Question Mark & The Mysterians - Biography
By Lisa Jones
A proud member of the pantheon of musicians claiming to be from outer space, Question Mark (or ?, legally his name), the enigmatic lead singer of ‘60s stalwarts ? and the Mysterians, claims “I have lived many lives. I was born on Mars many eons ago, and I was around when the dinosaurs were around.” ? took his otherworldly experiences and channeled them into vocals that Lester Bangs once described as sounding like he “talked almost every song like some malevolently emotionless insect from outer space.”
Whether it was a result of a lead singer who laid claims to memories of “being chased around by a T. Rex,” or being disenfranchised teenagers in a central Michigan city in the 1960s, ? and the Mysterians produced snotty, raw rock and roll and are one of the bands who claim to have inspired the term “punk rock.”
The group was formed in 1962 by bassist Larry Borjas, his cousin, guitarist Bobby Balderrama and drummer Robert Martinez. After a few months they added Frank Rodridguez on keyboards and ? on vocals. Popular legend (and public records) indicate that ? was at one point also known as Rudy Martinez, and happened to be Robert’s brother. With the exception of Frank Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Bay City, Michigan, all of the original members of ? and the Mysterians were born in Texas and raised around Saginaw, Michigan.
In 1964 Martinez and Borjas joined the military, and were replaced by Frank Lugo on bass and Eddie Serrato on drums. It was this line-up that recorded the group’s first single, the ubiquitous “96 Tears,” in March of 1966 in Bay City, Michigan. Various stories over the years report that the song was initially written by ? as “Too Many Teardrops,” changed to “69 Tears” and in an attempt to skirt any obscenity charges, recorded as “96 Tears.” The same band members simultaneously dismiss the story as a complete fabrication. Regardless, all accounts seem to agree that the song was recorded on an outdoor patio. Lilly Gonzalez, the group’s manager released 750 copies of the resulting single, “96 Tears” b/w “Midnight Hour” on her Pa-Go-Go label. The song became a regional hit, in part a result of the group’s popularity at teen haunts and in part due to ? hand-delivering the single to local radio stations and record stores.
An undeniably catchy song, “96 Tears” soon attracted national attention. Cameo-Parkway, at the time home to the likes of Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell, approached the band, and ? and the Mysterians signed to the label, allegedly because the 45 labels were orange, ?’s favorite color; the label reissued the “96 Tears” single in 1966. The song entered the Billboard singles chart in August, hit number 1 within two months and went gold in November.
The group followed the reissued 45 with an LP’s worth of material. While none of the follow-up singles from 96 Tears (1966 Cameo-Parkway) scored as well as their first single, the group had a number of modest hits. “I Need Somebody” b/w “’8’ Teen” both songs with equally as catchy repetitive organ riffs, made it to number 22 on the Billboard charts later in 1966. The album itself reached number 66 on the Billboard album charts in the year of its release.
In 1967 the group released their second album, Action, on Cameo-Parkway. “Can’t Get Enough of the Baby” b/w “Smokes” peaked at 56 and “Girl (You Captivate Me)” b/w “Got To” reached 98. If the story about the band shying away from the implications of “69 Tears” is true, then “Girl (You Captivate Me)” marks a true departure from the group’s more innocent mores. With a dirtier, heavier, driving sound, “Girl” is also notable for the chorus “Girl you captivate me/girl you masturbate me.”
? and the Mysterians’ singles on Capitol and Tangerine in the late ‘60s floundered; their early ‘70s output for Chicory and Luv didn’t fare much better and the band went their separate ways. The break didn’t last long, and in 1978 they reformed to record demos with legendary producer Kim Fowley; in 1980, Garland Jeffreys had a minor hit with a cover of “96 Tears, ” renewing interest in the band. This led to a reunion show in Dallas in 1984, and a subsequent recording of the show was released by ROIR.
Teenagers when they signed with Cameo-Parkway, ? and the Mysterians fell prey to the atrocious terms many labels offered young, and frequently naïve bands. Speaking of their contract with Cameo, ? told a Philadelphia paper “We didn’t have a choice – we were young and thinking about our music, not getting a lawyer.” Unfortunately, Cameo-Parkway, who owned the rights to the recordings, hit financial trouble and was purchased by Allen Klein of ABKCO; Klein refused to reissue any of the Cameo recordings, or even license the singles, which explains why “96 Tears” is missing from the otherwise comprehensive garage rock Nuggets box set (1998 Rhino).
In 1997, ? heard the voices of the People from the Future who directed him to reform the band with Balderrama, Rodriquez, Lugo and his brother Robert. Because there were no legitimate reissues of the group’s material, they resorted to re-recording a number of their early singles for the Collectables label in 1997. While the resulting eponymous release was a fine re-visiting of the original recordings, there was still a need for a proper re-issue of their singles. In 2005, ABKCO finally released The Best of ?& the Mysterians: Cameo-Parkway 1966-1967; the collection was the first official CD release of the Cameo-Parkway singles.
After getting back together to record the Colletables album, ? and the Mysterians found their career re-invigorated, in part because of the popular resurgence of garage bands the Mysterians could count as their descendents. They found themselves playing garage rock festivals internationally and recording for the likes of Norton Records. The People From the Future did a pretty bang-up job informing ?’s career choices as well. According to a 1999 interview in Billboard, the voices telepathically directed ? to record a cover of the Jaynetts ‘60s classic “Sally, Go ‘Round the Roses” for their album More Action (1999 Cavestomp).
In 2000, ? started playing with various New York-area garage musicians as ? and the New Mysterians and ? and the Mysterymen, in addition to touring with the original ? and the Mysterians line-up. For their part, the Mysterians play the occasional show without ? as well.
Tragedy struck ?’s world in January 2007 when a fire destroyed the Clio, Michigan farm where ? lived and bred Yorkies. In addition to losing his uninsured home, a number of animals, and his livelihood, he also lost 40 years’ worth of priceless memorabilia. The group’s fans immediately stepped in to help, contributing money and playing benefit shows to help ? get back on his feet. Never one to betray earthly emotions, ? told the Detroit News “No matter what happens, I don’t skip a beat – in music or in life.”
True to his word, ? recently spearheaded a crusade to bring wildebeests to Africa to combat hunger, re-built his Yorkie breeding business and is working on two books, You For Real and To Make a Long Story Short. As soon as he finds a publisher, ? has promised to reveal the nine secret words that can save man from ruin and his secrets to exercising with peanut butter. Without a doubt, ? is truly a rock and roll original….whichever planet he’s from.