"Music is my vehicle," Question Mark says numerous times throughout the course of a winding three-hour conversation. Though Mr. Mark (if you want to know his birth name, look it up yourself) is just as quick to refer to himself as an entertainer, as opposed to a musician. The distinction is apt, even when it comes to "96 Tears." The song didn't become what it is for its musicality (although the band members are all great at what they do, and accomplished musicians to this day), but rather for the feeling it evoked among its head-bopping listeners.
The song is infectiously catchy, yet simple and raw — in other words, the blueprint for garage rock. Plenty of other bands were doing similar things at the time, but "96 Tears" actually made it to the top of the Billboard charts — the first single by what theoretically would have been a band virtually unknown outside the region, composed of the children of Mexican-American migrant workers, at that — and a little bit of the pop music facade was cracked. Of course, the reign at No. 1 only lasted for one week in October 1966, and was (perhaps symbolically) pushed out by pop machine the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville." But the effects from that weeklong stay were to be felt for years afterward, the sounds of an electric organ resonating off the glare of a pair of sunglasses that never come off as the wearer wildly, gleefully gyrates onstage.
Now, let's take a little trip back in time, all the way to keyboardist Little Frank Rodriguez's house in Bay City. It's 1966, and we're at a Question Mark and the Mysterians practice session. Two of the original members (drummer Robert Martinez and bassist Larry Borjas) have gone off to the war in Vietnam; Martinez's brother-in-law Eddie Serrato has been recruited to drums, with the role of bassist in flux. Guitarist Robert "Bobby" Balderrama has just learned the full G power chord, and he is practicing moving from G to C. Rodriguez begins playing keys to the back-and-forth chording, Serrato comes in on drums, and Question Mark himself begins singing along, "Too many teardrops ... For one heart ... to be crying!"
"It was like it was meant to happen," Balderrama says. Legend has it that the lyrics "too many teardrops" inspired Serrato to say, probably with a snicker or two, "Why don't we call it '69 Tears'?" Balderrama reports that they looked at each other, thinking it was a great idea, but fearing that the radio wouldn't play a song with such an obvious sex reference in the title. Agreeing that it would still be a catchy title — arguably even more so with such a seemingly arbitrary number — they switched the numbers around. And "96 Tears" slid out into the world, the kind of song that genuinely releases you from your physical bonds for as long as you're moving to its groovy, toe-tapping purity.
When you talk to Question Mark himself you get a slightly more supernatural, even mysterious version of events, which is to be expected, if not outright hoped for. You see, "96 Tears" was in his head long before he joined the band.
According to Question Mark, the first recording the group ever made — several months before "96 Tears" was recorded — took place in Detroit, at Olympia Studio. That was on Feb. 14, 1966, when they recorded two tracks: "I'll Be Back" and "Are You for Real." Unfortunately, the owner was shot and killed shortly after, which put an end to future dealings with this studio. But they had a demo. The year before, Question Mark had gone to Lilly Gonzalez, the woman who'd eventually release their single on regional label Pa-Go-Go. And, he tells us, "She didn't like us! We played live for her, and she didn't like us." So then, Martinez and Borjas, the bassist, had to go into the service. And what was going to happen to Question Mark and the Mysterians?
"The only thing I could do at that time was call Lilly back again; we had a sample of what we just did, and I took it to her. And she liked us and wanted to record it. She doesn't know two of the guys already left, so I have to round up two people to replace [them] because we have to record this weekend. Well, it sounded terrible! Eddie [Serrato, on drums] and Frank [Lugo, on bass] were doing Mexican music. They had done rock 'n' roll a few times, but they were Mexican musicians. A day before recording, I didn't even want to record. But I knew we could come up with something. So I called her up and I said, 'Lilly, can we come up with anything?' and she said, 'Yeah, you guys can do whatever you want!' Wow! We got one night to come up with recordings. Well, everybody is sounding like Motown, Rolling Stones, Beatles ... But the thing is, I said, 'It's gotta be original.' We're an original group!"
"All of a sudden," he says, "Little Frank came up with that intro ... [Question Mark hums the opening to the song and gives this reporter goosebumps in the process]. Not the melody, but the chords. And I said, 'Oooh, wait a minute! I heard that! I heard that somewhere! I heard it, and until I know where I heard it, I ain't doing nothin'. Play it again, play it over.' And we have to go to school [in the morning], they're all getting frustrated, but we need a record for tomorrow! Forty-five minutes went by, and [Little Frank] kept on playing it, and then I remembered! 'Oh! I wrote that song a long time ago! Play it again, Little Frank!' And he played it again. All the lyrics, they came out of my head, just like that."
But if he wrote the song a long time ago, well — when? And how?
"I always wanted to do the music that was in my head," Question Mark says. "[As a kid] my mom would take me to thrift shops, and they always had a piano. I would try [to play], but it would never sound right. I never knew until about 1995 that the reason it didn't sound right was because the pianos were out of tune. I asked my parents if they would take me to a piano store and buy me a new piano. We were migrant workers, and I was asking them to sacrifice their pennies to get me what I wanted."
Instead of a piano, he ended up with a tape recorder.
"So [my parents] got me that and that's when I sang original songs, like '96 Tears,' and [the song] sat there for a while," Question Mark says. "Many years. It was waiting for its time. When Little Frank hit [those notes], that's when I remembered the melody. But, somebody [had stolen] the [tape recorder]. So now I'm left without a tape recorder, but I still want to learn how to play the piano. I went to the record shop one day and asked the girl there if anyone could teach me how to play the piano. Guess what? Her dad! Just like that, it's in front of me. She gave me directions [to this house]. I don't have a car, I don't drive, but I'm walking to my destination.
"I knock on the door and an old man answers. [He's about] 55, pudgy, gray hair, bifocals. He takes me downstairs and sits me down at the piano and I say, 'I wanna learn how to play the music in my head.' And he said, 'You have to start from the beginning,' and he played 'Chopsticks' and 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' I said, 'No no no, I want the music in my head.' He said, 'For $10 a week I'll teach you how to learn the music in your head.' He doesn't know I am never coming back! I ain't got a penny in my pocket! So he wanted me to sing one of my songs, and I sang '96 Tears!' Too many teardrops, for one heart, to be crying — and he brought the music to life. Can you imagine, sitting there, and somebody doing what I wanted to do, [bringing] my music to life. This is how '96 Tears' came about," Question Mark breathlessly explains.
Little Frank's critical addition to the group occurred in a roundabout way in August 1964, thanks to a disagreement that Question Mark and Borjas had over music they were working on. Borjas was so annoyed that he ended up quitting and decided to walk home — a pretty long walk to the outskirts of Saginaw, since they were practicing in Balderrama's parents' garage in Bay City. Two weeks later, Question Mark knew they had had a good thing going, so he called Borjas. Turns out, Borjas was on the same page and about to call him as well — and he had found a keyboard player. "If it wouldn't have been for that incident, we wouldn't have had a keyboard player," Question Mark says.
Without a keyboard player, who knows what would become of the "96 Tears" rolling around in Question Mark's head?
The band recorded the song, as well as the B-side, "Midnight Hour," which Question Mark refers to as the AA side, in a nod to the importance of both songs, at a makeshift home studio in Art Schiell's house in Bay City. It was released in May 1966 by the Texas-based independent label Pa-Go-Go, run by Lillie and Joe Gonzalez. Joe owned half of Bego Records, a label with a focus on Tejano music; Pa-Go-Go had been born out of the need to release music without such an obvious Mexican influence (although critic Dave Marsh tells me that "if you go and listen to border music, you will hear that sound" — that sound being the Mysterian way of playing the electric organ). In other words, Pa-Go-Go was basically created by Lillie Gonzalez to release the "96 Tears" single, although the label did end up putting out a few more singles around the same time — nothing, of course, with the lasting power of "96 Tears."
The band was instructed to distribute the single themselves, and they did. "We took the single to the local radio stations in the Tri-Cities area," Balderrama says. Station manager Bob Dell began giving the song heavy rotation in Flint; he was also involved in setting up teen dances — first record hops, then live shows — at Mount Holly, which Question Mark and the Mysterians began to play as well. By July 15, the song was No. 1 in Flint and other areas of Michigan. "There [must have been a] Detroit audience to the Flint station, because we got a notice that the Detroit station wanted the single, so we dropped a few off and played dances in the area too," Balderrama says. Fast forward a few months to August, and national label Cameo-Parkway had begun to sniff around.
In 1966, Balderrama was just a freshman in high school. "I remember walking down the halls in school and I heard some student say, 'There is that guy with the hit song.' I thought they were talking about another band," he says with a laugh. "I never really thought about how popular the song was, or that I would be able to play on the same shows with famous artists, but we did. [During one of our shows] in Saginaw, Neil Bogart, our producer and vice president of Cameo-Parkway, came to the show and gave each one of us a gold record. That's when I knew our song sold a million records!"
Despite what could have happened after this whirlwind rise, by 1969 the original lineup had disbanded due to various complications. Don't call them a one-hit wonder, though. While they weren't able to get another single up to No. 1, they did chart four separate songs. That same year, CREEM was founded in Detroit — a magazine that would prove to be particularly instrumental in the formation of punk and outsider segments of the rock 'n' roll population.
In 1971, Question Mark and the Mysterians returned with a different lineup: Question Mark on vocals, with two guitars, and no keyboards. At the time, Peter Cavanaugh (author of Local DJ: A Rock 'n' Roll History) had moved to Michigan from New York to DJ at various stations, where he was involved in putting on and promoting shows in the Tri-Cities area. According to Cavanaugh, CREEM wasn't doing well financially at the time. So he put together a benefit to raise money for the still relatively new magazine. At Sherwood Forest, a now-long-gone venue in Davison, Alice Cooper was the big name on the bill for the CREEM benefit concert on May 12; Question Mark and the Mysterians opened the show with a 30-minute set.
"96 Tears" had come and gone, but Question Mark was still pouring his heart into all his performances — so much so at this particular one that he inspired CREEM's writer/editor Dave Marsh to combine the words "punk" and "rock" to describe what he'd witnessed. In our conversation about that show, he tells me, "When I came home, I felt really drunk or high — it was half whatever I ingested, half Question Mark. They were really good, better than I had remembered them being."
Marsh couldn't have known that he would eventually become forever tied with the expression "punk rock" in association with this performance. And yet, here we are. "If people go and listen to that record now, they don't hear it as punk," he says. "First, you have to understand that punk was basically the expression of people saying to [us at] CREEM, 'You're just a bunch of punk kids.' Well if they're gonna name it, you might as well claim it. Lester [Bangs] hadn't moved to Detroit yet, but he was a part of the conversation. People were writing each other long letters trying to figure out what rock criticism could be. 'Punk' was simplicity that worked: rebellion that didn't take itself too seriously, high energy always. There weren't names for things yet."
Simplicity that worked paired with high energy — is there a more succinct way to describe "96 Tears" than that?
Another succinctly straightforward description comes via Martin Rev, one-half of the highly influential electronic proto-punk duo Suicide (and one of the many, many bands to cover the song). He recollects for us, "My friend and former manager, Marty Thau, who years before I met him or heard the track, was the young promotion man who brought '96 Tears' around the U.S. to DJs, used to tell me, 'It's all in the grooves.' And that describes '96 Tears' perfectly. Understandably Marty achieved one of his many gold records for its well-deserved huge chart success. '96' didn't necessarily influence me, [but] it enriched my musical library. It was obvious that we were soul mates."
The original lineup began sporadically playing shows in 1984, but it wasn't until 1997 that they re-formed again, in part thanks to a collaboration with New York promoter Jon Weiss in which the band headlined his Cavestomp garage rock festivals. In 1998, Norton Records released a live album recorded at Cavestomp '97. And the following year, an album of new tracks and versions was released by Cavestomp's label. The band has continued to intermittently play shows with the original members, as well. including one particularly exciting performance two years ago at the Old City Hall in Bay City, which commemorated "96 Tears" as Bay City's official rock 'n' roll song.
"They've always been fun," the Magic Bag's publicist and Michigan music scholar Willy Wilson says. He booked them numerous times at different festivals in the area, describing them as "the perfect crowd-pleasing band." The band knows this, too, happily playing "96 Tears" at virtually every show since their reformation — in some cases, even two or three times a night.
And, of course, there is the fact that they were, as Balderrama puts it, "the only all-Mexican band playing rock 'n' roll with a No. 1 hit song." As Question Mark's publicist Susie Martin says on her petition to get the band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they "kicked open the door for bands who were neither white nor black." In 1966, for a bunch of kids who started out playing instrumentals in garages, literally — this was a huge deal. Inadvertently or not, they did their part to make mainstream rock music even just a bit more accessible to other groups that didn't look quite like anyone else.
At one point toward the end of our conversation, Question Mark says simply that "I'd like to know what music's gonna sound like 600 years from now."
I'd like to know that too, actually. And I have a weird feeling the primal proto-punk soul of "96 Tears" might just be tumbling around somewhere in there, subconsciously or not.
These days, Balderrama still lives in the Bay City/Saginaw area and plays in a smooth jazz group with Little Frank called the Robert Lee Revue; they also occasionally play a selection of Mysterian songs and other oldies without Question Mark as the Semi-Colons. Question Mark himself seems to be in the middle of a number of creative pursuits, but his publicist says he is primarily focusing on two new albums. They are also working on a new website, and can be found on Facebook as Question Mark's ? and the Mysterians Fan Club.
Question Mark has much more to say than we can begin to parse through, including the claim that he predicted Barack Obama's two-term presidency. He also says that people have visited him from the other side, including Princess Diana and Joey Ramone. "The people of the future" come up again and again. Who they actually are is a bit unclear, but they have something to do with telepathy and his soul's origination from the "so-called planet Mars." And yet among all this, the little song that made it all possible also rears its head. Time and space collide as we come full circle. Question Mark believes that he will return in the year 10,000 to perform "96 Tears" — perhaps to join up with these people from the future?
The Semi-Colons play on Saturday, Oct. 29 at Northern Lights Lounge with The Seatbelts and The Secrets; 660 W. Baltimore St., Detroit; Doors at 8 p.m.; $7.
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