When Eddie Mason died at age 88, he left behind a real stumper. Back in the 1950s, Mason served as the maintenance man for a lakeside retreat in Vermont, home at the time to a communal group of people who claimed to have a sixth sense.
For years after his death, Mason’s granddaughter held onto a trove of recordings he’d made during his time on the commune. He also kept scrupulous notes, intending at one point to write a biography of the group’s spiritual leader, an eccentric mystery man named H.X. Newhaven.
Not long ago Beth Mason contacted the British journalist Solomon Davies to ask for some help: Would he be willing to come to Vermont to assess the validity of the music Newhaven’s followers had recorded? They were primitive folk-and-country-based songs that sounded awfully familiar, bearing beloved titles — “Please Please Me,” “In My Life,” “All You Need Is Love.”
Fact is, no one had yet heard of the Beatles in 1958, when the New England soothsayers made their recordings. Teenagers John Lennon and Paul McCartney had just met in Liverpool; calling themselves the Quarrymen, it would be five years before they introduced themselves to the world as the Beatles.
Steered by Davies, a music critic whose father was a renowned parapsychologist, Beatles fanatics can now listen for themselves and decide what they’re hearing. Beginning Friday, “The Music of the Beatles as Channeled in 1958 by the Echo Lake Home for the Potentially Clairvoyant” will be available at ESPeatles.com. The release includes Davies’s extensive liner notes, which tell the improbable story of Newhaven and his exploration of psychic phenomena.
It just so happens that the release coincides with April Fools’ Day, says Ryan H. Walsh, the Boston musician and author who “edited” Davies’s liner notes. In truth, the whole thing is an elaborate joke, a figment of Walsh’s imagination with input from his friend Robert M. Johanson, an actor and composer in New York City.
“The Music of the Beatles” brings together several of Walsh’s most abiding interests, he says, from cultural arcana and the cult of personality to paranormal hoaxes.
“I sometimes feel like both a Mulder and a Scully trapped in one body,” Walsh says. “I both want to believe in something and then rip it apart.”
Years ago, Walsh and Johanson (who was then part of Walsh’s band the Stairs) created a parody called “The Lost Recordings of Dust Johnson,” which was designed to sound like old-timey music of the 1920s. Walsh stuffed copies of it into mail orders for the Stairs’ records. When a fan reached out a year or so ago to ask what had become of Dust Johnson, Walsh — the author of the instant classic “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” a countercultural history of Boston — was inspired to conjure a new musical fiction.
“The Beatles are not just a band, they’re a myth,” he explains. “And you can play with a myth.”
Over the course of a long weekend, members of Walsh’s long-running band Hallelujah the Hills and various friends gathered in Charlestown to record their “clairvoyant” versions of some of the most beloved songs in the English language. Johanson improvised the charismatic character of Newhaven as a kind of collision between Joseph Smith, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s title role in “The Master,” and William Shatner’s absurd spoken-word renditions of classic pop songs.
“My grandfather always told me I would be a preacher,” says Johanson, a founding member of New York’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma. “For a minute he gets to be right.” He modeled Newhaven’s lugubrious version of “Help!” after Roy Orbison’s real-life, slowed-down rendition of Lennon’s song.
Josh Kantor, best known as the Fenway Park organist, chipped in on accordion, and Walsh’s high school media studies teacher, Edward Morneau, dropped by to sing on a couple songs. More than 20 years ago, he’d turned his young student into a lifelong Beatles fanatic when he gave Walsh a cassette of lesser-known songs by the group.
According to the tall tale of the Potentially Clairvoyant, much of the Echo Lake recordings were made by amateurs. This gave the musicians a built-in excuse to flounder as much as they wanted. Just as the Beatles themselves do, Walsh notes, throughout “Get Back,” the celebrated, recently reworked footage of the band’s late-period studio sessions.
Watching the long documentary was a revelation, Walsh says.
“They taught each other new songs the same dumb way we do,” he says. “Even the best start out clumsy and flailing.” And you don’t have to be psychic to see it.
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.