Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It’s around 3 a.m. on a Halloween night. A hodgepodge of musicians, filmmakers, hipsters and the occasional artistas are drunk as fuck at Route 196 for the annual Halloween Madnezz party. DJ Joey Santos has been spinning for the past two hours, and he is exhausted. For his last song he plays “3 Libras” by A Perfect Circle, and everyone, I mean everyone, awakens from their drunken stupor to either mosh, scream or emote in unison to the song. There is no way anyone can dance to that song, yet here they were — around 50 people in a small bar, unconsciously taking part in some uncanny Samhain ritual somewhere in Quezon City.
But that was Route 196. It didn’t make sense, much like a lot of things in that place. The parking area only had two slots, so you’d end up having to park at Mcdonald’s a few blocks away. There was no stage, and the back area was sunken, so people sitting down at the back couldn’t see the performers. There was a green room reserved for the band where everyone would hang out but equipment never got stolen. The sound mixer was… by the bartender.
That, of course, was its charm as well: there were no barriers. As a performer you stood two feet away from your audience, as a fan you stood two feet away from your idol. Sometimes when someone needed a spare guitar or some gear was left behind it would be a game of pass-the-object until it got to its owner. It was a place where everyone knew each other, sometimes to the point that when you'd walk in the person onstage would even say hello. It was a place where you had to walk through the crazy ass crowd; sweating, singing along, jumping, just so you could order your beer.
Route 196 (or “Route”, as everyone calls it) was founded in 2006 by a group that included Monica Barretto and former FHM Editor-in-Chief Allan Madrilejos because they pretty much wanted a place to eat and drink after playing badminton. Bing Austria of Juan Pablo Dream suggested they hold gigs during the weekends, and eventually the partners decided to make live music a permanent feature of the venue. Route eventually found their footing as the QC hub for new rock acts. Everyone who rose in the 2000s played there: Sugar Free, Radioactive Sago Project, UDD (then UpDharmaDown), Urbandub. Once in a while you’d have legends like The Jerks and Yano. And of course young upstarts who’d eventually dominate OPM like Ben&Ben and IV of Spades would have their early shows there.
In 2013, original management decided to move on and begin the painful process of adulting; Itchyworms’ Kevin Yu and Jugs Jugueta took over the place, along with Sponge Cola boys Saul Ulanday and Tedmark Cruz, plus Chef Waco Mapua. Red Ninja music mogul and manager Nicole Sarmiento eventually joined as well. It happened at the right time, as Cubao X started fizzling out and its massive following split between Route and another fine establishment lost to COVID-19, TodayxFuture.
Of course, there were other personalities and things that people associate with Route. Like Mang Madz, the manager who’s been there since the beginning. Or their scrumptious deviled chicken. There were nights like Attraction! Reaction!, the monthly event founded by Kathy Gener and Anj Pessumal that featured Route stalwarts like Ang Bandang Shirley, Ciudad and Outerhope; nights that overflowed where fearless hipsters would end up hanging out literally in harm’s way: in the middle of Katipunan Avenue. And there were nights like co-owner TedMark Cruz’s Play Tuesdays, attended mostly by a small group of friends who’d take turns at the decks while others jammed inside.
A few days ago, Route finally announced that they were closing their doors. No crazy final night, no massive gig to end it all. Just an Instagram post, like all the amazing places that fizzled out in 2020. It’s another casualty of the COVID-19 epidemic that serves as a reminder that when we finally come out of this, our personal worlds won’t be the same.
So forgive me as I dedicate this paragraph to my personal recollections of the place, because when a home away from home closes its doors, the memories just come rushing in: One time I wanted to impress this girl I had a crush on my whole college life, and when she came in she saw me standing up on a stool and crashing down only to be kicked by bandmates during my band Blast Ople’s set. She almost didn’t want to date me after that. Me and two other music writers, Erwin Romulo and the late Luis Katigbak, held our music awards show (the imaginatively-named QLE Awards) with Rock Ed, and we had all our friends give out awards to all our favorite bands. Sarah Marco, vocalist of Taken by Cars, was late, so they made me fill in for her and I got to sing my favorite Taken by Cars song,” A Weeknight Memoir (in High Definition).” I was lucky enough to be witness to two heartwarming wedding parties: Russ and Selena Davis’ and Tony and Zet Rago’s. We shot a pilot of our TV show “Rakista” there, wrapping up at 6 a.m. Two years later Everywhereweshoot shot the poster for my movie “Rakenrol” before I had to fly to the airport for the world premiere, Five years later Indiemanila held a reunion show in the same spot (thanks Bel Certeza). My first (and only) solo acoustic set, except I didn’t know how to play guitar, and was saved by Mikey Amistoso of Ciudad, Jason Caballa of Cheats and Wincy Ong of Us-2 Evil-0. During the set of Perfect Sound Forever I publicly told Bianca Yuzon, the girl I was dating, "I love you" for the first time right before segueing into Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs." We’re married now, and I sang that song again for our wedding.
During one of the Attraction! Reaction! Nights, Oh, Flamingo! was playing, and a bunch of breathless college kids were jumping up and down.
“Who are these kids?” Anj asked me. “Remember when we used to know everyone who went to this night?”
“Remember when you were the kids?” I asked her.
That’s the thing about these places. Places like Saguijo and Mayric’s and Club Dredd and Route 196. They will always be there. They have to be there, even if they don’t make sense financially. There will always be that group of people who owe their lives to music and just want to give back, and there will always be rowdy groups of kids who find solace in music, and in each other.
Anj and I continued watching the kids mosh and jump and sing, taking sips of beer in between our smiles.