Perfect Sound Forever


by Barry Stoller
(February 2006)

? (Question Mark) & the Mysterians – Saginaw, Michigan protopunks with a badass sense of style and a bubblegum heart for a hook, eternally revered for "96 Tears," one of rock's most elemental riffs - a garage band unique for the prominence of keyboard and the uncontrived weirdness of their acid savant leader, ? (Question Mark). After a generation of hibernation, the dreaded Abkco has resurrected the Cameo-Parkway legacy and, with it, the tenacious and peripatetic career of ? (Question Mark). The Best of ? & the Mysterians: Cameo Parkway 1966-1967, long overdue, sounds excellent. Ever up, always on, ? (Question Mark) speaks in riddles, tangents and total jive like a beat poet and dishes the dirt with the solipsist presumption of a teenager who formed his first band last week. His web site nowhere mentions him as anyone other than ? and he answers to that name no matter what it says on his birth certificate.

"I am the coolest," he told me; "I created cool!" Who am I to say otherwise? The man is a garage god(father) in an era where garage is mainstream for the first time in 40 years. He's (inevitably) got a new ? & the Mysterians album (Listen To What's New) coming out, a documentary (Are You For Real?) in the works and, best of all, thanks to decades of criminal neglect, he's never worn out his welcome.

QM: Hey, I got Mick Jagger on the television right now; it's that soap opera Days Of Our Lives, they're playing the new Rolling Stones song. It's alright but… there's nothing interesting in it. Why do they keep doing the same stuff over and over again? I'm disappointed. Wait until you hear our new stuff, it's nothing like the old sound. I've written songs all my life, I write a new song every day of my life…

PSF: What's your latest tune?

QM: It's called "Bridget Nadine." I never write personal songs, I never seek out ideas, everything just comes to me, my first question is always: Is it original? Anyway, I got this neighbor, she was anorexic, she was raped as a young girl, her father killed himself when she was a baby, she was raised by her step-dad but he never gave her the love she needed. I live on 80 acres of brush but one day I see this flower, and it's her, metaphorically speaking. One day she invited me over to her house and, little by little, she opened up about her life. The thing about her is that she's always got a smile on her face, she's always got love to give to other people, she's always willing to give sun to the other flowers. That's one song that's gonna be on the new album.

PSF: When will the new album be coming out?

QM: March. We'll be recording it in the coming weeks. It's called Listen To What's New, it'll be released by Foundation Records. It's only our third album. There's a variety of music on it, even a little bit of country - all originals.

PSF: Can you say what some other song titles will be?

QM: "I'm Stuck On You," "Local Lingo," "Invisible Tears" and the title song which is also called "I Love Elvis' Music." Here's some of the lyrics:

I love rock and roll, I love R&B
I love country music and heavy metal, too;
I love all that rap, I love all that jazz
I love Christian music and Latin music, too;
I love Elvis' music
Listen to what's new.

I love ‘Satisfaction,' I love ‘Yesterday'
I love ‘Purple Haze' and ‘Wooly Bully,' too;
I love ‘Rock around The Clock,' I love ‘Twist & Shout'
I love ‘Stairway To Heaven' and ‘96 Tears,' too;
I love Elvis' music
Listen to what's new.

PSF: Tell me about Cameo-Parkway.

QM: Cameo-Parkway took us for a ride. There we were with the Number One song in the nation, we were promised $50,000 and we're heavily on the road, promoting the stuff and we didn't see any of it. We put out our second single ["I Need Somebody"] and it hit #22 even though they just put it out there without a push. [Cameo-Parkway general manager] Neil Bogart said, "We're not going to record you anymore" so I pulled out my contract and said, "You have to" and then he said, "OK, but we're not going to promote you." He put out [our singles] "Set Aside" as the Semi-Colons and "Don't Hold It Against Me" as the Fun Sons. I still don't know where he came up with those names. The B-side to "Don't Hold It Against Me" isn't even us! And Bogart made us do the "96 Tears" riff for the intro of "Can't Get Enough of You Baby"; we didn't want to do that, we said "people will think we can't write our own music" but Bogart said he'd just get studio musicians to add it later – what can you do? They never let our sound progress. We weren't gonna do the same thing again and again; I wanted the sound to grow, I wanted to add female singers and horns, those were the sounds I was hearing in my head for our next thing.

Ya see, I never listened to the radio and nobody ever influenced me. I've been reincarnated as an entertainer all through the ages, I saw the whole music scene from the beginning – Rudy Vallee, all the manufactured idols – but there has been three things that influenced me. (1) I'm Catholic, so that big organ sound was there; (2) but, even though I was Catholic, I would go to the ice-cream shop down the street from the Church after Mass and there was this Baptist Church and I would hear the people, the tambourine, the wailing, the handclapping – I wanted that sound, that energy, too, and (3) the movie Gone With The Wind – remember the scene with the little girl falling off the horse, the crying and the music, that terror theme? I wanted that terror in there as well.

PSF: How about Abkco? How's your relationship going so far with the greatest hits package?

QM: Abkco is doing nothing. Jody Klein called me up, maybe we talked 15 minutes but they never confronted us with anything; they said they would do this, then they didn't. They didn't print the "up" for the song "Up Side" like they were supposed to, it's supposed to be upside down, like it was printed on the album (I'm particular about this sort of thing; for example, I don't want the gatefold crease to be in somebody's face on an album cover). And those last two tracks [the demo versions of "Midnight Hour" and "96 Tears"]! That's so stupid, those were never meant to be released, they were dry-runs, just to set levels, the feeling isn't in them. If they would have kept their word and not included them like they promised, then I wouldn't have to explain all this now. We just didn't put ourselves into those takes. I still don't know how they got ahold of them in the first place. They should be working to get us on the TV; now, there's the trick!

PSF: What do you think of the whole pop scene today?

QM: All these entertainers you see now, they're just not real. The pedestal is way too high. Forget heroes, just keep it real, keep it rock and roll! I don't keep up with all this but I can see some of it from the corner of my eye. Mariah, she should get back to her roots, and maybe she should lose some weight. And Bono, I have a message for him, too: stop imitating John Lennon. And what's with Brian Wilson, everybody calls him a genius; he's not even rock and roll to begin with. The Beatles killed rock and roll with Sgt Pepper; after "96 Tears" rock and roll died. The Stones, Bob Dylan, all these people Rolling Stone always elevates, they're not real; my show would wipe out these guys.

PSF: What do you think of Chuck Berry?

QM: He's rock and roll.

PSF: Do you remember when "96 Tears" hit Number One?

QM: Yeah. I was the first person – ever in the world – to have an orange car (that's my favorite color, you know). I got it in Flint, it was a '66 Ford. I went down to the dealership and they said, "Orange? We don't have orange!" I said, "You make those yellow taxis and you make red cars, too – so just mix those two colors up and let's see what we get." The car finally comes in, I buy it cash down and then I drive it down the main drag in Flint; people's heads were sure turned around that day!

PSF: There are a lot of covers of "96 Tears." What's your favorite?

QM: Aretha's - naturally!

PSF: Any books you like?

QM: Hearts In Atlantis by Stephen King. He mentions "96 Tears" in it eight times. I don't usually read books but when I read that, right there on the first page, I saw things that deal with my own life.

PSF: Do you remember the songs that gave you a bolt when you were a kid?

QM: I don't really have any influences. When I was just a kid, I would go to the local record store and ask the girl behind the counter, Do you have this record? or Do you have that record? And I would just make up names for these records and, of course, they wouldn't have those records. Those were the records I was gonna make! I would look around the store at all those records there in the shelves, and ask myself: How do I get from here, from standing in the record store, to there, where the records are? My parents were very poor; we lived on dirt floors. When I was about 7 years old, I saw an ad in a comic book, it said "Make a record – only $7.49." So I spent the whole year selling produce, shoveling snow, picking cherries and finally sent away for that $7.49 record machine. When it showed up, I recorded "Rockin' Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu" (the song by Huey Smith & The Clowns); I even got some little girls down the street to do backing vocals. Man! It sounded so tinny; the thing was made out of cardboard! That was my first record … although I'm sure, in a previous life, I recorded many others.

Barry Stoller is the author of the authorized Terry Knight biography. He previously published American Burn, the Bloodrock biography. He has also written articles for Monthly Review and Scram and contributes to Perfect Sound Forever regularly.

Also see The Official Website of ? & The Mysterians

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