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PEPE'S BLUES

From Punks, Poets, Poseurs: Reportage on Pinoy Rock & Roll
Copyright @ 1996 Anvil Publishing, Inc. and Eric S. Caruncho.

It was close to midnight when Joey "Pepe" Smith downed the last of his beer, picked up his guitar and walked out of the cramped dressing room and into the club.
"PE-PE! PE-PE! PE-PE! PE-PE! PE-PE!"

This wasn't just any rock & roll band after all. This was Joey Smith, legendary drummer and vocalist of the legendary Juan de la Cruz Band and--in a previous lifetime at least--legendary boozer, dope fiend and free spirit. At the junction where the Sixties dovetailed into the Seventies--then sex, drugs and rock & roll fueled the lifestyles of Manila's young and restless--Smith was the rock icon.


Mike Hanopol and Wally Gonzales might have provided the Juan de la Cruz Band's muscle, but there was never any doubt that Smith was its heart and soul. More than anyone else in the scene, he stood for the risk-taking, rebellious spirit of the music.


For many people, Joey Smith wasn't the inventor of Pinoy rock. Joey Smith was Pinoy rock.
"You can't just play it; you have to live it," Smith once said paraphrasing jazz genius Charlie Parker--another musician famous for his excesses. "You have to feel it in your bones. You have to be built for rock & roll."


Pepe had lived it. He had the scars to prove it. And if he wasn't "built for rock & roll," he would have been dead long ago.


"I have to thank to thank the Big Old Man up there for letting me get through the Sixties in once piece," Smith said. He might as well have added the Seventies and the Eighties, for Smith was notorious for his prodigious appetite for alcohol and other, more exotic chemicals as he was famous for his music.


"I've crossed a lot of borderlines," he admitted. And somewhere along the way in the eyes of his legions of fans, the musician became indistinguishable from the self-destructive drug abuser.
During his bad spells, Smith would often go AWOL, too wasted to make it to his gigs. Or he might show up, but by showtime be so ripped that he couldn't barely see the microphone, let alone sing into it. Once he simply disappeared just before a scheduled performance. After a frantic search, his bandmates found him passed out under the stage.


"There were times when I'd reminisce about the whole thing, from the time I started, and I'd ask myself: how did this happen? Did I become popular because of my songs? Or did I become popular because of taking drugs? And I would tell myself that of course it's because of the band and the music. It was always secondary to have that 'altered state'."


And in fact, when he was relatively clean, Smith could perform brilliantly, and charm the pants off his audience with his onstage wit. No one could shut up a heckler quicker than Pepe, when his brain was functioning.


But audiences expected Smith to be perpetually in that "altered state" and his reputation for onstage self-immolation became a kind of prison. Even when he went straight, with maybe just a couple of beers under his belt, his audience would think that he was blasted out of his skull. They couldn't imagine him in any other way.


"Here I was, getting high just on my own music, and here was the audience thinking I was fucked up," he recalled. "That's when I realized that, shit, it makes no difference if you come stoned or not--the audience always expected you to come in a coffin."


If the truth be told, he came damn near close to that a couple of times.


"There would be times I'd OD, and I'd wake up with people crying all around me," he remembered. "They thought I'd died already."


Incredibly, Smith survived. A lot of his friends weren't as lucky. Somehow, some inner automatic pilot steered him through three decades of hard living--including bouts with heroin addiction and alcoholism--that would have killed a horse. Just when people were ready to write him off as a hopeless derelict, Smith would turn around and surprise everyone.


"Probably my will to get over it was strong, because I never entered rehab or went down to the 'basement'. I'd quit cold turkey. But I really went through the pain of it all. Pag inabot ako ng giyang, pare, that Mr. King Kong on my back, it was like death, man. You don't even know where to crawl to."


But now it was the Nineties--the "just say no" decade, Saying "no" was something new for Smith, but it was something he needed to learn. Only a couple of years short of the half-century mark, he was old enough to worry about things like denture adhesives and reading glasses. He didn't need to add liver damage to the list.

 

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