Question Mark and the Mysterians' Mexican Michigan

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One can't talk properly about the band without embracing Chicano/a Michigan.

Mike Mosher


Question Mark and Mysterians, most famous for the hit October, 1966 release "96 Tears", gave a free concert on September 19, 2014 as part of HIspanic Heritage Month celebrations at Delta College, a junior college surrounded by farmland in the pompously-named fiction called University Center, Michigan.

One can't talk properly about Question Mark and the Mysterians today without embracing Chicano y Chicana Michigan, taking a reading of its notable rock band in concert, and contemplating a recent emblem in the grocery store whose smile contains multitudes.

I. El Pueblo

One of the first things I do after getting off the plane in California is to enjoy a super burrito (OK, if I disembark in San José, I might have Vietnamese food first), for we have looked in vain for really good Mexican food in mid-Michigan. We lived near La Cumbre, El Toro and Pancho Villa taquerias in San Francisco. Keeping up with the eclectic Mission neighborhood's tastes, they offered spinach tortillas, whole and black beans, crunch-on-the-outside chicarrón pork, fish and vegetarian tacos and tortillas, as well as standards. Further south in Mountain View, a couple of places owned by Central Americans (many escaped north from political violence in the 1980s) had those delicious dishes, with a slightly different twist.

On the Board of Mountain View Community Television in the 1990s, there was a Chicana from Holland, Michigan, an area settled in the 19th c. by farmers from Holland (we have already discussed anti-immigrant policies of its Republican State Representative Dave Agema). She joked that in her high school yearbook she was the "little brown face" among the sea of pink and blond ones. The western side of the state is notable for berry growing. But in our part of agricultural mid-Michigan, home of corn and sugar beets, we never seem to see people—Mexican or otherwise—laboring in the fields the way one does in coastal towns south of San Francisco Bay, in Half Moon Bay, Salinas and Monterey.

In 1966, Mitch Ryder (born William Levise) and the Detroit Wheels covered the Righteous Brothers' 1963 hit "Little Latin Lupe Lu". Yet José Feliciano's singing of the National Anthem at a Detroit Tigers baseball game was controversial in 1967, the year of that city's major race riot. ["All Things Considered", NPR News, July 5, 2011]

Mike Davis' Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City (Verso, 2001) lists Michigan cities Saginaw, Lansing, Grand Rapids whose Latin American population had grown to over ten per cent. He also notes Latino and Latinas, whose population in Detroit grew from 50,000 to 100,00 in the 1990s, resentment at the 1996 defeat of a proposed ward system that would have given them representation in City Hall.

In 2014, when undocumented Central American children and youth were entering the US to escape violence, there were citizen protests in mid-Michgan towns Vassar and Bay City. An architectural landmark of Bay City is the Art Deco State Theatre, resplendent in Aztec motifs throughout, its sign out front surmounted with a massive head of a grim warrior in feathered headdress like a Pez candy dispenser, historically accurate as most dancing natives and Ugh!-saying Indians in 1930s movies. Bay City, with its large conservative, largely Polish-American and German-American population has an unfortunate history of being unwelcoming to nonwhites; a long-time community activist on a Bay Cultural Plan committee with me a decade ago said that when a large hospital was built in the 1980s, a big public concern often voiced was "How can we keep black people in Saginaw from coming up to it?"

Nevertheless, Bay City was the birthplace of the jewel of Mexican-American rock in Los Estados Unidos, Question Mark and the Mysterians' "96 Tears".

II. El Grupo Supremo

About 2005 the then-Curator Michael Bell of the Saginaw Art Museum invited me to propose a residency during a show of Mexican art. In 1984, Bell had taken over my arts column in San Francisco's North Mission News when my wife and I had moved out of the neighborhood, and had been aware of my community murals in the neighborhood, surprised that I too had turned up in mid-Michigan's Great Lakes Bay Region. He invited me to a Museum Board meeting to propose a residency in which I'd work with local youth on a project celebrating Mexican culture.

I replied that for decades, when I thought of Mexican culture in Michigan, I thought of Question Mark and the Mysterians, whose eerie "96 Tears" mystified me as a pre-teen, so perhaps we could paint an homage to them, and involve them somehow. The sole Mexican-American member of the Museum Board chuckled, poo-poohed my idea, declared (incorrectly, as they've always been health-conscious) the band had all succumbed to drugs, and besides, was only known for one song. But a week later I heard the band was performing again.

In any case, the Museum decided to bring a folk artist up from Mexico for duration of the exhibition. I retreated to my studio, and executed a large painting in acrylics, china marker and bronze leaf, the kind of image I had considered for the Museum. Director/Curator Les Reker (who had promptly fired Michael Bell) included my "Mysterianos" in a show of art by Michigan university and college faculty in 2008.

Delta College Auditorium a fine example of mid-century Alden Dow architecture the same theater where the Stooges' Iggy Pop once famously leapt from the stage to land upon and maul President Don Carlyon's daughter. I've heard the Mysterians two previous times in the past dozen years: at intimate, crowded Whites Bar in Saginaw, and a summer outdoor concert in Wenonah Park bandshell beside the river in downtown Bay City. They are predictably professional, delivering a blistering performance each time, with a captivating front man in Question Mark.

They set up, get ready. Dressed in seasonal black with orange "?" on t-shirts, an orange bandana on the drummers head. Question Mark had an orange shawl tied around his hips, his long black hair streaming out from under a big brim hat. A few years ago a Stamford, Connecticut company called Questionmark Corporation offered college faculty a software package for computerized testing.

Testing microphones, "It's kind of bassy". Without a bass guitar in the band today, Little Frank Rodriguez tests his bass keys on the Roland keyboard. My notes say "Question Mark's sunglesses like a fallen star." Is there a bad battery on his mic? "Can't hear myself. Test one two. Test one two." At 6:57 there are only about 50 people in the theater. I showed up early, expecting a crowd and difficulty parking.

Photographed on the early album covers to camouflage his comparative size, Little Frank is tiny and round. They sport two drummers, like the Grateful Dead had. Robert Martinez who's played with them the past couple decades is one. The other is Eduard Serrato Jr., the son of their drummer on the "96 Tears" recording, the late Eddie Serrato, at his father's drum kit.

They open with a sedate one-chord chug, Question Mark now in a blousy shirt breaking into a pony reminiscent of Tina Turner. Very quickly it becomes clear, they're such a good rock band because they're a tight r & b band, willing to hold their own in competition with others, in the days when you had to kick out the jams con cojones, or be booed off the state. The singer name checks Tina Turner, "She should be grooving on this", going into an early Ike and Tina number. Then a two chord song, r & b out of gospel, with the line "Walking down the road when I lost my shoe."

After acknowledging Smashmouth's '90s cover version that put some royalties money into the band's pocket, "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" cannibalizes Little Frank's organ riff from "96 Tears" (supposedly suggestion of the song's New York producer Neil Bogart). Frank Rodriguez discovered that riff at age fourteen, and has made hay of it for subsequent five decades. Now, I nurse a theory of the "Michigan Gothic", a certain dramatic morbidity running through its popular art, literature and music, including the paintings of Niagara, the stories of Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Iggy Pop's homicidal trapper in "The Ballad of Cookie McBride", or his loss of his "heart on the burning sand" of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Historian Bruce Catton noted how early explorers wrote off Bay City area as pestilential swamp, unfit for habitation. But I wonder how the strain of Abominable Doctor Phibes Goth might impact Michigan organ players, like Max Crook on Del Shannon's "Runaway". Certainly not Detroit jazzmen like Jimmy Smith. Nor festive Little Frank Rodriguez.

A version of "Do Something To Me", written by Jimmy Calvert, Norman Marzano, and Paul Naumann, sounds just like any teenage cover band of the time, with a slight mis- or reinterpretation of a couple chords. It's as if they've frozen their 1967 version in amber. When they launch into "Do Something to Me", first recorded by them but made famous by Tommy James from railroad stop Niles, Michigan, downstate and to the west, I realize that like contemporaries the Who, Kinks or Detroit Wheels, the Mysterians grew up when ever band had to know and play all the hit songs as well as their own. In a blistering take on the Kink's "You Really Got Me", the mic started feeding back. I felt like I was back in junior high in 1967.

In "That's How Strong My Love Is", one notes Question Mark's expressive use of shoulders and hips. A piano blues of "Set Aside" (with solo guitar runs by Bobby Balderama), is followed by the Chicagoish "Upside" and a version of "Stormy Monday". Bobby Balderama fronts a mellow jazz outfit on the side, with Little Frank but without Question Mark. They played a wonderful set of danceable oldies at the Arlington Hotel saloon in Bay City in 2010, shortly before a mysterious gas leak forced the fire department to blow out all the windows with their hose (empty since then, I've noticed the For Sale signs promisingly removed late October, 2014). Bay City's public radio used to have a rich, broad definition of jazz when station manager Howard Sharper and others helmed daily noontime shows, but a change in management curtailed that (and now its jazz sounds as square and tightass as the "quality" FM radio syrup geared for our parents' ears in the 1960s).

Despite complaining lyrics, "You're Telling Me Lies" is a merry two-step. About the same time as the band's initial national successes, Herb Alpert made hay from mariachi trumpet on melancholy tunes like "The Lonely Bull", or cheerful ones like "Tijuana Taxi" and "Spanish Flea", at the same time producing the more cartoonish Julius Wechter and the Baja Marimba Band. Yet this region prefers the norteño, called Tex-Mex on this side of the border, a beat heard on the Delta Broadcasting station's Saturday afternoon shows.

"Ten O' Clock" could be the Thirteenth Floor Elevators or Van Morrison's Them. Drummer Martinez sometimes looks as grim as actor Danny Trejo. The four-chord cycle of "Too Late" was introduced as "From our album of 1968...or 1966...", which might matter to the rock nerd gray heads in the audience but not any young community college students. Their version of "Stand By Me", with a long sad story of the January, 2007 fire that destroyed Question Mark's home, memorabilia and pets, and still chokes him up.

Of course it all ends with a nice long version of "96 Tears". A mature Chicano and Chicana jumped onstage to dance with them, another Chicana sang with them since everyone knows the words of this mid-Michigan anthem (I later learned they were relatives of band members). A university functionary once told me how, as a member of the Saginaw Bay Orchestra, at a celebration of local music she had merrily sawed away among the violins on a ten-minute version of the historic song. One of the first San Francisco Punk concerts I saw in the Fall of 1978, after moving there from Michigan, was Tuxedo Moon, and in their cover of "96 Tears" , their Art Institute classmate Winston Tong—as delicate as inscrutable Question Mark, making a name for himself as a performance artist—knelt with a girl at the side of the stage, both intoning "Cry cry cry cry cry cry cry cry CRY!" like nuns at prayer, mouths open like baby birds. New Yorker Garland Jeffries had a minor hit in 1980, and Michigan engineer Jim Rees—a fan of the original version—was impressed by the Stranglers' cover."96 Tears" is their big hit, and while I call it Punk, my wife says No, no, it's a ballad. One hears a black gospel church in it, and Serrato Junior said Question Mark was inspired by the tears of La Virgen de Guadalupe, looking at her "way on top now" as Juan Diego did.

Local rock researcher and celebrant Gary Johnson was at the concert. At the end of an entertaining, well-researched talk on the song's origin to the Bay Historical Society a couple years ago, Johnson proposed Bay City boast upon signs at its city limits "Home of 96 Tears", as I frequently do, of the fact the single was recorded in the backroom of a middle-aged male hairdresser's house on a street eight blocks from our west side house. Johnson's similar proposal, that the city announce itself "Birthplace of Madonna" met with grumbles that she once, unforgivably called the city "smelly"...yet her grandma's house was downwind from a sugar beet refinery!

Rooting for local prosperity, and a celebrant of midwestern cities' uniqueness, I heartily approve of Johnson's modest proposals. At the 1993 International Symposium of Electronic Art in Minneapolis, I dragged my dinner party (including artist Colette Gaiter) to Prince's little eccentric and short-lived museum-qua-store in a downtown shopping mall. As boosterish as Johnson, I wish I owned a storefront on each side of the river, to create the kind of roadside museums—Call of the Wild! Authentic Indian Burial Ground! Snakes Alive!—that fascinated me on Michigan vacations as a kid. On the east side would be my Madonnatheum, a glittery glitzy exhibit hall and dance club (gay-friendly, of course), with plenty of memorabilia of Madge, Manhattan in the 1980s decor in a Basquiat/Haring mashup, and related topics. On the west side would be El Museo Mysterianos, dedicated to the band, the recording of "96 Tears", and Mexicans and Mexican culture in Michigan. My own painting of the band would be dwarfed by a reproduction of Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" frescoes. The admission charge to each venue would help the local economy with taxes, and make me a Barnumesque bundle. What's not to like? These are culture business opportunities waiting to happen.

III. La Chica Mysteriosa

A former grad student of mine, whose family roots are in Guanajuato, has used the placa (in her case, less graffiti tag than internet handle) "La Michichicana", a wonderful pun embodying hybridity. And, speaking of hybrids, at the grocery in the big box chain Meijers, Grand Rapids, Michigan-based, I picked up some Sunset brand tomatoes on the vine. The package proclaims "Grown in Michigan", with a QR code for more information. What transfixes me is a photo of a girl on the plastic package, a teenager with a twinkle in her eye pretending a big tomato is her dangle earring.

Is the Sunset teen in the tradition of the Sun Maid, a romanticized image of a farm worker in the fields? This former San Pancho, Califas muralist contrasts that with Juana Alicia's mural of lettuce-pickers, its pregnant woman and unborn child menaced by pesticide spraying, or the 1982 "Sun Mad" graphic decrying pesticides by Estér Hernandez.

I used to think that only Americans parsed and were concerned with race (Jim Crow's one drop rule and strictures on people one-sixty-fourth black) but the side of my family from Jamaica—whose motto is "Out of Many, One People"—quickly ponder individuals' racial makeup too. I wonder, is little Ms. Sunset a light-skinned African American? Her eyes look Asian: is she Afro-Asian? Or is she Latina, daughter of a family settled in Michigan for agricultural work, like the Californian originally from the town Holland?

I was disturbed to hear the latest Director of National Public Radio, Jaral Mohn, on one of Michele Martin's final "Tell Me More" shows, say he was committed to enlarging the Latina/o audience for NPR...by cancelling its best (and only) African-American's show? Maybe sweet Serena Sunset, at whom I gaze, is Latina, and, because of its historic indigenous-Spanish-African-Indigenous synthesis, Latin American people are an easy visual marker of "multicultural", hence as easy a marketing symbol for the tomato grower or the public radio network?

Mark Kingwell wrote in a 2009 Bookforum "...One fairly influential contemporary school of thought—called, with a nod to the one-hit wonders who gave us '96 Tears', the New Mysterians—has concluded that consciousness can never be known, it remains the holy grail of philosophy." Like the racial markers of La Sunséta—see, like black English or Yiddish, Spanglish is so often the best descriptor to reach for—you can't quite put your finger on the Mysterians, can't file them under a genre and forget about 'em. The Mysterians are playing mestizo rock, border crossing and hybridized as the best rock (and perhaps best visual art: think Cubism's africanismo) always is. They're R n' B, they're Punk, they're MichiTexMex cojunto, they've got "eighty-three ways to hold you" as proclaimed in one song.

As Michigan takes deserved pride in its black Motown music of a half-century ago (and, hey, in 2015 that Bay City hospital appointed an African-American Director), and in the subsequent white r n' b cover bands, that soon evolved into a tough Michigan rock and Punk, and then crossover Rap big dog Eminem, the centrality of the Chicano mix from Question Mark and the Mysterians is undeniable and, happily, enduring, and ours—all of ours—to claim.



Mike Mosher is an artist-designer working and teaching in mid-Michigan. Thanks to Susie Martin for some band history clarifications. Drawings © Mike Mosher 2015. Girl with tomato © SUNSET® Produce.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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