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Guided by Voices 

Garage rock doesn't get much weirder than ? and the Mysterians.

Lost in space: ? (in sunglasses) says he was born on - Mars before the time of the dinosaurs.
  • Lost in space: ? (in sunglasses) says he was born on Mars before the time of the dinosaurs.
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 venture.

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 life."

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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