Question Mark And The Mysterians - Interview
by Lisa Torem
published: 4 / 10 / 2011
Lisa Torem chats to Question Mark from 60's group Question Mark and the Mysterians about his group's infamous song, '96 Tears', his take on popular culture and why from other musicians and record companies he has never received the recognition he should have done
During their annual migration over one million wildebeest transverse crocodile-infested waters as they journey from the Kenyan Serengeti to the Masai Mara Preserves, in search of rain and grasses. Many don’t make it because of the sharp-toothed creatures that lurk below in the Mara River, and, even though he loves watching the nature channel, this phenomenon really irks Question Mark. “Why don’t they build a bridge?” he asks, earnestly. I’m not sure who it is that he thinks should build this bridge – the television network, the cinematographers or human beings, in general. But, his comment makes perfect sense, and I find myself thinking, “Why doesn’t somebody build a bridge?” To say that Question Mark thinks outside the box is an understatement - in fact, the box itself seems pretty superficial when you are in Q’s presence. I had an opportunity to meet with the singer and songwriter of the 1966 smash ’96 Tears’, twice in one evening and already my worldview has shifted. A few days before the meeting, we had spoken on the phone for nearly two hours. Q’s voice is soft, caressing and boyish. He has an easy laugh, which tends to escalate after he recants a tragedy, and, according to the super star, he has experienced many. A video on his website shows Q standing amongst the rubble of his home which burned down in January of 2007. He wears his signature, wrap-around shades and coffee-coloured Stetson hat – his coal black hair offsets his cinnamon skin. Q wishes he could locate the gold record the Mysterians made or find evidence of his four Yorkshire Terriers who perished in the smoke, so that he could offer them a proper burial; he also lost his cockatiel. When talking about his dogs, he chokes back some of his words, but then he quickly, bravely pulls himself together. That fire had destroyed 40 years worth of memorabilia, but it hadn’t knocked the vibrancy at all out of this bona fide showman. Q thinks a lot about the art of performance, and expresses his opinions openly. James Brown never moved around enough on the stage and the Beach Boys merely imitated the Four Fresh Men, he has said, but as a veteran artist, since the early 1960s, few would argue that he is not entitled. Our green room chat also yielded his first rule of thumb: “Never take your audience for granted.” One time, the Mysterians found themselves playing to a crowd, which was hearing-impaired. Intrigued, he asked an audience member afterwards how he was able to process their music. The man told him he felt vibrations. And, since one never know what limitations an audience may have, Q made sure, after that experience, that his live shows would appeal to everyone’s senses –that is a promise which the Mysterians have kept. They douse their shows with infectious hooks and candid emotions; their genuine love of performance is greatly felt; whatever inhibitions a straggler off stage might harbour, dissipates after only a few minutes. Originally, this Sunday evening, Question Mark and the Mysterians were set to play an outdoor fest, but, due to rain, the concert had to be moved, unexpectedly and quickly, to Reggie’s Night Club, about a mile away. Reggie’s had promoted this Bash on Wabash Festival, so it was a logical result. The good news was that there would still be several performances this evening, but the bad news was that, because there was no signage to alert people to come to the club, the expected number of audience members dwindled. But, as Q and his band members would say several times into the night, it doesn’t matter if there is only one person in the audience, “We’re still going to play.” They also got moved from the 9 p.m. slot to 11 p.m., though the room was still by no means packed. Q loves orange. He had chosen Cameo-Parkway Label initially because of the orange label logo, even though, at their prime in the mid1960s major labels lapped at their heels. The other band members wore black tees bearing explosive orange question marks. The band played solo when they first appeared on the compact stage – Frank Rodriguez pounding garage band riffs on the keys and Frank Lugo, grinning, thumping out a bass line; Bobby Balderrama stretched some piercing notes on the upper-end of the fret board and Q’s brother, Robert Martinez, in tough-guy bandana, thrashed sticks against skins. After a few, high-octane, opening numbers, Q walked on; his sheer, shockingly bright shirt was tied loosely around his midriff. He had the composure of a matador. His skin- tight pants matched his thick, jet-black hair. And, the voice… Take the sonic womanly silk of the Supremes, add some James Brown street-funk and a squeeze of Jagger; and you can approximate it. But, then there’s Q’s spasmodic falsetto – It breaks up the tension and reminds you that he is appealing to everyman; not just straights, gays, the youthful or the elderly – not just Motown boomers, classic rockers or punksters. He’s a flash of drink-the-stage, incandescent colour and his face carries an expression of impenetrable beauty. Qualifiers such as “boy toy”, “enigmatic” and “gorgeous” have been used; to those, one might add: “a transcendent showman.” Q is virtually impossible to ignore. Q makes tight fists, like a newborn exhibiting the startle reflex, and then raises his arms high above our heads. Because his sunglasses are still on (the story goes he has never taken them off in public), we can’t see his pupils – is he in a drug-altered trance? Is he a shaman? But he never misses a beat, and, don’t mention drugs, and here’s why. His nephew overheard a fan say that Q was a stoner and asked his uncle if it was true. Q leaned over to his young nephew, crushed by the accusation, and set the record straight. Drinking? Yes, some, but drugs? No, son. That’s the truth, no matter what they say. But personal challenges and tragedy have no place on this stage. Several young people, who had been in the back, nursing their drinks, file across the room and crazy dance to the beat. They feel no need to display slick, choreographed moves; instead they embrace freestyle, undulating movements. Judging by their ages, it’s apparent they have no idea how famous Q is, but they are just as pulled in by the rhythms as 1960s youth were. Q pulls out the Ben E. King cover, ‘Stand by Me’, to which he has added his unique twist – I remember when he sang it over the phone to me and explained that the song wasn’t deep enough; didn’t say enough, so he made up his own verse –to that end, he milks vowels out of the chorus until a growing row of mixed-age fans follow suit. The members of the Mysterians were sons of migrant Mexican workers. Q claims, as a child, he ate on dirt floors. He originally set out to be a dancer on ‘American Bandstand’ – but when his drummer brother played out, and the band needed a vocalist, Q got the job. And, nobody could move an audience the way Question Mark could – and does. The Cameo-Parkway Label picked up ‘96 Tears’, but they couldn’t afford to promote the record properly. Allen Klein, of Rolling Stones and the Beatles fame, bought the rights to many of the company’s recordings and kept the original recording under his auspices. Though the Mysterians would go on to re-record the song, many say that first-time magic could never be recaptured on vinyl. Question Mark would not enjoy the royalties for his dramatic ballad. The business deal had left a pool of bitter tears, but, however, the song still had legs. ’96 Tears’ has been covered by the likes of Big Maybelle, Primal Scream, Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen, the Inspiral Carpets, Aretha Franklin, the Stranglers and Iggy Pop – the list is exhaustive. Music historians now look back at the band’s heyday and finally acknowledge that the group was not just a one-hit wonder or garage band – many feel that they instigated the punk movement with their unpretentious mannerisms, skeletal chord structures and curt lyrics. John Lennon swore it was the greatest rock song ever written. Suicide’s version barely resembles the core song, but even that version inspired curiosity, if only for that title. The Vox or Farfisa-driven (it is still being debated), two-chord, riff, mournful lyric and dark, brooding instrumental bridge allows Q, in performance, to lament, purr and lament some more -- even the bluesy Jimmy Smith lead-in hints that this song, so refreshingly free of high-tech baggage, is something extraordinary. Question Mark has been known to deflect when asked a direct question. He makes some outlandish claims; that he has built Egyptian pyramids and that he speaks to the people of the future. He says that his parents, indeed, named him after the symbol of the question mark, yet he had to register under the name, Rudy Martinez, solely to collect his royalty checks. Yet there is no avarice, spite or vengeance in his retorts, no matter how many times he has been grilled by fans, journalists or paparazzi. A few dogs were running loose in the green room. Q seemed to understand their every movement. He is a dog breeder, as well as a performer. He is sensitive to the feelings of other beings; be they friends, fans or animals. Yet you get the feeling that fame has drained him in some way. He knows he is and has been famous for decades – he uses the word casually; matter-of-factly, like the diner who pours crème into a cup of coffee. But, he doesn’t say it boastfully – it’s just who he is – a famous guy who lives to sing. But, more than that, Q loves his fans. They’ve kept in touch and still keep in touch. They become protective of his set list, his history, his gentle nature and his future. The house that ’96 Tears’ would have built is slowly being put back together again. Q, on the video, humbly requested donations and promised bandanas and records to attract interest. Still the band will need to sell the tour bus for a loss because of the high cost of diesel. A documentary is in the works. The band is admired in Europe, but several members won’t get on a plane. Plus the Mysterians seem happy not to stray too far from their home state of Michigan. Though the repertoire has remained true to form, they have played musical chairs with a few members. Eddie Serrato played drums with the band from 1966-1968. When Larry Borjas and Robert Martinez got drafted, it was Eddie who took over and was on the original recording. Serrato died of muscular dystrophy; his legacy is addressed on the website. Even Mel Schacher made a brief appearance before he went on to Grand Funk fame. The original line-up is back and leaving, in its path, a growing pool of satisfied music lovers who won’t shed a tear, now that they’re back, let alone 96. Question Mark discussed the history of their most famous song, his take on popular culture and why he feels he has received a raw deal as a recording artist with Pennyblackmusic. PB: Could you please trace the history of ’96 Tears?’ QM: There are many groups overseas that have recorded ’96 Tears’ – I don’t know what their names are and I never heard their versions –and the reason for that is the record companies don’t want to let me know because four years ago, I said, “Who are all of these people?” – because at that time we were going overseas and I wanted to know who all these people are – I’d even like to hear how they sound and whether it’s in their language, right? That was in 2004 and they said, “We’ll let you know the next royalty statements which are every six months,” and they haven’t let me know nothing yet. This publishing company that I have that has been doing this tour with me for the last forty-five years, and, like I’ve said, I’ve had many tragedies and I don’t let anything bring me down. I never skip a beat in life or in music. So, if people have tragedies, how would you like to have mine? Somebody is making a ton of money on you, every year and he tells you this, but they never produce anything, and you’ve just got to keep on going. PB: Your early management was tied up with Allen Klein – QM: (Laughs) That’s who I’m talking about – PM: To get compensation for your own song, you had to re-record? QM: Like I said, this is a forty-five year thing that’s been going on because they had bought Cameo-Parkway, so that was part of the thing and I was established with them in 1969, so this has been going on every year – they don’t publicise nothing. The Rolling Stones’ 'Some Girls' is going to be coming out, which they own – well, how come they’re getting publicity? You hear about them, but you don’t hear – people have been waiting for our two albums (‘96 Tears’, ‘Action’) for forty years. They released ‘Action’ in 2006 without my permission, without any contract. I mean, I haven’t got any royalties – who’s going to say they’re going to pay me royalties? So, I said I want 25%. I’m not a new artist and you guys are making tons of money. No, I never signed a contract – you know, Jody Klein is in charge now because her dad died. I don’t know if you knew that. Allen Klein died a couple of years ago of Alzheimer’s - even though I knew he had Alzheimer’s since 2004. I know all about health and all of that. I even helped everyone with the accounting because he was diabetic. Even though they screwed me everyday, (Laughs) I’m the kind of person that, I don’t care who you are, but if you have a health problem, I’m there. PB: Who else are you there for? QM: A lot of my fans call me. In fact, when I do concerts, people who have seen me three times, six times, they’ll come back and say, “Do you have anything new on health?” because they want to know and I say, “Sure.” Anything I talk about, people say that I should write a book because I say what nobody else says, whether it comes to politics, religion, anything, because I hear it all and what I don’t hear, I wonder why…it’s suppressed by the press, or, otherwise a lot of people are lying to you… I tell it like it is. Until maybe about five years ago, I used to be on this radio show for nine years doing ‘American Idol’, giving my commentary on that and it was never any good for anybody (Laughs).I’m the worst critic there is. I would just cut them down, because for one thing they don’t have experience. They haven’t been out there and they haven’t paid their dues. (Q imitates a contestant) “Oh, my God, I never thought I’d be in the Top Five!” And, I say, if you never thought you’d be in the Top Five, you don’t even belong there in the first place. If it was me, I would say, “Shoot, yeah. I’m going to win. That’s why I’m here. I’m going to be number one.” You have to have the attitude, especially if you know who you are (Laughs). But, not everybody else is like me. PB: What makes you unique? QM: I’ve always known what I was doing. I don’t care if you’re headlining or whatever – I get the write-up the next day, and everybody knows that, everybody from Mick Jagger. ‘Rolling Stone’ said Mick Jagger wants what Question Mark has. That is what’s in print and all of that stuff. I was compared, when I first came out, with Elvis, with my hip movements. The second time I did ‘American Bandstand’, they only filmed me from the waist up. They decapitated me. I think you can see that on video - you can see my chest up like that. In 1968, when Strawberry Alarm Clock had their hit song (‘Incense and Peppermint’), we were doing a Dick Clark Caravan Tour. It was in one of those big arenas, down south. And, even though we had a Top Five song, ‘Do Something to Me’ – Tommy James came out a year later and they sounded more like ‘Mony Mony’ and he got all of the publicity, because at that time, the record company didn’t push our material. They just recorded it. I even forced them to do it; otherwise they wouldn’t have done it. It’s a long story, but what I’m getting to is that Strawberry Alarm Clock had the number one song. Well, we didn’t have a sound check and it just didn’t sound right; we didn’t have our equipment and all that kind of stuff – so I asked Dick Clark, “Can we just go on again?” and he said we already had done it: ”Question Mark, you just can’t go on again.” So I said,”If you need us, call me.” I have this thing where I just kind of know things – so, guess what? Strawberry Alarm Clock’s plane was late and they needed somebody to go back on so Dick Clark came back and said, “Question Mark, can you go on again?” I said, “Yeah.” (Laughs) Now, they’ve got the sound ironed out. We went up there and did the same thing, but it was all-good now and everybody could feel it. I saw Dick Clark on the side of the stage and he’s coming towards me and I’m dancing and smiling and he says, “If you keep on dancing like that, I’m going to have to stop the show.” I said, “Dancing like what?” (Laughs) And, I just went back – but we were sounding so good and all of a sudden the crowd starts jumping on the stage – there was about fifty policemen surrounding the whole thing, throwing the kids off. It was more hectic than that; this was 1968, the hit was in 1966. So the Alarm Clock got there – but they had to stop the show because they had no choice. They were screaming, “We want Question Mark and the Mysterians – We want…” So Strawberry Alarm Clock went on and they were doing their songs – they were doing their number one song - and they were still screaming: “We want Question Mark and the Mysterians.” I don’t care who it is – The Beach Boys – we did a show about the same time and the manager, after the show, said: “Question Mark and the Mysterians got a better response than you guys.” Even today, Bob Seger? Three fourth of the group is from Saginaw, Michigan, right? When he came back in 2006 and he played in Saginaw he didn’t want us on there. And, I tell everybody, because I’ll tear his butt up. That’s why, plus, I look good (Laughs). He looks raggedy. I could help him look real good. I know where all of these guys started out, because we all started out at the same time. I got him on the record label, Cameo Parkway, when it first came out. And then he got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before we did? And, I used to sing twenty years before they got in there, before anyone other than Mitch Ryder from Michigan – he came out in 1965. Before anybody else got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it should have been Mitch Ryder and then us guys. Well, it didn’t happen. Bob Seger got up in there and he didn’t even thank us. Then, on his tour, the last time he came out, I don’t think he sold that many tickets, because in 1996 they had him make 46 million dollars. The live album was 1977 and we got together in ’96 for that tour. I said, watch, he’s going to come back in another ten years. But I guess because the place wasn’t sold out he put in the bulletin that he’s retiring and that this is his last tour. Then, they had another date at the Palace. Guess what? Now he’s coming back and doing twenty dates. But, when you say you’re going to retire and that this is your last tour – you don’t do that to your fans. I hate these kinds of people that do this. As far as the latest thing - As you know, I tell it like it is - I, more than anybody, and that is why people love me – I’m starting to do a show on WPON in Detroit every Wednesday. Last night they did the year 1965 and I was talking about the ten most popular groups, other than me. The Beach Boys? Well, I hate the Beach Boys (Laughs). I was there before rock and roll even came in. I wasn’t influenced by anybody. I know where all of these singers come from. Like the Beatles – all they’re doing is harmonizing like the Everly Brothers, and they even said that. You see, I know where people get their thing. You know, the Beach Boys and Freshmen and things like that. So that ain’t nothing. But, you see, when their families got money they got an edge over a lot of people. For us, we didn’t have money. We were poor. When we practiced at Bobby’s house, we were lucky to have toast in the morning (Laughs). PB: Did you have a lot of kids in your family? QM: I write my songs for you – I care about you. And, I know what you’re going through because I’m going through the same thing – I tell it like it is. I call Bush a liar. I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. Never voted. People say, how can you say things? I say, because I’m a human being. That’s why. That’s the most important thing, first, human beings, and everybody suffers because of that. Because when we have tragedies, what does everybody do? Everybody comes together, right? We’re all human. As far as Lady GaGa, I call her Lady CaCa, because you guys can’t print S-H-I-T. She has to do all of this shit to get noticed. But, what would happen if she didn’t do it? I’d like to see her do one song, like Joan Jett or Pat Benatar. Can she rock and roll? PB: After all this time, what does ‘96 Tears’ mean to you? QM: I never write personal songs. When I say, “I write my songs for you” – I wrote it way before I even had a group. I knew it would be a million dollar seller, even though the band didn’t like the song. PB: Why didn’t they like the song? QM: I don’t know. They never said anything. It came on the radio, right? In 1966. Nobody wanted to play the record, for one thing. Everybody else was playing Bob Seger; the Michigan groups around here. I never wanted to record in the first place. But, we had a lot of fans that wanted the record. But, nobody wanted to record us. And, once it did happen, I went to the radio station and they made these excuses; “It’s not top 40, it’s not nationwide - hello? I know that because we’re just a group from Saginaw Valley (Laughs). But,this is what we got and I never yelled at anybody or got mad at anybody because I know it’s going to come around again, and we’re cool when it does happen and it was cool. Then everybody wants to know who was the first one who played ’96 Tears.’ It was number one in Flint, Michigan before it even went nationwide in September. But, then we had to start all over again, because it was playing all over the nation. Then it hit number one again. Whoever was thirty years old, forty-five years old, eighty years old – whoever was three years old – they liked ’96 Tears.’ PB: Why? QM: Let me take you a little further. Once the Oldies Station started playing it, my sister and her daughter were driving around. ’96 Tears’ came on the Oldies station and my niece started dancing to it. That was her uncle. Naturally my sister looked at her and said, “Why do you like that song?” She said, “I like the beat.” And, I wrote that song for you, and this was 1982 and she was three years old – now she’s married and has twins and that song belongs to those kids and also those people back then. All my songs are profound - they’re never personal. When you explain your songs, you can’t make it your own song anymore. The artist is sick of hearing, “What is this about?” Did you know what ‘Every Breath That You Take’ is about? On VH1, it was voted the number 3 best love song. Sting came on and said that it’s not a love song (Laughs). Oh, my God. I’m going to destroy it for everybody, right? If you listen to the lyrics, it’s about big brother looking at you. But, he destroyed it. It’s not your song anymore. It belongs to him and he wants people to know what it’s all about, but he should have done it from the beginning, but not let people carry on and then all of a sudden drop a bomb on them. I don’t know if you know this – What’s that song, “Mother Mary comes to me…” PB: ‘Let It Be.’ QM: Do you know what that song is about? PB: No. QM: Because I’m Catholic, “speaking words of wisdom?” Jesus Mother, Blessed Virgin Mary - ‘Mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom.” No. Then he comes on TV and explains that some people believe it’s spiritual because of that, right? But, he says, no, it’s about his mother whose name is Mary. So, every time I hear that song, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. Artists like us, ever though we have been in the limelight for a long time, when we speak and we say words, they’re powerful. My nephew is about 40 years old. He says, “Question Mark, before you die, what’s ’96 Tears’ about? And, I said, I don’t explain my songs. PB: How do you derive emotions from cover songs? QM: You have to live what your song is about and other people have lived this experience. Take ‘Stand by Me.’ Basically; you’ll do it exactly like the singer on the record or like the person at the club. But with me, because I like to dance on stage, I’ll change the beat. I did change the beat on ‘Stand by Me’ even though I loved the arrangement by Ben E. King, but Ben E. King is not a dancer. That’s what I say about a lot of songs – it’s good music, but if you’re not a dancer, my goodness, so I write my music so you can dance. PB: Why did you feel you had to add additional verses to the cover? QM: There’s no substance. Hasn’t he felt loneliness, yet, or known somebody who has felt loneliness? See, I know he feels loneliness. That’s why I’m a different writer than anybody else. (Question Mark sings some of the original lyrics, which he added to ‘Stand by Me’ which will be on their new album.) “I said, baby, I want you to feel my heart. I want you to feel my love. Then, I want you to touch my soul…” QM: When people hear that message - because it’s a little more profound, especially with the music, now - you know that - they come back and say, “I love what you did with ‘Stand by Me.’” But, this comes naturally to me. You would think Ben E. King would have something more to say about why you should stand with him, right? In 2004, we played in Jackson, Michigan. This lady is about 82. She said, “I had to come and see you. I don’t know why.” But they feel something already. She said, “I had my children bring me.” But, she said. “When you did that song and the message that you had there – I really felt that.” and this was 82 years old. She said, “’96 Tears’ was my husband’s favorite song, but he passed away because he had cancer. But, that was our song and we shared it, right?” And, I said, “I know.” PB: Thank you. Lisa Torem would like to thank Elle Quintana, at Reggie's in Chicago and Terry Murphy for photographs,
|685 Posted By: fred piche, alberta canada on 30 Mar 2014|
Still looks young and great song my favorite
|680 Posted By: Tulessa Slone, Ky on 03 Feb 2014|
Thank you Que for sharing your life with us! You love your fans, and it shows. Much love
|544 Posted By: lisa, chicago, il. on 27 Mar 2012|
Thanks for the kind words.
Keep checking Q's website. I imagine they're still coming through those parts.
Thanks for reading Pennyblackmusic!
|543 Posted By: Susan, Ann Arbor, MI on 16 Mar 2012|
Very interesting and informative interview! Thank you! I'm hoping ? and the band aren't done playing Metro-Detroit area, because I'm a big fan:)
|489 Posted By: Lisa , Chicago on 28 Oct 2011|
I agree and I also think that Q is one of the most dynamic live performers around today.
Thanks for reading!
|488 Posted By: Wally, Canada on 27 Oct 2011|
He really is a facinating person and he deserves a lot more attention and some money for the influence he has had on so many artists that came after.
|484 Posted By: Myshkin, London on 19 Oct 2011|
Hey Lisa, what a great, great article. Really informative, lively and funny. You should be really proud.
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