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Rock/Pop

Life on Mars

A man called Question Mark

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Published 7/15/2009

"96 Tears" is one of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs in the history of the genre. In fact, it may be the greatest. John Lennon reportedly once said exactly that, and Question Mark — the Michigan native who wrote and recorded it — claims Brian Wilson told him the same thing in 1987. Those three-and-a-half minutes of brilliance alone helped launch garage and punk rock, as well as helping to shape the whole R&B-trash rock aesthetic. Elvis Costello's This Year's Model wouldn't exist without it. Plus, Question Mark & the Mysterians — including mainly the original members — are still out on the road, never coming on as an "oldies" act but instead as a still-vital rock 'n' roll unit. One of the best ever. For instance, just last year, they did the greatest version of "Stand by Me" I've ever heard. How easy is that?

It would be a treat to do a definitive piece on this legendary musician and band. In fact, we were hoping to do something like that, especially after Question Mark phoned out of the blue several weeks ago, just to chat. However, to put it mildly, Question Mark is a bit out there. Begin by telling him you've been a fan for years and he interrupts to say he hates the word "fan" because he "hates the phoniness that surrounds the whole industry ... you are instead a friend"... and, man, he's off on tangents for the next three hours, his conversation much like a ball on a pinball machine.

The dude is incredibly upbeat, though, especially for someone who lost nearly everything in a tragic house fire several years ago. And as an observer who was around "before there was such a thing as rock 'n' roll," he's very astute on dates and facts related to the form. It's fascinating when he says he recorded a still-unreleased album at Ray Charles' studio with the Raelettes backing him in the late '60s; he's hoping to connect with Don Was during the Concert of Colors to see if they can finally get it released. But by the third hour, when he's talking about "the people of the future" who telepathically tell him everything regarding what's going to happen; or he discusses his memories of roaming with dinosaurs and his time on Mars; or relates that his name actually is "?" and it needs to be spelled out because a symbol isn't allowed on a Social Security card... well, a reporter's ears begin to glaze over. In a genre full of them, Question Mark is a true character. "I hate opinions," he says. "I don't make opinions. I make common sense."

He's not beyond humor and even cattiness. He, after all, is one of the greatest and he lets you know that if it wasn't for the Cameo-Parkway label (which he signed with because their logo was orange) and the barriers they put up ("They corrupted the stock market," he informs), "we would have conquered the Beatles." (And, in fact, he claims Rolling Stone did suggest in the late '90s that Mick Jagger would be happy to have what Question Mark still has onstage.)

He seems to take great delight in dishing on the White Stripes: "They opened for us in '97. And Meg and Jack came backstage, and he didn't have his hair down and all black and stuff, and he presented me with his 45. I always ask people for their music anyway, right? They're all excited, being on the bill and all that stuff and why shouldn't they be? But anyway, all of a sudden, they became who they became. I heard he was gonna produce Loretta Lynn. A lot of people have done '96 Tears' in many modes and if anybody ever did "96 Tears" country, it would be Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. But we know Conway died. Well, hey, I'm still alive! Get Loretta, hook her up with me, we can do "96 Tears" and put a little twang in there! OK, but to make a long story short, I called Detroit, right? Got a hold of Jack's number. 'Oh, um, you'll have to call the Los Angeles firm!' I'm like, 'Oh, here we go, once again Oh, my God!' But I did leave a number for Jack to call me. Never heard from him!

"I'd like to produce them, really, though, 'cause people classify them as garage rock or punk or whatever and they really aren't. So I don't know who put 'em in that category. It's hard to understand his lyrics. The only thing I can understand in 'Seven Nation Army' is "I'm going to Wichita. Other than that, I don't know what he's singing about! And then he should've been repetitious at the end! I mean, if you name a song '96 Tears,' you're gonna cry 96 tears, right? That's what makes a hit!

"I remember one guy, in 1977, when I was in Bakersfield — he came from Los Angeles at the time they had the new, revived punk movement with the Sex Pistols and things like that —and he says 'Question Mark, punk needs a king. They need a king like you because you know what it's all about.' Well yeah. But not only for that music but for every music. I would've tore up everybody as a performer because there ain't nobody like me. My only competitor would've been James Brown, if you wanna call it competition. Mitch Ryder has said 'You wanna know anything about rock 'n' roll? You talk to Question Mark. He knows everything about rock 'n' roll.' So the other people talk about me because they know. I am the template. I am the mold."

Question Mark performs as part of Don Was' Super Session 2 on Saturday, July 18 at 8:30 p.m..

Music editor Bill Holdship is gonna cry, cry, cry, cry.

Thanks to editorial assistant Julia Fitzgerald for transcription assistance.

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