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.