Why, baby, why?

They existed forever ago, came and went so quickly, history barely remembers them. ? and the Mysterians was their name, five Mexican-American boys from Michigan's Saginaw Valley who topped the charts in October 1966 then disbanded three years later without a second hit single to their credit. They were quintessential one-hit wonders, garage-rockers who got the car to the driveway but never made it onto the highway. They were promised fame and rewarded instead with day jobs, just one more lost rock-and-roll band. It isn't a sad story. It's just an obvious one.

So, too, is the tale of their eventual reunion three decades later. Just one more reunion, the band members playing with and without each other during the last 30 years, billed with the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Turtles, a bastardized Beach Boys, and so many other who-gives-a-damn? oldies shadow-dancing for the sad and nostalgic. Of course ? and the Mysterians would reunite, if not this year then last year, or the next one. What else do they have to do? After all, for nearly 20 years, organ player Little Frank Rodriguez--the man whose sound would influence the likes of Joe "King" Carrasco and Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve--was working construction in Dallas. Who wouldn't kill for one more shot at the stage, reliving rock-and-roll fantasies that died too soon?

Yet the reunion of a band that had but a single hit--1966's Farfisa-beat "96 Tears," a genius little nugget, to be sure, but also one 33 friggin' years old--has been greeted not with the ho-hum shrug of inevitability, but with genuine delight. Dozens of stories were written about the band in the last year alone: first to coincide with the 1997 release of Question Mark and the Mysterians on the Pennsylvania-based Collectables label; then during a U.S. tour; then upon the release of last year's live get-back Do You Feel It Baby? And the theme of all these newspaper and magazine stories remains the same: ? and the Mysterians are back, and better than ever. Apparently, nothing warms the hearts of rock critics more than watching fat-and-fiftysomethings crank out yesterday's hits...OK, hit. Indeed, 1997's Collectables disc features nothing more than redone versions of Mysterians songs from the 1960s, among them, yes, "96 Tears."

The song also appears on Do You Feel It Baby? and will show up on the forthcoming More Action!, scheduled to be released May 1 on the New York City-based indie Cavestomp! Records. This, despite Question Mark's assertion that he never stopped writing for 30 years and has stored up dozens of "hits no one has ever heard." He also likes to insist that "the record company made us a one-hit wonder," claiming that Cameo-Parkway--the label, run by future KISS and Donna Summer impresario Neil Bogart, to which the Mysterians were signed--kept every penny the band ever made, eventually leading to the breakup of the band.

Certainly, there are worse things than a Mysterians reunion: Do You Feel It Baby?--the band's second live album in 14 years, following 1985's The Lost Dallas Tapes, recorded at the Arcadia--is actually a thrilling little reminder of what rock and roll used to be and can still allow when performed by men forever trapped in a time warp. It's nasty, funky, silly, exhilarating, and utterly disposable, the music still alive because so much of it has long since disappeared (Abkco, which owns the rights to the Mysterians' two albums, refuses to re-release them on CD for some unfathomable reason). Songs such as "Make You Mine," "Can't Get Enough of You Baby," "Girl (You Captivate Me)," and "Don't Tease Me" sound as fresh as tomorrow even though they're the products of a thousand yesterdays. But that's the great thrill of 1960s garage-rock: Its pleasures are all surface, constructed from the most rudimentary elements rock and roll has to offer. Lust, a screaming frontman, and a four-four backbeat never get old--even if the men making such a righteous racket do.

"When we started, I wanted that edge, I wanted that rawness," says the mile-a-minute Rudy Martinez, who answers only to the name Question Mark. "I wanted to see how close you could get to that edge before someone said, 'Unh-unh, you can't say that.' We created hip. We created that attitude. Everyone else had a suit and a smile--that phoniness. We're cool."

Perhaps the Mysterians' reunion has been greeted with so many huzzahs because of Question Mark himself, a man who even now looks like a south-of-the-border Joey Ramone. It is three in the afternoon, he is on the phone from his home near Flint, Michigan, and he insists that at this very moment, he is wearing his ubiquitous sunglasses. He's the very definition of eccentric frontman, claiming he's from Mars and in constant contact with "the people from the future," who told a young Rudy to stop dancing--as a child, he dreamed of getting on American Bandstand as a hoofer--and start singing. They have also informed him that in the year 10000, he will still be on a stage performing "96 Tears"--which is not so unbelievable when looking at the discography. Oh, yes--he also needs to get in touch with the Pope to relay that message he recently received from Jesus.

"You don't have to print it, but Jesus said we're selfish," Question Mark reveals. "Why do we wait for him to return? He said, 'When I decide to come back, I'll make the decision. Why do they wait for me? They can praise me instead.'" He also mentions something about how peanut butter contains a secret ingredient--it begins with an H is all he knows--that makes kids horny, leading to so many teen pregnancies.

At least he's still got that voice, that teen-preen swagger that allows men in their 50s still to wear tight leather pants and prance around the stage in orange pirate shirts opened to the belly button. Hell, if you believe Question Mark, he didn't just invent rock and roll--it stopped dead once the Mysterians disbanded in 1969.

"Rock and roll died after '96 Tears,'" he says. "Out of there came folk music, and I wasn't gonna do folk music. Bob Dylan was a great writer, but that ain't rock and roll to me. Jimi Hendrix was great, but it was acid rock, psychedelic rock. Everybody was getting stoned. Nobody was dancin' anymore. I wanted people to dance, and everybody wanted to do songs a trillion minutes long, and they wanted to do solos. If I was a musician, maybe that's fine. But I'm a dancer. What do I do during the 30 minutes of the guitar solo?"

Question Mark speaks often of wanting to film his life's story. To him, the Mysterians' real-life tale is far more compelling than, say, Tom Hanks' fictionalized version told in That Thing You Do! And it's probably not such a bad idea: Kids so poor they didn't even have grass in their front yards form a band in 1962, join up with a charismatic singer who claims to talk to people from the future, bounce around from tiny label to tiny label, record a song that makes them famous for a split-second, land on American Bandstand, and break up while recording in Ray Charles' studio at Capitol Records.

Only this time, the story has a happy ending. Thirty years later, those one-hit wonders get back together and bask in a spotlight grown cold a very long time ago, revered as punk-rock forefathers by children too young to remember them the first time around. Like the man says, "The people from the future knew I was gonna be back."

? and the Mysterians perform March 19 at Club Clearview. The Gaza Strippers and The Mullens open.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky