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The night we all got by with a smile at SaGuijo

Ely Buendia came close to disaster, then everyone came together.

Every year, in the first week of June, one of Metro Manila’s foremost venues for bands, SaGuijo, celebrates its anniversary.

For the past 15 years, this has been a tradition not just for the joint, but also for its merry band of performers. Hordes of music fans typically have had that week marked down on their calendars, or have at least relied on Facebook to remind them that a music extravaganza is slated to occur on the first two days of June.

A week or so apart from those dates, I also celebrate my anniversary as a SaGuijo regular. This year happens to be my fifteenth.

Like many of SaGuijo’s faithful, heading down to 7612 Guijo Street has been a way of life for me whenever the day enters its juicier sections and work affords sufficient space to catch a breather, several beers, and a slew of bands—producing emotional responses to songs that translate to odd yet rhythmic movements.

I know that SaGuijo and other venues like Route 196 and ’70s Bistro have seen upstarts like Up Dharma Down, Mayonnaise, and Autotelic hone their skills through frequent playing until they eventually occupied the topmost tiers of the Philippine band scene. I’m quite familiar with that process.

For over a decade now, I have stayed in my usual corner by the bar in SaGuijo—approximately 45 degrees facing the performers—bearing witness to career-defining moments, the plateaus of acts who were supposedly slated for stardom but failed to gain the necessary traction, and new generations of bands replacing those from previous eras as the top billers. There have also been peculiar instances that I deem memorable, from the time when a young Catriona Gray tried her hand at a music career by playing in SaGuijo and other bars, to a couple of marriage proposals on stage, to rock icons Sandwich letting fans jam with them during special gigs, down to the bassist of the band Greyhoundz helping me conceptualize my former food business.

I’m grateful to have experienced all those, but there is one night in particular that I hold dearest: a pocket of time that turned a nightly habit into perhaps a lifelong affair. And it has something to do with the names Ely, Raymund, Buddy, and Markus.

Local icons

“Lift your head. Baby, don’t be scared of the things that could go wrong along the way.”

The date was August 30, 2008, Saturday. It was a rough time financially for carefree youngsters as salaries were set to be wired a couple of days after, and I had burned much of my money on coffee, music CDs, and weekend beverages. The lack of funds, however, wasn’t really the source of my sorrow; it had more to do with the fact that I couldn’t watch the concert of arguably the most influential band in the country’s history.

The Eraserheads, I consider, is the closest thing that the Philippines has to The Beatles or Nirvana in terms of impact.

They came at a time when local music was largely dominated by standard pop tunes characterized by basic slow melodies, themes on love and being pinned down by heartbreak, and a battery of high notes during the chorus and the bridge, giving the impression that the singer was about to do something stupidly drastic right after singing. The E-heads changed all that. They repackaged and then reintroduced pop rock, alternative rock, and garage rock in the ’90s to a young audience that clamored for music through which they could live vicariously: a voice and musical tone that reflected their trials and tribulations at school and at home.

Shortly after releasing their debut album Ultraelectromagneticpop and its iconic follow-up Circus, the E-heads’ songs dominated the charts of pop and rock radio stations. The band’s music had also emboldened other youngsters to pick up a musical instrument, coat it up with feelings or ’90s angst, play as if no one is watching, and form a band to be heard and appreciated by those who were going through similar ordeals. That led to the formation of a colossal band scene within the Philippine music industry, headlined by the Eraserheads—of course—and other popular acts like Rivermaya, Parokya ni Edgar, Wolfgang, and Razorback.

The effects can still be felt to this day, long after the Eraserheads broke up in 2002.

August 30, six years after their split, was when the Eraserheads would be unbroken for just one night, but all I could afford at the time was admission to a gig at SaGuijo, several beers, and a modest post-gig meal. My day job required me to write 3,000 words daily on top of writing jobs that I took on the side, which had led me to neglect the reunion concert to focus on pampering myself as I deemed fit.

Deeply saddened by the situation, I phoned a friend, Gino, who was perhaps an even bigger fan of the band and was equally saddled by a grueling work schedule. We both languished in our collective grief, parallel to a slow burn toward an overindulgence in alcohol. When we were tipsy with regret, we talked about the band’s songs and compared favorites. And then we hiccupped our way to recollections of our college lives at the height of balancing academics with late night karaoke sessions, Counterstrike, and conversations until the wee hours on lost loves and juvenile dreams, reflective of the messages behind the songs “With a Smile,” “Pare Ko,” “Sembreak,” and “Minsan.” And then we were drunk—I was a singing drunk after the phone call.

The day couldn’t end on that note, I figured. And so I decided to go to SaGuijo to pick up a consolation prize, with the operative word being console.

A brush with disaster

“You’ll get by with a smile. You can’t win at everything but you can try.”

Prior to heading to SaGuijo, I stopped by a coffee shop to ponder and kill time like I often did. I didn’t bother checking out who was playing that night. It didn’t matter. Any semblance of live alternative music would have lifted my spirits, enough to distract me from the concert, leading to what I figured would be the acceptance stage of grief. Besides, there was always beer and my music player for a shot of deliverance thereafter. It wasn’t too bad a night after all, or so I thought.

A couple of hours after, I received a text message from Gino. My face turned pale. It read: “Pare, si Ely sinugod sa ospital. Hindi niya natapos yung concert. Baka delikado siya. (Ely was brought to the hospital. He wasn’t able to finish the concert. His life might be in danger.)”

I was dumbfounded. That couldn’t have happened, not to the guy who wrote and sang the songs that were anthems to the different stages of my youth, including my favorite local song of all time: “With a Smile.” He wasn’t like John Lennon; he was my John Lennon. “Not him,” I thought.

Flustered, I rushed to SaGuijo—not for the music, but to overhear the conversations of musicians and fellow music fans. When I arrived, the music was lively, but a somber tone had pervaded the bar’s outside area. Everyone was talking about what had happened to Ely Buendia. Despite the cliquish nature of the band scene, there were barely any barriers between strangers as people were quick to jump in on ongoing conversations to confirm the news and to express their sadness over what had happened to the Eraserheads frontman. I couldn’t help but think that even in sickness, the man and his band had created a united front out of a fragmented sector of society, at least for the moment. 

I then proceeded to my usual spot by the bar and let the music dictate the tone of the night’s remainder. It wasn’t very promising.

The encore

“You’ll get by with a smile. Now it’s time to kiss away those tears goodbye. Let me hear you sing it.”

I don’t remember who was playing that night, but I do recall the semi-sweet taste of compromise to a horrible day found within a bottle of Red Horse. Eager to extinguish any emotion that bore any weight that would add to my 200-plus-pound frame, I gulped away one bottle after another until I started to see things.

First was the huge number of people barging into the near-empty joint (filling the place up like a train station at 8am on a Monday). Then appeared a tall guy who looked exactly like Raymund Marasigan, drummer of the Eraserheads, followed by carbon copies of Buddy Zabala (bassist) and Markus Adoro (lead guitar).

“No, it couldn’t be. The Eraserheads were supposed to be no more after the concert. Wait, have I been drinking too much again?”

Any thought bubble that had formed was ruptured by a deafening roar from the suddenly enormous crowd. In probably the biggest surprise in SaGuijo’s 15-year history, Raymund took to the stage and asked the crowd, “Pwede ba kaming tumugtog? (Would you mind if we played tonight?)” or something to that effect.

The crowd responded with the loudest cheer I’d ever heard in a music bar. It was nothing short of deafening, and I was certainly part of that noise. As it turned out, Raymund and his crew weren’t able to finish the concert, which was cut halfway, and they decided on the fly to bring the show to SaGuijo unannounced. They also reassured the crowd that Ely will be okay. But alas, they had no vocalist.

Showing solidarity and support to Ely and the band, other well-known vocalists stepped in to take the mic as the Eraserheads went on to play some of their biggest hits. Ebe Dancel, singer of the now-defunct band Sugarfree who had drawn comparisons to Ely, sang with the trio. So did Aia de Leon, Kris-Gorra Dancel of Cambio, and a slew of other artists. Itchyworms’ Jazz Nicolas joined in on the keyboards.

Video credit: Quark Henares

It was the most surreal moment that I had ever witnessed as a follower of the local band scene. Watching the Eraserheads on stage, after years of thinking that they would never ever play again as a unit was one thing, and witnessing artists from various bands dubbed by fans as the “next E-heads” play with the actual Eraserheads was certainly another.

The crowd was even more remarkable. They screamed out every line from every song with more gusto than in any emotionally charged karaoke session. Apparently, even such an act failed to contain the collective outpour of ecstasy drawn by the band and its hits.

Video credit: Quark Henares

Complete strangers hugged it out during and after the sets. I wound up exchanging high fives and the warmest of handshakes with people whom I had never met. People from all walks of life were side-by-side, smiling at each other while mouthing words to songs, bound by the reality that those tunes had lent them a voice through their darkest of times and shared their successes when they were at their most buoyant.

When the band played the opening notes of “Alapaap,” I quickly texted Gino in Filipino, “You, of all people, deserve to experience this. Please listen.” I gave him a call then raised my phone until after the second chorus, allowing him to imbibe not just the performance, but also the nuances that made up SaGuijo’s most magical night. It was enough for him to be overjoyed. It was as if he were right there with me.  

For about an hour or so, there was no pride, prejudice, or any hint of hatred from anyone—only the absolute joy derived from individual and shared relationships with music. It was beautiful.

The hope of finding a fraction of what I experienced that night is what keeps me going to gigs whenever I have time. Music, thoroughly satisfying as it is, is but a part of the experience of bonding with like-minded people on stage and in front of it without the need for fake conversations.

The dance between performer and listener is the conversation, and anything that transpires afterward is a delightful bonus.

The aftermath

“But don’t let it bring you down and turn your face into a frown. You’ll get along with a little prayer and a song.”

Right after the set, I went to the nearest Eraserheads member I could find. It was Buddy. I shook his hand and said in Filipino, “You have no idea how much this means to us. We waited so long for this.” He smiled then gave me a pat on the back before we parted ways.

That was the last time that I would see the Eraserheads perform live. Their surprise performance in SaGuijo had already done its part in reforging my relationship with local music, bands, and music bars.

Ely went on to recover from hypokalemia days after the Eraserheads’ performance in SaGuijo. A year later, he would join the Eraserheads for another reunion concert in BGC, which attracted around 100,000 people. That further cemented the Eraserheads’ position as the most commercially successful Filipino band of all time. The members of the band would part ways afterwards to resume their respective music careers, but they still found time to have more reunion concerts in other parts of the globe.

As for SaGuijo, it remains one of the foremost incubators for Philippine bands looking to hit the big time.

Fairly recently, acts like IV of Spades, Unique, Ben & Ben, and I Belong to the Zoo—all mainstays of the bar for a time—scaled the ranks of the band scene to carry the torch that was originally held by the Eraserheads.

The local scene is in good hands, and I’ll be by the bar—45 degrees facing the performers—every once in a while to see how it all unfolds.