The Mystery of ? and The Mysterians
The legend of ? and the Mysterians, as their name would suggest, is clouded in mystery, and lot of questions are still unanswered. Their place of origin has been source of some confusion, with some say they came from Michigan, while others state that Texas was actually their home, and they're both right. The band members originally came from Texas, and eventually made their mark in their adopted home of Detroit without losing a hitch of their distinctly Texas sound.
Question Mark himself is one of Rock's last great enigmas. Forget about Prince, this guy was calling himself a symbol before he became famous! His refusal to disclose any vital stats (except his favorite color; orange) might have seemed like a clever publicity stunt at the time, but even today he's gone to meticulous detail to remain a private, secluded individual. Even good friends haven't ever seen him without his trademark wraparound shades permanently in place, and he's been known to stay completely out of sight until the very minute he's set to step on stage. He's only recently announced that he has a new favorite color, but he's not saying which it is.
The biggest headscratcher however, is the stigma of being a mere "one hit wonder" that's the band has had to bare. It's true they stormed the charts their first time out, and while the follow ups "I Need Somebody" and "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" did well, they didn't come close to eclipsing "96 Tears". What's seldom brought to light, however, is the fact that this was a band that cut several fine singles, two great albums, plus a third, unreleased album on Ray Charles' TRC label that's reportedly been handed over to the band, and may see release in the future, (not to mention the orange ROIR cassette from a few years back of a scorching contemporary live set, about to be rereleased on CD), and had a tenure that lasted well into the 60s. Part of the problem is that, in 1966, the market hadn't yet turned over from singles to albums, and neither the "96 Tears" LP nor "Action," their second LP, has seen legitimate re-release.
While ? and the Mysterians recorded several great songs like "Ten O'clock," "Smokes," "8-Teen," "Girl You Captivate Me," "Got To" and "Don't Tease Me," (none of which sounded like "96 Tears") they would go on to be relegated to the same status as The Trashmen, The Standells, The Count Five and The Shadows of Knight as bands that had so much to offer, yet would only go on to be known for one song. Of course, there's no denying "96 Tears" is an all-time classic, one that stands out in the mire of oldies radio as much as it did when it was originally climbing up the charts, a recording that's so perfect that even when covered by genre giants like Disco's Thelma Houston and punk's Suicide, the echo of the original obliterates the newer attempt. But ? and the Mysterians were definitely no mere one trick ponies. Still, what's romantic about their story is that they did live out the American Dream, if only for a short while, and proved, as Eric Burdon would go on to sheepishly say, that that Dream applies to everybody. Here were five very young Mexican-American guys who were watching their heroes, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five and The Beatles on TV one minute, dreaming of making it big the next minute, then doing it the next. It's important to note that most Latino rock hits up til then had come from Los Angeles. It's true they could have gone on to bigger things, but, to hear Bobby Balderama tell it, there's not much to look back upon with regret. They had a chance that very few people get, played their hand, and produced a song that most people would associate with some of the best times of their lives, and in that, friends, there's no mystery.
John Battles not too long ago spoke with original Mysterian guitarist Bobby Balderama. For the results, check out BAD TRIP zine #9 ($5, Subscriptions $20 for 4 issues, 4325 John Wesley Dr. Dallas, GA 30132). We hoped to get a brand new take, with a more complete band interview at a recent scheduled Chicago ? and the Mysterians show, but alas, the eccentricities of Question ("call me 'Q'") Mark eventually caused the show to evaporate weeks before curtain call. Here, however, are a few choice anecdotes that didn't find a home in the pages of Bad Trip, so put on that 45 and your reading glasses and get ready to enjoy, as...
BATTLES TALKS TO BALDERAMA ABOUT...
A QUESTIONABLE QUESTION MARK
BOBBY BALDERAMA: There was a gig, we were going from Ohio to Florida, and we were listening to the radio, and this guy was saying he was Question Mark! And, were going, "Wait a minute, Question Mark is sitting right here! This guy is doing the interview over the radio, right? And we keep listening, and this guy kept talking, saying "Yeah, I'm Question Mark and my band and I are on vacation," - - and the whole band was listening to this! We wanted to find out what town this was, and I think it was Toledo or Cincinnati, so we stopped in that town and called that radio station, and we told the deejay who we were and that Question Mark was right here, and he says, "No, Question Mark's in my studio," and we said, "No, he's right here, were on our way to Florida." And the guy says, "Can you prove it?" We go, "Yeah!" And I think it was Eddie (Serrato, the drummer) who had Question Mark on the phone and Question Mark started telling him, "Yeah, I'm Question Mark," and the guy wouldn't believe him, so he goes, "Why don't you come down to the station?", and we went out there, and the other guy had split. We had albums to show to him, and he goes, "Man, you guys are ? and the Mysterians!" And he had the number of the girl this guy was sleeping with, and he called the number and the girl answered, and he asked for Question Mark, and she says, "I'll get him." So the deejay gave Question Mark the phone, and Question Mark says, "Who's this," and the guy says, "This is Question Mark from ? and the Mysterians, who's this?", and he goes, "This is the REAL Question Mark from ? and the Mysterians!" And the deejay had put that on the speakers so we could all hear it, and it was funnier than shit, I mean, there was like DEAD SILENCE (Both laugh)...it was funny...
JOHN BATTLES: There was a similar incident in Austin a few years back, some guy had been passing himself off as Dick Dodd from The Standells, and a friend of Dodd's called him and he flew in from California to be there when the impostor, who'd been cashing his royalty checks, was set to go on stage, and the cops came and handcuffed him on stage!
BB: Really? Oh wow!
BB: (Record exec) Neil (Bogart) was real good to us on a one-on-one, he had respect for us, and we had respect for him, and he introduced us to, like, Tony Orlando...I remember we were doing our first album and Tony Orlando was there and he sang on "Why Me".
JB: Oh, like harmony vocals?
BB: Uh-huh, and I'm thinking, "God, Tony, you're either Italian or Mexican," and he says, "I'm Puerto Rican," and something else, I don't remember. He could speak Spanish real good, and he told us about a hit that he had in the fifties...something about "Paradise."
JB: Yeah, he had a minor hit before "Candida", "Knock Three Times" and all that...
BB: Yeah, that was before he had the TV show and everything...
BB: That's interesting, I didn't know that.(Notice how impartial I'm being-John)
BB: Yeah, he was on one of our albums, and we were real tight with him. I went to go see him live one time, and I thought, "Ahhh, he probably doesn't remember me." This was recently, a few years ago.
JB: But did he? Or, did you talk to him?
BB: No, I didn't, you know, and I should have.
JB: The song "Smokes" is another one of those songs where the title isn't even mentioned in the lyrics, and the more I listen to it I think, "What is he talking about?" Is he talking about seeing a girl at a party but the room is so smoky that he can't make out her face?"
BB: Yeah, that's what we thought about it. But Question Mark, the way he wrote, sometimes I didn't understand it! Like "96 Tears," there's a part in the middle, where he goes, "I'll be on top," and all of a sudden it gets switched around and I'm way down there and she's on top! You know? (laughs)
JB: You can draw your own conclusions!
JB: But, really, I always thought of that as more of a metaphor...to your emotional state...
JB: To where you think you're way on top, like you're up so high, but watch out, now, eventually you'll fall down.
BB: Yeah, I asked Question Mark, and he looked at me like...I couldn't see his eyes! (both laugh) "Where are you coming from?" It's like, what do you say to Question Mark? A friend of mine has a karaoke machine, and he's got "96 Tears" on it, and he's got a monitor on it, and I'm sitting there reading the words...(both laugh)...I never knew what he really said in the middle there exactly. And you're right, it is like a metaphor, it's certain kinds of feelings that are happening...I tripped Question Mark out when I asked him that!
JB: Yeah, well, songwriting is such a personal thing, it's almost as if you have to write something down, like an explanation, because the next day after you've written a certain line, you may have forgotten subliminally what it meant...there's a line in "Ten O' Clock," I'm sure I've got it wrong, but it sounds like, "You thought you did, now you're left to rot"-
BB: (laughs) I don't know about THAT one!
THE BALDERAMA LEGACY
Bobby Balderama: I've got a cousin whose pretty big in the Mexican market...
John Battles: Oh really! Who's that?
BB: His name is Henry Balderama, he's from San Antonio. He's got about eight or nine albums out. He went to Europe with Flaco (Jimenez) and he loved the way that Flaco played, but he didn't like the food there! (laughs)
THE QUESTION OF THE FUTURE
Bobby Balderama: I'm always writing, and Question Mark has good ideas, as far as lyrics. I always thought that me and him made a good team, as far as getting the scratch work done, beginning the songs, and having everybody hear it, and having everybody doing their own little part, which created the original sound.
John Battles: Yeah! And it sounds like you're doing it.
BB: Yeah, were trying right now, and we want to do more shows in the near future...
BB: Well it's been great talking to you John.
JB: It's been great talking to you too, Bobby.