MANILA -- On a recent rainy Thursday night in mid-August, veteran musician Chickoy Pura was playing a solo acoustic set to a crowd of around 15 people in what could be the only remaining authentic folk house in Quezon City.
Well, make it 20 people, if we were to include his wife-manager Monet Pura, the not-so-busy bartender and the waiters.
Chickoy has been jamming with comedian-actor Dwight Gaston regularly for the past few months since they were introduced by actor Joel Torre at a chance encounter in his JTs Manukan Grille main branch on Granada Street and called them twins.
"Dwight used to play drums for a jazz band in Bacolod," Monet told us as Chickoy began his second set with some Beatles, Rolling Stones and originals.
And they're like real brothers, some formidable duo, with Gaston also supplying some punchlines in between songs. "What's next?" Chickoy would ask Gaston and they'd discuss some quick backgrounder of the next Bob Dylan cover, or an obscure blues musician. At least for a Ben&Ben fan like me. Chickoy would burst into loud laughter as Gaston would mention something off topic.
"Hindi ko sinusunod ang sabi ng doktor kasi na-realize ko no-food diet 'yung binigay sa kin. Bawal lahat, wala na ko kakainin," said Gaston. The talk swerved to Chickoy's food restrictions since he's been diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called T-cell lymphoma. Among others, Chickoy laments he can't eat sweets. Even soda is prohibited.
In terms of lifestyle, we can say Chickoy is the complete anti-thesis of the late Pepe Smith. He doesn't drink, has long stopped smoking and didn't take drugs. So, we wonder why he's having this kind of health problem.
He was diagnosed with a severe skin allergy in 2014 and continued to play like everything's normal. He can still play guitar and sing but he had to wear gloves for his left hand because of skin blisters. Last June 2019, after the biopsy results, he was told to get chemotherapy but that would mean staying home and not playing for a long time. It was a mutual decision for him and Monet to try alternative means to fight the disease.
There have been two well-attended fund-raising gigs held this month in Quezon City, one at Conspiracy Bar on Visayas Avenue and just recently at My Brother's Moustache, which we've learned from our last visit has since moved to a new location on Scout Tuazon corner Scout Madriñan Street in Barangay Laging Handa, Quezon City.
REGINE VELASQUEZ AND THE JERKS?
To say that Chickoy loves performing is the biggest understatement in local music history. We could go as far as saying he is at home on a stage. Just give him a guitar and microphone and he'd play all night, even beyond closing hours. If he's with The Jerks and the crowd would ask for more, he'd let his band mates leave the stage and he'd sing five or six more, sometimes a full solo set to "one-to-sawa." There will be "requests" written on tissue paper and handed to him by a waiter and he'd oblige to sing them all even without the inserted "Roxas" or "Ninoy" so common in cocktail bars with show bands covering anything from Aegis, Earth, Wind & Fire to Taylor Swift.
Now that he found an ally in Gaston, he'd play to the point where only the waiters are left to clean the tables.
"There was at time at Conspiracy, wala ng tao. Sila lang ni Dwight nagku-kwentuhan sa stage, tuloy pa rin sila mag-perform. Kailangan ko pang sabihan, 'wala ng tao, uwian na," said Monet, laughing at the thought of it.
And if you're a fan who came all the way from Tagaytay City and not too drunk to converse, Chickoy would engage in a long talk, his loud voice and laughter filling up the empty venue. Ask him anything about an original song and he'd tell you how he wrote it, how he and his bandmates recorded it and who were the band members he's with at the time. Surprises would keep you up all night.
"Alam mo ba nag-audition sa amin si Regine Velasquez? Muntik na siyang maging The Jerks," he'd tell us, recalling the time when The Jerks were in limbo in terms of career path. Listening to him were Gaston, Monet, the fan who came all the way from Tagaytay and the waiters now resting on separate seats busy with their cell phones. If they're listening at all.
"Galing kami sa byahe, sa Japan. Pagbalik namin dito, hindi namin alam kung ano na gagawin. Mag-show band na ba? Lounge band? Kasi andun ang regular gigs eh, malaking bayad."
They've been doing standards and needed a female singer, an attractive one to complete the package. There was a need for a regular lounge band at Sofitel Philippine Plaza, then simply called the Philippine Plaza.
"Nag-ocular na kami sa Philippine Plaza. Tiningan namin kung kaya namin. Tumambay kami one night and na-realize namin kailangan ng female singer," Chickoy recalled. They held auditions the following day.
Velasquez, then a teenager, was among those who turned up to audition. Chickoy and his bandmates were very much impressed. "Pinag-audition sya ng tatay niya. Kasama niya eh. Si Mang Gerry na manager din nya. Chona Velasquez pa ang tawag sa kanya," said Chickoy.
Of all questions, Gaston quipped: "Ano audition piece ni Regine?"
"Hindi ko na maalala pero parang Whitney Houston eh. 'The Greatest Love of All' yata. Pero ang galing niya. Sobrang galing niya for The Jerks."
Velasquez would have joined them if only for their drummer who took a strong interest in her.
"Eh kasi 'yung drummer namin that time, iba tumingin. Natakot yata si Mang Gerry. Batang bata pa siya noon. Teenager pa lang. So hindi na siya pinatuloy ni Mang Gerry. Hindi na rin kami tumuloy as a lounge band," said Chickoy.
With his charming Ilonggo accent, Gaston butted in: 'Pero 'di ko rin ma-imagine 'ga na mag-cover ang Jerks ng 'Greatest Love of All.'"
After recovering from laughter, Chickoy said, "Why not?"
40 YEARS OF THE JERKS
If we think about it, the late Chris Cornell had his acoustic version of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," as a tribute to her after she passed on. Another perfect example is The Sex Pistol's version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," a cover of a classic that also became a classic itself.
But consider the possibilities. Had they continued as show band there would have been no The Jerks as we know them now and we couldn't imagine how "Sayaw Sa Bubog," "Mad Mathematical World," "Isa Pang Kanta" and "Rage" would sound like.
Given that, The Jerks also produced the most underrated, underappreciated love ballads "Bitterly" and "Kung Di Man" this side of OPM. Personally, in the 1990s the first time I heard them singing "Bitterly" at The 70s Bistro, I thought it was a Dire Straits original. I had to ask the older guys in the art department in the defunct TODAY newspaper where I was working if they've heard of it. When I heard "Kung Di Man" I thought it was going to be the next pop hit after The Eraserheads' "With A Smile."
This year, the Jerks is celebrating its 40th year and for those who have experienced a live performance or just Chickoy's solo gigs, there's a bigger chance you'd come back for more.
Chickoy is a musician's musician. In their Eraserheads and Yano years, Ely Buendia and Dong Abay, respectively, would wear The Jerks shirts in their gigs.
In recent years after Ian Veneracion found out he could make a career as a concert musician, he would go to Chickoy's solo gigs and watch or jam.
Lourd de Veyra, in his radio show that had Chickoy as recent studio guest, confessed that while still in college at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), he would not have dinner and save his allowance to afford the entrance fee and drinks at Mayric's, everytime The Jerks would play.
Mayric's was one of those seedy rock joints that helped give birth to the second Renaissance of Pinoy Rock. Situated along Espana Avenue, right in front of UST, it was the favorite hangout for college students in the University Belt who were followers of alternative music in the 1990s up to mid-2000.
With The Jerks, everyone has his own story to tell in those four decades. You have a broken heart, you failed a major subject, you had arguments with your partner, you go to The Jerks gig. You passed the exams, you're celebrating your 39th birthday, you closed a major deal, you won a case, you are happy and love the world despite what mankind did to the Amazon forest, you go to 70s Bistro and experience The Jerks. Like beer or scotch, Chickoy and The Jerks have been with you through life's ups and downs. Only few bands have that kind of effect, something close to therapy, healing, simple venting out, far more than your usual "walwal" epicurean good time.
The Jerks play lesser shows these past few months. In his solo gigs, Chickoy can sing covers from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Doors, The Clash, The Ramones, Steely Dan, The Police, anything from the '60s to the '90s.
Despite his stature, his story as struggling musician remains the same. He still plays to survive. He lives from one gig to another. He didn't have beer, liquor or any commercial endorsements that amounted to millions of pesos.
At 62, Chickoy's voice remains intact. It's his fingers having skin blisters that may soon cause him to stop playing.
As they seek alternative treatment, Chickoy continues to play every week, usually Thursdays, at My Brother's Moustache, with once a month gig with The Jerks. At Roadhouse Blues at SM by the Bay in Mall of Asia, Pasay City, he plays twice a month, one as solo performer and another with The Jerks.
"Dati nga araw-araw may gig 'yan, pero ngayon nili-limit ko na sa kahit twice or thrice a week na lang," said Monet. As how that Whitney Houston song would tell him, "learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all."
This rainy Thursday night, you'd wonder where were his fans and followers from those 40 years. Age may have caught up with them while the younger ones could be preparing for the next day's management committee meeting. It could also be the effect of "pecha de peligro."
This rainy Thursday night, you realized Chickoy Pura's fans have changed like everyone else. Probably, their wives or husbands won't allow them to be at My Brother's Mustache this early in the week. Sermons that sound like "Hindi ka na bata, hindi ka na teenager, hindi ka na college student, pamilyado ka na, may client presentation ka bukas."
This rainy Thursday night, those who've followed him in their younger years are concerned with life's "more essential" things than listening to him regularly in his gigs or at least catch him play once a month, every two months, three months, once a year.
This Thursday night, Chickoy and Gaston played as if they're in their 20s, "one-to-sawa." They will play in the following Thursdays, even after the benefit gigs.
Nevermind if it's just Monet, the bartender, cook, waiters now finished cleaning tables and busy with their cell phones. Even they are ready, eager to go home. Nevermind if it's already two o'clock on a Friday morning.
We're with Chickoy and like in our younger years, there is always time for that one final song.