The Eraserheads, Part Two: The UltraElectro Years

The first album, ultraelectromagneticpop! rightly shook up the Philippine music scene, and with much good reason: only a precious handful of albums before 1993 (Gary Valenciano‘s Moving Thoughts, for one) arguably captured the intensity of OPM’s earlier mid-to-late-’70s Metropop heyday. (How thrilling it must have been to turn on the radio and hear Freddie Aguilar, VST and Co., Hotdog, early Apo Hiking Society, the Juan de la Cruz Band and Asin on one station!) The playing, as with Buendia’s vocals, was still pretty raw around the edges, but the album, with its complete lack of pretensions, would be a refreshing contrast to the Chicago / Toto / power-ballad template that underlay some of the more slickly-produced, histrionic OPM singles of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Indeed, the music scene during that period was, in my opinion, rather bleak. The lessons learned from new wave did not last very long; only The Dawn, with its tight trio playing (and only really on its first album), would follow through with their synth-laden hooks. One must also remember that there was also a mini-generation of listeners suddenly tuned in to Citylite 88.3, ultimately just a more “sophisticated” version of the Mellow Touch. (I have a long theory about Citylite, the marketing of the yuppie aesthetic, and the EDSA Uprising of 1986, but this is not the place nor the time.) The significance of the fact that the recalcitrant NU 107, devoted to college rock, was situated at the very opposite end of the radio dial should not be lost on the reader. Indeed, one can only gauge the stagnation when saxophonist Eddie Katindig (or Eddie K), in a misguided attempt to imitate the moniker of an American lite-“jazz” artist of the lowest species, was reduced to producing sad little covers of Top 40 hits. The social consciousness pervading mainstream music only a decade earlier would at least find its resurgence in Joey Ayala’s re-recordings of his older cassette-only albums, but lightweight pop singles and ballads were, unfortunately, the norm. Listen, for instance, to Martin Nievera‘s “You Are The One”; what actually passed for drama was the mere raising of an octave for every iteration of the chorus. Or the entire Constant Change album, by Jose Mari Chan, which threatened to engulf the whole of Philippine radio with its utter blandness.

However, ultraelectromagneticpop! is still, in my mind, an uneven debut, but for every iffy track like “Maling Akala,” “Shake Yer Head” (if I wrote “Well I ain’t no stupid fighter / I go for flower power,” I guess I’d be kind of embarrassed) or “Toyang” (just what is it with Pinoys and medleys?), there would be an absolute stunner of a song like “Ligaya,” or a flat-out work of irresistible genius like “Shirley.” (The squall of guitar noise at the beginning, anchored with that little throwaway piano riff, is alone worth the price of admission; it’s not very often you can pogo along to a song which so perceptively traces the fall and rise of a relationship.) The breathless, melodic complexity of “Tindahan ni Aling Nena” transcends its novelty-song origins. The humor of the album, as well as the goofy liner notes, was already a nod to the wacked-out anarchy that would pervade later albums.


Philippine News Day

Philippine News Day. [It’s hard typing this with one hand, as I’m cradling Izzy with my left arm.] Yesterday I went to the 40th anniversary party of Philippine News, held at the SF War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. Usually I consider this sort of thing as work (part of my research and all), but I was really looking forward to being there. Seeing old friends (Cherie, Salli, and so on — I must have lunch again with you folks one day), enjoying the beautiful weather (the balcony looked out over Van Ness and City Hall), and drinking the champagne (flowin’!) — this wasn’t work. =) Okay, I managed to sneak in a few discussions with academics as well (see, it was work-related after all).

The Pinoy glitterati was there in full force, along with the usual cast of characters at Bay Area events, with various dignitaries and indignitaries. Mayors of different cities proclaimed August 24, 2001 as “Philippine News Day” — something Willie Brown seems to do at the drop of a hat — and Speaker of the House Kevin Shelley gave a nice little talk about how PN had supported his dad Pete as mayor of SF back in ’63.

By far, one of the two highlights of the event was founder Alex Esclamado’s speech. (He was somewhat upstaged, though, when the keynote speaker — Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and animal-bite survivor — and his wife made their fashionably late entrance amidst snapping flashbulbs. I was standing a few feet away from her, and she looked pretty glam, but was paler than I expected.) In my writings, I’ve been a little critical of PN before, pointing out their gleeful celebration of various society events (balls, debuts, and whatnot) and how this inadvertently contributes to a vision of Asians as the model minority. But I do recognize, at the same time, that this is a “function” of the immigrant press, i.e., staking a claim regarding belonging in America, and this is, I think, a particular immigrant predicament in which the ethnic press in general finds itself. Still, there was a certain undeniable bravery when PN did what it did in the ’70s, and now, listening to Mr. E’s understated reminiscences, I had to agree. There was genuine emotion in his voice as he singled out the most loyal staffers. Even as he went into his usual spiel about how the newspaper began “in the garage of his small house in San Francisco’s Sunset District” — something I’d heard and read many times — my heart still went out to him a little. He was right to be proud.

The other highlight came not from any speech, but from a musical performance. I have been a fan of Joey Ayala for many years now, since my high school days, and when I met him about a month ago I was too tongue-tied to say anything (I even forgot to bring out the CD I wanted him to sign). So he comes up on stage with a guitar, and tells the audience that he’s a songwriter from the Philippines, and that he’s written 150 songs, but the song he was going to sing today was not he had written — in fact, he said, “I learned it from you.” This is your song, not my song, he said, introducing it as “an English folk song from the 1800s” which he just learned here in the U.S. And then he promptly launches into a stunning version of the Star-Spangled Banner — in Tagalog.

I wish I can remember the lyrics exactly. But I can’t. I suppose I can ask him for the lyrics later, but I think it would spoil it. It began with “Nakikita mo ba?” and then went on as a hymn dedicated to the immigrants of the United States. His lyrics had allusions to the Filipino American War and ended with something about “Hinirang na bagong lupa” (a clear reference to the Philippine national anthem) and “Kasaysaya’y pinapanday.” All in all it was too brief a moment, possibly two minutes: Ayala had the audience in the palm of his hand, and then it was gone.


Izzy Goes to the doctor

An old one, originally posted, I guess, in August 2001 or so.

Izzy Goes to the Doctor. Today we went to the hospital for Izzy’s first doctor’s appointment. We were all concerned about her weight loss — a little too much the first few days, so she had to be supplemented with formula for a couple of days — but she was right at 8 pounds, so we were all quite relieved. Otherwise Izzy’s all healthy and beautiful, except for a little bit of diaper rash.

As someone who still gets carded regularly at the ripe age of 30, I full well know how Asians can look awfullly young. (My dad is a prime example.) However, Izzy’s pediatrician looked all of 12! (Madeline said 13.) The funny part was when she called in another colleague (ostensibly someone slightly senior) to listen to Izzy’s heart — he comes in and he looked like he was 16! (Everyone must have tormented him mercilessly in med school by calling him “Doogie.”)

Izzy is growing more and more every day — 2 inches in 2 weeks! I’ve found it hard to work with Izzy in the room — not because she fusses, though she does that too — but because I and Madeline end up just staring at her. I’ve never particularly liked holding babies, much more changing their diapers, but Izzy is amazing. She’s so wonderful.

Clarissa’s uncle Noli tells me that I would not mind going to work with only 3-4 hours of sleep the night before, because “you’ll be so happy.” Well, we’ll see until the colic months hit. But right now I think Madeline and I are plainly euphoric. Last night we put her in bed between us and just played with her — opening her palms, kissing her on the forehead, rubbing her belly. Unbelievable.


Eraserheads, Part One

Here’s an unfinished fragment of an overblown, gushing, and frankly embarrassing essay about a Filipino pop band — the Eraserheads — which I wrote in 1995 or so. Alas, what I write below is not true anymore (about which I can write later), but for one moment there (after the release of their Cutterpillow album, one of my favorite albums of all time) they truly were the greatest band in the world. (Otherwise everything’s still the same: I still love the Beatles, and Yo La Tengo still rules.

This is Part One; Parts Two and Three continue next week.

Eraserheads, Part One

The Eraserheads are the greatest band in the entire world. This is a fact. And I write this with the same equanimity as making a statement like “The sky is blue.” For no other pop music group (well, there are exceptions; see below) has produced a body of work that has consistently challenged my intellect, stirred my emotions, and on the whole produced such limitless listening enjoyment as the Eraserheads have.

Of course, I could qualify my sweeping generalization with a modifier of time, i.e., the Eraserheads are the greatest band in the world right now, and to follow that up with something like the Beatles are the greatest band in the world ever. Or a modifier of place, such as Yo La Tengo is the greatest band in America and The Eraserheads are the greatest band in the Philippines. But such qualifiers needlessly diminish the drama of my original, monumental statement, when all I really want is for the impact of my affirmation to remain. So let me write it again: The Eraserheads are the greatest band in the entire world.

Again, it should be understood that I state this with no shred of objectivity whatsoever. Certainly a kind of ethnic sentiment clouds my judgment; I am Filipino, after all, and the fact that the ‘heads are from the Philippines means everything. But do not let that sway the uninitiated listener from experiencing music that is both refreshingly experimental and reassuringly consistent at the same time; music chock-full of damnably catchy melodies and lyrics both silly and worldly-wise; music which, with dead-on accuracy, has painted a portrait of an entire generation of Filipinos over the course of a mere four albums; music that rewards the listener with different, deeper meanings with every listen. As with the Beatles and Yo La Tengo, who would have known a three-minute pop song would yield up such an embarrassment of riches?

Take, for instance, just one couplet from the song “Ligaya“: “Gagawin ko ang lahat pati ang thesis mo / Huwag mo lang ipagkait ang hinahanap ko.” Is this not an altogether brilliant pledge of love and devotion? How could the listener dare doubt this? (Side note: the Eraserheads have long been compared to the Beatles, a comparison that is not only trite but irrelevant as well. For what band, except for that empire in which James Brown reigns, does not come from the Beatles? Or, to take a different tack, it is not as if the Beatles originated vocal harmonies, or verse-chorus-verse structure.)

My appreciation for the Eraserheads has been, oddly enough, in a kind of media vacuum; I have yet to see them interviewed, or any of their music videos, including the much-heralded one for “Ang Huling El Bimbo.” Their career began and rocketed as I was out of the country and unplugged from any Filipino radio station; perhaps that explains as well my obsessive, repeated listenings, trying to glean any little information I could about who these pop geniuses were.