Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTE S & ESSAYS - SARGE LACUESTA

The idea of a rock n’ roll band had per­haps achieved an archaic, anachro­nis­tic mean­ing: why rent equip­ment and hire a band when you can play mu­sic off a CD all night long?

IN THE LATE ’80S AND THE EARLY ’90S, a grand decade af­ter EDSA and be­fore the In­ter­net, I sang lead in a rock n’ roll band. We called our­selves Af­ter­math—with­out the The, we de­cided, af­ter a long dis­cus­sion. We also de­cided we would write our own songs and also play the songs we liked, among them Guns N’ Roses’ “Wel­come to the Jun­gle,” Faith No More’s “Ev­ery­thing’s Ru­ined,” and a lot of Rush, that Cana­dian prog-rock out­fit mul­leted and over­weight video-game­play­ing nerds every­where seemed to love.

Af­ter­math had one ra­dio hit. It charted as high as no. 3 on the LA 105.1 count­down, hold­ing that po­si­tion for all of three weeks. We made that song in a sin­gle marathon ses­sion that lasted 10 hours from lay-in to mix-down, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a leg­endary pro­ducer. He passed away many years ago, but I still re­mem­ber that record­ing ses­sion. We put a gated re­verb on the drum and I recorded two sets of vo­cals one oc­tave apart, and a third set do­ing the har­mony.

It may all sound special, but at the time, hav­ing a rock n’ roll band was no big deal. Ev­ery­body and his brother seemed to be in one, and they were play­ing all over the city. There was a gig to go to every night, and every­where we went there was al­ways some­thing play­ing live and loud, never mind that it was a lame de­riv­a­tive or a note-for-note cover.

We set­tled into a play­ing rou­tine that was built around a pwesto of three sets a night, three nights a week at a bar called Ca­booze that was at­tached to Whis­tle Stop restau­rant, that great stal­wart of 24-hour din­ing along Libis Av­enue. We played a hand­ful of nights a month at the orig­i­nal Club Dredd just off To­mas Mo­rato St. In between were the var­i­ous one-off gigs and guest ap­pear­ances at var­i­ous base­ments clubs, bars, and bistros.

At Ca­booze, we played along­side Fran­cis Ma­ga­lona. Free­man and Happy Bat­tle, his eclec­tic, rock-in­fused, video-game-in­flu­enced al­bums had just come out, in one-two suc­ces­sion, and they added to the mount­ing wave of orig­i­nal sound and sense that the Eraser­heads had helped build with Ul­tra Elec­tro Mag­netic Pop. We also shared cer­tain nights with Ad­vent Call, whose lead vo­cal­ist Karl Roy’s ren­di­tions of ev­ery­thing from Kiss to Mod­ern English helped us un­der­stand ex­actly what rock n’ roll meant— and why we des­per­ately wanted to be play­ing it.

At Club Dredd, we were happy to take what­ever slot they gave us, be­cause on any given night, ev­ery­one was there in at­ten­dance: Colour It Red’s Cooky Chua, who liked sit­ting on what­ever car was parked out front, suck­ling a San Miguel Beer Grande; own­ers Pa­trick Rei­den­bach and Rob­bie Su­nico, who seemed to us the most mag­i­cal peo­ple alive at the time; and the riff-raff and the groupies and the wannabes—peo­ple like us who went to univer­sity and had day jobs, and who dreamed of one day hav­ing the guts to give up ev­ery­thing like ev­ery­one had seemed to.

We got paid in gate re­ceipts and straight ta­lent fees, and what it all amounted to was money for din­ner and a cou­ple of beers, but we didn’t drink much be­cause it was all about the mu­sic and not much else. When we weren’t play­ing we were prac­tic­ing, at band leader Emil Buen­camino’s house, where his in­cred­i­bly sup­port­ive par­ents had set aside room for a small stu­dio.

To my par­ents I was an ab­sen­tee, com­ing home at two or three in the morn­ing from gigs and re­hearsals, and up again at eight to catch the bus to work. My fa­ther grudg­ingly al­lowed me my lib­er­ties af­ter I let him hear a boot­leg record­ing of one of our gigs. “Why don’t you make songs like the Eraser­heads?” he asked in the mid­dle of the play­back, and sent me on my way.

Maybe my fa­ther thought it was a phase, and that we were go­ing

to fiz­zle out soon, but in the true spirit of rock n’ roll we de­fi­antly con­tin­ued play­ing, at shop­ping malls and char­ity fundrais­ers, at cam­pus fairs and va­ri­ety shows.

Some­one booked us to play a set at a Hal­loween party at an ex­clu­sive vil­lage. It was go­ing to be the high­light of their trick or treat ac­tiv­i­ties. They had re­or­ga­nized traf­fic so that kids and their nurse­maids could walk the wide streets around the gated sub­di­vi­sion. The kids wore cos­tumes; their nurse­maids wore uni­forms. The or­ga­nizer filled up the au­di­to­rium with smoke in the spirit of the sea­son. When the smoke cleared, the au­di­ence had long since fled the venue and we found our­selves play­ing to ex­actly no one.

We got booked the first set at a big jazz bar in Makati and the

man­ager told us to play what we liked. We de­cided to play our most agree­able mu­sic—stuff like U2 and Red Hot Chili Pep­pers. A clutch of yup­pies came to the bar, in shirts and ties and tai­lored twin­sets, look­ing to take the edge off their work­ing day. They had one drink and left. By the end of our set we had the bar all to our­selves, and al­most no gate re­ceipts to share. As a con­so­la­tion the man­ager told us to or­der what­ever we wanted from the bar, and in true rock n’ roll fash­ion we asked for their most ex­pen­sive cognac, and to hell with the fact that we’d never tasted cognac in our lives.

I don’t re­call what year this was, but by this time Ca­booze had closed down and Club Dredd had moved to a new lo­ca­tion. Peo­ple were start­ing to go to raves and chillout lounges. They were lis­ten­ing to new mu­sic and tak­ing new drugs. The live scene was re­turn­ing to its ’70s sta­ples of show bands and retro bands.

To­ward the end of our mu­si­cal life we played at a food plaza, an open-air all-day food park in the mid­dle of the old Malate dis­trict that held a loose col­lec­tion of grubby fast­food joints and carinde­rias. It was a Sun­day, and the late-night au­di­ence was a mix of ex­hausted fam­i­lies on their way home from their week­end out­ings and ac­tiv­i­ties, con­struc­tion work­ers at the end of their shift, burnt out taxi driv­ers, and GROs from the clubs down the street.

This is our crowd, I thought. This is why we play.

They cut off the high-en­ergy pop mu­sic they’d been blast­ing from the rented PA sys­tem and turned on the lights on the makeshift stage where the sec­ond-rate equip­ment was hud­dled un­der a dirty tent in case it rained. The host went up and took the rusty mic. “Ladies and gen­tle­men, up next is the Af­ter­math…band!”

It was only right that we would be in­tro­duced that way; af­ter all, the band was near­ing its fi­nal days and we de­served that kind of come­up­pance. Fur­ther­more, the idea of a rock n’ roll band had per­haps achieved an archaic, anachro­nis­tic mean­ing: why rent equip­ment and hire a band when you can play mu­sic off a CD all night long?

But we played any­way. As had been our prac­tice, un­der the ad­vice of an ex-man­ager of ours, I let them play out the in­tro first and mount­ing the stage right at the mo­ment I was go­ing to sing. Our first song was “Rox­anne” so my en­trance came with a nice chord and a siz­zle on the cym­bals. By that time St­ing had had a long solo ca­reer and I’d ac­tu­ally met some peo­ple who didn’t know he had a band called The Po­lice. I re­mem­ber sort of look­ing down on them be­cause The Po­lice was when St­ing was good be­cause it wasn’t just him, it was also Andy Sum­mers and Stu­art Copeland.

About a minute and some into “Rox­anne,” right af­ter its cho­rus— where St­ing re­peat­edly sings “Turn on your red light!” over his pul­sat­ing bass, and Sum­mers cries out “Rox­anne!” while he plays power strokes on his gui­tar and Copeland is beat­ing out a four-on­the-floor like it’s no­body’s business—not even disco mu­sic’s—ev­ery­one shouts “RO—” and the three-piece band leaves the au­di­ence hang­ing re­turns to its open­ing dy­nam­ics. In between, there is a mo­ment of hang­ing still­ness.

In that mo­ment of still­ness, as I gripped the mic like it held mother’s milk and held the gaze of a ran­dom au­di­ence mem­ber, I heard a shout above me. I stuck my head out of the tent and saw a man in his 50s, bare-chested and with a belly like a preg­nant woman’s, stand­ing on his fourth or fifth floor bal­cony, point­ing a fin­ger at me, throw­ing down ex­ple­tives at us. I held his stare with my rock n’ roll stare; be­hind me, the band did not skip one beat and played on, louder: I love you since I knew ya!

The man re­treated into his apart­ment and re­turned a few sec­onds later drag­ging a large black ap­pli­ance onto his bal­cony. He switched it on and turned some knobs and loud, sick, dis­torted mu­sic came out: Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, happy birthday! Happy birthday to you!

The au­di­ence looked up; I heard chil­dren burst­ing into pan­icked tears and women tit­ter­ing. I caught an old taxi driver, his soiled pale blue uni­form half-open over his sando, look­ing at me with a glazed mix­ture of kind­ness and un­der­stand­ing.

Later that night, he would sit with us and make drunken prom­ises about hav­ing the right con­nec­tions and a demo ses­sion. He knew the rock n’ roll life­style and would take us around the world to play and cut an al­bum. He would pay for our beers and our trou­ble and dis­ap­pear into the night.

The band would end up fall­ing apart, not be­cause of “mu­si­cal dif­fer­ences,” but be­cause I felt my life was not in mu­sic. I don’t re­mem­ber the last time we played or if we ever said good­bye to each other. Fran­cis Ma­ga­lona died in 2009 and Karl Roy died in 2012.

Af­ter my fa­ther died, my mother told me that he had gone to watch us play at Club Dredd with­out telling us, and that he had given cas­sette tapes of a rock an­thol­ogy al­bum that had that one song of ours to friends and fam­ily as Christ­mas gifts and re­mem­brances.

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