phase. And the novel climaxes with what must have seemed inevitable at the time: a Beatles reunion tour that doesn’t go quite as anyone expects:

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This is a relatively easy to find book since it’s got a cult following, although as far as I know it’s been out of print since the early 80s. Author Mark Shipper, it appears, withdrew into willful obscurity and has never resurfaced. Still, if you’re a Beatles fan, or just a fan of music in general, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot. There’s real affection in the humor, and McCartney’s final line is something that we all know is true, but don’t like to admit:

“I guess,” McCartney said as he took his wife’s hand, “it’s because you can’t live in someone’s past and live in their future, too.”
(p. 252)

Here are a couple of other bloggers talking about this book:

Pismotality

Rockcritics.com

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writing

4 Responses to Book Review: Paperback Writer by Mark Shipper

  1. Kathy Groux

    I bought this book when it came out. I gave it away; bought it again 3 more times. I find them and give them as gifts. This is probably one of the most brilliant piece of satire and tongue-in-cheek that I have ever read. If you even have a smidgen of Beatle knowledge, you should get it. This is a very FUNNY book!

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