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10238Clip: ? and the Mysterians come to Cleveland

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  • Carl Zimring
    Jan 28, 2005
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      Guided by Voices
      Garage rock doesn't get much weirder than ? and the Mysterians.
      Eric Davidson

      Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2005

      This ain't a story about psychics. So says ? -- and that's his legal name,
      the symbol itself, way before Prince -- way before everything, really. The
      eccentric frontman of ? and the Mysterians didn't just give the world the
      greatest garage-rock song, "96 Tears." No, according to ?, he was born on
      Mars, long before the time of the dinosaurs; he knew that 9-11 was going to
      take place years beforehand; he knows how man travels through space (and
      it's not by spaceships); and most important, he's in constant communion
      with the People of the Future. So-called psychics aren't seeing the future,
      he insists; the People of the Future are talking to them.

      Confused? Well, at least the story of the Mysterians' primitive origins is
      simple enough. Very simple, in fact -- like two chords and a caveman beat.
      While the Mysterians' rugged rumble sounds like good ol' frat party rock
      these days, back circa 1965, it was definitely the rawest example of the
      scads of garage groups sprouting up.

      Even more impressive in that context was the fact that the Mysterians'
      first album was composed of all original tunes, save one. In a time when
      the garage-rock genre was just beginning to crawl, even greats like the
      Sonics and Kinks were padding their records with blues covers. The
      primordial bang of the original two Mysterians LPs was an obvious precursor
      to that of Detroit's other pre-punk Piltdown men, the Stooges -- making the
      Mysterians a main influence on the utilitarian bash-ups of '70s punk. To
      this day, "96 Tears" is revered by raw-rock aficionados. For the squares,
      it's still used in car commercials.

      ? claims that he never listened to the radio growing up and offers no
      influences. His infatuation with rock and roll began before kindergarten.

      "I was dancing since the age of four, but some voice kept saying, 'You've
      got to start singing,'" he recalls. "I didn't know what that voice was.
      Finally, in 1997, they revealed themselves to me. We were in the van on
      tour down I-75, and I saw all these two-lane highways. I kept thinking,
      'There's a lot of room here, there should be three lanes.' And I'm
      thinking, 'Should I tell the guys I can see the future?' No, yes, no --
      see, that was me and the People of the Future talking. So I told the guys,
      'Hey, I can see the future, and this is gonna be a three-lane highway.'
      Then all of a sudden we go over this hill, and guess what? Three-lane
      highway. That's when [the People of the Future] let me know everything. The
      green light was on!"

      As he speaks, ?'s vocal velocity and amazing recollection of decades-old
      facts send us straight past "Is this guy nuts?" into "What's the gimmick
      here?" But to assume that he's groping for ways to attract attention to his
      band seems wrong too, since ? and the Mysterians is still a pretty relaxed

      While contractual shenanigans caused a temporary split by 1970, ? retained
      the band name, cobbling together ersatz Mysterians for oldies shows. But
      all along, the original members stayed in touch, coalescing for infrequent
      concerts and capitalizing on the first '60s garage revival in the early
      '80s. The Mysterians do only short tours every few years. Not counting
      reissues and rerecordings, they've released only one proper new studio
      album since the '60s. "But I've got recordings from every year since '96
      Tears,'" claims ?, "and I hope to put some more of that out soon."

      In 1999, after a brief period of inactivity, the Mysterians' longtime
      manager began insisting that the band would be going to England -- even
      though the group had never traveled outside the States. A year later, a
      British promoter called and set up a tour. Then a friend told ? that "96
      Tears" was mentioned eight times in Stephen King's 2000 tome Hearts in
      Atlantis. "I was just going to look through it for those mentions," says ?,
      "but my hands froze, and the People of the Future said, 'Read this book.'
      And from the first to the last page, there are all kinds of things from my

      Now if all this sounds like rejected ideas from Ripley's Believe It or Not,
      at least ?'s theories impel him to keep working -- instead of withdrawing
      into the usual curtains-closed paranoia. The band's legendary live shows
      remain roof-raising enough to earn tons of praise from the retro-rock
      fringe. They've been more active lately, having ditched the oldies circuit
      in order to headline neo-garage hipster festivals here and abroad since
      about 1997. ? displays enough self-effacing smarts about the music biz to
      know that things aren't going to get much bigger for him. He's just your
      basic eccentric genius -- not even a '60s acid casualty, since he
      purportedly never practiced the drug-immersion of his cohorts.

      Considering that the Mysterians' original success didn't last and that they
      were screwed out of all the royalties from "96 Tears," ? is surprisingly
      upbeat. If the People of the Future and the rest of it is a way for him to
      stave off the bitterness that destroys most old rockers, then so be it --
      even if it is a little wacky.

      "The People said I would be going out into the world to entertain," ?
      announces. "We've got a new record coming. The People of the Future said
      this: Man's purpose is to function, not to abuse himself."
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