“96 Tears” / ? and the Mysterians
My computer’s music library is organized alphabetically by artist – so this band, with its name beginning with a punctuation mark, is right at the top. As soon as I open my music player (if it hasn’t been set on shuffle), that bouncy Farfisa organ riff comes bopping out of my speakers. Even as I click on the button to switch to another tune, I’m smiling.
I always thought ? and the Mysterians was a novelty act, so imagine my surprise to find out that they are still around, with the original line-up and everything. They never called attention to their Hispanic background, but this 1966 record made them the first Latino band ever to score a #1 hit. After releasing a slew of catchy singles, ? and the Mysterians fell by the wayside, victims of record company politics. The rights to the original recording fell into the hands of Allen Klein, never a good sign – the sample below is a weaker version recorded years later, so unless you've got a digital bootleg (sscchhhhhhhhh) you'll just have to imagine, or remember, what the original sounded like.
But the Mysterians reunited in the 1970s and again in the late 1990s, and now chiefly play around their home state of Michigan. Their leader, ?, always wears a hat and sunglasses and refuses to go by any other name (he legally changed his name to ? years ago, though sources disagree on whether his original name was Rudy Martinez or Ted Cohen). Keeping this up for five years would be annoying; doing it for 40 years qualifies ? as a Lovable Loony. He claims to have come from Mars and to have lived with dinosaurs in a past life. Probably by now he believes it.
As golden oldies go, there are few vintage rock songs more likeable than “96 Tears.” That hypnotic organ riff, played by Frank Rodriguez, may just be two chords -- something you could pick out yourself in about two minutes – but it’s instantly recognizable on the jukebox or radio, and then you can’t get it out of your head. The slightly slurred, rambling lyrics are quintessential adolescent revenge fantasy, about getting back at the girl who’s broken his heart. (Picture a teenage boy sitting in his bedroom fuming incoherently, rocking back and forth on his bed, muttering to himself.) There is absolutely nothing sophisticated about it – it goes from the resentful “you’re way on top now / since you left me / you’re always laughing / way down at me “ to “and when the sun comes up / I’ll be on top / you’ll be right down there / looking up.” Today he’s the one crying 96 tears, but someday she’ll be crying 96 tears. That’s about it.
The melody isn’t much either – ? kind of raps around one chord’s top note, then shifts to the other chord’s top note. Disconnected phrases like “Watch out now” and “I’m gonna get you” and the incessantly repeated “cry cry cry now” are just vocal licks, strung together almost haphazardly. Parts of it sound like Eric Burdon doing the talking-blues thing on early Animals tracks, but it’s also got the sort of crude energy that inspired punk. The drums are just as repetitive as the organ, bashing cheerfully on and on; the guitar strums from Chord 1 to Chord 2 and back again, the bass does its timekeeping duty. Loud and simple and contagious.
Any garage band could play this – and throughout my teen years, most did. This, “Louie Louie,” and “Gloria”, that’s what passed for a teen-band repertoire in the late 1960s. And you know what? It was fine.
96 Tears sample