To this day, no one can say with absolute certainty who the leader of ?(Question Mark) and the Mysterians really is. Is he—as literalists would have us believe—the former Rudy Martinez, a Mexican-born and Michigan-raised earthling who legally changed his name to a punctuation mark? Or is he truly the space alien he claims to be—a claim from which he has never backed down? What is abundantly clear is that ? has managed to maintain an intriguing air of mystery about him during his 40-plus years in the public eye, and that air of mystery has in turn helped earn him recognition among fans as one of the flat-out coolest individuals ever to cut a hit record. Known to his friends as “Q,” the man officially named ? rose to fame with his band the Mysterians when their song “96 Tears” came out of nowhere to reach the top of the Billboard pop chart on this day in 1966.
Many critics and fans of ? and the Mysterians regard “96 Tears” as a record of seminal importance—a garage-rock masterpiece worthy of the ultimate accolade in certain hipster circles: the label “proto-punk.” Certainly the genesis of both the band and the record fit neatly within punk’s D.I.Y. ethos. The Mysterians took shape in 1962 when four Mexican-American teenagers from Saginaw, Michigan, began playing instrumental music inspired by the surf bands like the Ventures and by the loud, raw sound of the legendary guitarist Link Wray. Taking their name from a Japanese science fiction movie involving invaders from another planet, the Mysterians soon made the acquaintance of their own alleged alien—a young man in sunglasses who approached them after a gig at Michigan’s Mt. Holly Ski Lodge offering to manage the group. Identifying himself to the Mysterians only as “?,” this young man would soon become the group’s lead singer and primary songwriter. It was a poem of his called “Too Many Teardrops” that became “96 Tears.”
Recorded in the living room of the head of a local record label called Pa-Go-Go, “96 Tears” was a simple song recorded in amateur fashion yet infused with incredible energy that would make it a favorite of the 1970s punks who would follow in the footsteps of ?, who never once took off his trademark shades, neither during his band’s extremely brief heyday nor later as part of any publicity-generating stunt.