This piece is running in the Sep/Oct ’09 issue of Shindig! Magazine. It’s an account of the strangest interview I’ve ever conducted.
What an odd way to begin an interview, I thought. Here I was, in the lobby of New Orleans’ St. James Hotel, temporary home for many of the acts on the bill for 2008′s Ponderosa Stomp Festival. I had set up interviews with a couple of artists, and showed up in the St. James lobby at the appointed time for this one, but for a long while, nobody showed up. I waited patiently on a couch in the small lobby, in direct view of the desk staff, for a good half hour. During that time, other acts came and went. Rockabilly legends the Collins Kids (Lorrie and Larry) spied me — I guess I look like a music journalist, whatever that means — and approached me.
“Are you here to interview us?” Lorrie asked, clearly excited by the prospect. Sadly, I wasn’t, but as a genuine fan, I seized the opportunity to talk with them briefly, thank them for a fantastic show, and admitted that I was here to meet Question Mark. (He actually goes by the symbol “?” but that’s a bit confusing in print. In fact, he’s even more confusing in person, which brings us back to the elevator.)
Did I interview Iggy yet? Mr. Osterberg wasn’t at the Ponderosa Stomp festival. Perhaps, I wondered, Question Mark thinks that I’m some sort of chronicler of the 60s Michigan scene. I hope not, I mused silently, because I do not want to have to talk to Ted Nugent.
Question Mark came right back at me; he seemed to know where he was going with this, even if I didn’t. “Are you planning to?” At least I had something to say here. “Well, I tried to set it up last year, but it didn’t work out. I was gonna…”
Question Mark cut me off and got to his point, the reason he had brought this up. “Well, I did the song ‘Loose.’” He proceeded to lay out a precondition for the interview. “One condition…if you get a hold of him, because I’ve been trying to get a hold of him to redo the song with me. So when you interview him, then you can say, ‘Get a hold of Question Mark; you guys do this song so you can have a number one hit.’ ‘Cause I had a number one hit already. He hasn’t had a number one.”
Okay, I thought. So if and when I interview Iggy Pop, I am under orders to instruct him and the re-formed Stooges to redo a song from their 1969 album Fun House, and to record it as a duet with…Question Mark of the Mysterians. Who exactly, I wondered, does this guy think he is?
Good question. Perhaps it’s lazy journalism to assert that Question Mark is an enigma. But by accident or design, he is one. The vocalist that informed sources claim was born Rudy Martinez performed in and around the Ann Arbor, Michigan area in the late 50s and early 60s, and put together the first lineup of his band in the mid 60s. He dubbed himself “?” and his band the Mysterians. He gave himself another gimmick: he never appeared in public without sunglasses. (He insists that Tom Hanks stole that idea for Tom Everett Scott’s character in the 1996 film That Thing You Do! But then, as I learned, he thinks many artists have profited from his ideas.) His band recorded the classic “96 Tears” and a number of other fine tunes, and secured a place — more than a footnote, perhaps less than a major chapter — in the history of rock and roll. The group’s sound was an amalgam of cheesy organ (Farfisa or Vox, depending on whom and when you ask), garage-rock arrangement and the sneering, menacing vocals of Question Mark. Follow ups to “96 Tears” didn’t set the charts on fire, and the band’s catalog was out of print for many years owing to an unfortunate association with one Allen Klein (see: Beatles, Rolling Stones).
The original band split in the late 60s, and Question Mark kept things going, more or less, with other Mysterians. But in recent years he’s reassembled the classic lineup: Bobby Balderrama (guitar), Robert Martinez (drums), “Big” Frank Lugo (bass) and “Little” Frank Rodriguez Jr. (keyboards). All with bright orange t-shirts emblazoned with a giant black “?” making them look a bit like henchmen from the 1966 Batman TV series.