The Masked Marauders–A Musical Mystery Solved

Our small crowded map company office is not very office-like. It is never visited by any business associates. Our important customers are not local and are not near enough to bother visiting us, nor would they have any need or reason to. So the office décor is relaxed and personal. Large shelves full of books, walls hung with pictures–from old, framed classroom images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to color posters advertising The Beatles at the London Palladium, 1963. Photo calendars, tiny Civil War era flags, Statue of Liberty holding forth a working light, little circus figures, Civil War posters, D-Day maps, artifacts, political signage, posters advertising a 1977 Jasper Johns exhibit, framed photographs of Buddy Holly, grandfather Charlie McDermott in his WWI uniform somewhere in France, U.S. Grant, Antietam battlefield, PT Boat calendars…all visible from the corridor.

People tend to poke their heads in.

One of these people is a very nice chap named Mark Voorheis. He lives in nearby Friendship, NY. A very small town and like all of Western New York, it has seen better days a long, long time ago. Despite this small town residency, Mark is very much a man of the world. Heavily involved in Friendship affairs, the Underground Railroad, the Gatling gun in front of the American Legion, the library board, genealogy, the Civil War, veteran issues and knowledgeable to an extraordinary degree about all of them. Mark had actually attended a Beatle concert in 1966 in Boston and gave me his annotated program of the event. It’s hard to waste your time with anybody who pops in. Everybody who settles in to talk has some fascinating interest, background, area of expertise…and most have more than one.

Mark Voorheis stopped by one afternoon in late 2006. He was in the vicinity. His ultimate musical idol is Jerry Lee Lewis. He was talking Jerry Lee Lewis, highly recommending the Hellfire (?) biography and urging me to read it. (I did. Jerry is not exactly a charming cad. Pretty much just a cad. Though John Lennon stated for the record that The Beatles never recorded anything to compare with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, which canonizes Jerry Lee and covers a multitude of sins.)

We were talking music and enthusiasms. I mentioned that I collected bootleg Beatle albums. My first “bootleg,” passed to me by a friend in 1969, was The Beatles’ original Get Back album. It had been released in a plain jacket only to select DJ’s but then the trade release was nixed and the whole project was delayed and revamped. Ironically, this early version of the album, never officially released, was vastly superior to what was eventually “reproduced,” lathered up and released as Let It Be.

As with all the conversations carried on at our shop, this one wandered. Eventually it came to rest on another murky release around the same time period. I brought up the strange case of The Masked Marauders album. It had been clearly established that it wasn’t a supergroup recording anonymously but what it in fact was, I’d never heard.

Mark rather casually remarked that “The Masked Marauders” was he and his brother and a couple of his brother’s friends who sang and played on that album. Mark, sitting across from me, was, specifically, the droll voice that intoned the opening, “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl…

This he also remarked casually.

Thus the whole masked Marauders story emerged. Rhino records had, I learned, released a CD of the original album and supplemented it with voluminous liner notes (or whatever you call the copy that accompanies a CD) containing everything there was to know about the genesis of the recording, the deliberate mystery about it and some really quirky bits, such as the fact that Sharon Tate (Charles Manson’s victim) was originally to have graced the cover.

The startling local angle to this 60’s rock ruse and legend was passed along to the Olean Times Herald newspaper. Reporter Tom Donahue wasn’t as staggered by this breakthrough as I had been but he appreciated the exciting development and covered it with a fine and finally accurate account of a story which had percolated in my life for nearly forty years. I wonder what rock and roll mystery could wash up next at our door.

Elvis anyone?

The Masked Marauders–A Musical Mystery Revealed

Dateline: St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY, Sophomore year, 1969.

In the enclave of a college campus the real world only intruded when you allowed it to come in. Otherwise the routine of classes and studies, prelims and papers, professors and deans, absorbed the days’ business. Fraternity life, heavy affairs of the heart, the University Center juke box and hanging out there generally, a couple of local bars with their bands on weekends, rumors of drug busts, esoteric games based on the configuration of the nine cement blocks that made up the front landing of the fraternity house, stale lukewarm coffee, endless smoking and bumming of smokes while carrying on rambling, deeply existential discourses long into the night… mostly rounded out our existence. This synopsis applies most specifically to XI Chapter of Phi Sigma Kappa.

The living room of the house featured leather chairs and sofas beautifully softened through years of hard wear till they were as comfortable as a warm lap. The electronic feature of the living room was a beautiful stereo with immense speakers set up around a big brick fireplace. This was the centerpiece of the living room. A black and white television, a clear indication of fraternity priorities, occupied a decrepit , dark, dreary room deep in the back basement, beyond the boiler and past the empty coal bin.

These were the days when music was everything and musicians were king. Movie stars, other “celebrities” (the word didn’t exist yet) carried no weight. They were like sidewalk entertainers. Performers and bands were the cultural icons of those days. They filled the cultural firmament but their comings and goings were furtive, their lives a murky mystery, their 45 single releases and their eagerly awaited albums the only real glimpses we got of them, apart from Rolling Stone interviews and the very rare, dramatically photographed LIFE magazine spreads. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and pre-eminently The Beatles occupied the cultural pinnacle.

These people were like misty magic creatures from out of the night. Their album covers were studied for hidden messages, tell-tale images, bizarre clues. Each appeared on the others’ album covers. Cognoscenti informed the uninitiated.

  • “The faces of The Beatles are here—upside down in the bark of the tree that Dylan and the swamis are standing in front of.”
  • “See. The rag doll has ‘Rolling Stones’ written on her. And there’s Dylan in the photomontage.”
  • “If you look really closely, that little clump in the background of the Rolling Stones’ new album is The Beatles.”
  •  “Why is Paul standing with his back to the photo? Because it’s not Paul!”
  • “The badge, see the badge?  It has the initials OPD. Officially Pronounced Dead.”
  • “See. The word Beatles on the wall?  Not ‘The’ Beatles. Just ‘Beatles.’ Now see on the wall. What’s that shape? Yes. Exactly. The number 3. You’re seeing  3 Beatles. I tell ya. He’s dead. Paul’s      dead.”
  • “I don’t know. Sometime about the time of ‘Sergeant Pepper.’”

Musicians got together. Played on one another’s recordings.

  • “That new Donovan song. Mellow Yellow. Paul McCartney is on it. He does some background vocals and that’s him, he plays bass.”
  •  “That really good blues guitar on George Harrison’s song. That’s not Burt Weedon. It’s Eric Clapton. George isn’t denying it.!”
  • “Isn’that Mick and Keith singing during the broadcast of All You Need Is Love ?” Rumors flew. He was here. He was there.
  • “That’s Brian Jones  playing saxophone on The Beatles single.”

So it was in that enchanted atmosphere that earnest rumors began to fly and were eagerly believed. An album was circulating—the rumors were cascading from a winking, smirking, suggestive article in Rolling Stone magazine no less—that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and [pop star of choice] had gotten together and secretly recorded an album of old chestnuts—Duke of Earl for one—and some one-off compositions like Can’t Get No Nookie.  They came together under the moniker “The Masked Marauders.” What to make of this?  And where to get it?

A friend from the independent republic of Ithaca arrived at school.  The album had turned up there in an alternative record shop. Where else? The album cover offered no clues. A sort of Psycho design, black and ominous.

The signs were propitious. On his most recent album Nashville Skyline’ Dylan had murmured to his producer in the intro to one of the songs, “Is it rolling Bob?” …i.e. is the tape running.

A voice with the same intonation on ‘Masked Marauders’ asks, “Is it rolling Al?’

We listened to every nuance, every note, every aside, every chord, every word.

“Yep. Not much question. This was it.” The songs were a little bawdy, a little bedraggled, clearly some good musicians were having fun, spoofing, goofing off, playing the sort of music you lean into, watching each others faces, laughingly catching one another’s mood, reacting, rocking back and forth, shuffling off the pressure of being a star, enjoying the fun of being a musician in a shaggy little band.

Yep. That had to be Mick. Listen to that. Oh yeah. That’s John Lennon all right. That’s John. Nah. You can’t mimic Bob Dylan. That’s Dylan. No question. Hey man. I know Paul McCartney when I hear him. Since I was 13. I know Paul McCartney and that is Paul McCartney. Listen guys. Mick is incomparable. That’s Mick.

Strangely enough, there were guys who were certain Paul McCartney was dead who were also absolutely sure that was Paul McCartney on this record. Go figure. We’re in college.

Only, and of course, it wasn’t. It wasn’t Paul. It wasn’t John. It wasn’t Bob. It wasn’t Mick. Was it???? Finally and definitively , No, it wasn’t.

No. Life went on. Groups broke up. They got religion. They got glammy and clammy. Everybody got older and then everybody got old. And then almost forty years later, way off in upstate New York—Olean—right on the Pennsylvania border, in the small office of a map company in an old hotel lobby on the hardscrabble main street of town, the whole dark mystery was dragged into the light.

Stay Tuned.  Coming Soon.