Although he has reached the Beatles’ theoretical age of supposed decrepitude, Wally Gonzalez—yes, two Z’s—is still the coolest guy in the room.
Seeming to stand a head taller than everyone else, the lead guitarist of the legendary Juan de la Cruz Band exudes a definite presence when he straps on his electric guitar and plugs in.
These days, he favors a Fender Stratocaster rather than the Gibson Custom SG that was his trademark axe during Juan de la Cruz’s mid-’70s peak, but the fat, singing tone he produces from the strings—melodic but with an undercurrent of biting harmonics—is unmistakable.
His current bandmates—Vic Mercado (of Bamboo) on drums, Louie Talan (Razorback) on bass and Wowee Posadas on keyboards—are all monster players and at least two generations younger, but it’s clear from the beginning that they’re keeping up with him, and not the other way around.
The band’s nom du jour is Bandwagon. They used to be known as Wally and Friends, but regular singer Kat Agarrado (of Sinosikat?) has been temporarily sidelined by a baby bump. Filling in on vocal duties is none other than Gonzalez’s brother in arms Joey “Pepe” Smith.
Tonight’s set will feature a larger than usual proportion of Juan de la Cruz Band classics, and no Etta James, but as always the highlight of the evening will be Gonzalez’s one radio hit from his 1978 solo album “On The Road,” the instrumental “Wally’s Blues.”
The slow burner encapsulates everything that the man is about: wordless, but brimming with what Bruce Lee called “emotional content.”
In fact, just as George Harrison used to be called “the quiet Beatle,” Gonzalez was “the quiet Juan,” content for the most part to let his guitar do the talking.
Onstage, Juan de la Cruz was an equilateral triangle, with Joey Smith providing the stage flash, Mike Hanopol the songwriting chops, and Gonzalez the instrumental virtuosity.
Offstage, Gonzalez preferred to stay in the background, allowing his more voluble band mates to take the spotlight. In fact, he was so averse to doing interviews that the story of Pinoy rock’s early years has rarely been told from his perspective.
A cigarette break before the first set provided an opportune time to correct this.
Born in 1949, Gonzalez was a Manila boy born and bred though both his parents hailed from Baliuag, Bulacan. The boy grew up in Sampaloc on Gov. Forbes St., in the shadow of the staunchly Catholic University of Sto. Tomas (UST).
Like so many of his generation, Gonzalez came of age just in time for Beatlemania. The impact of the Fab Four and the ensuing British invasion on the first generation of Pinoy rockers cannot be underestimated. Gonzalez started playing the ukulele, then graduated to guitar. By the time he was in second year high school at UST, he had formed his first band, the Jungle Cats.
So engrossed was the young man in mastering the guitar that his studies fell by the wayside.
“Hindi ako naka-graduate sa UST, na-kick out ako, lakwatsa kasi nang lakwatsa (I didn’t graduate from UST and got kicked out for goofing off),” he recounts. He transferred to the University of Manila. “Lahat ng kick-out nandun (students kicked out of school congregated there).”
It was the early ’60s. Parents’ greatest fear for their children was not drugs, but juvenile delinquency, as gangs such as the Havocs and Combat rumbled in the streets of Manila with slingshot darts. In contrast, joining a “combo” seemed a harmless enough pursuit.
From playing parties, the Jungle Cats graduated to playing actual nightclubs along Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard, alongside such bands as the Tilt Down Men, fronted by one Tito Sotto, and known as the Dave Clark Five of Manila, as well as the Downbeats, arguably Manila’s hottest band, which featured a manic Amboy drummer named Joseph Smith.
One day, the Jungle Cats found themselves as guests on “Nineteeners,” ABS-CBN’s brand new youth-oriented variety show.
The show needed a theme song, the guitarist recalls, and singer Jose Mari Chan was around. “Ang bilis niyang mag-isip ng kanta. On the spot, gumawa siya ng theme song, three chords lang, kami ang tumugtog (he quickly wrote a three-chord song, and we played it).”
(In addition to the TV exposure, the Jungle Cats netted an unexpected bonus from their stint on “Nineteeners,” remembers Gonzalez. Their singer, Nilo Santos, was smitten with an attractive “Nineteeners” dancer named Tessy Alfonso, whom he would later marry and many years later, manage under her stage name, Sampaguita.)
In any case, in the light of the Jungle Cats’ growing professionalism, Gonzales decided to drop out of second year college to pursue the life of a working musician. “I had no other dream but to play the guitar,” he says in Filipino.
To his surprise, his parents fully supported his decision. “Binili pa ako ng erpat ko ng electric guitar (My father even bought me an electric guitar), a solid body Hofner.”
Then he adds, with a laugh: “Mahirap pala ang buhay musikero (I found that it wasn’t easy being a musician).”
During the combo era, bands were ruled by a Darwinian imperative.
“Uso noon ang sulutan ng miyembro,” recalls The Quiet One. “’Pag may magaling tumugtog o kumanta sa ibang banda, susulutin (Pirating outstanding members of other bands was the norm).”
This was how the Jungle Cats landed the bass player of rival band the Glenmores, who had a terrific gravelly voice and was named Michael Hanopol.
Karmic retribution came not too long after when Hanopol and Gonzalez—who by this time had a well-earned rep as a lead guitarist—were both stolen from the Jungle Cats by the Downbeats.
By virtue of having opened for the Beatles during their disastrous 1966 concert at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, the Downbeats were widely considered as Manila’s top band at that time. Their only real rivals were the hard rocking Olongapo bands that seldom needed to venture away from Magsaysay Ave.
So it came to pass that in 1967, Wally Gonzalez, Joey Smith and Mike Hanopol found themselves sharing the stage as members of the Downbeats. Not too long after, they were on a tour of Guam as part of a triple bill featuring the Downbeats, Vilma Valera and Bobby Gonzales.
Best known for his hit song “Hahabol-habol,” which melded Tagalog lyrics with a loping boogie-woogie bass line, Bobby G was arguably the first Pinoy rocker. Although Eddie Mesa was perhaps more popular as the “Elvis Presley of the Philippines,” Bobby G was a true original, singing in Tagalog. In fact, he even wrote a song titled “Pinoy Rock and Roll” way back in the late 1950s.
“Sa totoo lang, para sa akin si Bobby Gonzales ang una,” says Gonzalez. “Siya lang ang ganoon noon, Tagalog lyrics tapos rock and roll ang beat (Truth to tell, he was the first and only rocker then, whose songs had Filipino lyrics and a rock and roll beat).”
Pundits now speculate that the kernel of the idea for Pinoy rock, which the Juan de la Cruz Band would bring to full fruition five years later, might have been planted in Guam during this tour.
Although the Downbeats were still very much in demand, the advent of the psychedelic era and the dawn of progressive rock was starting to make them look very old-fashioned indeed. Sensing that their days were numbered, Gonzalez and Smith decided to split the scene, as they used to say in those days.
“Si erpat may kaibigan sa Japan, kaya nag-adventure kami ni Pepe noong 1968, sumakay kami sa barko ng President Lines, papuntang Tokyo (My father had a friend in Japan so Pepe and I took off for an adventure in 1968 and sailed to Tokyo on President Lines).”
Once in Japan, the two looked up fellow musician Edmond Fortuno in Yokohama. Fortuno was the drummer for one of the hottest bands in the emerging Japanese psychedelic music scene, D’Swooners, composed, naturally, of Filipino musicians. D’Swooners had a big hit in 1964 with “My Sonata of Love.” Since then they had been shuttling between lucrative club gigs in Hong Kong and Japan, where they had released an album.
On the basis of a jam session in a Shinjuku nightclub, Gonzalez and Smith impressed the Japanese owner enough with their Doors and Hendrix covers that they were given carte blanche and airfare to form a band. They quickly got in touch with Mike Hanopol back in Manila, and together with another Pinoy from Lipa, Batangas named Rino (whose surname everyone seems to have forgotten), they formed Zero History.
As described by psychedelic rock historian Julian Cope: “Like the wild ’60s band D’Swooners, Zero History was a Filipino quintet who played in-store performances in Japan’s shopping malls at the tail end of the ’60s. Comprised of several of the musicians who would later become Juan De La Cruz, Zero History was discovered by guitarist Shinki Chen, whilst playing in either Akasaka’s Mugen department store or Yokohama’s Astro shopping mall.
Shinki was particularly taken by the wild drumming of singer Joey Smith, whom he later contacted to form Speed, Glue & Shinki. It is unknown whether this band had ever made a studio recording.
During the six months they were together, Zero History wowed Japanese audiences with Cream, Hendrix and Doors covers. The gig was well paid by Manila standards, but the band members spent every cent they earned on instruments.
That left them almost nothing for food, says Gonzalez who said he bought a Teisco King, a big amp popular in those days, and a mint green Gibson Firebird.
Although Zero History’s sound does not seem to have survived on record, one can imagine that it wouldn’t have been too far removed from the later chemistry displayed by Messrs. Gonzalez, Hanopol and Smith in Juan de la Cruz.
Eventually, Hanopol and Smith were pirated by guitarist Shinki Chen to form the second incarnation of Speed, Glue & Shinki, which can be heard in their 1972 double live album for Warner Bros. Japan.
As the ’60s drew to a close and a new decade dawned, Gonzalez found himself back in Manila, looking for a new gig.
Also back in town was star drummer Edmond Fortuno. The pair decided to form a new band. They recruited saxophonist Alex Cruz (now better known as the father of former Bamboo guitarist Ira), Sonny Tagarro, Bing Labrador and Marlon Ilagan.
“I said, we should think up a very Filipino name,” Gonzalez recounts. It was Fortuno who thought up of Juan de la Cruz. “I said, can we add ‘Band’ to it? Because when we guested on TV, we were always asked, and who among you is Juan dela Cruz?”
The Juan de la Cruz Band Mark I was very much in the sway of early progressive rock, in the mold of Traffic, King Crimson and pre-“Machine Head” Deep Purple, with grandiose lyrical conceits and complex arrangements that incorporated swirling keyboards and flute and saxophone solos as well as Gonzalez’s distinctive guitar leads.
Eventually, Fortuno, Cruz and Labrador broke off to form another band, Anakbayan. Gonzalez recruited Rene Sugueco, Clifford Ho, Romy Santos and Bobot Guerrero to form Juan de la Cruz Band Mark II. But things were fluid in those early days between the two brother bands, and musicians would flit back and forth between one or the other.
By this time, Gonzalez’s older brother Dodie had taken the management reins. He proved to be a savvy promotional and marketing man, so much so that he might be considered the unknown member of the Juan de la Cruz Band, just as Brian Epstein was once called “the fifth Beatle.”
He had no marketing background but he had savvy and feel, his brother recalls.
The older Gonzalez was the promoter of the Antipolo Rock Festival in 1970, the local counter-culture’s answer to Woodstock, complete with dope, nudity and free sex. There, Juan de la Cruz played alongside its forebears, the Downbeats.
The following year, 1971, was a banner year for Juan de la Cruz.
One day, the band members were listening to the original cast recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and thought, wouldn’t it be a blast to do this live?
The very next day, recalls Gonzalez, his brother was at the newly-opened Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), pitching the idea to CCP president Lucrecia Kasilag, who unexpectedly said yes, and even offered a production budget. Fritz Ynfante was pressed as director, and a cast hastily assembled from Atek Jacinto’s New Dimension Singers and various bands around town.
Gonzalez, who by then sported long hair that reached his nipples, was asked to play the part of Jesus, but typically stage shy, he turned down the starring role.
“I said, I don’t sing, why not Boy Camara instead? The only non-pro musician then was Ana Marie Godinez, who was Mary Magdalene and had terrific stage presence.”
The CCP production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a landmark, all the more so since no one had actually seen the Broadway musical. Uncannily, when the movie version came out two years later, it bore a striking similarity to the CCP staging.
So successful was the “Pinoy ock opera” concept that the CCP later staged “The Who’s Tommy,” this time with Anakbayan.
Buoyed by their success, the Juan de la Cruz Band next embarked on “Rock Concert,” a recreation of Deep Purple’s 1969 “Concerto for Group and Orchestra” with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but this time with the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Redentor Romero.
In between these projects they found time to make their first recording, “Up In Arms.”
Now a much sought-after collector’s item (original copies in pristine condition, rarer than hen’s teeth, were reported to have fetched up to $3,000 at one point), “Up In Arms” is worlds away from the Juan de la Cruz that most people know.
“Parang prog rock that’s not quite like it,” is how Gonzalez describes it now. Prog (short for “progressive”) rock sought to make rock music more musicianly with more complex arrangements, instrumentation, and jazz and classical influences, more often than not to its detriment.
By 1972, Gonzalez was living the rock star life of a guitar god. In true rock star fashion, he married beauty queen Onelia Jose, 1972 Miss Philippines World. (The couple have two children and one grandchild.)
Juan de la Cruz and Anakbayan were kings of the Manila rock scene, frequently playing parties in Malacañang, where Imee Marcos was reportedly a big Fortuno fan.
But things were about to change drastically. They might have rocked Imee Marcos’ world, but her father was about to rock their world.
Martial law changed the Manila landscape that Gonzalez and his friends knew. There was a nationwide crackdown on all things druggy and longhair, and curfew was imposed. (Thanks to their Malacañang connection, the Juan de la Cruz Band and Anakbayan were given curfew passes, so they could keep playing clubs.)
These social changes were reflected in the music. With the psychedelic haze lifting, the Juan de la Cruz Band began to strip away all the extraneous flab from their sound, leaving only the hard, muscular core. Taking their cue from Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, they reformed as a power trio, with Gonzalez on guitar, Hanopol on bass and Smith—kept from rejoining Speed, Glue & Shinki in Japan by the martial law travel ban—on drums.
At the same time, they also began writing new material. Some were heavy blues rockers reminiscent of Zero History and Speed, Glue & Shinki, such as “Shake Your Brain” and “I Wanna Say Yeah.” But the band was also experimenting with songs using Tagalog lyrics, songs that more accurately reflected the tenor of the times.
Dodie Gonzalez booked the band a concert at the Luneta amphitheater, less than three months after martial law was declared. The concert was called, simply, “Himig Natin.”
It was a statement of purpose, a declaration of intent. Minutes before they were to take the stage, Smith locked himself in the bathroom and, as the legend goes, dosed on acid and penned the lyrics to “Himig Natin” on the spot.
The band lost no time getting their new sound on record. Paying for the recording themselves, they produced what eventually became the second Juan de la Cruz Band album, “Himig Natin,” in 1973.
It was like an experimental album, says Gonzalez. “We only had three Filipino songs: ‘Rock and Roll sa Ulan,’ ‘Mamasyal sa Pilipinas,’ ‘Himig Natin.’”
It was like a response to the rigors of martial law, with subtle references to the counter-culture, he adds, like the lyrics in “Rock and Roll sa Ulan”: “baka ako sipunin, di bale marami naman akong gamot (I might get sick; that’s alright, I have a lot of pills).”
This time, rather than rely on the record company to promote the album, Dodie Gonzalez bought airtime on DZRJ, and produced a weekly show hosted by disc jockey Benjie Munoz, a.k.a. “the Big Freak” devoted to local rock music, with special attention to the Juan de la Cruz Band, of course.
In this way, the band jumpstarted the entire Pinoy rock phenomenon. The radio show proved so popular that the station continued it as “Pinoy Rock & Rhythm,” thereby coining the name for an emerging movement.
By this time, Gonzalez had developed his distinctive guitar sound, obtained by running his Gibson SG through four Fender Bassman amplifiers in series, with all the controls set to 10.
There were no special effects then, you were plugged directly to the amplifier,” he says. “You needed extra effort to distort the sound.”
This resulted in the distinctive biting guitar tone, with the rich harmonic overtones, that identifies Gonzalez’s sound as his own.
The band would often play at UP’s Abelardo Hall. Inspired by the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck, Dodie Gonzalez outfitted a Volkswagen Combi with a two-track tape recorder and a Shure mixer, making Juan de la Cruz the only band in the land with its own mobile recording facilities. The live recordings from UP, and some from the Big Freak’s ancestral house in Paco, were eventually released as the 1974 album “Super Session,” a unique document that remains vital to this day, showcasing Mike Hanopol’s larger role in the band as composer and vocalist with “Sarap ng Buhay,” “Kagatan” and “Langit.”
The following year, Juan de la Cruz recorded what many consider the band’s masterpiece, “Maskara.” With its die-cut cover showing the band members with Kiss-like face paint, the album unleashed the full power of the Juan de la Cruz Band on listeners with “Rak En Rol Sa Ulan,” “Balong Malalim,” “Beep Beep” and “Nadapa sa Arina.”
Sadly, it was to be the band’s swan song, at least for the next several years.
“We each wanted to go our own way, make our own album,” Gonzalez recalls. “Mike Hanopol was ready with his, so Dodie let him go first. That recording became the album, ‘Buhay Musikero.’”
For his part, Gonzalez recorded two solo albums, 1977’s “Tunog Pinoy” and 1978’s “On The Road.”
“I had wanted to do an instrumental album,” he says, but his brother urged him to sing. “Kumanta ka na! Ayun! Pangit tuloy lumabas (Sing already! There, it turned out to be a bad album).”
Ironically, the one hit from these two albums is the one song where Gonzalez doesn’t sing, the slow-burning “Wally’s Blues,” which to this day remains the guitarist’s signature tune, requested at nearly every gig.
In 1981, the Juan de la Cruz Band reunited in the studio for “Kahit Na Anong Mangyari,” which yielded hits such as the title track, “Panahon,” “Titser’s Enemy Number One” and “No Touch.” It was basically a Hanopol/Smith album, with Wally sessioning on guitar. The songs had already been written and the basic tracks recorded when Gonzalez was called in to add the finishing touches.
With echoes of old time rock’n’roll, many of the songs on “Kahit Na Anong Mangyari” have a nostalgic, bittersweet flavor, as if the bandmates had realized that their youth and the best years of their lives were now behind them.
The 1980s were a lost decade, with Gonzalez playing sporadically at best. Despite being the reigning kings of Pinoy rock, the Juan de la Cruz Band, like any other working band, depended on live gigs for their income. Record royalties were laughably small.
“Parang nabwisit ako, nawalan ako ng gana (I was dismayed),” recalls Wally. His royalties amounted to P300, P500, and by that time, he was sending two kids to school. “I said, that’s it, I’m through with music.”
In 1988, he hung up his guitar and would not touch it for the next 10 years.
Luckily, his brother had in the meantime formed Tankmasters, an inter-island shipping company that transported fuel throughout the country. He took Gonzalez in as corporate treasurer.
The transition from rock star to working stiff was a difficult one, but the younger Gonzalez had a family to support. He cut his hair and traded in his jeans and T-shirt for office attire.
It was an “okay” experience, he says. “At least, I managed to send my two kids through college on that job.”
Later, when his older brother opened an insurance brokerage company, Gonzalez taught himself the reinsurance business and became an insurance executive.
Then in 1998, a year after his brother Dodie had passed away, giving him more corporate responsibility, he got a call from Joey Smith. A starry-eyed Juan de la Cruz Band fan from UP named Edgar Bentain was producing a reunion concert to be titled “Ang Pagbabalik.”
Mike Hanopol was flying in from the US, where he had settled in the interim. It was to be a huge concert at the World Trade Center, a bigger venue than Juan de la Cruz had ever played during its heyday.
Ten years’ worth of dust had gathered on Gonzalez’s guitar. It took two months of intensive woodshedding before he regained enough of his guitar chops back to contemplate going onstage again.
“Kalawang (I got rusty),” he recalls. “From 1988 to 1998, I had played only once.”
Fortunately, although the calluses on his fingertips were long gone, the muscle memory was still there.
The Juan de la Cruz Band was not exactly unknown to the new generation of Pinoy rockers. Younger bands such as Razorback, Wolfgang and Advent Call had kept the fire burning through their long hibernation, paying them explicit homage. Their songs had also gone on to become classics. “Pagbabalik” merely allowed this new audience a glimpse of the “great Pinoy antiquities” in the flesh.
(“Pagbabalik” also had a bizarre footnote: Soon after the concert, its producer, Edgar Bentain, disappeared without a trace, after leaking to the media a videotape of then President Joseph Estrada gambling in a casino in the company of an alleged gambling lord. Bentain was reportedly kidnapped on Jan. 16, 1999, by armed men, driven off towards Cavite and brutally killed. His body was never found.)
It was only in 2002, however, that Gonzalez returned to his first love, the guitar, after a 15-year hiatus. Retiring from his executive position, he returned to active performing. Typically, despite his living legend status, it was a low-key affair without much fanfare.
“It’s difficult to be gone for so long,” he says. “You’re back to A. And I don’t know that many young musicians, until I met Wowee Posadas and Kat Agarrado.”
In 2005, the Juan de la Cruz Band reunited again for “Pagkalas!,” another concert at the World Trade Center. It sent a signal that indeed Wally Gonzalez was back in town.
Many friends from the old days had gone on ahead to the great gig in the sky: Edmond Fortuno, Dondi Ledesma, Bing Labrador, his brother Dodie, to name just a few.
Luckily, Joey Smith and Mike Hanopol are still very much alive and ready to kick at a moment’s notice when a Juan de la Cruz Band reunion is called for.
And as Wally Gonzalez has discovered in his second coming, there will always be a spot for a guitar player who can play the blues with a tone like his. He has been playing regularly at Skippy’s Bar in The Fort and Roadhouse Manila Bay near the Mall of Asia with Bandwagon.
In his characteristic laconic style, he sums it up:
“Nag-stick lang ako sa kung ano alam ko at komportable ako na mabibigay ko with feeling (I stuck with what I know and what I’m comfortable with, and what I could give with feeling).” •
Check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFWolBck8Rs and www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6kHH0Eyrm8