Question Mark & the Mysterians: Is This Guy for Real?

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.


 

Question Mark and the Mysterians. Photo (c) Bill Kopp.The elevator doors opened. From under the cowboy hat and behind the wraparound shades, the question came at me. “So…did you interview Iggy yet?”

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.

Yeah, I know. We have always been ahead of our time.
–Question Mark

I replied simply. “No, I didn’t…”

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.”

Question Mark and the Mysterians. Photo (c) Bill Kopp. 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.

When I had been waiting in that lobby, I did notice one guy passing through a few times. Sporting a do-rag and dark sunglasses, he could be Question Mark. So I approached him. “Excuse me, are you Question Mark?” “No.” “Oh…” “But I’m his drummer.” It turned out that some sort of scheduling miscommunication had occurred, and Question Mark was sitting upstairs in his hotel room. So drummer Robert (most likely he’s Question Mark’s younger brother) went off to fetch him for me. A few minutes later the elevator doors opened, and I was greeted with the Iggy question.

Question Mark and the Mysterians. Photo (c) Bill Kopp. But the lobby was now too crowded and noisy, so we all crammed back into the tiny elevator and headed back to the group’s hotel room. Before we ever got there — a delay involving some misplaced keys meant that we conducted part of the interview in the hallway — we covered several important parts of the band’s history. I quickly discovered that getting anything like a straight answer out of Question Mark would be difficult. He wasn’t evasive; in fact he was quite engaging, and dutifully fielded all the questions I lobbed his way. But his mercurial air meant that his answers rarely lined up with my questions. He seemed to have his own mental roadmap for our long and wide-ranging interview.

I’ve never met Prince (another Midwestern individual with an affinity for symbols), and I’ve yet to have the honor of meeting Little Richard in person. But like most music fans, I’m pretty familiar with the public personae of both. Question Mark combined the essence of these two legends. The body language, the vocal mannerisms, the (amusing and endearing) near-megalomaniacal view of one’s own historical importance. I’d always thought Question Mark was pretty cool, and relevant, but…wow. I was not prepared for this.

Question Mark’s recollection of history differed from any you’ve ever read. He seemed to view things through a unique lens. Truth be told, his version is pretty interesting, even if you’re left wondering how much of is based on actual events. His memories were informed by things that, well, don’t exactly hold up. For example, when talking about the Capitol Records studio in New York City where the group recorded a still-unreleased album, he said, “We were recording at Ray Charles’ studio…and when I saw the movie Ray, well, the studio’s still there; it still looks the same.” As Question Mark himself might put it, “Hello? That was a movie set.”

Still, Question Mark offhandedly tantalized with remarks about that still-in-the-can album from ’68: “I had the Raylettes on there.” The thought of Ray Charles’ backing vocalists on a Mysterians track is an interesting concept. And then he mentioned — again, almost in passing, as his subject matter bounced around like a pinball — that while in New York for those sessions, the band went and jammed with the Yardbirds. Meat Loaf was there, too, he insisted. Question Mark had an endless supply of these fragmentary anecdotes; there’s a book/film project in progress called Are You For Real? Hopefully some of these stories will be fleshed out and/or corroborated.

Question Mark and the Mysterians. Photo (c) Bill Kopp. While everyone in the band is of Latino heritage, Question Mark bristled at the idea of putting them in an “ethnic” category with Los Lobos and Thee Midniters. “I just think of us as a rock n’ roll band. When you put on the radio all you hear is music. And you don’t even know if there’s females playin’ music. And you don’t even know if there’s a crow playin’ the music. You don’t know what’s playin’ the music. All you know is that you hear music, right? And that’s the way it should be.”

Though he’s gone on record many times over the years claiming that (a) he’s from Mars and (b) he lived during the era of dinosaurs, he mentioned none of that to me. But he did claim to have been there at rock’s beginning: “We were there before rock and roll. I was winning jitterbug contests and all. I listened to big band music and all that stuff. So I seen everything come in, right?” And he’d have us believe that he created a few other things: “You see, I created [the catch phrases] “hip”, “cool”, and “what’s groo-vay”, and all that kinda stuff. So whatever you think, you know, I was already doing it. Everybody said, ‘you were ahead of your time’. Yeah, I know. We have always been ahead of our time.” Question Mark’s hold on reality seemed a bit tenuous at times, and his part of our dialogue was peppered with catty swipes of other, better-known performers. Yet in person he didn’t sound as bitter as a reading of his words might suggest. Frustrated might be a better word. Sort of “why can’t people realize how great we are?” And in that question he’d have a stronger argument than you might think.

Let me explain: in their onstage performance that night at the Ponderosa Stomp, they were stunningly good. The band was tight, and more musically varied than a casual listener might expect. And the vocalist was mesmerizing; it was near impossible to avert one’s eyes from his performance. Even at the late hour — the band took to the stage well after midnight — Question Mark held the audience spellbound. His performance was an odd admixture of effeminate and tough-as-leather rock posturing (sort of proto-Prince), and it worked. The band played to the packed house as if they were the biggest rock group in history, playing before the biggest, most adoring crowd on the planet. All without a trace of irony, without a winking let’s-pretend-we’re-huge-and-you-play-along. And for these two hours, everybody there believed it.

L-R: Question Mark and music journalist Bill Kopp. Photo (c) Bill Kopp. Onstage, Question Mark and his band really threw down. Resplendent in a frilly orange flamenco-style blouse(!) tied off at the midriff, plus black leather pants and the omnipresent black cowboy hat and shades, Question Mark worked the crowd, with rapid-fire banter bookending every single song. That banter was just as provocative, just as over-the-top, as the music. Introducing a cover of Soul Man Number One’s “Try Me,” Question Mark exclaimed, “I’m gonna do a song by one of the hardest working men in show business.” Because, you see, Question Mark claims the number one spot. As he told me, “Whenever you saw [James Brown], he stood in one place. I never seen him working the whole stage!” But during our talk he insisted that the band is more important than the front man, and that spectacle isn’t his focus: “If you can’t just do it with your music, and what you’re writin’ about, then you’re really hurtin’.”

For just over two hours, the band turned out a perfectly-executed set that offered a mixture of classics, obscurities and covers. No “Loose” or “Let’s Go Crazy,” but the audience was treated to an ace cover of the suitably mysterious Jaynetts tune “Sally Go Round the Roses”. (Question Mark covered the song on record in the 60s; his instincts for what songs to cover have always been good.) Early on in the set he introduced “Girl (You Captivate Me)” and explained that its “real” title is “Girl (You Masturbate Me)”. Eleven-plus minute versions of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” didn’t drag a bit, and made full use of the musical talents of the Mysterians.

When you put on the radio all you hear is music. And you don’t even know if there’s a crow playin’ the music!
–Question Mark

I had staked out a spot in the standing-room-only crowd, near a bar, and among several fellow music journo types. Before the band hit the stage, we came to the consensus that we’d listen to a few songs and then probably call it a night; we were all exhausted from a long day of seminars and music (including sets from the Green Fuz, Ronnie Spector and Roky Erickson). But after two or three songs from Question Mark and the Mysterians, we knew we weren’t going any place until they finished. It was that good. As Question Mark told the crowd, “And tonight — I don’t know if this is being recorded — but this is live, baby.” Indeed it was. By the encore (a welcome reprise of “96 Tears”) the stage at New Orleans’ House of Blues was crowded with wildly-flailing, go-go dancing audience members. When the band finally exited the stage, my watch read 3:45am. Question Mark truly believes he and his band mates are something special, and after witnessing the band onstage, it’s easy to understand why.

Pressed on his motivation for continuing long after the hits stopped coming, Question Mark was unequivocal: “I’ve been onstage ever since I was born. As an entertainer. And see, that makes an entertainer. So I know what a true entertainer is. You know, you’re not there just for the money and the gold records — you’re there because that’s your life. And you’re giving; that’s what you want to give.” More than forty years after their last Top 40 hit, this band from Michigan represents the quintessential essence of true rock and roll. Sexuality, weirdness, delusion, swagger and fun, all wrapped into one. Though major-scale success has eluded his grasp, the diminutive enigma is — and knows he is — every bit the equal of Iggy. There’s absolutely no question about it.