Why Michelle Obama’s Portraitist Will Only Paint African Americans

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership today on Studio 360.

S2: Why Michelle Obama’s official portrait is a case study in how to appreciate art in the digital age.

S3: I got some emails from people who said they didn’t like it and then they went to see it in person and then they emailed me afterwards and said it made me cry. It’s so beautiful. I mean paintings are meant to be viewed in person. Amy Sherrill gives me a gallery tour of her latest paintings plus.

S1: 96 Tears is probably the first punk rock song. We trace the roots of American punk back to Detroit with a song that hit the top of the charts in 1966.

S4: It’s the first garage punk song with its piercing organ riff bare bones vocals and lo fi production outside of the organ. That’s everything you want that will come later.

S5: Our latest American icon 96. Here’s my question mark in the mysteriousness. Just ahead on Studio 360 right after this.

S6: This is Studio 360. I’m Kurdish and I’m sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the first level of guard. This was Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden. I’d like to have the roasted chicken piece. Very well done. Editing is all about timing. I tried to get a little bit away from the actual subject. You must get sick in your place right. Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

S7: Let’s just start by saying Wow and again let me just take a minute. It’s amazing.

S8: That’s Michelle Obama last year at the National Gallery at the unveiling of the official portraits of her and her husband in the suddenly famous painting of her. Her skin is gray and she looks very serious a little intense and she’s wearing this geometric print dress against a background that’s solid robin’s egg blue.

S9: But I’m even more proud of the extraordinary woman an artist who made this portrait possible. Amy Sheryl.

S10: Amy Sheryl had been a successful artist but known as much for getting a heart transplant a few years ago at age 39. As for her paintings.

S11: But once that picture became public people suddenly had a lot of opinions about Amy Sheryl and her work. Many of them complained that the portrait didn’t look sufficiently like this smiling electorate telegenic Michelle Obama. They adored I’ll take the criticism because there’s no way in the world I can make a painting that mean the millions of people that are invested in her emotionally and every other kind of way happy. As.

S12: Tough as that must have been Gerald’s work is kind of a case study in how to appreciate art in the digital age that is in real life.

S3: Looking at the actual thing I got some e-mails from people who said they didn’t like it and then they went to see it in person and then they emailed me afterwards and said it made me cry. It’s so beautiful. I can’t you know. So it’s it’s I mean paintings are meant to be viewed in person.

S10: Which is exactly why when we made plans to get together and talk we decided to do that at the Houser and worth Gallery in New York City Chelsea where she’s having a solo show called The Heart of the matter. The exhibits in a huge white loft space and consists of eight huge portraits of non famous black people.

S13: So this one which I see is called handsome is indeed this handsome young man looking straight at us as in all of your portraits. He’s wearing a short sleeve polka dot blue shirt with white pants on flashy unexceptional pose just hanging out just hanging out monochrome Monroe.

S14: What color is that creamy Gray. Yeah it’s a nice background vanilla. Gray skin which all of your people have. Yes. Lately or last decade or so yeah since I found myself.

S15: Really bad my artistic DNA I say that yeah.

S14: So that wasn’t until you’re 30 something mid to late 30s. Yeah I guess I’m a late bloomer so. So the finding your DNA in terms of this straightforward highly representational style and the gray scale skin will all happen at the same time.

S16: Yeah. I mean just trying to figure out what kind of art area you know it’s the painter what kind of paintings I wanted to make. For the rest of my life you know and that’s I started thinking about that in college and went from kind of self portrait like. Frida Kahlo Salvador Dali esque paintings to this. But it took me a long time to get there.

S17: You know does that feel in retrospect or at the time like going from being young to being grown up. Yeah yeah kind of it does. Yeah. Let’s look at this giant one which might possibly work because of its scale and because.

S14: You’ve started doing things that aren’t just monochrome it’s called precious jewels by the sea. This is there’s this guy there’s a beach there’s a there’s an umbrella there are people on.

S18: Piggyback. Yeah it’s these there’s two paintings in the show that are the largest paintings that I’ve done thus far in my career. For one main reason is just that I have a bigger studio now. So it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and just didn’t have the space for it. And also just had to really consider what it meant for me to move away from the individual paintings I loosely call them portraits into something more with more of a narrative I guess. And so I deal with that. By having I think well I think for the most part my horizon lines are gonna be low lower. So there’s still there’s a lot of blue sky a lot of blue sky there. Yeah. So it’s still effectuated the same kind of quiet serenity that you might fill in the individual portraits but a lot I don’t know.

S17: Do you worry that like well this is going to be too likeable too cute to something like that.

S15: No I don’t. And.

S18: I guess the main reason that I don’t is because you really don’t get to see images of African-Americans in these kinds of scenarios. You know historically speaking like within the art canon. And so that was the impetus for me to make the work in the first place was just thinking about you know one what kind of work I wanted to make but then looking at the work that was being made around me and thinking about what was missing and for me that’s what was missing and so the movie Big Fish was also a huge inspiration because it really got me thinking about those kinds of narratives and Mr Burt frivolity.

S15: How Tim Burton. Yes Tim Burton. Mm hmm. And so yes they are simple and beautiful and light and I like to call them a resting place. And I think that’s that’s why it’s important.

S17: The idea again of the colors of the clothes these people are wearing sometimes they’re old fashioned sometimes they’re modern and bold they’re very.

S13: But the clothes ones I was drawn to the clothes because they’re graphic and colorful and especially given the monochrome of most of the backgrounds and the anus of the skin color. Yeah. So are you. Is it her clothes one of your subjects.

S19: They I do put a great amount of thought into it based I mean because it is like a huge part of the painting because there is nothing else. There’s not a background they’re not standing on a street corner or anything like that. So all those things I do take into consideration to make an interesting painting.

S20: Good for you. Yeah. Admitting that you want to be entertaining. I like painting beautiful paintings and so that’s.

S19: Yeah. All these decisions that I make her aesthetic first and then all the discourse and you know all that other stuff becomes comes afterwards. But it’s not like I go in to the studio thinking about words and wanting to say this with this color I do this with that you know it’s just like I see it. I think it’s cool and I work with it. And then you know I let the art historians write about it or have your own like oh look what I was doing.

S17: Yeah.

S19: A lot of a lot of that for me comes like a year or two later. Well

S17: you’re not you’re doing not what Tom Wolfe Well accused artists of doing which isn’t making the Painted Word right.

S14: I mean don’t start with a theory or an idea. Here’s what I’m going to do to enact my theory.

S20: Yeah it’s backwards. And the gray the gray skin came that way.

S19: Yeah it came because I thought it looked cool. And then in hindsight I looked back and I I thought you know maybe I was subconsciously struggling with. The. The work being marginalized knowing that I was painting black figures and that that in itself kit could be turned into a political statement and wanting to try to steer the conversation into a more universal experience. And it’s not that the work can’t be employed in that way it can be employed in many different ways and mean many different things to different people. But I just didn’t want it to be sequestered to that one area to get a little more generic in some way or universal audiences.

S14: Yeah. Universal. Yeah. Interesting to see. Have you ever painted a portrait of a white person with gray skin. No. Interesting. No I won’t.

S20: No it wouldn’t be interesting. Really. Yeah. I don’t think so because only black people can be have gray skin. No. I just don’t hate white people. Oh. Because one because there’s millions and millions of white people and white people painting white people.

S19: I mean if you think about how many black painters there were if you think about art history from cavemen to president and you think about the fact that the first black art show was probably in the early nineteen hundreds. It’s like you guys said no I get it. Yeah.

S20: So that is that is a political act though. It is. It is. It’s a reclaiming of time. Yeah yeah. And it’s an art.

S18: You know I feel like it’s my obligation in a good way to because I’m a favorite of painters because I do have that power to assert those narratives that you know into the art canon that were that weren’t ever present there before. Sure yeah.

S17: So it’s so did you always think oh I’m going to be a painter because you know coming of age as you did in the 90s. Right. Yeah. I mean you know painting was. Yeah. You know. And indeed for your whole life. Yeah. But did you I say not painting is my thing. Yeah. For the most part yeah. I mean my my parents tried to convince me otherwise. For about three or four years about art in general about our and not about the medium of oil paint.

S16: Well they didn’t even know what that was or what it meant. You know it’s just like they were just buying stuff that was on a list that my art teacher gave them for me to buy you know. So my parents were born in the 1930s. So I know they had you. Yeah. So to become an artist was like What do you mean you want to be an artist. Like that’s not how you gonna make money. I’m not even sure that they had even been to museums up until that point. You know they went to see plays and other stuff but museums weren’t. This is in Georgia. Yeah. Even. I mean the only my mom has been to a museum because she had to come to see me. You know it’s not it’s not like it was part of their culture growing up right. I mean they grew up in the south in Mobile Alabama.

S21: So it’s just you know I always say they’re lucky that they weren’t lynched know merit extremely religious like a Pentecostal church. It’s not Pentecostal. It’s like the.

S22: It’s called the Worldwide Church of God. And I think they’re still around it was non-denominational so we were kind of Jewish.

S16: Because we kept the Sabbath. We we like kept all of the holy days of the Old Testament. So day of atonement Passover days of 11th century Feast of Tabernacles it was a lie.

S22: So there. So it’s it’s not. I wouldn’t call it fundamentalist religion but it was just strange in the sense of like you couldn’t celebrate two birthday you couldn’t wear makeup you know like there was those kinds of things that were a little bit extreme.

S17: Well so it wasn’t just the normal parental thing of saying hey art How are you going to make sure. It was probably that added to it. Right. I mean yeah I mean I think for my parents it was it was about the fact that you know.

S22: My father was the first of his family to go to college. He was a dentist. So I mean all those things matter it’s about creating a legacy. And they didn’t see that happening with art. You know my father was a dentist my great uncle was a mortician and my aunt found a way to get their master’s degrees at NYU. Back at that time they had programs for that kind of stuff but so education was important.

S21: There was there was and it was the ambition Yeah and it was a way out. Yeah. How did you make your way to art and design. I want to do that.

S23: I say it just chose me. I don’t you know. I had a great art teacher who really encouraged me even from high school to create images that were my own ideal. And it’s just I don’t know what I felt comfortable doing. I don’t have to interact with people. I was super self-conscious and you know I didn’t do a lot. That I was interested in because I didn’t want to be around people that I didn’t know I was just like over-the-top self-conscious. So it was easy for me to do it. And it’s what I excelled at. And there was no conversation about visual learning them. But I was a visual learner. So it’s just you know what my proclivity was it’s to do this stuff or to be a chef.

S15: That’s what I was so good at was cooking. And you were like the last pre internet generation as well. I got my e-mail address when I was 24. There you go.

S24: Which which might be why you had the time and inclination to do this.

S25: Yeah I mean I say that’s when people ask me why I do what I do. I said I think it’s because of when I was born because though I didn’t there were I had a Tandy two thousand. We had to pretty much coded ourselves to like make the games work. And for me making art was painting a figure I really didn’t know who Jackson Pollock was Andy Warhol or you know these other creators and thinkers that were bending the rules. So I this is where I grew up thinking I was supposed to do.

S24: And so that’s what I did to be good and be really good be realistic. Yeah. Did you ever have a non representational phase.

S22: I kind of did when I studied with Grace Hart again in graduate school.

S23: The paintings got a little looser and a little drip here. But ultimately they never lost the finger and it just wasn’t something that I knew I could expound on for the rest of my life. And so I knew I was still looking for what it was that I was going to make.

S24: You seemed like you need a an armature or I’m going to do within this thing. You need some kind of almost conceptual aesthetic structure maybe me you two make work now.

S21: I mean like you’re not doing you know changing crazily from abstraction to this to whatever. Yeah well the thing is you know you’re doing this you kind of know what you’re doing. Yeah.

S25: Once you become known for something then that’s kind of what you do.

S23: Like I could change it but I think at this point in my career that would be a mistake. Right. Career wise yeah. It’s like you make Coca-Cola you want Coca-Cola it’s a it’s like Coca-Cola like we say it’s not a diet coke.

S21: So you know Cherry Coke. Yeah.

S25: So what you do becomes your brand essentially and you can expound on that and and you know like I went from individual to these multi figure and I’ll keep challenging myself to do different things but they will all tie into you know what I this this body of work and I’m practical of you. Yeah well you know I had friends who particular one friend who made really great work became really well-known and didn’t want to make that work anymore and he stopped making the work and he doesn’t he didn’t have a gallery after a while like he just ended up not being an artist for a long time he still trying to make his way back in.

S17: Do you ever like. I got him to do is still alive for a landscape today. I’ll just keep it secret.

S25: No I have no interest. I love painting faces. I love painting the figures so the Obamas.

S17: Yeah. Are they the only commission you’ve done. Yes. Do you want to do any others. Not really.

S16: I mean if I could choose two people to do I would do Serena Williams and I would do Megan Marco.

S17: I could happen. Yeah maybe when it was unveiled Michelle Obama told this story of meeting you and the interview in the Oval Office. Now I’ve been in the Oval Office once with no president in it just empty. It’s pretty amazing just to step in. The thing is you say it’s a big job interview. Yeah. The biggest job interview. Yeah. And it’s the Oval Office and there’s the president and the first lady. What was in your heart and feeling in head. I was I was nervous the first thing that happened and I don’t know.

S22: Whether anybody else noticed this when they walk in. But the rest of the White House is like this really kind of strange fluorescent green light. And then when you walk to the Oval Office it’s like lit for television and that. Almost triggered my brain to think that it wasn’t happening when it really was happening sort of for about five seconds. I was like stuck in this moment if like my trip dreaming or is you know or is yeah. Barack walking towards me. And so I snapped out of it and yeah shook his hand. I was nervous and he’s is he. It just so happened that we all were the same color that day. And so he’s like looks like you got the memo. And I was like memo. What were you talking. You know I was so nervous I didn’t get the joke and I got the joke and against my sit down before I say anything stupid. But it was it was great. This is 30 minute conversation about what I do what else I do. I started painting and life.

S17: So if she had been you know Michelle Robinson Chicago hospital executive would you would the image be precisely what we see in the National Guard. That’s interesting. Mm hmm. Probably yeah because what I presented to the world I think is the real her. And not the.

S16: The image of you know the millions of photographs that we have on with her on the Internet.

S17: I mean these are very were these big beautiful smiling and these and well look at those arms and all those Michelle Obama.

S16: Yeah I think I think for me that my paintings are personal and private and that’s the kind of feel that I wanted to give to something personal and private and not a glamour shot or anything like that. It’s a painting and it’s a sobering moment in history and a very special moment. So I wanted to. You know all of that I and I’m saying this now I don’t think I was thinking about that when I was making it exactly but at the end of it when I look back at it like those are the things that I that I think we’re kind of circulating in my head in 10 years it will just be one big thing you did do you do you look forward to that time when it’s not all about that all about the Michelle Obama’s portrait list.

S22: Yeah. You know it’s funny I went from the artist who survived a heart transplant to become a famous painter to the artist that painted Michelle Obama. And I’m pretty sure I could climb Mt. Everest and I would still be that because she is still who she is and she has such a great influence you know worldwide.

S16: And you know and I guess I’m ok with that.

S14: I mean sure it has been a great pleasure meeting you. Nice to meet you and meet you. Thanks. Thank you.

S10: Amy Cheryl’s show and Houser and worth in New York City is free to see but it’s up for just a few more days.

S26: For the second and third weeks of October 1966 the song that topped the charts was reach out I’ll be there by the four tops.

S10: It is quintessential feel good Motown soulful Poppy big hearted. But this very week in 1966 another song bumped.

S27: I’ll be there out of number one. It was also recorded in Michigan a bit north of Detroit. But this song could not be more different than I’ll be there instead of a shoulder to cry on. It promised after a love gone wrong that the X was gonna regret it. Also at a very different more basic sound. The first Prato stirrings of Detroit punk for our next American icon story. Pay the road Rafael and Jocelyn Gonzalez have this story of 96 Tears. My question mark and the mysterious that’s an actual question mark in the front man’s name. They were a group of Mexican-American teenagers who recorded the song that made America cry cry cry cry. It’s 1962 and three kids in Saginaw and Bay City fall hard for the fast driving tunes of the ventures and Duane Eddy.

S28: So they get together to start their own band.

S29: We were playing debentures and all kinds of instrumentals. We didn’t sing. It was just totally instrumentals. I’m probably Valderrama. I’m the founder of question mark and mysterious and a guitar player. My parents were migrant workers from Texas and they will come up here in the summertime and work out in the fields. Then they got jobs and General Motors and. Found out what it was like to make better money and then we bought a farm in Bay City Michigan.

S30: Valderrama dreamed of playing guitar when he first saw Les Paul on TV but he never thought his family could afford one. Then one day his dad brought home an acoustic that was a little banged up but still had strings and Valderrama picked up a few lessons from his brother.

S31: The trio he formed with friends Larry bought a house on drums and Robert Martinez on guitar played their surf rock or marshes at local festivals and dances but people kept asking well who sings in a band.

S32: I go oh no we don’t sing in a band we just play instrumentals. He said well you guys should get a singer. Robert said he knew a singer was his brother Rudy. Rudy Martinez he sang like Mick Jagger and Rudy was a great dancer. So we hired him as our lead singer frontman.

S30: Rudy went by the name Question Mark and he always wore dark glasses. He already had that rock star magnetism and he emerged as a creative force in the group.

S31: But Robert says there was another crucial element to the group’s evolution that was the addition of Frank Rodriguez on keyboards who’d been playing since he was a young child.

S33: Now they needed a real name for the band and they found one on Saturday morning TV.

S34: We are now in the mysterious was a 1957 Japanese sci fi flick about humanoid aliens that arrive from Mars demanding land and Earth’s women to breed new offspring. In early 1966 question mark in the mysterious and started to do some demos and the lineup changed around to include Frank Lugo on bass and Eddie Serato on drums.

S35: One time we were a practice know Frank big house and I was first learning the power chord. I would play from the back aboard playing back.

S32: Frankie started playing keys onto it and our drummer Eddie Serato and Frank started playing a bass in the Keys and quite smart started singing into it and he kept saying to any teardrops question mark has said that he already had this song going around in his head when the instrumentation took shape with the rest of the band.

S36: The original title was too many teardrops and then sort of as sophomoric humor among the boys there like we should call it 69 tears.

S30: Rob St. Mary is the director of the Detroit punk archive and a longtime Michigan Radio host and producer.

S36: But then they also realized that they’re like well if we do that they won’t put us on the radio with that I mean because this was of course a year or two before where the Rolling Stones had to change it from let’s spend the night together to Let’s Spend Some Time Together on Ed Sullivan. So this was still an era where you couldn’t get away with that kind of stuff changing the title to 96 Tears.

S4: The mysterious next move was to somehow get the song recorded and distributed IPO Lily Gonzalez gave us the opportunity to record and to take a chance in as her one label was very centered on traditional sort of rancheros Mexican music of border music.

S37: But Lily Gonzalez had another label called Pogo go where she was releasing songs sung in English and they said you know we’ve got some songs and we’ve been playing this rock and roll music and she’s like okay we recorded 96 Tears in basically Michigan plays God shows recording studio art. Charles was the owner and he had a closet that he turned into the control room where he headed for a track record here and there.

S36: This gentleman since I guess sometime in the 50s he was recording a lot of polkas.

S31: There was a lot of Polish immigrants into Bay County and into the thumb the lower peninsula of Michigan is shaped like a mitten and the thumb is generally Central Michigan is the area north of Detroit.

S36: These kids went in and they ran through it about guess eight or nine times until they got pretty much a perfect take. There was no overdubbing or anything and there you go there’s your there’s your acetate there’s two sides good luck you have this catchy little couple note intro on network and they get you into the song. And it just chugs along. To. You. About. Two minutes you. Have. To carry on. Your way out of the top down.

S34: 96 Tears combines a number of musical threads running through rock and roll in the 1960s before they were question mark and the mysterious.

S38: There were also a surf rock band surf rock bands used a lot of steady eighth notes John paralysis the chief pop critic of the New York Times the batman theme was around in the mid 60s too with repeated notes and major to minor chords. It was in the air it just hunted. It just sounded better in 96 Tears.

S39: And then there’s the instrument delivering 96 Tears famous hook. It’s a Vox continental Oregon not a far FESA as many people think it points towards the ethnic roots of the group because it sounds like an accordion.

S40: Robert Balder Rama’s dad had played the instrument in some of the mysterious fans recognize that sound to being Mexican-American and growing up with that accordion sound that kind of thing that originated I guess in Germany and Poland that came to Mexico. But the the feel of the song 96 Tears in what question mark does with it definitely has calls back to that. That accordion interplay of chords and notes and close chromatic figures that you can hear sometimes in that music.

S38: Well to me the beauty of 96 Tears is that this is America in the late 19th century you have German and Czech immigrants coming to Mexico to work and they bring their accordions the Mexicans love the sound of the accordion they pick it up they pick up the sound of the polka they create nor retain your music beloved in northern Mexico and southern Texas the sound of that accordion translates very nicely onto a Vox continental organ that box continental organ is played by some kids in Michigan. This is America.

S41: When records got pressed Leonard Gonzalez told us he goes what you do is take the singles to the radio stations in the local area so you can get some airplay and take the records to the record stores.

S30: They must have had great. Door to door salesman ship because 96 Tears started to pick up steam with local audiences.

S41: Question I got a phone call from one of deejays in Saginaw that he was WSM. People start calling in requests in our song and then we got cause on the record stores that we sold out. We also took our single to Bob Flint Michigan WAC and we got cast on the record stars in Flint sold out.

S42: C.K. LW a.m. eight hundred also known as The Big Eight was based across the river in Windsor Ontario. The station had a powerful aim signal that covered the Detroit area and reached cities as far away as Toledo and Cleveland in Ohio.

S4: They eventually ended up on the big ape which was CKD w based out of Windsor. They were a station that could take a regional single and break it nationally. They had that much pull. And use that.

S30: Roberto avant Mira is a professor at University of Texas El Paso and author of Rock the Nation Latino identities and the Latin rock diaspora. He’s been studying how Latin music along with blues and country influenced the sound of rock and roll.

S43: Johnny Cash a ring of fire. I don’t know if we can claim definitively that that ring of fire is like you know the the first song to use Mariachi style trumpets in like a you know a country song. I think it sounds to me like what I think on guitar song it sounds like with the trumpets blasting.

S42: The 1963 hit Louie Louie by the Kingsman shares some musical DNA with 96 Tears. But it was originally written and performed in 1955 by a black musician named Richard Berry who based his composition on a Cuban tune called a local church.

S28: As we get further into the late 50s and early 60s it’s not just Latino musical elements we’re hearing in American rock we’re hearing Latino musicians.

S44: This is a song that very overtly is a Latin song in the whole song is in Spanish. You have this kid Ritchie Valens who’s totally pretending that his name is Valens and his real name is not you know Richard Valenzuela he’s being played up as Ritchie Valens right to be more palatable to the mainstream. Wooly bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs the first thing that got my attention from that song was that famous countdown right. Does the one two one two three as Quatro and if you look at the album cover right it has this Mexican guy on the cover even though they’re wearing these like Egyptian costumes and pretending they’re Egyptian because they’re the pharaohs. Sam was not Sam but a guy named Domingo smoothie all right a Mexican American from from around Dallas Texas I believe Mexican enough that he felt compelled to throw Spanish into a song that became hugely widely popular. But at the same time he’s not Domingo Zamudio. He’s Sam the Sham.

S42: Ivan Mir says the racial politics of the time didn’t allow for the Mexican musicians in the mysterious and other bands to be open about their identity.

S45: And yet they couldn’t help but include markers of their culture in the music that Chicano movement which means you know pride in your culture and activism and you know being proud of who you are that doesn’t happen to the late 60s right late 60s early 70s Mexicans and Latinos are are sort of caught up in this. This dominant notion of assimilation trying to be as mainstream as you can be trying to cover up your your culture. Right. Trying to change your name. There is this fear about being too ethnic especially if you’re going into popular music or movies or whatever popular culture. And I think that’s definitely there in the 1960s.

S30: Ralph Valdes is the executive director of the Dearborn Arts Council and a longtime radio jock in Michigan.

S40: The mysterious Latin background resonated with him when he heard the song as a kid I grew up at a time when there were a lot of different ethnicities in my neighborhood but no one was encouraged to express it although we were proud of our culture it was more of like something that you kept amongst your family and didn’t celebrate as it is today. I think it would have been harder for them to make a hit out of a song that was more openly drawing from Hispanic roots. So I think they did it in a more clever way.

S31: Even if the mysterious weren’t consciously thinking of their ethnicity in the presentation of the band they certainly understood the value of having a distinct look. They dressed alike in cool paisley shirts with vests but most of their visual mystique came from a question mark.

S46: Their dynamic lead singer who never took off his shades I think a big part of the question mark the mysterious is Rudy. Q Question Mark is that a voice kind of sexy kind of Spanish kind of cool.

S42: Mary Cobra is the lead guitarist of The Detroit Cobras a rock and soul band that’s been around since the 90s.

S47: He thinks he’s from Mars. OK so let’s start with that. You know he thinks himself as an alien but he looks like a Mexican do in spandex and he does these you know very flashy dance moves. He always wears his shades. He never sees eyes.

S46: He’s really a mystery. He’s like fabulous here’s a question mark in an interview for the show Rock n Roll High School.

S30: This is when the band appeared at New York’s Coney Island High in the late 90s.

S48: I created him you know rock and roll you know but I mean okay you had a few entertainers have been referred to me and I want to say because they’ve been referred to me James Brown Prince Michael Jackson.

S36: To me I see him as part of this this tradition of Sun Ra. You have George Clinton that comes out of that. I think that in a way his I’m from outer space and in all of this stuff was a way to create a mythology around himself.

S31: After 96 Tears became a hit in Detroit. Neil Bogart a young V.P. at Cameo Parkway records who would become famous as president of Casablanca Records made a deal for the rights to 96 Tears. He reissued it on cameo with full marketing support and the still teenaged mysterious went out on the road.

S30: I was only 16 and frankly 15 our parents were not too crazy about that 96 Tears entered the Billboard charts at 112 in March of 1966 and began climbing on October 1st 1966. The band appeared on American Bandstand. Why do. You gotta.

S49: Run. You’re welcome.

S50: We’re at home now where we all got together. Yeah. Was I right in saying this is the first record.

S31: On October twenty ninth. 96 Tears reached number one. The song’s success was especially meaningful for their hometowns and the Detroit area.

S51: This really is the budding of of a Detroit rock scene in a way because before that there wasn’t anything there had been big singles on fortune and big singles obviously and Motown.

S52: By 1965 but rock and roll music didn’t hit nationally until March right. And that was 1965. So Mitch Ryder hits Ben as the same Bob Seeger 65 66.

S34: And then there was 96 Tears. These bands caused a major label feeding frenzy in Detroit. In the years following the song’s release think of Seattle after Nirvana in the grunge era so you have you S or C on capital.

S51: You have frigid pink on London Records. You have the stooges in the M.C. 5 and Elektra. Like we have to pay attention to Detroit now as a rock city. It’s not just Berry Gordy it’s not just Motown.

S31: Rob St. Mary says that these Detroit rock singles reflected the city’s no nonsense attitude towards music the rough and tumble simplicity of 96 Tears and how it was recorded signifies what we now call garage rock. Roberto Ivan Miller.

S43: I want to say anywhere from 1964 to 1966 as the garage rock moment. It was this idea of stripped down music three chords right anybody could play three chords very basic songs basic riffs very basic lyrics right. It was about everybody thought they could be in a rock n roll band pop critic John paralysis.

S53: You could hear that that guitar was cranked up a little too loudly amplified. You could hear that the electric organ had maybe a couple of keys missing you could hear all of the defects. And that made it feel very human. As the 60s gave way to the 70s rock got more psychedelic and progressive and generally more complicated and adult 96 Tears was straightforward and honest with the kind of DIY attitude that would soon be attached to a rock rebellious sound coming out of England and New York.

S44: There’s a scholar a music scholar named John Savage. This scholar said that 96 Tears is possibly or probably the first punk rock song. Flagging McNeill.

S51: Who was the author of Please kill me and he was one of the editors of punk magazine said he says it’s a safe bet. It’s the first garage punk song. With its piercing organ riff. Bare bones vocals and lo fi production outside of the organ. That’s everything you want. That will come later.

S31: It’s ironic that this White Anglo sound could trace some of its roots to a bunch of Mexican kids in the Midwest. But for some Latino musicians who came after. It’s a personal inspiration.

S30: Ralph Valdes formed a Detroit area punk band in the 1970s called the algebra mothers are the moms for a lot of so-called punk new wave bands early on.

S54: There was possibly an underlying mission to take keyboards away from the progressive rock idiom and make it seem like you could own it again as a simpler instrument and 96 Tears kind of showed ways to do that. So for us as a band starting out we just felt like we had to have a Vox Continental.

S55: I’m Camilla Latta. I’m the only member of the Mexican Institute of Sound which is my music project. He was intriguing to have that song and to hear something like that that was kind of a funky ish pop song.

S56: I was amazed that those guys were Mexicans and they were in the middle of nowhere just doing these crazy quasi punk song. That was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Later in my life I discovered that most of the songs on that time were less edgy and more conventional and more poppy. Or at least the ones that succeed at that time. So for me this song to be like a top 20 hit in the US was a miracle was kind of a triumph for the underdogs.

S44: I think the Aretha Franklin version in 1967 is outstanding and I’ve been listening to that over and over and over and over.

S42: The cover versions of 96 Tears over the decades shows that artists are still finding something to cry about. The English punk band The Stranglers connected with the song.

S28: And there’s a Texas tornadoes version with Oregon and accordion.

S44: By the time you get to the 1990s you start to see it covered by Latin bands almost like rediscovering this song as a Latin song you know 20 30 years later.

S45: So they’re singing it in Spanish now or they change the song from 96 years and it’s now called an event they say is lovely must also some of them sound more punky I think of the way that we would think Punk sounds nowadays right.

S57: The loud fast aggressive guitars with Spanish lyrics onto say after 96 Tears.

S42: Question mark of the mysterious followed up with two singles.

S31: I need somebody and can’t get enough of you baby. But Cameo Parkway was shut down in 1967 and the band’s money and contract went down with it.

S30: They went on to record with other labels with not much success and the band disbanded in 1969 leaving them with the unfortunate label of one hit wonder. But Camilo Lara thinks applying this term to the mysterious is an injustice that I will.

S58: The 96 year is just unbelievable. They go upside down. I need somebody. They have so many great songs on TS means fantastic and I think saying that they are a one hit wonder man is is pretty unfair. I mean it talks more about the ignorance of not knowing how amazing and important they were than them not to be successful.

S42: Throughout the years. Question Mark and the mysterious have reassembled the group with various members and the original lineup got back together in the 90s.

S34: They still appear at special events when they can. Here’s guitarist Mary Cobra I love Bobby Valderrama.

S59: I mean I’ve met the guys that are great at good old Spanish guys and for me it’s a it’s a beautiful thing like how it matters today.

S54: Oh it’s it’s immensely important that they continue to play. What a hit. I mean what a what important piece of music that they did. Not only did they stay in the area but the song itself changed music or affected music in such a measurable way.

S42: In August 2019 Bay City Michigan hosted an event called 96 Tears day with a benefit concert to aid the homeless and veterans.

S34: They’re the mysterious were rocking out together again with question mark.

S53: Working the stage in his fedora and trademark sunglasses the song survives just because it’s a perfect artifact. I’m sure there is some synthesizer plug in that can give you the exact Vox continental sound and I’m sure people are trying to snarl like question mark but the magic of them playing that together at the time you know pressed at that moment and the kind of white hot craziness that makes it survive it’s very sexy.

S47: Garage music is innocent you down there and I’ll be on top in arming and I’ll cry. You can only write like that when you’re a kid.

S60: We did accomplish our goals when I was a kid and now I believe 96 Tears will go on forever. Back. In. 1968.

S10: That Robert Lee Valderrama guitarist and a founder of question mark and the mysterious 53 years ago this week 96 Tears hit number one.

S27: Our story was produced by Pedro Rafael Rosato and Studio 360 is Jocelyn Gonzalez. Special thanks to Patrick Grant and WD t in Detroit.

S2: Studio 360 as American icons is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And you can find dozens more of our American icons stories and hour long documentaries at Studio 360 dot org. Next week we’ll be spending the whole show on another American icon the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. We talked to a whole lot of people about Poe and you’ll recognize some of these voices. One thing we asked was the first time they encountered Poe’s writing.

S27: I didn’t particularly like reading but it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

S61: I first encountered Poe as a 9 year old so I was reading as Sweet Valley High and Black Beauty.

S62: That was a rough time for me as a teenager.

S63: Heavy on the girly fiction and I remember us all like sitting in class just kind of closing our eyes and trying to imagine ourselves in this situation.

S62: So it was a complete shock to my system.

S12: I kind of like fast forwarded it to the juicy parts where the murder happened. It was dark and depressing and I’m Catholic. And. That’s where I started really appreciating the story. It suited my my sense of the dark mystery of the world. My grandfather was dying of cancer so I was grappling with.

S64: A big human problem.

S61: There’s something I really liked about being able to scare myself and somehow Poe seemed a way into it and tolerate fear and get through it. And when you’re reading something frightening you’re in charge of your own fear it’s not like being the victim of a trauma. Whereas this experience is just thrust on you. You can learn to pace yourself to put it down when it gets too much. Part of the appeal he exerts. Comes from this insistence.

S65: On confronting the really tough fact that everybody dies.

S2: Join us next week and you’ll hear more from Bill Hader Laura Lippman R.L. Stine Roger Corman and many more.

S66: Talking about our next American icon the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

S26: That’s it for this week’s show Studio 360. Is a production of PR by Public Radio International in association with Slate. Our production team is Jocelyn Gonzalez into Adam Newman Sandra Lopez once and Evan Chung Lauren Hansen Sam Kim Zoe Saunders Tommy Missourian Morgan Flannery and I’m Kurt Andersen.

S47: He does these you know very little flash dance moves. He always wears his shades. You never see his eyes. He’s really a mystery. He’s like fabulous. Thanks very much. Are. Public Radio.

S27: International. Next time on Studio 360 how. Edgar Allan Poe changed everything. Where Emerson and Thoreau were like Let’s go write about nature.

S6: Poe was like OK but one day you might turn against the people you love and destroy them just keep that in mind. So it’s like the Asterix on the American dream. Our latest American icons our tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Next time on Studio 360.