One of Dylan’s best lines is “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” There’s a truth there that, even though the song is soley responsible for the spin-off TV show Mork from Ork, continues to connect with me. I’ve been callous enough to say in other parts of this blog that the Beatles, may half of them rest in peace, are derivative American rock ‘n’ roll and should be happy with that lot. A case in point is one of their greatest songs, Paperback Writer, while keeping in mind that being derivative is not necessarily a hindrance to being great.
Up until Paperback Writer the Beatles had failed at doing two things. One, writing a song about something other than love and two, getting Paul’s bass to sound like the bass in Wilson Pickett’s band. There’s a handful of stories floating around about what inspired Paul to write Paperback Writer, but I tend to believe what I like so here’s what we’ll say. Paul’s aunt told him he shouldn’t only write about boy-girl relationships and while he was pondering on what possible other subject might there be to write about he saw Ringo reading a book. I don’t know what book, but I’d like to think it was 1984. And, specifically a paperback version with a beautifully rendered trashy cover. Just like the Beatles. Trash rock, beautifully made.
This is tight. The boys kick it off with some messy overlaid harmonies that nod to what’s to come and then George rips off a dirty, completely fuzzed out rock riff that along with the Ringo’s dead body beat has been copied a blue million times since by every pulp band in their Dad’s basement. Then comes Paul with his best Donald “Duck” Dunn bass line. Now, it’s not actually a Donald “Duck” Dunn bass line, but it’s close. McCartney achieved his effect by picking up a Fender bass for the session and using a loudspeaker as a microphone and positioning it in front of the bass speaker. It has that great looping sound that Dunn had and certainly no one was as melodic as Paul was on the bass, but the funk isn’t there. I don’t know how else to say it. The great American hip shaking, pelvis twisting tease is missing.
But, let me digress. I spent most of the 90’s working in bookstores. Five different stores in two different states for a combined decade of my life. I was a self described book snot who preferred the Booker’s over the Pulitzer’s and was hell on genre fiction. Then near the end of my ten year despotic reign I was shelving mass markets in the mystery section of the downtown Seattle Borders when it hit me. These pulp writers I had sneered at for so long weren’t the problem. I was the problem. Vampires, serial killers, cops, forensic pathologists, and cat sleuths all of a sudden seemed so smart. For example, Sue Grafton wrote a book in 1983 titled “A” Is For Alibi. Then came “B” Is For Burglar and now as of this writing we’ve gotten up to “U” Is For Undertow. My wish is that when she’s finally done she’ll weave them together into one long narrative, like Coppola did when he re-cut the Godfather films, and give us, in copper plating, one large 7,800 paged book. Really though, this is a feat to be humbled by. 26 books (and she hasn’t said whether or not she’ll continue onto the ten key) and a few houses later and she hasn’t stolen anyone’s savings or denied someone healthcare, but has in fact quietly, in the glare of the supermarket spindle, built a pulp legacy out of the misadventures of Kinsey Millhone and should chortle at every upstart bookseller squeaky out of college when they claim to prefer William H. Gass.
There’s something about McCartney being incredibly self aware of his own talents and limitations though that is somewhat unique in pop music. The song’s narrator who is writing a letter to some unknown publishing house has modest dreams. Paperback writing is fine for him, he needs not more. He’s completely willing to compromise what he’s already written to make it more to their liking and is already offering them the rights to his work. A cruel irony being that so many musicians, the Beatles included, have lost or never had to begin with the rights to their own songs in order to land recording contracts. None of this would have been lost on Paul. He knew the Beatles were a junk band making the musical equivalent of genre fiction and played off of that with a deep since of irony and British dry wit and a wink.
Often, when I tell people that I’m a country music DJ I hear something about how they don’t like county music, but Johnny Cash is cool or Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson. I’m sorry, if you like those singers, you do, in fact, like country music. They are country music. Should they be shelved in pop instead? That actually happens to genre fiction. James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler are typically shelved in general fiction or literature sections of a bookstore, rather than mystery or crime. 1984 is there too, though why not science fiction (and don’t say because it’s becoming true – being shelved in fiction still means Orwell made it all up). Many of Cormac McCarthy’s books could easily be shelved on the Western rack. The point being there’s nothing wrong with making pulp. It’s delicious and entertaining and at times better reflects the craziness of life on earth anyways. And while Paul’s bass is no Donald’s, and Sue is perhaps not George they’re still pretty darn good at what they do.
The original single for Paperback Writer was released in England in 1966 with the above cover shot by Roger Whitaker as a black humor protest against the war in Vietnam. The album Yesterday and Today was released in the States using the picture and took so much heat Capitol Records pasted a new cover over top of it before sending remaining copies out to stores.