Chickoy Pura said it best.
“Joey ‘Pepe’ Smith was the ultimate rock star. A guy like that comes only once in our lifetime,” the frontman of the rock band The Jerks told me shortly after learning of the Pinoy rock icon’s demise Monday, January 28. “I don’t think we’ll ever see another artist like him anytime soon. We all have big shoes to fill with his passing.”
Initially compared to Mick Jagger when he was a member of the band called The Downbeats—one among the opening acts for The Beatles’ infamous Manila concert in 1966—Pepe would find more success in, of all places, Japan, as the drummer of the Japanese rock trio, Speed, Glue & Shinki at the start of the 1970s.
But it wasn’t until he, along with Mike Hanopol (who also played with Pepe in Speed, Glue & Shinki) and Wally Gonzalez, formed the classic line-up of the blues and hard rock-based Juan dela Cruz band in the years following Martial Law that Pepe started to become the face of the then emerging Pinoy Rock genre.
With his lanky and towering frame, mestizo good looks and irreverent sense of humor, Pepe was a charismatic figure that easily endeared himself to both fans and fellow musicians alike. When the Juan dela Cruz triumvirate started to go their separate ways (they never officially disbanded) and headlined concerts individually, Pepe was still a sought after performer even as Mike and Wally released several well-received albums.
The prolific Mike, in particular, became a household name following a string of big hits that included “Laki sa Layaw” and “Mr. Kenkoy” while Wally got a lot of radio airplay on rock station DZRJ for his definitive instrumental “Wally’s Blues.”
But even then it was Pepe’s output that fans waited for with bated breath. After all, he was the voice behind iconic homegrown hits like “Beep Beep,” “Rock & Roll sa Ulan” and, of course, “Himig Natin.”
Around the same time of his fellow bandmates’ individual successes, Pepe was also supposed to record his own album but unfortunately was only able to release the single “Summer Wind” and its B-side, “Sa ‘Yo,” which would later be included in a best of Pinoy rock compilation record.
Despite the lack of hits for his solo effort, Pepe was still The Man fans wanted to see the most in concerts, especially in the New Moon concert series that was featured in “Pabonggahan,” a documentary on Pinoy rock directed by the late Gil Portes.
Gary Perez, another legendary Pinoy Rock musician who was identified with Anak Bayan and Sampaguita says it was Pepe who actually gave him his “first experience in the recording industry” where he played lead guitar on “Summer Wind.”
“I played for him with the Highway Band and the Airwaves. We had so much fun playing together in concerts even if we don’t get paid. Even in Olongapo where we played with the great Edmon ‘Bosyo’ Fortuno and Gil Lemque on bass, we were just very passionate with the music,” Gary remembers.
Buddy Trinidad, celebrated pastry chef and the frontman of the seminal punk band Betrayed recalled the time when new wave and punk was starting to supplant both disco and classic rock in the club and live circuit.
“One of those clubs, On Disco in Pasay City along Roxas Boulevard, began to introduce New Wave Nights every Friday and the owner, Sonny Tanchanco wanted Pepe to be the headlining live performer,” Buddy recalled.
Although not identified with punk rock per se, Pepe had the swagger, the attitude and more importantly, the willingness to adopt to the emerging musical trend—and he will not be out of place standing side-by-side with say, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, or Joey Ramone of The Ramones, since Pepe was also big on wearing leather on stage.
“Problem was, Pepe had no band of his own at the time so he was supposed to be backed up by The Jerks who was still up and coming by then,” Buddy further shared.
Pepe at that time did not want to be backed up by musicians he did not know or were not comfortable with. “Pepe was very particular with who he plays with,” continued Buddy, “and there was a time when he would only play with Jun Lopito so Sonny instead settled with The Jerks as the live act at On every Friday.”
On’s New Wave Nights, however, became a big hit and would ultimately become the precursor for the Brave New World punk concerts that were organized by Sonny’s nephew, Tommy Tanchanco. As the buzz around it got louder, On added more attractions like DZRJ’s DJ Howlin’ Dave who was invited to play his radio playlist in the venue, and Pepe himself who frequented the place to jam with The Jerks. This was when he struck a friendship with Chickoy and the rest of the band.
Chickoy has his own Pepe story to share. “When we started playing in Olongapo later where Pepe became a mainstay for a while, he was very protective of us. We were still new to the place and the Americans were still there and some of them for some reason were not very kind to us. It was Pepe who tried to intimidate them in a joking and non-confrontational manner. Somehow, it worked and the Americans would later say, ‘Let’s get out of here. That guy is crazy’ and they eventually left us alone.”
Another detail Chickoy is proud to share is that Pepe gave him his own Zippo lighter with the Doors, his and Jim Morrison’s names engraved on it.
“He was like telling me to keep the flame burning, so to speak. He was like trying to pass the torch and I keep saying that’s not going to happen anytime soon and true enough, he managed to be around for a long time. When I reminded him about that lighter years later, he said to me, ‘I’ve been looking for that!’ And I said, ‘You gave that to me!’”
Even as today’s youth will likely have a hard time grasping the magnitude of the reverence accorded Pepe in the local rock scene, Buddy, Gary and Chickoy—and everyone else who have personally witnessed his ascent to rock and roll royalty during the mid-70s to late 80s—are all one in saying that more than his musical contributions, it was his kind and generous soul that truly defined Pepe Smith’s legend.
“Pepe was simply one of the kindest persons I’ve ever known,” Buddy offers. “Yes, we will never see another Pepe Smith.”
“He loved making everyone laugh and feel good. He was well-loved simply because he was down to earth and had no air of pretension about him whatsoever. I guess that’s why he lasted so long in our industry,” Chickoy tells me.
“Pepe was a man with a very big heart,” says Gary. “I know for sure he is in heaven now resting in peace with God doing what he does best—playing rock and roll.”