By Rafil Elyas
Kumaresvara (Jack) Nathan, 360° Head Rotation co-founder, musical collaborator, and my very dear friend of almost 15 years, is dead.
Jack was cremated with his beloved ‘Frankenstein’ custom ‘Jack Series’ guitar on Monday, 25 September 2006, at around 4pm. On Saturday, 26 September 2006, his ashes were taken to his favourite spot, a friend’s dusun near Kuala Kubu Bahru, and released into a stream running across the property. The tribute gig shall be held once we manage to shake the fog of extreme grief that is now clouding our heads.
Sometime between twelve and one in the morning of Sunday, 24 September 2006, Jack was riding a bicycle home to Mutiara Damansara’s Palm Springs Apartments when he was hit by a car. An eyewitness, driving behind this vehicle, clocked its speed at over a 100 kilometres per hour. It was speeding away to avoid a police roadblock. The car hit Jack and did not stop. I later learned that the driver has since turned himself in, and is now out on bail.
Jack would have turned 41 on 6 October 2006.
In all the years that I knew Jack, he hardly spoke about his personal life. Most of our discussions revolved around music and musicians. Once in a while, he’d fill me in with bits and pieces:
Jack was born in Bukit Mertajam, Penang. Youngest in a family of four, he had two elder brothers, Nathan and Steve; and a sister, Devi. His father was a headmaster and his mother a housewife. All the boys played guitar well; in the family, there appears to be a genetic disposition and an almost-instinctual inclination when it comes to that instrument. Nathan started Jack on what was to be a lifelong passion for the blues –namely of the Eric Clapton brand.
After completing his Ordinary Levels, Jack travelled to Singapore and studied industrial design. He later found himself in the Klang Valley, and began his career as a professional musician. I understand he had a brief stint with the legendary pub band Streetlights. Sometime in the early nineties, he hooked up with Victor, Joyce, Roger and Bino to form a group called the Country Hearts. They were a resident band of the now-defunct pub Longhorn, and alternated sets with seminal KL country band Os Pombos.
In the last few years, Jack was living with his sister Devi and her husband Ranjit. He lived a blues player’s life: a rollercoaster alternating between extreme joy and the bleakest rock bottom.
Jack and I
Jack and I met, sometime in 1992, through our mutual friend, Victor. Jack played lead guitar and fiddle. He fit the Wild-West frontier-town-saloon theme at Longhorn: belt buckle the size of a motorcycle hubcap, cowboy boots, jeans, checker-ed shirt, ten gallon hat.
He sported shoulder-length hair and had a sinister scar running down the left side of his face. Mean guitar and fiddle playing motherfucker. He got the scar in a bar fight — he was hit with a glass beer pitcher, trying to defend one of the waitresses from some customers who were roughing her up.
They allowed guest artists to jam at Longhorn, on Sunday nights. I’d go there and do Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and Jack would go totally Hendrix. Sometimes, we would play a few original numbers I’d written. We came from totally different backgrounds, Jack and I: he worshipped Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix; I was on the Bauhaus and The Cure sector of the musical universe. Nonetheless, when we jammed, there was a connection – two totally different musical directions had merged to create what can only be described as Punk Blues Goth Rock.
We both got to know each other well. On a fishing trip, I learned that we shared the same birthday. Jack was a year older than me.
The first recording we made together was sometime in 1993. It consisted of two songs I had written, ‘Just One Morning’ and ‘Sunrise’. Jack had to feel what he was playing, so he asked me to describe each song; the meaning and imagery I hoped to evoke. I sat down and told him ‘Just One Morning’ should conjure this picture: Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House on the Prairie, enjoying a nasty ménage a trois with two farm hands, in a hay cart in the middle of a bunch of chainsaws caught in a twister.
That essentially set the way we wrote songs together: I’d paint a situation in words and a basic melody; Jack would bring it to aural life.
Between 1994 and 2003 Jack and I hardly saw each other. I had become an oil and gas consultant and was living out of a suitcase. Jack was working for an advertising company and was doing production work. Occasionally, I’d go on set and watch him work — there would almost always be a guitar nearby; he’d get possessed by Hendrix and launch into a 30-minute solo.
360° Head Rotation
Sometime in 2003 we reconnected. One evening, I wandered into the old Paul’s Place, in Damansara Utama. Amir Yusoff was jamming on drums; another guy, neatly dressed with a corporate haircut, was playing guitar. I told Amir: “That guy looks a lot like an old buddy of mine, Jack Nathan.”
Turns out it was Jack. He had been helping Paul build the stage, and was doing some handyman work around the venue. Many beers followed that night. Later that year, when Peter Hassan Brown organised a gig in Jam Asia and asked if I’d be interested in performing, I told him to give me a couple of days to think about it. I immediately called Jack.
360° Head Rotation’s first line up was me, Jack, Edmun Anthony and Paul Millot. We practiced once. At the end of that practice, Edmun gave me a look of what I can only describe as horror, and politely declined to participate in any future rehearsals. Paul had commitments with his band Brown Sugar. Both Paul and Edmun would return to perform with us as sessionists, but this was later.
Jack got headhunting duty. He had three weeks to find a rhythm section. In a couple of days, he nabbed Mohd Nuhi “Monkey Boy” Selamat on drums and bassist Nazrul Ahmad. They were performing with the local Seattle Sound outfit Hike.
Between 2003 to the present day, 360° Head Rotation played over 20 gigs and started recording our debut album. The band was fun for me: a diversion from the world of oil and gas, a chance to pander to the right side of my brain.
To Jack, this was serious work. He threw himself at the task of arranging and perfecting the instrumental parts for our songs. We would spend hours getting the proper sound levels and quality in the studio — and even more hours mixing and engineering the tracks with recording engineer Meng at Standing Wave Studios. Over the years, 360° Head Rotation developed a Sound: thundering drums, Mephistophelean lyrics, driving bass. Amps up to 11. Sweat and spit on stage. The signature Jack Nathan blues punk guitar.
For more genteel audiences, Jack and I developed some acoustic arrangements and deployed them in venues like La Bodega and No Black Tie. They were interesting, but nothing like our full electric sets.
Stairway to Heaven
Over the years, Jack Nathan has come to be recognised as one of the most innovative guitarists in the Klang Valley. He was held in high esteem in both the pub musician and independent music communities. Jack loved all aspects of music: the playing, the lights, the glamour photo shots — don’t ask.
He was one of the most gregarious and amiable people I knew, always making new friends. For 360° Head Rotation, we made up a bunch of business cards with snarky titles. Jack was Sex Symbol & Lead Guitarist.
I am neither spiritual nor religious. I do not subscribe to afterlife models proscribed by scripture or divinely inspired text. However, in light of this tragedy, I now see the benefit of having that sort of faith.
Because I would then be able to comfort myself with an image of Jack, passing through that proverbial tunnel, walking toward the bright white light, holding his Frankenstein guitar.
Approaching the light, he sees a wild haired man wearing an old military jacket. He smiles, extends his hand, and says: “Hi Jimi, I’m Jack.”
“Lemme show you how we play blues guitar.”
Rafil Elyas builds simulation models for the petroleum industry, and fronts punk blues goth rock outfit 360° Head Rotation.
This article is an edited version of the obituary Rafil wrote and circulated to the 360° Head Rotation mailing list on Fri 29, Sep 2006.
First Published: 03.10.2006 on Kakiseni