WHAT’S IN A NAME? Question Mark & the Mysterians

The garage-rock legend on the Stones, the
Pretenders and, er, Taylor Swift, and the ups and downs of trying to get paid (
or register with Social Security) as a symbol.

 

BY MIKE
SHANLEY

 

Onstage,
the man known as Question Mark knows how to work a crowd. Decked out in his
obligatory wrap-around shades and cowboy hat, with his fringed shirt opened to
reveal his ageless, bronze chest, he worked a small but captivated Pittsburgh crowd into a
frenzy in early April.

 

In some
ways, it felt like 1966 again. All five members of Question Mark & the
Mysterians date back to the band’s original days. Bassist Frank Lugo joined
right as Larry Borjas left for the service along with original drummer Robert
Martinez, who now plays with the band again. (His successor, Eddie Serrato,
passed away back in February.)  But
guitarist Bobby Balderrama and keyboardist Little Frank Rodriguez have been
part of the band through their original run and their reunion. Not
surprisingly, the majority of the setlist came predominantly from the band’s
two Cameo-Parkway albums.

 

Certain
parts of performance clearly kept things in the 21st century. A banner hanging
over Martinez’s
drum kit covered what clearly sounded like electric drums, save for the snare
and high-hat. A Korg keyboard has replaced the Vox organ on which Rodriguez
created that two-note riff of “96 Tears,” the band’s biggest hit. Besides that,
the band’s manager Luverne Thompson continually walked to the back of the stage
to manually change the patterns on a blinding strobe light, which left some
audience members feeling uncomfortable. Still the energy in the performance
helped make up for these shortcomings. Question Mark ended nearly every song
with his arms outstretched, much like James Brown might have done.

 

On the
phone, Question Mark is equally animated, although the conversation is not as
linear as his onstage performance. Few singers come across with the kind of
braggadocio and charisma that the man allegedly born Rudy Martinez possesses.
Over the space of two hours, he opined about some hack named Mick Jagger and
how it all comes back to the music. (He also weighed in one of his favorite
subjects – American Idol – but, gosh,
space doesn’t permit those comments.) Official website – yes, you will be
entertained – at www.96tears.net.

 

***

 

BLURT: What do you listen to now?

QUESTION
MARK: Nothing. I don’t have dreams. I have goals. I still have goals. I was
never influenced by anybody. And continue to not be influenced by anybody. And
anybody that was anybody really wasn’t nobody. [Laughs] And everything that they were doing was inspired by
somebody else. Even Elvis. Even Michael Jackson.

        Everything that I do, I back it
up. Mick Jagger… was very dull on the Ed
Sullivan Show
. The Beatles were very dull. I was never inspired by anybody.
But when people saw me, you know who they were talking about? Me! They weren’t
talking about who was 1 or who was headlining or who had more records. They
were talking about me and my group. It happened then, it happens now.

 

A lot of people have taken inspiration from
you.

Yeah,
and a lot of them are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and we’re not. I mean,
at least the Pretenders… they did “I Need Somebody” [which appeared on a bonus
cut of their reissued debut album]. I like Chrissie. She has a distinct voice,
it rocks. Joey Ramone… all these people used to talk about us before they
became [sic]. And then after they
became, they never talked about us. Iggy Pop. Meatloaf.

        We got back together in ’96, we
went on the road in ’97. The second time we played Coney Island High was Jan 17
[1998].  The Rolling Stones were in Madison
Square Garden
[that night].

It was
one of those shows where there were six bands [on the bill]. Now it’s 4:30 in
the morning. I announce to the public that this is the encore. ‘We’re gonna do
“Satisfaction.” The boys are in town at Madison Square
Garden tonight.’ But I
didn’t know the guy from Rolling Stone,
was there and he was also at the
Rolling Stones concert. He waited all that time and he heard them do
“Satisfaction.” But he didn’t hear them do it like I did. 

        Somebody called me up [a month later]
and said, “There’s an article in Rolling
Stone
magazine, just a small column about you.” They know what they’re
talking about because the guy said, “Question Mark is the template.” And I said
man, you got that right. I am the
template. I’m the mold and everything else.

        They didn’t say that about Mick Jagger.
And dig this – [Jagger] said he didn’t want to be 45 and still singing
“Satisfaction.” That’d be like me saying I never want to sing “96 Tears.” I
love my songs every time. They’re
fresh to me.

        “He did it with authenticity and
sophistication and nailing it down.”
Nothing about the Stones doing their own song. Mick Jagger knows all about
this.  He knows who I am. In fact Rolling Stone even said, “Mick Jagger
wishes he had what Question Mark has.” [Ed.
Note: R.S. writer Ben Ratliff described the performance as “returning the egotistic anxiety to that song, and nailing
it.”]

 

How does that make you feel?

Oh, I know it! Or else I wouldn’t do it! Anything I do, I know. That’s why I’m doing it. And I
expect it.

 

Have
you ever met Mick Jagger?

Nope. Nope. When they came to Ford Field [in Detroit] around 2006, I
got two $400 tickets in the eleventh row on the field. The tickets were orange,
my favorite color. And somewhere they had the number 96. But I didn’t go. Know
why? I don’t belong in the audience.

        Whenever I see
a group up there, I don’t care who they are, I’ll say let me up there. Once I
do my thing, you’re gonna see what’s real and what’s not real. ‘Cuz people feel
it. There’s a difference about feeling something.

        I can do
publicity anytime I want, right? But I want people to know us for our music,
not for stupidity. Here’s what I would’ve done. I would’ve been in the eleventh
row, and as soon as Mick Jagger would’ve came out, and started playing
“Satisfaction,” he would’ve seen somebody in a black leather jacket run up
onstage grabbing that microphone start singing songs. Then he would’ve seen the
guards hauling me off. Then it would’ve made the news. Then I would’ve been
brought in the public view, but I kinda don’t want to be remembered doing it. I
can make news just like anyone else can. But that’s how they remember you,
instead of what’s more important – the music.

        As far as
what’s happening with today’s music, now I like Rascal Flatts. Right now
they’re my favorite group.

 

What do
you like about them?

I like their sound. They’re real. I don’t like a lot of the
country artists. Oh my god, the worst thing in country music – what’s that
mousy little girl? With the blonde hair?

 

Taylor
Swift?

Oh my god! She is
so terrible. Yech.

 

So
everything I’ve read says that you legally changed your name to Question Mark
and that you were born as Rudy Martinez….

Ohhhhhhhh.
No. [Pretends to cry] No. I never had
it legalized and changed. With Social Security, you can’t get the symbol. You
have to spell it out. When I got my computer in 1999, naturally I put the
symbol and you know what happens if there’s not a name, it comes back. In ’66
with BMI, you sign up to get paid, so I told my name was Question Mark, the
symbol, which is true. And they said, ‘How do we know?’ I said, ‘Do I have to
call my parents?’ They said you’re not going to get paid if you don’t have a
name.

        But now, I know at the same time, you
could not even put the question mark ‘cuz the computer has to have a spelling.
When I get my social security letters, how much my earnings are, it has
Question Mark spelled out.

        I’m there at BMI and I have to come up
with a name. Eddie Serrato’s brother’s name is Rudy and Robert Martinez, I used
his last name for Martinez.
And that’s how you came up with the name. Eddie was right there, right and
Robert just went in the service. Other than that I don’t know what I would’ve
come up with.

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