April 2330, 1998
An interview with the mysterious ?.
by Geeta Dalal
MYSTERY MAN: ? today (center).
Who said Prince was the first eccentric demanding to be known as a symbol? The oft-shirtless, frenetic-dancing entertainer named ? is the original, making attitude count as much as music.
The artist formerly known as Rudy Martinez, one of 10 kids from a poor Mexican-American family, strived to dance on Broadway or teach at the Arthur Murray School of Dance. But, he says, a prophetic, spiritual message told him to start singing instead.
His band "came to him" in 1962, taking its name from an obscure sci-fi flick The Mysterians. Thirty-six years later that two-chord Farfisa sneer from Michigan, ? and the Mysterians, has influenced everyone from the Standells to Jonathan Fire*eater, and has been covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Residents.
"Back then I thought there should be more of an edge to music there was too much lovey dovey," says ?, calling from his home in Clio, MI. And ? certainly had an edge, evoking explicitly sexual images with his lyrics. (In the 1967 song "Girl, You Captivate Me," he rhymes, "Girl, you masturbate me.")
Having shot to the top of the charts in 1966 with "96 Tears" (battling with the likes of the Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville"), ? and the Mysterians appeared on American Bandstandbut spent a rather brief time in the mainstream. ? says that "96 Tears" was the end of rock-'n'-roll, "'cause afterwards the industry started letting in all these psychedelic and acid rock bands, and began calling us 'garage rock,'" which he defines as rock "that wasn't Phil Specter."
? shies away from cultural categories as much as he does from musical ones. But in the '60s, ? and the Mysterians were the only Chicano band in the spotlight.
With Dick Clark in '66.
"In retrospect, I guess I do wonder if record industry prejudice was why we were the only [Mexican-American] band. No one ever pointed out that everyone else was an all-white band."
? is still a rock-'n'-roll activist, ranting about how the music industry has always taken advantage of naive younger acts, forcing them to relinquish the rights to their own music or be stuck as one-hit wonders. ? and the Mysterians was no exception.
"We didn't have a choicewe were young and thinking about our music, not getting a lawyer." And when he says young, he's not kiddingLittle Frank Rodriguez, the organ player, was only 15 when he came up with the famous vamp for "96 Tears."
After "96 Tears," the president of their label, the Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway, told ? that he refused to record them anymore. ?, insisting on the legality of the contract, pointed that the label was obligated to five more singles and two more albums, which Cameo-Parkway agreed to record but refused to promote. This left the band without media access and the rights to the hit song.
? and the Mysterians ended up releasing six albums on various indie labels, but "people would bring up [bootleg] CDs and ask me to sign them. I was like, where did these come from? That's how I found out about our bootlegs." By manufacturing overseas and shipping CDs back to the United States, bootleggers avoid lawsuits. "The government should be doing something about that. I mean, if someone manufactured cars overseas and shipped them back in as 'Fords,' wouldn't they be stopped?"
The band has recently released two albums. The first, a self-titled CD which features studio renditions of all the band's oldies, is out on Collectables Records. A live CD, Do You Feel It Baby? The Captivating Live Sounds of ? and the Mysterians (Norton), recorded last year at Coney Island High in New York, is much truer to the attitude and energy of the original rave-up band. The lineup boasts all original members, although the only vintage instrument left is the Farfisa, which, after being in the basement for 30-some years, needs "a couple of plastic things replaced." Complete with between-song rap testimonies packed full of the exclamation "Bay-beh!" ? proves that he hasn't completely lost itat least not in a bad way.
He used to claim he was from Mars, but these days the self-proclaimed prophet chooses to concentrate on his relationship with "the people from the future."
"I was born when the dinosaurs were around. My earliest recollection is of being chased by a T. rex," he says seriously.
And things have become a little more, let's say, mystical for ?. While elaborating on how God made the "people from the future" (who, he says, have been communicating with him telepathically his whole life), he adds that they have given him the solution to end world hunger: the wildebeest. If we take all the wildebeests and put them in parts of Africa where people are starving, he says, children can drink wildebeest milk. Why won't the world pay for "this wildebeest transplantation?" he asks. Hmmm
? says he'll "always be popular in all of his different lives," and claims to know the nine secret words that will save man from ruin. But the privilege of knowing the words is reserved for those who read his books You for Real? and To Make a Long Story Shortonce he finds a publisher.
? and the Mysterians with The Pristeens, Thursday, April 30, Silk City, Fifth and Spring Garden Sts., 592-8838.