Rene Garcia’s passing in September 2018 caught everyone by surprise. Hotdog, after all, still had shows left to play. But as soon as the news broke, the internet exploded with eulogies and homages to the band’s vocalist and lead guitarist (he died of cardiac arrest), making the death of one of Manila Sound’s great pioneers a reality you can no longer deny.
The following month, I met his brother Dennis Garcia, the other half of the singing-songwriting Hotdog duo, for this story— which was supposed to come out in November, as part of a series of homages to distinguished men who passed away in 2018. I visited Dennis in a small bar in Ortigas where he was observing a band’s soundcheck before an event. His resemblance to Rene is quite striking, I silently noted then. In Hotdog’s photos, they could have been mistaken for twins: both hearty, self-assured men with hairdos apt for the decade that catapulted them to music stardom; both owners of smiles possessed with a palpable eagerness to please crowds. I never met Rene in person but I can imagine he and Dennis shared many other traits.
I shook Dennis’s hands and we both headed to the Chinese joint next door to talk about Rene, their brotherhood, and their process, over gulaman and ice-cold soda. Dennis had then just wrapped up a Hotdog show in Jakarta, or so he told me—but he added that it wasn’t the same. “It was my first time to be onstage without my brother,” he says. “We were always together.”
More Pinoy musicians who are gone too soon:
They were. As the songwriting tandem of Hotdog, Dennis, who played bass guitar, and Rene helped usher in what they coined as “Manila Sound,” the name that embodied the popular Filipino music of the mid-seventies. Their hits include “Manila,” “Pers Lab,” and “Bongga Ka ‘Day.” They were siblings, so it was only natural that their lives as musical collaborators were closely intertwined. They started performing together when Dennis was 14 and Rene was 12.
When they were barely past their teenage years, they spent a year in Honolulu as the metal band Red Fox. Ripping through Led Zeppelin and Hendrix, the band made a splash as the only Filipino act amongst Westerners.
It was just the beginning. After a year of that stint, the Garcias returned to Manila with the itch to do something new. They turned to soul and disco, injecting groove and youthful exuberance into their songs. The result was Hotdog, and the rest was history.
Over decades, they played to millions of people, garnered commercial and critical acclaim, and became ingrained in Filipino pop culture. Through working closely on songs together, their music became the soundtrack to countless romances and celebrations.
"Hotdog killed colonial mentality in pop music with its phenomenal original compositions," wrote Baby Gil in her music column once. "Suddenly it was cool to talk Taglish and listen to a Pinoy band. But a decade before that, the current Filipino songs were "God Knows" by Pablo Vergara and "Sapagka't Kami ay Tao Lamang" by Tony Maiquez that teen-aged buyers would never be caught dead with.
Dennis wrote majority of Hotdog's songs in collaboration with his brother. “Rene’s strength was melody, you know,” says Dennis. “He could do a melody in five, ten minutes.” When Dennis ran into dead ends while writing songs, he relied on his brother to conjure the right notes or parts. It was as natural as driving a car. “The combination was really deadly because we knew each other so well that we could already imagine what was on the mind of the other person.”
Even if he was older, Dennis looked up to Rene. “I admired him because he, to me, was the greatest guitar player. Nobody in the country ever knew—it was a best kept secret.” Dennis told me that his brother was on par with Satriani, yet Hotdog’s trajectory wasn’t quite fit for searing guitar solos. Still, Rene’s musicality still shines in the tasteful fretwork of “O Lumapit Ka” and “Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko.”
“Rene’s strength was melody. He could do a melody in five, ten minutes…The combination was really deadly because we knew each other so well.”
“Natabunan ng image ng Hotdog,” says Dennis of why the public never got to see the full spectrum of Rene’s talent. “It’s my fault also, because I was so conscious about the direction of the band. We never really ventured into rock that much.” They accorded each other with trust and respect. “He knows that I always do it for the good of the band… He listened to me as an older brother.”
Creative differences aside, the Garcias’ vision for the band was clear: “We don’t want to leave the stage until people are happy.”
As Hotdog, they connected to audiences as both songwriters and performers. Their songs were relatable, their topics all too human, the stories they told were experiences they shared together. They traveled abroad to play to Filipinos who became part of their songs. The titular character of the hit “Annie Batungbakal” was inspired by the domestic workers dressed to the nines on the dance floor in the Hilton, Hong Kong.
“Everything’s crazy about the band life,” recalls Dennis who also paints. “One time, I went to Via Mare to have bibingka. When we came in, the whole restaurant sang, ‘hinahanap-hanap…’ The song Manila. The whole restaurant was singing. That really gives you goosebumps. That song is always inducing tears especially if it’s performed abroad. People start crying.”
And therein lies the power of Hotdog, resonating through sharply articulated personal and cultural experiences in fresh and catchy ways. This rare ability to hone in on these narratives is one they share with only a few musicians: Eraserheads, Rico J. Puno, Yoyoy Villame, and Aegis come to mind.
“Why do we pay tribute to people when they’re dead, not when they’re alive?” Dennis asks, pausing. “The tribute comes when you’re no longer around.” Except the songs of Hotdog are everywhere, from karaoke joints in Cubao to dance floors in Dubai, keeping Rene’s memories alive. The songs that the brothers have written endure, which is, in the peculiar way of a pop song, a way to live on.
All photos from Dennis Garcia's Facebook page.
Hotdog Minus 1: A Tribute Concert for Hotdog Rene Garcia will be at the SMX Convention Center tonight, March 27, SM Aura.