Wednesday, July 5, 2017

QUESTION MARK Answers [1981]

Text by Cary Baker / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet, unless indicated

At Cavestomp! 2002 - Pic (c) RB Francos
This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #8, dated 1981. It was written by writer-turned-press agent extraordinaire Cary Baker.

There is no denying that “96 Tears,” ? and the Mysterians biggest hit from 1966, has one of the most infectious organ lines in rock’n’roll. I had the good fortune to see the band play in 2002 at CBGBs during “Cavestomp!,” a garage revival showcase series they were headlining. Between songs, he used the term “bay-behhh” a lot, as in “Hello, bay-behhhs. Great to be here, bay-behhh!” Needless to say, they were amazing. – RBF, 2017

Of all rock’n’roll’s “one-hit wonders,” perhaps the least is known of the arcane man by the name of Question Mark (hereafter referred to as “?”) who, with the equally-inscrutable Mysterians, created the Vox-riffing masterpiece of pop ephemera known as “96 Tears.”

The song, innocent as it was when ? wrote “Too many teardrops for one heart to be crying,” has enjoyed a phenomenal revival, thanks more than partially to Garland Jeffreys (who returned it to the Hot 100 this year) and to “Joe “King” Carrasco, whose Mex-merizing version was a live showstopper on last year’s Son of Stiff tour.

Now ? is back with four all-new Mysterians, touring at the peak of commotion brought on by Jeffreys’ cover. And without dispelling too much self-perpetuated “mystery” at the center of his non-myth, ? would like to make a few things crystal clear. Well, translucent, anyway:

Mystery No. 1: While certain rock texts espouse that ? is the nom de disque of Rudy Martinez, the mystery man himself insists it has been legally changed to, well, Question Mark. Asked to see an ID to that effect, he replies that he’s been refused one because no one believes him. Especially the immigration authorities, who deny him passports to the UK. “After all,” he reasons, “anyone can make anything up.”

Mystery No. 2: ? & the Mysterians are not from Brownsville, El Paso, or Austin, but rather from Flint, Michigan. “Outside of town and in the country,” specifically. The other original members (Bobby Bladerrama, guitar; Frank Rodrigues, keyboard; Eddie Serrato, drums [d. 2011]; Frank Lugo, bass guitar; Robert Martinez and Larry Brojas) were from Texas, he explains. Asked if ? himself, of obvious Hispanic descent, was born in Flint, he shrugs, “I won’t say.”

Mystery No. 3: After “96 Tears” topped the charts (the week of October 29, 1966, between “Reach Out” and “Last Train to Clarksville”), ? rebounded with “I Need Somebody” (peaking at No. 22), “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” (No. 36), and “Do Something to Me” (which, karma aside, reached its apex at No. 96). Then, one would have thought, according to all logic, that ? would take the hint and disband the Mysterians. Therein lay Mystery No. 3. Fact is, there has never been a time that ? was without some version of the Mysterians. What’s more, he recorded (though not released) an album every year since 1969. “It was continuous,” he says. “Whoever came in, he was the new Mysterian. But every time I had a new group and it looked right to go on the road, someone would mess it up. I do have albums worth of material for each year.”

Mystery No. 4: A major record trade magazine recently reported that the original Cameo single of “96 Tears” was cut in a garage. Not only is that incorrect, but ? never sought coverage in the magazine. “I just called to see how Garland Jeffreys’ version was doing,” he says. “We were going to play in New York so I thought I’d drop in on ABKCO Records, who took over Cameo.”
* * *
The ? of today is of indeterminate years (“I never tell my age”) and sports a hirsute mane of shoulder-length black hair. Constant are the dark, convex shades that became his trademark a decade before there was a Ramones.

Coming to terms with the New Wave aided his renewed popularity. ? is proud to say that, “Elvis Costello bought an original copy of the 96 Tears album for $250.”

He likes much of what he’s heard, he claims, but doesn’t have a lot of time to spend listening to anyone. “I have heard Kraftwerk,” he says. “They play music with no drummer, no guitarist, no bass player, and no keyboard. Just four guys, and each has an electronic pad. If music goes in that direction, I can’t appreciate it. I wrote a song called, ‘He Plays Guitar.’ In ten thousand years, people are going to ask, ‘What’s a guitar?’ Just get a group of guys up there playing guitar, bass and drums.”

And you didn’t believe he was from within earshot of Detroit?

Central to the ? sound – then and now – is the organ. One hears a lot these days about the Farfisa, the matter-of-fact keyboard that spans an entire four octaves. Vox is the Farfisa’s close cousin, and served the original Mysterians well. “Now the guitar’s more out front,” ? says, “and we’re using a Hammond B-3 instead of a Vox. If I could find one, I’d love to have it because that’s the sound that happened then and can happen now. In Boston, we played with some new group and they had a real Vox. I almost walked out with it.” In an affected tough-kid Mexican inflection, he recapitulates his reaction: “Hey, we need that Vox, you know?!

? has another taboo topic besides his age and birthplace: he refuses to interpret the vision behind his lyrics.

“They’re personal. I write for everybody. I figure everybody has the right to fantasize and put in their own possibilities. As soon as an artist says this song’s about so-and-so, that spoils the mystery.”

Why the recurring theme of mystery in his personal? ? won’t say.

“I didn’t just happen to say, ‘Do this.’ It evolved. See, I’ve been in show business since I was five. I was always dancing, always onstage with lights.

“My parents bought me a tape recorder. They would’ve bought me a piano if I’d wanted. I came from a family of ten, so it wasn’t easy. Anyway, I just sat down in a room and sang whatever was in my head and ‘96’ was one of those songs, instrumental arrangements and all.”

But, ?, is it not correct that Sir Doug’s “She’s About a Mover,” and Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully” preceded “96 Tears?”

“Yes, they came out first. But I had “96” conceptualized before they came out. As I said, my parents said they’d finance a piano if I wanted it, but I took a look at all those keys and thought, ‘It’d take forever to play this thing. And I have so much music in my head. I can sing it, but I have to find someone who can play what I hear.’”

? consulted the father of a neighborhood record store clerk who attempted to teach him to read music. “He tried to teach me the ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb” bit, but I didn’t have the time,” ? says, “So, he played ’96 Tears’ and for the first time, I heard the music I’d been hearing in my head, thanks to his old man.

“Right away, I started tracking radio stations, writing down how many times they played each song. People thought I was crazy, but I just had to do it. I mean, one day, I was going to be on the radio,” he says.

“96 Tears” was taped in a friend’s living room on a two-track perched outside on a patio. It was March, and the friend’s storm windows were still in.

“Not very acoustical,” he concedes.

The session cost $50. The organist came up with the two-chord run that set the tenor. “And I told him, ‘Hey, I’ve heard that before.’ Then it dawned on me. I wrote that. The old man at the music shop played it for me.”

“’96 Tears’ hit the top of the pops, while follow-ups were no more household than the Seeds’ “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” or the Shadows of Knight’s “Willie Jean.” The band embarked on a Dick Clark tour and played Chicago’s Aragon in 1967 with the Four Seasons and Mitch Ryder. A version of “Do Something to Me” (“a year before Tommy James & the Shondells made it a hit”) made No. 5 in Louisiana and Hawaii, and No. 1 in their native Flint.

“If we’d stuck with original material, I’m convinced people would have related better,” he feels. Instead, producers kept feeding them outside contributions.

The eventual demise was far more external than choice of material. The Cameo label, whose president was Neil Bogart (later of Buddah, Casablanca and Boardwalk), collapsed. And since ? was on the road nearly perpetually, he didn’t hear the news until after the Cameo office phone had been disconnected.

Unreleased albums and countless personnel changes ensued. Finally, when the original organist found he couldn’t get along with the new members, the Mysterians took on a new, low-profile visage “with the guitar more out-front.”

There were plans to tour this year, as with every year prior. And then, suddenly, “96 Tears” was on the radio again, and ? was blown out of the water.

“I’ve never heard of Garland Jeffreys. And a friend called and said she’d heard my song on the radio. So I called the radio station and they played it for me. Then, in Columbus, Ohio, someone that called a radio station wanted to know, ‘Where’s the original Question Mark?’ I guess someone from Flint had a sister in Columbus. The DJ said, ‘If you know where he is, call us. If you have an original copy of the record, we’ll pay you $200.’ It just created a whole new interest.

“I like the Jeffreys version. He really listened to the bass line,” ? adds.

In concert, the new Mysterians have a Detroit sound and have the tendency to illuminate a ‘70s influence more than a ‘60s or and ‘80s one. Mitch Ryder’s current band comes to mind, as do the Rockats. And to the letdown of many, ? saves “96 Tears” until the tail end of the second set.

* * *
Mystery No. 5: This tour has been said to be a cash-in on the Tex-Mex craze with no more artistic merit than the return of, say, the Grass Roots or Crazy Elephant.

“I never get sick of doing my songs,” ? says. “One thing about a good song is that you can do it anytime. The band (conducting their soundcheck as we spoke) is playing, ‘Do Something to Me,’ which I recorded in ’68. It still sounds good to me. It doesn’t have to have a time period. If I’d done something disco, someone would have said, ‘Well, that’s good but it’s disco,’ and they wouldn’t appreciate it five years from now.

“That’s the one thing about an original: you can do it any time. The songs relate to any time anyone wants them to.

A later version remake:

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