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.