Question Mark is an enigma - part child, part genius with just a touch of Lewis Carroll. He is as charming as he is vexing. He is the perfect rock & roller; a man-child who believes in the power of music. He is more talented than most people realize. He is a completely unique singer with an approach that is both raw and nuanced. His moves onstage are as natural as a Jungian protégé just learning about the spirituality of dance and how the human body can twist and turn and even defy gravity.
Question Mark is also an incredible songwriter; something he's hidden away in the unhinged canyons of his mind. He wrote a song in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. It was a beautiful piano based ballad. Question Mark's nuanced and restrained vocals were perfect with high harmonies soaring in the background. He called it New York City and though he never mentioned 9-11, the music and lyrics carried the sorrow with an unspoken dignity. It is a stoned masterpiece and one of the best songs I've ever heard. It's never been released.
Review: What led you to have an interest in music?
Question Mark: (Laughter) I was born again… right - and because I've lived many different lives, I've been in music many different times, even in the beginning when you guys called us like cavemen, we never called ourselves cavemen.
Review: What I'm interested in is your career. I heard you started out as a dancer or as a promoter. Is that true?
Question Mark: I've always been a famous person, right, in many different fields. I'm going to come back again. I'm a messenger. Everything I'm going to tell you during this interview is about this moment in my life and it's going to get even stronger because I'm going to get into other things like directing, movies, choreography, all those kind of things.
Review: I've talked with Bobby (Balderama) about the very beginning of the band with your brother Robert.
Question Mark: Like I tell everybody, I'm the vehicle. I need people to follow my lead, whether it's when I come back to perform or when I start to change things up. I've talked about this before. I know what I want to do because I see what's happening in the industry and in science and medicine.
Review: I understand you may have a book coming out.
Question Mark: I'll do it if I can get a publisher to offer a decent money deal. There are also a lot of people who are interested in making a movie with me. You know people can talk about it, but where's the money, where's the deal… you know what I'm saying? I'm on Facebook and I'm getting out there more often and all these people are my Facebook Friends. They've posted pictures from a time I was in London. It's on my Facebook page. I have an interview posted. I'm making a few comments because I want everybody to know my point of view. Actually, I can't say it all in those Facebook comments because I'm typing with one finger…(Laughter). I think my fans like it. I make a picture of everything… I've done several interviews and many of them are archived now. I did one in New Mexico that played on Easter. I did another interview with Rick Stevers, the drummer from Frigid Pink There's a lot of interest out there. I've had an interview recently with Larry Weisman - over two and a half hours. We've talked about ancient peoples, the future and we talked about Mars. He's well read. I told him I'm going to say something on the radio that nobody has said about Jesus. So I said, “It's going to be real…” and then I stopped. I said, “Oh, I got to do something,” right? In other words, I'm leaving them hanging, wondering whether it's going to make sense or not. (Laughter)
Review: It sounds like you have some really spiritual leanings.
Question Mark: I tell it like it is, right? It's going to be really cool, but I ain't going to tell you what it is exactly. So our Creator created me as a human and I was born into a Mexican ethnic group and then lived in the environment that I was born into - it's not the Kennedys or the Rockefellers - in my case it was migrant workers out in a shack.
Review: Well, let's go back to something that the fans all want to hear about. When did you write 96 Tears? How did you come up with the inspiration?
Question Mark: Okay. I was writing songs about rock & roll before 96 Tears charted. The very first recording I made was Rockin' Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu byHuey Smith and the Clowns. I didn't do it right away because I didn't know if the record had been released. I used to say that I've been on stage all my life. Somebody put me on stage and it's meant for me to be on stage. I started out dancing and suddenly a thought popped in my head, “You're going to start singing.” I thought, “Singing? I'm a dancer.” See, I thought that was God giving me some direction. So that was in my thoughts and then all of a sudden I started singing these lyrics. Finally when I got enough money and saved $7.49, I sent for “Make Your Own Recordings.” I never wanted to be a recording star. I wanted to go on American Bandstand or the Arthur Murray Dance show. I'd seen Arthur Murray on TV with his wife, Kay - and they inspired me. After watching them I wanted to go to Broadway. Those were my goals.
Review: So bring it around to 96 Tears. I want to hear the story about that.
Question Mark: This was the first time I thought maybe I could sing and once I started singing, I began making my own lyrics, even though I was really just a dancer at that time, right? Rockin' Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu was my first song. I tried to save enough money, but being poor and things like that, I tried everything I could think of like selling produce house to house - apples, bananas, all that. And that's how I finally got my money. I sent off for that record, it was a small cardboard thing with a little handle, a little microphone and it was square.
Review: What happened next?
Question Mark: When I heard my recording, it was so tinny. I didn't know what it was to record at a studio or nothing like that, right…that's why I tell people, “You do the best with what you got until you can get what you want.”
I had my sisters and cousins doing back-up singing. I was into sounds. So the first song was called the Shake 'em and Roll - it's a dance…gets everyone to work out and things like that. A little girl would come out, start dancing and shaking it, doing the “Shake 'Em and Roll,” right? Then all the boys from the neighborhood would come around and they'd be looking at them. Mom would come out and say, “Girls, you better stop dancing like that.” I used the word “booty” at that time.
Review: Did you have to write 96 Tears over and over again before you got it right? I mean, did you have to really work at it?
Question Mark: Nope. I never sit down and write a song. I sing whatever I hear in my head. I was writing lyrics in my head and I sang them to the band so I don't have to write them down. But to make a long story short I want to learn how to play the piano, right? So I asked my parents to take me to the piano store, and they actually took me. I saw all of these beautiful pianos, and I was playing the keys - it sounded good. My parents were willing to sacrifice everything, being really poor, so I could play the piano. I decided that I didn't want my parents to get into debt for the rest of their lives so I asked for a tape recorder instead. It cost $179, even then that was a lot of money because they had to make payments. It was a bulky tape recorder with seven-inch reels. It was the first time I sang 96 Tears when I took that recorder back home with me. Now I had a tape recorder so I could hear myself.
Review: I think you're a unique singer and you write wonderful songs.
Question Mark: Yeah, but that's my gift from my Creator.
Review: I think that 96 Tears is a punk garage classic. What do you think?
Question Mark: It's not.
Review: Tell me more about the beginnings of 96 Tears.
Question Mark: I took one piano lesson back in '65 or so. I lived on the poor side of town, so I had to go to the rich side of town for the lesson, right? I had never been in that side of town and I'm walking and seeing green grass, nice looking houses, white fences, the dogs are barking at me, and people are looking out the window at me because I don't belong in that neighborhood. Finally I knock on the door. A man about 55 years old opens the door, gray hair, pudgy, bifocals and he waltzes me downstairs. He had panel on his wall, carpet in the basement. I thought this guy is rich. So we sat at the piano. I wanted to learn how to do the music in my head, but he wanted me to start from the beginning with Mary Had a Little Lamb and chopsticks and things like that. I said, “No, no, no. I want to do the music in my head. That's what I want.” He told me to sing me one of my songs. That's when I sang 96 Tears and I heard the melody come alive. He said, “I tell you what. For $10 a week, I'll teach you how to play the music in your head.” I said to myself, “I don't even have a penny in my pocket. I ain't never coming back.” (Laughter). On the way back, I'm singing 96 Tears and the melody is in my head.
Review: When did the Mysterians get together?
Question Mark: It was in 1962 and somebody heard me singing. I was singing all the time and back then Bobby Balderama and Robert were playing a little bit. Bobby didn't live in Saginaw. He lived in Auburn, you know. Little Frank's from Bay City, Frank Lugo was from Reese. Robert was in Vassar or Indian River at the time. We started out atLarry Borjas' house in Saginaw. I brought my cousin to pick me up. He had bongos, right? I mean, we're coming out of the beatnik era, duh. Remember that era when everybody was playing bongos?
Review: If you want to know anything about rock and roll music ask Question Mark. He's the man.
Question Mark: That's the truth. I came in and I saw rock and roll in its early days. I was dancing, doing the jitterbug, winning contests, right? Right away they started playing the Ventures music. They didn't have any singers but somebody heard me singing and that's why we went over there. My cousin's got the bongos. He started playing to the beat and all that stuff. Then I just started singing, right? So we started doing songs that were on the radio. It was '62 or '63. Little Frank wasn't in the group 'til August of '65.
Review: Now let's talk about your new album called R&R.
Question Mark: It stands for rock and roll, right? And there is an album after that. By that time we should have a nice concert set. We hope to create a lot of interest so we can have a great live album produced with a nice sound. Naturally, that'll be Question Mark and the Mysterians Live.
Review: Yeah, so right now you have three albums in the works, right? With the fourth being the live album?
Question Mark: Yeah but Bobby's busy now with his jazz band and he doesn't have a lot of time. I made him a copy of our last (unreleased) LP for his hard drive with all the separate tracks, but then the fire happened. In the last three years we've been trying to find all the tapes and then last year I told ABKCO about this song I've written “New York City.” Everybody loves the song. I told Bobby about the third album and it would be without a female singer, right - but I still want to produce it because Bobby has the masters.
Review: I saw the show that you did with the Vogues and Ronnie Spector - all the '60s acts. You were great. It seemed to me that you had to get some kind of acclaim after that performance because you stole the show. Were agents and concert promoters knocking on your door after that?
Question Mark: Well I got a few calls, right? Another thing, like I said, they want us every year overseas. We played in Greece in the year 2000 and we had an offer to play there again in 2003. But nobody wanted to fly. I was building my house at that time, right, and I really don't want to fly, not unless the money was going to be there. Bobby Balderama books us most of the time.
Review: Have your arrangements changed through the years?
Question Mark: I used to open the show with “What Time Is It - It's Time to Rock and Roll” with a lot of energy. We had a different way of doing it when we rolled it out in 2000. I said, “Okay now we're going to do it like this,” because I wanted it up-tempo and heavy. We're going to go like “diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle…, now go doodle, doodle, doom…” The same run, right? And the band said, “Question Mark, we're not a heavy metal band or anything like that. I said, “It's not heavy metal. I just like getting that heavy beat.”
Review: Did you record with another band after the original Mysterians disbanded?
Question Mark: Yes, I wanted a saxophone player, right? This was in 19…something - I did four recordings in Bakersfield, original songs. I had three saxophone players, baritone, tenor, and alto sax, really cool sounds. In fact, one of them said, “Man, you ought to give that to Rick Derringer. He would like that.” I still have the masters. I love to harmonize myself. If I can't blend it, I'll double-layer myself to get the effect that I want. Anyway, I did those four songs. I still have the masters. I just got to find the eight-track and the one-inch tabs.
Review: What's new with the Mysterians?
Question Mark: Oh, now I want to get a saxophone player in the group because we were doing this one song that Little Frank was sort of jamming, and it's called, “Say It from the Heart.” Dynamite song. We performed it a few times live. We used to do “Stormy Monday” all the time, but we dropped from the setlist. I want to bring it back into the show because people want to hear that.
Review: You've been together as a band for all these years on and off, and you know each other very, very well. You probably love each other is my guess, and that gives you room to be angry too.
Question Mark: I don't get angry. I just know what I want. Remember, I'm the arranger, I'm the producer, I'm the writer. I tell the guys that I want their ideas. You see I'm music 24/7. I love to create music. My new music is different and I had put it on tape and played it to them… and it was sweet. “Don't Play That Song, He Lies,” - a whole different arrangement. It had double harmony leads in the beginning and all that kind of stuff, and I still have the recordings. To make a long story short, I want to bring that song back with a big guitar riff.
Review: I want you to tell me about Lily Gonzales and her connection to Neil Bogart and Cameo -Parkway, back when she sold the contract to them for like sixty grand. You got sold. What did you say to Lily?
Question Mark: I never said nothin' to her. Lily already sold us. I finally got the contract in 1999, she sold us for $150,000. The first installment was $60,000, another was $90,000. I talked to Allen Klein about this personally. I confronted him because I wanted to see that contract. At about that time Lily told us to come over to the studio on the week of September 24 to record, right? Well we did that in the wintertime, about a 12-hour drive in the snow and we get there, and everything was fine - the whole year of 1967 - the recordings and touring and everything, and now we are with Neil Bogart:
“Okay Neil, we're here to record.” He says, “We're not going to record you.” Just like that, right? I said, “What? We were told to come here.” He replies, “But we're not going to record you.” I fought back, “Oh yes you are because I know what my contract said.” I called Lily. “You got my contract?” “No, I don't have it.” Naturally now I know she did have it. I never got my copy though. I still can't get my copy, right? It's a long story…
Review: It must have felt like a betrayal.
Question Mark: Well everything that happened to us, every recording we made, even Hot and Groovin' we did at the 11 Mile Road studio. See, we're jumping around too much. I went all over to plug the records, right? Everybody was playing 96 Tears. The only radio station that wasn't playing it was WTAC. I went to them, and I said, “How come you're not playing it?” He said, “There's no records in the store.” So I called Guy down at 11 Mile Road, right, and I asked him why theres no records in the store and he told me that he went bankrupt. Here I was promoting the song, everybody's playing it, you know, and now there's no records. Duh.
Review: How many labels have you been on and which labels did you like the most? Which label treated you the best?
Question Mark: It wasn't Cameo-Parkway. Hello? They all treated me wrong, every one of 'em. Every one of them! And every one of them knew the story how the other one did me, and they said, “Well, Question Mark, that's why we're going to give you what you want,” and then they turned around and did the same dang thing as before. When I moved on to another record company I told them all I want are my mixes. I never had my mixes and all that kind of stuff and they tell me I'm going to get the mixes - then they turn around and do the same thing the other companies did. One of the issues was about the album cover. I could have stopped every recording except for 96 Tears when that first came out, but I didn't know. My only ignorance at that time was that once something was pressed, I could still change it. That's my only ignorance as far as that goes, but then I trusted Lily, you know? She had an attorney. He drew up all the papers, my recording contract with her, my recording contract with the musicians, and things like that with the parents signing the contracts.
Review: There was a show in 1969 at the First Congregational Church that included all the bands from Buddah Records. What memories do you have about that show?
Question Mark: The most important memory I remember was talking to the saxophone player from the 1910 Fruitgum Company, right? And he said, “Boy, I'd like to get inside your head.” (Laughter).
Review: Any last comments?
Question Mark: When you go to YouTube, the first comment on there, “Hot N' Groovin” - it says this would have been one of the greatest groups ever if they would've continued. We did continue. We never stopped.
The long awaited return of Question Mark & the Mysterians will happen on July 22nd at White's Bar, 2609 State Street in Saginaw. Special guests will include 'The Mongrels, Chicago garage/punk band 'White Mystery' and 'The Tosspints'. This will be an outdoor show and tickets are $10.00.