TRIBUTE: The life, times and music of Joey 'Pepe' Smith

Rick Olivares

Posted at Jan 28 2019 12:42 PM | Updated as of Jan 28 2019 06:45 PM

“Masadan mo ang mga ulap.
Balikan mo ang iyong ala-ala.
Mga araw na lumipas
Sa iyong buhay.
Malalaman mo kung paano liligaya sa buhay.
Pagdating ng panahon.”

 - From the Juan dela Cruz Band song, “Panahon”

Joey "Pepe" Smith. Photo from MYX

Joseph William “Pepe” Smith passed away early Monday, January 28, due to cardiac arrest. He was 71 and turned that age last Christmas, which was also his birthday.

During the press conference that announced what would turn out to be the ill-fated Pepe Smith Rockfest last year at the Woodman’s Head in Makati, I sat in a corner with Pepe for an interview.

When all was said and done, we spoke for a bit more as he strummed an acoustic guitar. Pepe asked, “Rick, ano favorite Juan dela Cruz Band song mo?”

I noted the usual favorites -- “Himig Natin,” “Kahit Anong Mangyari,” “Beep Beep,” and a few others. Then I added, “Panahon.”

Pepe high-fived me. “Now you’re talking,” he said suddenly animated.

I looked at him with a cocked eyebrow.

“’Panahon’ is like our version of the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday,’” he said. And I understood. He sang the first few lines then when someone called him for another interview, he stopped, looked at me, then got up. “Rock ‘n’ roll muna.”

Cut to the Rockfest. When it was apparent that everyone was in the midst of a debacle, Pepe said moments before he hit the stage: “Let’s give everyone a great performance no matter what. Kahit konti lang ang tao.”

That was Pepe Smith. A trooper towards the end. 

He debunked any notion of being Pinoy rock’s savior. He knew that his days had gone by, but the music was all he knew. In the last few years, he battled a series of ailments that left him unable to perform properly. But he hoped that he could record one last bit of music. 

“I’ve got one more album left in me,” he told me at the Handlebar one evening. We spoke for what seemed to be like an hour as he shared his thoughts about the state of the music industry and what he wanted to do in these last years of his life. While he railed about the difficulties of recording his one and only solo album, "Idiosyncrasies," he would inject every now and then bits of humor. 

No matter how bad things got, he never lost his sense of humor.

And that brought me back to a show in Olongapo back in the early 1990s where he went up to a sari-sari store and asked the tindera if she had change for five centavos. That got a laugh out of everyone. “Life’s too short, man,” he said then. “Dapat masaya lang tayo.”

In 1982, at the massive Loyola Jam concert at the Loyola Center (now called “Blue Eagle Gym”) at the Ateneo de Manila University grounds, Smith and the Juan Dela Cruz Band headlined a who’s who in Pinoy rock. That was one of the first big rock concerts in post-Martial Law Philippines and now, people could go home late. Smith wore blue pants with red lining, boots, suspenders, and a white V-neck shirt with the sleeves shorn off. He looked like an American Civil War soldier with a Mick Jagger haircut. 

Right before launching into their latest hit, “Titser’s Enemi No.1,” he cried out to the crowd, “Kapag may nagbibigay sa ‘yo ng problema at hindi mo raw kayang iaabot ang iyong pangarap, sabihin mo, ‘heto sa ‘yo.’” He gave the finger at some imaginary oppressor and the band launched into their song. 

That was Pepe, a non-conformist who lived his music dreams. He performed for six-months in Saigon during the early stages of the Vietnam War, an experience he described as “rich and weird” as blood was being shed in the countryside. He went to Japan where he was a part of that mythical group, Speed, Glue & Shinki. He was “Speed” in that trio that included guitarist Shinki Chen who was considered Japan’s version of Jimi Hendrix, and bassist Masayoshi Kabe. They didn’t last long as sales didn’t do well and as the story goes, Chen had a tough time dealing with Smith’s lifestyle.

Before coming home to Manila to join the incarnation of the Juan Del Cruz Band’s classic power trio (that included Wally Gonzales and Mike Hanopol), Smith played a show where Speed, Glue & Shinki were in the same bill as the pre-Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks line-up of Fleetwood Mac. As Smith told me, he accidentally bumped into Mick Fleetwood backstage causing the English drummer to fall. “That’s why Fleetwood began walking with a limp,” said Smith of his so-called meeting with the rock icon. 

In 2004, he collaborated with the late Papadom and Tropical Depression and Junior Kilat in a reggae-fied version of “Himig Natin.” It was brilliant! 

“When we recorded 'Kahit Anong Mangyari,' panahon 'yan ng New Wave so medyo we somewhat changed our style from the heavy rock of the '70s for yung times as they say,” recounted Smith. “And sa new millennium, naiba rin. Kung 'yung reggae version ng ‘Himig Natin’ will help yung mga bata na to check out our Pinoy rock classics, then good yun.”

During the massive Full Blast Pinoy Superbands at the Cuneta Astrodome in 2017 that was incidentally, the last time the Juan Dela Cruz Band performed ever, Smith, who never was able to fully play a guitar after a stroke, tried his best. He even sang lead vocals on a few songs -- after which former Razorback vocalist Kevin Roy lent a helping hand – before turning over the vocal duties to Hanopol. 

Before the band hit the stage, Smith shared a seat on stage (behind a curtain) with his long time bandmates Gonzales and Hanopol). “Like old times,” I ventured to no one in particular.

“We are old,” laughed Gonzales.

Chimed in Pepe, paraphrasing a Neil Young classic, “But it’s better to burn out than to fade away because Pinoy rock is here to stay.”

And truer words were never spoken.

The King is gone. But he will never be forgotten.

Rest in peace, Joey “Pepe” Smith.

It’s time to knock on heaven’s door.