Still standing at 62: Pura doing his solo act at My Brother's Mustache. Photograph by Alco Guerrero
Culture Music

“I’m here to stay”: The rock ‘n’ roll journey of Chickoy Pura and his fight with the Big C

After being recently diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma, the The Jerks frontman knew there was only one rock ‘n’ roll thing to do: find a treatment that will allow him to keep making music
Edwin P. Sallan | Aug 18 2019

At the My Brother’s Mustache folk bar where he regularly performs—as a solo act, sometimes with his band The Jerks, but on this particular Saturday night with actor slash look-alike Dwight Gaston—Chickoy Pura wows patrons with an eclectic set of acoustic covers. A Bob Dylan here, a Joe Jackson there, and then Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan.

One Joe Jackson song in particular stood out for its rather awkward sense of irony, which of course was not lost on the guy with the microphone. “Everything, everything gives you cancer…There’s no cure, there’s no answer…,” croons Chickoy with unabashed gusto.

“I developed ‘moonface’ and at some point, every time I look at myself in the mirror, I see a stranger,” Chickoy recalls the time he was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that in his case, started as a form of skin asthma called exfoliative erythroderma. Photo by Romy Buen

Right after the song, Dwight, who was playing percussions couldn’t help but quip, “You’re not supposed to sing that.” Chickoy just laughed and dutifully continued with the rest of his set.

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"The respect I get from people, you can’t buy that, you can’t measure that, especially now that I’m going through something and I see all this concern for me," Chickoy confesses. Photo by Alco Guerrero

Just weeks back, the 62-year old rock icon announced he was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that in his case, started as a form of skin asthma called exfoliative erythroderma seven years ago or “probably longer,” to his recollection.

“It was a major skin disorder. At the time, I was on steroids as prescribed by my doctor but it had an effect on my appearance: I developed ‘moonface’ and at some point, every time I look at myself in the mirror, I see a stranger,” he recalled.

In addition to steroids, Chickoy treated his skin condition with antihistamine, lotions and moisturizers. “I was like a teenage girl with the way I had to manage my disorder. After a while, I thought it was already well-managed and with the help of my doctor, I was starting to wean myself off some of my medication, but then I started to develop lumps in my armpits and both legs so the doctor recommended that I get a biopsy and it was discovered that I have TB of the lymph nodes which we managed to control.”

The frontman then underwent another biopsy and this time, it was confirmed he has T-cell lymphoma. Chemotherapy was the recommended mode of treatment. Chickoy and his wife, Monet, however, had other ideas. Monet said that because of her husband’s sensitivity to medication and his desire to maintain the quality of life he has now — including and especially the ability to keep performing — they explored other treatment options.

“What has not changed for me is my juvenile nature regardless of my age and the wear and tear in my body, so to speak,” the frontman muses. Photo by Alco Guerrero

“I told Chickoy, we need a complete gameplan for this so no doctors yet,” Monet explained. “So we started talking to cancer patients with similar skin conditions while researching on other possible alternative treatments.”

After getting inputs from cancer survivors, the couple learned there exists a particular kind of stem cell treatment that has helped several cancer patients — including a friend of theirs who had stage 4 pancreatic cancer but is now cancer-free, thanks to the said treatment.

But just like chemotherapy or any other treatment for cancer, for that matter, the stem cell option is a pricey proposition the Puras cannot afford on their own. Although the couple only asked for prayers after revealing Chickoy’s condition publicly via social media, many well-meaning friends from the music industry and other sectors have come to his aid.

On August 24, for example, many of Chickoy’s fellow performers at My Brother’s Mustache including Lolita Carbon, Cooky Chua, Bayang Barrios, Noel Cabangon, Noli Aurillo and Mon Espia will come together for Awit Para Kay Chickoy, a benefit concert at the folk joint in Scout Tuazon, QC. 

Just before Chickoy stepped onto the My Brother’s Mustache stage to perform, he sat down with us to look back at what has largely been a charmed life despite its share of ups and downs.

A page from Jingle 1984, with a portrait by Didits Gonzales

18 at the folkhouses  

“I was about 18 when I first started playing solo at folkhouses. At the time, there were quite a lot of it in Metro Manila alone. There was the original My Father’s Moustache, Hobbit House, and Bodega. One place that I remember playing in was the former El Sombrero in Burgos, Makati which is now known as Woodsman’s Head,” he recalls.

It would take another four or five years doing the rounds of folkhouses as a solo act before Chickoy decided to be part of the band dynamics, when he, Nitoy Adriano, Flor Mendoza, Heli Umali, Boy Matriano and later, Jun Lopito, formed the classic lineup of the group, The Jerks. This incarnation, in later years, would undergo several line-up changes.

“We started playing at Shakey’s Taft and Bodega but it wasn’t until 1979 when we were asked to play at On Disco along Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City that we started to make some noise,” Chickoy recalls. 

It was the time when punk rock was making a global impact and even discos, like the now defunct On, were beginning to reinvent themselves. As part of the joint’s New Wave Nights, the Jerks were asked to provide live music that usually consisted of covers by The Clash, the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and Oingo Boingo. Leading the charge as the band’s charismatic frontman was Chickoy, who “could have been a Regal baby” as Jingle magazine critic Tony Maghirang would put it at the time.

“On’s crowd usually consisted of Manila’s jetset. We were definitely not part of that jetset but personally, I was just excited to be part of that musical, uh, something,” remembers Chickoy. “We didn’t earn much but for me, the most memorable thing about our stint at On was that we were part of that emerging movement that was just starting, the electricity of the moment.”

Playing at the Roxas Boulevard establishment meant more than earning a few bucks. It was the beginning of something. “I got to experience the fulfillment of being a performer and reaffirmed to myself that maybe I can do this good,” says Chickoy, “that maybe I’m good enough for this.”

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The Jerks’ stint at On opened many doors for the band — or as Chickoy would put it, it carried them in the years that followed. They recorded original songs that received airplay in then rock station DZRJ including the now classic, “Romantic Kill” that was later covered by Rivermaya, and a collaboration with Australian musician, Paul Kelly, who, as per Chickoy, was like “the Bob Dylan of Australia.”

The Jerks made it all the way to the grand finals of Rock Explo, a high profile battle of the bands contest by then popular noontime show, Student Canteen. They headlined the Brave New World series of punk rock concerts organized by Tommy Tanchanco, nephew of On owner Sonny Tanchanco.

Likewise, having the songs of UK punk legends The Clash as part of The Jerks’ regular repertoire contributed to the frontman’s musical growth that would manifest in his later works.

“The Clash are known for the political messages of their songs. That was a big influence for me as I started to further examine their lyrics and see how I can translate and relate them to our experience here,” he noted.

 

Lokal Brown and a political awakening

By the time the mainstream acceptance of the so-called punk movement in the country began to decline, The Jerks accepted a lengthy stint in Japan.

When the group returned to the Philippines in 1988, they resumed playing in joints like the now defunct Mayric's where Chickoy also played solo. Chickoy was then approached by legendary Pinoy Rock drummer Edmond “Bosyo” Fortuno for a new project band being put together by composer and record producer Ed Formoso.

“Edmond gave my name to Ed Formoso and I was asked to join and I said, sure. I’d be very happy to be in the company of my fellow musicians,” Chickoy recalls. 

The band would turn out to be Lokal Brown, which was arguably a supergroup of sorts as it was also composed of Pendong Aban, Lolita Carbon and Saro Bañares of Asin, Mon Espia of Labuyo, Eva Caparas of Music & Magic, Nitoy Adriano of The Jerks, Cash Manalang, Edmond Fortuno himself, and the late Dominic “Papadom” Gamboa of Tropical Depression.

Although Lokal Brown, as Chickoy would put it, was geared towards the mainstream, the band’s original material consisted of socially-conscious songs that pushed the spirit of nationalism, as typified by their big hit, “This Is Not Amerika” where Chickoy sang lead in the second verse.

Watch more in iWantv or TFC.tv

 

“The stint with Lokal Brown was also the time I started to hang out with NGOs (non-government organizations) and activists. I was attending the workshops of Koyang Jess Santiago and Gary Granada,” Chickoy volunteers.

At this time, he was writing more songs in Tagalog. “Before that, I was writing songs in my limited English and I thought it can’t go on like that. So I attended those workshops to refresh my panitikan, so to speak. I was very active performing for this alternative community. And I was very happy because people’s reception towards me was very warm because they somehow knew me from my punk days.”

Although Chickoy wrote in both English and Filipino, his succeeding output both as a solo artist and as part of The Jerks from that point on reflected his political awakening. These include songs like the bluesy “Warning” from the Karapatang Pantao compilation album in 1989, “Mad Mathematical World” from the Musicians for Peace: Lost Generation compilation in 1992 and the now concert staples, “Reklamo ng Reklamo” and “Sayaw sa Bubog” which The Jerks finally recorded in their self-titled album for Star Records in 1997.  

Watch more in iWantv or TFC.tv

 

Asked if his association with activists and the NGO community ever got him into trouble with the government, Chickoy admits that even he is surprised no one ever took him to task for his political views.

“None that I recall, and I really don’t know why. I remember this one time that I was part of the group campaigning for the Kabataan partylist,” he narrates. “One time, we went to Del Monte Avenue to have a concert where there was a nearby police detachment. I went to the detachment to use the restroom and most of the uniformed cops called me, ‘Idol!’ and wanted to have a picture with me. I said I’m with the activists and they didn’t mind.”

 

Playing Lean

While recording material for The Jerks’ first and only album to-date in 1997, Chickoy was also cast in the lead role of murdered youth activist Leandro Alejandro for the musical, Lean, that was staged at the UP Theater that same year.

“Theater was a new experience to me and I got to appreciate the kind of rigid discipline it is known for, which on one hand can be tiring but at the same time, ultimately rewarding,” says Chickoy. “During rehearsals, I wasn’t sure I would survive it. I’m so used to being in control of my time and then I found myself in a situation where I just do what I’m told by the director. Somehow, I managed.”

Portraying Lean was a big honor for Chickoy. “He was a legendary mass leader who was very relevant in his time. Even while I was playing with The Jerks, Martial Law was on the decline and protest actions were intensified, and I remember seeing Lean at the forefront of it all, the parliament of the streets, he was there.”

Chickoy was also in awe of Gary Granada, who wrote the music and libretto of Leanin a span of only three months (“I saw first-hand how prolific he was as a songwriter”) and Vencer Crisostomo who played Lean in a subsequent restaging of the musical.

“I was asked what I thought of Vencer’s performance after I saw it. I said he had it down pat because he is also a mass leader like Lean, unlike me who was just portraying him to the best of my abilities.”

Last August 10 at My Brother’s Mustache with Dwight Gaston. Photo by the author

Return to troubadour roots

Even though Chickoy occasionally played solo at Mayric’s, it wasn’t until My Brother’s Mustache (no relation to My Father’s Moustache) opened in 2001 that he was slowly lured back to his acoustic roots.

“When this bar opened, there were no more folk houses here. I can’t think of any that was still around. I was not with My Brother’s when it opened but one time I visited and I realized I know everyone who performs here and they were all asking me to play here, so I bought an affordable acoustic guitar, brushed up on some of my old material and added new ones. I was given a day by the owner and I’ve been here since,” he reveals.

As a mainstay in the venue, there are Thursdays when Chickoy would play solo, or occasionally be with The Jerks, which is now composed of Chickoy, Benjie Santos, Paolo Manuel and Nono Brioso.

With regards to meeting his “unofficial doppelganger,” Dwight Gaston, Chickoy recalls the time when another musician, Rene Tengasantos invited him and other friends to have a late dinner at Joel Torre’s JT Manukan’s following a gig.

“When we got to JT’s, Joel called Dwight and told him that his twin was there. Since then, Dwight started to hang out at our gigs and since he plays the drums, he would also jam with us once in a while. It turns out we just happened to like the same music, especially Bob Dylan. But when we perform together, our approach is not that serious. Dwight is great at delivering spiels so it’s always fun when we play together.”

We tell Dwight he could play Chickoy in a biopic. Dwight snapped back, “It’s going to be a comedy if I play him in a movie’”

Not missing a beat, Chickoy responded: “That’s okay. My life has its funny moments.”

The Jerks, 1982. Helly Umali, Chickoy, Nitoy Adriano, Flor Mendoza and Boy Matriano. From Pura's Facebook page.

An elder statesman’s hope 

Chickoy has high hopes for the stem cell treatment he had set his sights on. He doesn’t have any intention of giving up the fight against the Big C, and he’s looking forward to keep performing and making music for as long as he still can. “I’m here to stay,” he insists.

Now back to how he started, getting to do solo performances in a folk house, the revered musician sees his career coming full circle. Looking at what he has achieved after more than 40 years of performing, Chickoy says he doesn’t really have much to complain about.

“I would have wanted more financial success but the need for that, for me, is very minor,” he confesses. “I still don’t earn much but I’m very happy with what I do. The respect I get from people, you can’t buy that, you can’t measure that, especially now that I’m going through something and I see all this concern for me. From friends who are doing well to those who barely earn minimum wage, the ordinary workers, I am overwhelmed with all this goodwill.”

Despite the years, there remains a kid inside Chickoy, now undoubtedly one of local rock’s elder statesmen. “What has not changed for me is my juvenile nature regardless of my age and the wear and tear in my body, so to speak,” the frontman muses. “Look at Pepe [Smith], even in his old age, he still acted like a teenager who had all this energy. I think this is something that is inherent with rock musicians. I still feel that I’m in that stage where I feel like I’m still in my 20s and feel invincible.” 

It’s only when its time put down the guitar and head home after a gig that he starts to realize he’s no longer the young man he was. “But when I’m onstage,” he says, “whenever I play, it’s a different story.”