The piercing organ riff, bare-bones vocal track, and low-fidelity production make "96 Tears" a safe candidate for first garage punk song ever, and if you haven’t heard it I feel sorry for you.
Bobby Balderrama is a wonderful guy who started one of the greatest punk bands ever: Question Mark & the Mysterians, otherwise known as the humans who wrote and performed “96 Tears” back in 1966. The piercing organ riff, bare-bones vocal track, and low-fidelity production make it a safe candidate for first punk rock song ever. If you haven’t heard it I feel sorry for you, and you should press the little orange button down there before we go any further.
I talked to Bobby about 20 years ago, when I was doing the original interviews for Please Kill Me. He was a delight to interview. As he recounted how "96 Tears" came to be a hit single, his enthusiasm, naïveté, and sheer love of rock ‘n’ roll was completely infectious. Bobby told his story so well I could just imagine him walking the single to record shops and radio stations, hoping against hope that somebody would notice it. Sort of like how That Thing You Do might have been if the theme were one of the greatest rock songs ever written.
His recollections are below, starting with his childhood in a Mexican community in Saginaw, Michigan.
There was kind of a big Mexican-American population in Saginaw, because a lot of migrant workers came up here and worked on the farms. General Motors built a big plant up here in the 40s or 50s. When the migrant workers found out they could get hired at GM without a high school education, they got jobs and settled in. That’s what my dad and my oldest brother did, and that’s how we settled here.
There wasn't a lot of us at our high school, maybe six or seven Mexican-American students, so that was a little rough. Even so, everybody was pretty nice; it was more that a lot of the social clubs were prejudiced. After we started the band, they wouldn’t let us play their clubs. We couldn’t play in them because we were Mexican, you know? That was a weird thing, but then we got so big so quickly we didn’t want to play them!
See, it was me and my cousin, Larry Borjas, and a drummer named Robert Martinez, who started the band. It was just a three-piece thing. We were doing Ventures songs like “Walk, Don't Run,” and Duane Eddy’s “Guitar Man,” and all instrumental stuff like that. We didn’t really have a name back then.
One day me and my cousin were watching this Japanese monster movie with a bunch of crazy aliens called "the Mysterians," and that’s what Larry wanted to call us. At first, I didn’t wanna go with it, but about a week later, after we started using that name, I got used to it.
My dad encouraged me to play guitar. He was a guitarist himself; he played accordion, guitar, violin, harmonica, and all this stuff. I used to watch him play all the time, so I wanted to play too. Then me and my dad started watching shows like Hullabaloo and Shindig! and all these bands from England when the British Invasion was coming in: The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were on Ed Sullivan, and I was really getting into it. So Dad basically got us motivated to play this stuff, and then we started playing out a lot, just doing parties and stuff. At some point someone asked us, “Who’s singing?”
No one in the band was really a singer. We wanted to find a singer, and we knew Question Mark and he said he could sing. Actually, my sisters knew him because he had a reputation as one of the best dancers around the area, you know? And my sisters used to go watch him dance, so they recommended Question Mark, and we tried him out and he sounded real good. He covered Mick Jagger, and we thought, "Well, we could do a lot of Rolling Stones cover songs…” So we started doing that.
The Vietnam War was happening, and Larry Borjas and Robert Martinez were the right age to get drafted, so they both joined the Army. I wasn't too much aware of Vietnam, but I was more aware of it after they started telling me they were going to be drafted. They didn't want to go to Vietnam, and if they enlisted, they would have a choice of where they wanted to go. So that’s what they did. They enlisted and got sent to Germany, so they didn’t have to go to Vietnam. But after they joined up, we were kind of left out in the cold.
So right before they went into service, we got a keyboard player named Frank Rodriguez. We were looking for a keyboard player anyway, because a lot of bands coming out had that great organ sound, like the Moody Blues, you know?
So we were looking for a keyboard player, and that’s when we found Frank Rodriguez. Me and Frank, we were like the young kids who wanted to hang out with the big guys. Frank was only 13 years old when he joined the band. The only way we could hang out with the older guys was to play music with them, so that’s what we did.
Then we got Frank Lugo, who played bass, and we started writing songs. One day, Frank started playing a little organ riff, and we really liked it a lot. I kinda came up with the chord riff, and every time we practiced, we recorded everything. At first it didn’t have words. Then Question Mark said he had words for it, but I thought he was just singing off the top of his head. I thought he was just improvising.
How we came up with the name “96 Tears,” see, when we were putting the song together, Question Mark was singing, “Too Many Teardrops,” and I think we wanted to call it that, but then our drummer said, "Let's call it ‘69 Tears!’"
And we said, "Well, it's a real catchy name, but we don't think that they’ll say that on the radio; it’s too dirty.”
Even though I was only 14 when we were recorded the song and 15 when it came out, I knew what 69 meant. The Rolling Stones almost got banned for doing the same thing on The Ed Sullivan Show when they sang, “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” the censors at the Ed Sullivan Show thought that line was too dirty, so they had to change it to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.”
So the drummer said, "Let's turn the numbers around!"
I said, "What do you mean?"
And he said, "Let's call it ‘96 Tears,’ you know?"
All of a sudden there were light bulbs and stuff, and we said, "YEAH, THAT'S IT!"
So that's how we came up with the name.
TOP 40 RADIO
We went to this producer named Lilly Gonzales. We had gone to her a year before that, and she had turned us down, but she said, “Well, you don’t sound like you’re ready yet; why don’t you come back next year?” And that’s basically what we did. I guess we got turned down at every venue, so we went back to her the next year and played her our new songs, and she said, "Yeah, I’ll put you through now."
She owned a four-track recording studio in Bay City, Michigan, and that's where we recorded “96 Tears” and “The Midnight Hour.” Miss Gonzales had a Mexican label down in McAllen, Texas, and she found a lot of Mexican bands. She had a Mexican store in Saginaw too.
But Miss Gonzales didn’t really want us to be a Mexican band, because she really played a lot of rock ‘n’ roll too. So this was our only opportunity to get out there. I hate to say this, but back in the 60s there was a lot of prejudice.
I think if we had gone to a white record company, they would have just laughed at us. I think they would've turned us down, because we were so young. We were only in high school, you know? Miss Gonzales gave us a shot. She quickly started a record label called Pa-Go-Go Records and sent us 500 copies of the “96 Tears” single.
So me, Question Mark, and the rest of the guys started hitting all the stores, dropping them off. First we went to the radio station, WKNX in Saginaw. They told us, “Well, you better drop them off at the store first and see if they sell.” That's just what we did.
We hit all the other radio stations, and Rob Dyer and Dick Dave at WKNX said, "Yeah, if you guys can help us out, we'll help you out, you know? If you play for us at gigs, and do promotions for the station, we'll play your record and get your PR going.”
We weren't making that much money anyway. I mean, all we wanted to do was get the record out. So WKNX started playing it; I think they were the first. I just wanted to hear it on the radio to see what kind of reaction it got. And WKNX used to have a “Battle of the Songs,” like a “Battle of the Bands,” only they played different songs on the radio and then people called to tell them which one they liked better. And I just wanted to phone in and go, “Wow, I heard this song, and it’s great,” but I never did.
I was actually in the 9th Grade when the record came out, and I’d be walking down the halls and people would come up to me and say, "Hey, Bobby, I heard your song on the radio!”
I thought I was the only one who listened to the “Battle of the Songs,” you know? But I came to realize that everybody was listening to it, so we started doing those gigs for WKNX, and then we took the record down to this guy Bob at WTAC radio, and he made the same kind of offer to us that WKNX did. Bob said, “Yeah, you guys play for me, and I'll play your song, and it will get a lot of people to come out and see you play.”
We said, “Great, let’s do it!”
So Bob started booking us and we were playing down in this place in Mount Holly, and all of a sudden, from that time on, it was crazy. First they played it in Saginaw, then Flint, and then all the record stores started calling us up 'ause they were out of records. And I couldn't believe it, you know? We had this big pile of records, and we dropped some more off.
So we said, “Let's go down to Detroit and hit DTFW,” because that was like the big time. We were kinda intimidated by Detroit, but we went down there and dropped off the record at DTFW, and they kind of looked at us like, "Well, OK, yeah, sure."
When the song made number one in Flint, we got a call from DTFW for more records, but we’d already sent them some. Back then, radio stations would get thousands of singles all the time and throw them right in the trash. I guess that’s what they’d done with ours. So we went down there and dropped off some more.
They started playing us in Detroit, and people started caring and were requesting it. And DKSW, the biggest station in town, was left no choice but to start playing it too. It made number one at DKSW and people were telling me, “YOUR SONG IS NUMBER ONE ALL OVER THE STATE!”
I couldn’t really comprehend it, ya know? I had people I didn’t even know saying, “Yeah, your song is going number one,” and I was looking around like, “Huh?” I didn’t even what that meant—“number one?” You mean, in the morning? Is that good? I mean, does number one mean you’re the lowest level, or what? I didn't understand the rating system, until someone told me, “No, your song is the best song on the radio right now, in the area, you know?”
So we had to go down to the record store and sign autographs. I was just awed by it, you know? Like when you go to see a star and you want their autograph and once you get that autograph, you’re like, “Wow, I got it!” So I was awed by people wanting my autograph. I’d sign anything.
All of a sudden we had all these major companies coming at us, wanting to license our songs. We went with Cameo Parkway Records, which was Neil Bogart’s company. Neil set us up on some TV show in New York City, I forget what it was, and we went on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. I used to watch Bandstand every Saturday morning. I was thinking, “Gosh, I’m gonna be on American Bandstand!”
I was kind of intimidated by Dick Clark, but he was really a down-to-earth person. He came to our dressing room and shook our hands, and he wanted to take a picture with us. He was real good people, and from that time on we toured for him. Dick Clark put us on the bill with the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Electric Prunes, the McCoys, the Shadows of the Night, the Seeds... We were traveling in a van and took turns driving, everybody with the equipment in the van. It was fun traveling around, playing, and a great way to see the country.
And we did some Beach Boys tours too, and that was great. I used to love listening to those guys play. I used to think, “God, I wish I could do some of that live.” They were great. But we never could get close to them, 'cause they'd come in a limo and go right on stage. And soon as they were done, they left in the limo and were gone.
My mom and dad were real proud of me, just nervous about me getting involved in drugs and stuff. On one of the first tours, I was about to get on the tour bus with those bands—the McCoys, the Shadows of the Night, the Seeds—and my dad said to me, “I’ll sign the permission form so you can go on the road, only if you promise you’ll never take anything in your life.”
I said, “What do you mean, Dad?”
And he goes, “You know, marijuana…”
So I said, “Sure ,Dad, I never even smoked cigarettes!”
As soon as I got on the bus, somebody behind me said, “Gosh, I wish I had a joint”
Frank, the bass player, said, “Joint? What do you mean, a joint? What are you talking about?”
And the guy goes, “Ya know, weed...”
Franks says, “Yeah, what about weed?”
And the guy goes, “Marijuana!”
And I go, “Holy shit, my dad warned me about that!”
We were also all influenced a lot by Little Richard and his whole wild-man act. He played a lot of real high-tempo music, and you can hear that on out records. Question Mark did the whole Little Richard act. He was definitely the star of the band and everybody loved him. He was a hell of an entertainer. He’d do flips and dance all over the place, was way before Michael Jackson. Question Mark was just as good as James Brown, but I wasn’t really into soul music. I was more into rock ‘n’ roll, like the first Rolling Stones album, you know?
When “96 Tears” went to number one nationally in the fall of 1966, we knocked the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” out of the number-one spot. That blew me away. I used to watch the Monkees on TV all the time. To me, they were like the Beatles when they first came out. They’d ignite chaos, running all over the place, playing their songs, and their TV show was the first kind of rock-‘n’-roll video program, years before MTV. And I loved it.
So when “96 Tears” went number one nationally, “Last Train to Clarksville” went to number two, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” to number three, “Poor Side of Town” to number four, and "Walk Away Renée" to number five.
HEROES AND VILLAINS
That’s around the time we played Cobo Hall in Detroit. That was the big time. Once me and Frank arrived at Cobo Hall with our girlfriends, there were all these people coming in and I thought, “Gosh, I remember when I came to see the Rolling Stones here.” It looked like the same kind of a situation; everyone was lined up with their tickets. It was like going to watch a concert by somebody else. And I was thinking, “God, are we really playing here? Or is this a dream?”
When our song went number one across the country, we got a chance to go from East Coast to West Coast. We hit American Bandstand a couple of times, and we did another show that Dick Clark had, Where the Action Is, out in LA. They had go-go dancers and stuff, and the house band was Paul Revere & the Raiders—they were always on that show. But I never talked to the go-go dancers, because they were a lot older than I was. They were like 18 or 19, so it was kinda tough being 15 or 16 years old. The only time I’d get to meet girls that were my age was at teen dances we played, but those were becoming fewer and fewer.
We did a lot of concerts and stuff, and we did some gigs with the Yardbirds, who were one of my favorite bands. I couldn’t wait to see them. I couldn’t wait to watch Jeff Beck; I loved his guitar playing. But then, I guess he quit the band or went on a hiatus, and Jimmy Page took over. I was so depressed, but when I heard Jimmy Page playing, I went, “Wow, man, he’s pretty good too!” So I was impressed with him, but Jimmy was checking out Question Mark when we were playing, looking like, “Where the hell did this guy come from?”
One of the biggest disappointments I ever had was with the Doors. I used to love the Doors, and “Light My Fire” was one of my favorite songs. Our song had already come and gone by the time “Light My Fire” came out, but we were still gigging and stuff, and then I read something by Jim Morrison, who said, “Well, I don’t like bubblegum music like Question Mark & the Mysterians and the Monkees,” and all this stuff. He was putting us down!
I mean Jim was a great writer, and I still admire him, but it bummed me out to hear that from him. I guess bubblegum music might even be considered punk, so I was defiantly a punk. But Morrison really bummed me out because, whenever I hear “Light My Fire” on the radio, I think of those times.
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk Magazine, which is part of the reason you even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, pleasekillme.com. You should also follow him on Twitter: @Legs__McNeil.
Previously: Moe Tucker - Snapshots of the Underground