John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“96 Tears” Was a Trailblazer

The Mexican American group that sang it had the original punk attitude.

By - Feb 21st, 2017 02:48 pm
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Question Mark And The Mysterians

Question Mark And The Mysterians

Scholars and practitioners of Punk Rock, brace yourself for a bold, but easy-to-defend statement. Without the Blues, your snotty, angry and often funny music probably wouldn’t exist. I can defend this without even mentioning “Louie Louie” by The Kingsman, another contender for the fountainhead of Punk. That’s because it’s pretty much the same story for the influential song “96 Tears” by Question Mark And The Mysterians. There is an interesting variation to this story — the band was made up of sons of migrant farmers of Mexican American heritage. I’m glad they were here and not trapped on the other side of some ridiculous wall, so I’ll dedicate this song to Donald Trump. That man will surely inspire a lot of angry Punk Rock.

Before Punk and it’s predecessor, Garage Rock, Blues and Rhythm & Blues were the best thing going. In the late 1950s and early ’60s Rock’n’ Roll was in a bad place. Elvis Presley was in the Army, Chuck Berry was railroaded and served a year and a half in prison, Jerry Lee Lewis was disgraced for marrying his 13 year old cousin, and Buddy Holly vaporized in an Iowa cornfield. Filling the vacuum was a lot of safe-as-milk, PG-rated pop music. A lot of it was created by hacks cashing in on teen fads and sung by lightweights in pompadours, like Fabian. The rebellion had been quashed, if only for a brief moment.

Still audible, but further from the top of the charts, or on different charts altogether, Blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Soul singers including Sam Cook, Solomon Burke, Etta James and, James Brown, were electrifying audiences. Girl Groups kept the flame alive with brilliant performers like The Shirelles and The Ronettes. They were the best thing going and made listening to the radio bearable. All this music was received, enthusiastically by young rockers across the Atlantic in port cities like Liverpool and London. They got very excited.

When the British Invasion came, we Americans heard many great songs for the first time, even though they were recorded in our back yard. The British take on these songs was fresh. In some cases they were equally exciting, but there was no mistaking Mick Jagger for any of the greats he was emulating. What he and a few others did manage was the creation of a new, tough, and sometimes angry-sounding voice. It was quickly adopted over here.

During the first wave of the invasion, bands who cut their teeth on “Satisfaction” and “You Really Got Me” sprung up like mushrooms on a manure pile. The Shadows Of Knight scored a hit with their almost-but-not-quite-there version of “Gloria.” It was tricky copying a Brit imitating a down-home American bluesman. But the effort was made here and there in dusty basements and oil-stained garages; some was good and some, as you would imagine, was priceless for the wrong reasons. These bands were, by way of the trans-Atlantic bounce, one degree further from the source. No matter… their hearts were in the right place and their rebel stance felt authentic.

No one at Motown or Stax was worried though, as these Garage Bands were still finding their way on shaky legs, foals in a field of full grown race horses. But they did pass on two important things that found their way into the punk ethos: The snotty British bite the singers affected and the insistence on a strict D.I.Y. ethos. No slickness or session players allowed.

Question Mark and The Mysterians were quintessential Garage Rock. Outsiders in Saginaw, Michigan’s smallish Mexican/American community, they weren’t invited to play the teen clubs. So they just went out and got a number one hit with the unforgettable “96 Tears.”

It has a simple Farfisa organ part that’s as easy to play as “Chopsticks.” It sits nicely in the track, defining the whole song, a monster hook that is immediately recognizable to this day. Not much else going on, just a two chord vamp (if you discount the bridge, which introduces the only other chord in the song). Come on over, I’ll teach it to you.

Local eccentric-in-training Question Mark (Rudy Martinez) was hired for his frontman abilities. His delivery and stage presence were borrowed from Jagger (who borrowed from James Brown). But Martinez was not only good, he was the the original glyph. Before joining, he turned heads at high school dances with his moves. He never took his shades off, they became as much a trademark for him as they were for Roy Orbison. His voice, which was passable, was all attitude. Considering he and the other guys were all in their middle- to late-teens when this song blew up the charts, keeping it together on the national stage, which the band managed to do, was quite an accomplishment. Unlike today’s Boy Bands, there was no corporate structure and team of producers for the Mysterians.

The original title of the song was “Too Many Tears,” then it morphed into “69” Tears,” But that was a bit risque, so they flipped the numbers to avoid possible censorship. The song had about as many words as it did tears:

Too many teardrops
For one heart to be crying
Too many teardrops
For one heart to carry on

You’re way on top now since you left me
You’re always laughing way down at me
But watch out now, I’m gonna get there
We’ll be together for just a little while
And then I’m gonna put you way down here
And you’ll start crying ninety-six tears
Cry, cry

And when the sun comes up, I’ll be on top
You’ll be way down there, looking up
And I might wave, come up here
But I don’t see you waving now
I’m way down here, wondering how
I’m gonna get you but I know now
I’ll just cry, cry, I’ll just cry

Too many teardrops
For one heart to be crying
Too many teardrops
For one heart to carry on

You’re gonna cry ninety-six tears
You’re gonna cry ninety-six tears
You’re gonna cry, cry, cry, cry now
You’re gonna cry, cry, cry, cry
Ninety-six tears
Come on and let me hear you cry, now
Ninety-six tears, woo
I wanna hear you cry
Night and day, yeah, all night long
Uh, ninety-six tears, cry, cry, cry
Come on, baby
Let me hear you cry now, all night long
Uh, ninety-six tears, yeah, come on, now
Uh, ninety-six tears

© Rudy Martinez (Question Mark) Frank Rodriguez

The lyrics, teen bravado written by an actual teeager, sound like they were overheard on the street: Braggadocio from a heartbroken high schooler. I call it authentic folk music. Question Mark is still around and plays gigs, he seems to have avoided aging. I had a chance to see him about 20 years ago and didn’t do it. Next time I’ll make sure I do. Without this singer and this band who can really say if we get Iggy Pop, The Ramones, The Clash, The Pogues or today’s hot new name, Courtney Barnett? As for the more corporate branches of Punk, it might pay for them to look back just a little further than last week. They should even look a step beyond Question Mark and Mick. There’s a guy named Solomon Burke. You could make a case that his song, “Everybody Needs Somebody,” which was covered by the Stones, in what could be called the garage band template, set the whole thing in motion. We’ll get to that next week.

Note: My fat little fingers star in a Youtube video. Catch this quick tutorial in how to almost play this song before it goes viral!

4 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “96 Tears” Was a Trailblazer”

  1. Jack Stewart says:

    A great influence on the Stooges Iggy. When ? goes high on “tears” at the end, Iggy ripped that sound off in every nuance. True proto-punk. Ranks up there with “Talk Talk” and “7 & 7 Is.”

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Mexican-Americans from Saginaw, MI – who knew? Such a memorable song, and an equally memorable band name!

  3. I could never figure out why Question Mark never went big. This group was so good!! To have a number one song, then drop off the face of the earth. Sad…

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