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Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Archive for February 3rd, 2019

Pepe Smith: A legend on steroids 0

Posted on February 03, 2019 by jimparedes

A few of Joey “Pepe” Smith’s favorite things: A jacket, boots, a guitar and a model airplane box

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) – February 3, 2019 – 12:00am

Joey “Pepe” Smith was a legend, an icon, a rock symbol, etc. I am not using these words lightly here. Pepe Smith is really all that. On steroids.

I first came across him as a singer of The Downbeats, a band that front-acted for The Beatles in 1965 at Rizal Sports Stadium in Manila. He had an immediate impact on the audience. At that time, he was a Mick Jagger wannabe doing the song Satisfaction, complete with the Jagger shuffle.

The next time I saw him was in UP around 1971. I was in a room with other artists and Pepe dominated the scene with his bigger-than-life presence. He was tall, lanky, with very long hair, a loud voice, a dramatic style and an overwhelming charisma. He had that star quality that was different from every artist at that time. He was a rebellious, wild, outrageous, loud, confident person who at the same time possessed charm. To some, he was very likable. To others, he seemed menacing. Either way, he had a personality that riveted everyone’s attention towards him.

I also saw him perform one of the leads in the musical Hair, which may have been the first theatrical production in the Philippines that showed some onstage nudity.

Once you met or saw Pepe Smith, he was impossible to forget. He made an indelible impression on you, for better or for worse.

Early in his career, he sang with different bands until he joined Juan de la Cruz, the first real original Pinoy rock band. The group was not just amazing. It was revolutionary. I remember half-laughing and shaking my head in admiration when I first heard the song Rock & Roll Sa Ulan with Pepe reciting the lyrics. It had a mocking irreverence and cheeky defiance to it. It was so free it even challenged what everyone thought rock at that time should be. And soon after, on and on came the hits. Titser’s Enemi No. 1, Balong Malalim, Beep Beep, Himig Natin, No Touch, Langit, etc. flooded the airwaves. It is an understatement to say that they hit it really big.

Beebop, Sanya, Daisy and Delta

A vivid memory I have of Pepe Smith and the Juan de la Cruz Band was a concert at St Mary’s College in the early ’70s. I remember singing our versions of foreign hits and our own compositions in English. We actually got a pretty good reaction from the audience. But the reaction we got was nothing like what Pepe and the JDLC Band got. The audience actually went wild, loudly sang along and had a great time. It was a turning point for us as we watched from backstage. No, we were not going to turn into a rock band. We realized that the way to go was to write and sing songs in Pilipino. It sounded more authentic and real. It definitely changed the direction of APO’s career. And we thank Pepe and Juan de la Cruz Band for it.

I went to the wake last Wednesday night to pay my respects to Pepe Smith and to hear stories about him. I realized I knew so little about this legendary figure who was my OPM contemporary. Pepe was the son of an American pilot named Edgar Smith and a Filipina. Pepe’s daughter Daisy said he hardly talked about his dad because they did not get along. He has other sibs from both parents. He was 71 when he passed on.

I talked with Rose Cruz, the mother of three of his five children, and his companion at the time he died. She narrated the moment of his death. Pepe had put some of his many guitars on their bed and was changing the strings of his new favorite Washburn acoustic guitar. He was in a light mood. Suddenly, he told Rose that he was not feeling good. Rose asked him if he wanted to go to the hospital. He declined. Soon after, he had a stroke (his third) and died quietly in her arms.

I met four of his five children at the wake, too. The youngest and only boy is BeeBop who was named after the Gene Vincent song Beebop-A-Lula. He is tall and also is a dead ringer for his father. The youngest girl Delta was named after Delta Force, a type of airplane that Pepe liked. I also learned that Pepe actually wanted to be a pilot like his father. He was into model airplanes. Daisy was named after the poem “Desiderata.” Sanya, a daughter by a different mother was named after the word “Sannyasin,” a Sanskrit term for spiritual seekers who have managed to renounce all materialism. The oldest is Queenie, also by a different mom. Unfortunately, she was not there when I visited and I was unable to speak with her.

The four sibs described their father as a happy person who could change their moods when they were having a rough time. They all smile when they remember him. He was playful and mischievous. He was ridiculously funny. And he was a loving dad. They told jokes and anecdotes about Pepe with fondness. Daisy, who resides in Australia, said he was planning on visiting her in Queensland but tragedy struck too soon.

His hat, a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon from Australia and a tiny flashlight Pepe liked bringing along.

There were stories of his wild and reckless behavior, too. Pepe spent two years in a Quezon City jail until he was acquitted of drug charges. Rose also narrated how Pepe, during one of his stays in the hospital as a patient, was walking around the corridor with a dextrose feed connected to one hand and a Jim Beam bottle held in the other. He was outrageous. She laughed when she remembered this. There was never a dull moment with him. When I mentioned the word “controversial” to describe Pepe to his family, they all laughed. I laughed too, because the word is too mild to describe him.

Pepe’s mantra, philosophy and religion, to be very simple about it, was “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He led the rock star lifestyle with all its attendant highs and lows. He lived a life of excess. In the public eye, he was party town personified.

Pepe will be remembered by all of us as an OPM giant whose songs will stay with us for the next generations. Pepe in his own way was a mover and shaker. He and the Juan de la Cruz personified Pinoy Rock and made a real music genre locally. He dared to live his life without any reservations or compromises.

He will be missed by his family and friends who knew him better than we, the public, will ever know.

Goodbye, Pepe Smith. ’Til we meet again. And we all will. Meanwhile, enjoy jamming with Jimi Hendrix and the rock greats in Rock and Roll Heaven.

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