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Young Star



The reunion of an important rock band is laden with enough emotional and literal baggage to crash an airplane. In the Philippines in the 1990s, the Eraserheads were the Beatles. Whether you bought their albums or not, you know their songs. They came at you from all sides, they got their hooks into your brain. You may not even be aware that you know them until years later you get stuck in traffic and one is played on the radio. Why do you know all the words, including the backup vocals? “I should’ve gone with you to the reunion concert,” a friend told me last year. “It turns out they’re in my subconscious.”

The melodies were fairly simple but insidious; they were viral before viral went... viral. The lyrics were also simple — the kind that is difficult to replicate. There’s a topic for a thesis: “The Deceptive Simplicity of The Eraserheads Oeuvre.”

Every other Tagalog song is about thwarted love, but which one nails it like the band’s first hit, Pare Ko? The narrator addresses the listener directly, as a friend and confidante. How can you not like a band that addresses you in this manner? To seal your imaginary shared history he adds, “Wag mong sabihing ‘Na naman.’” (“Don’t say ‘Again.’”)

Then he expresses bewilderment, that universal human condition, and declines a drinking session, chiding you and himself for your beer bellies. By the time he gets to the chorus, you have lived his entire relationship with the girl who gave him this misery (and you feel like thanking her for providing the material).

Ah, that chorus that offended the guardians of morality. Thank you, guardians, for kicking up a fuss that generated free publicity and sold more albums. But isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to cuss when you’ve been dumped? It’s not a literal description of anyone’s mother. “I look like a fool. She gave me false hope. Screw this love.” That’s the nice translation.

Later these upright citizens would express outrage over another Eheads song, Alapaap. The offending lyric: “Hanggang sa dulo ng mundo/Hanggang maubos ang ubo” (“Until the edge of the world/Until this cough goes away”). All right, the whimsical lyrics about clouds did imply being high, and cough syrup may have been involved. However did you know that?

A writer friend notes that more than any other lyricist, Ely Buendia gets the meter, phrasing and internal melody of Tagalog. The problem with many Tagalog pop songs is that the syllables seem to have been squeezed in or drawn out to fit the melody, with awkward results. In Eheads songs, the melody seems to derive from the words themselves.

Kamukha mo si Paraluman” (“You looked like Paraluman”) begins their best song. That name suffices to recall afternoons spent watching old movies on black and white TV. Ang Huling El Bimbo is an ode to childhood, innocence and first love, then regret, bitterness and death. A complete lifetime in three minutes. It ends with a line that sums up all the disappointments of adulthood: “Sa panaginip na lang pala kita maisasayaw” (“Only in dreams can I dance with you now”). In the wonderful music video directed by Auraeus Solito, memory is a ghost rising out of a pile of dead leaves.

These lyrics were written by a notoriously difficult interviewee, one who deflects questions with quips, wordplay and unconcealed boredom.

Getting Ely to open up is like squeezing vodka out of a rock. Raimund Marasigan, Buddy Zabala and Marcus Adoro aren’t exactly chatterboxes, either. If you think about it, the Eheads attained mind-boggling fame while managing not to gut themselves in public. Despite the intense curiosity about their personal lives, they managed to hang onto much of their privacy. What an amazing concept: celebrities famous for the work they produced.

I have this theory about why Ely decided to be the interviewee from hell. Apart from the fact that not everyone is thrilled to reveal his innermost thoughts to the media. It’s like this: Ely has already put the contents of his life out there. They’re in the songs. If you really listen, you will know more about him than you can possibly need or want. Here lies his evil genius: he’s made you think that the songs are about you. And the songs are true, not in their specific facts — you may never have hung around Tandang Sora or lived next to a videoke — but in their sensibility. He’s presented you with chunks of his life; what more do you want?

This is not to imply that Ely alone is the Eheads. Their songs are true collaborations. The initial draft of Ang Huling El Bimbo bears little resemblance to the one that haunts us. The opening chords, the hypnotic arrangement — all four of them took a crack at the material, as they did on all the other songs. Of course there was a lot of tension in the band. Any group in which everyone agrees on everything is doomed to be forgotten. Forgotten bands don’t summon tens of thousands of fans to an open concrete field by the bay.

There were fights, unspoken arguments, unresolved quarrels and divisions. These led to now-classic songs, and they also led to the band breaking up. The collaborative creative process is not a picnic.

Ely left the band. He has said that he felt enormous pressure as the frontman to connect with the audience, and he didn’t have the stamina.

The stress of being a hit-making factory probably contributed to the decision. It’s a fact that after their juggernaut “Cutterpillow,” the Eheads began turning out more musically adventurous, challenging material. The comforting melodies that anyone could sing were almost gone; the words alluded to experiences unfamiliar to the audience. Album sales declined.

Buddy, Marcus, and Raimund kept the Eheads going, hiring a new vocalist and performing the Eheads catalogue. This heightened the ill will with the original vocalist, who for years refused to sing any Eheads songs. The band eventually broke up. There was an air of anticlimax to the disbanding. They never said a proper goodbye to their fans. This reunion is in effect the long-delayed farewell concert.

In the post-Eheads era it’s Raimund who’s really blossomed as a performer. Since being liberated from behind the drum kit at the back of the stage, he’s gone on to front the band Sandwich and engage in a host of side projects. Buddy, doomed to be the resident adult, plays with The Dawn and other bands and composes music for the movies.

Marcus, who has always been his own person, goes surfing and releases his own albums. Ely fronts the band Pupil, writes stories, and has just made a short film. In 2006 during a Pupil gig, he suddenly felt very tired and weak. He went on playing. After the show he went to the hospital and was told that he’d suffered a heart attack.

Maybe I’m being a Lit major about this, but when one is faced with his own mortality as a non-abstract concept, it just doesn’t seem worth it to carry around all that baggage from the past and pay the extra charges.

The reunion concert was organized, with all the attendant drama — legal issues with the sponsor, cancellation, change of venue. Two days before the show Ely’s mother Lisette Buendia died of cancer. Halfway through the concert Ely felt very tired and weak and was rushed to the hospital. He required another angioplasty.

With Ely healthy again, take two of the concert was scheduled. The day before the show the band’s friend and guest star Francis Magalona died of leukemia. Farewells piled on farewells; if the reunion were a work of fiction it would be rejected for lack of plausibility. But this isn’t just their story anymore. The Eheads have written themselves into our story, and really, who cares about plausibility at a time like this? The gates are open. It’s time for your last goodbye.

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