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Pulp Magazine December 1999, Issue#1

Pepe Smith

I didn't even know that he was still alive," a friend commented when I mentioned that I was to interview seminal Pinoy rock icon Joey "Pepe" Smith.

Joey Smith has been breathing rock and roll for over 30 years. A lot has been written about him and his legendary antics on and off stage. He is Pinoy Rock embodied, they claim. They argue that one need only to look at Pepe Smith's career to get a pulse of how Pinoy Rock is doing at a certain point in time. Together with Wally Gonzalez and Mike Hanopol, Smith gave birth to, under a cloud of smoke, what is arguably the most successful Pinoy rock band of the 70s, the Juan de la Cruz Band. If Pepe Smith is getting gigs, then Pinoy rock is alright.

These days, skeptics are saying the band scene is dead. Pinoy Rock is dead. Ever since the band explosion of 1994 which gave us the Eraserheads, Wolfgang and Razorback, solo artists like Sharon Cuneta, Jolina and Martin Nievera have crept back to the airwaves. And yes, Pepe Smith seems to have disappeared from the rock scene once again.

But there he was alive and in the flesh, on the day of our interview. Joey Smith, crossing the street with a distinct strut pausing in the middle of the road, waiting for vehicles to clear past him. If Pepe Smith is Pinoy Rock, then it's not dead just yet.

He extended his hand in greeting as I walked up to him. Face to face with the man, Smith does tend to remind on of Iggy Pop or Mick Jagger. The years of substance abuse and rock and roll living has left its mark on Smith. His long dishevelled hair is streaked with grays, and the lines on his face seem to make him appear more than his 52 years. It seems that the palpable, youthful energy emanating from him is the only glue which is keeping his fragile frame together. In the process of setting up the interview, I feared that he would show up druggged and incoherent -- in other words, living up to the stories about him. The mirrored shades he had on only fueled my anxiety.

A few teenagers, whose parents were probably just dating around the time when Smith and the Juan de la Cruz came up with the Pinoy rock anthem "Ang Himig Natin." walked passed us and smiled at Pepe in recognition. Smith just nodded his head and waved in acknowledgment. He informs me that he's playing a bit part in a weekly sitcom -- although he hasn't received any new scripts of late. "Maybe they don't want me back, I don't know," he said with a shrug. A punk in a souped-up car (courtesy of daddy's money no doubt) passes by. Pepe waves at the driver, points to his ear and mouths the words "maingay."

When asked about how he feels being an icon of Pinoy rock he gives a modest answer. "Deep inside me I'm happy, but I wasn't expecting that. I'll still leave it up for grabs. I think I have to work for it again."

Pepe was also wary of using his career to chart the ebb and flow of Pinoy rock as some writers have done in the past. "I hope they don't pin anything on me. They shouldn't expect me to carry the flag. I always felt that new groups should be [responsible] since they have the initiative and the management to do it," says Pepe, with just a hint of bewilderment in his voice. "I am not one to do this for them. But if they want me to do it, just give me the keys and I'll open the door."

He laments at how some of the new bands don't take their craft seriously. He recalls a band who invited him to play with them. When he asked when they're going to practice, they replied "Kailangan pa ba tayong mag-practice?" Pepe just shook his head.

I asked him what keeps him busy these days aside from the sitcom. He still plays a gig here and there. He's currently with an ensemble group of musicians, the Flaming Katols, comprised of members from different bands. Pepe's no stranger to working with other musicians. He went through a legion of bands before and after the Juan de la Cruz band. Still, the gigs these days are few and far between; yet despite his own admittance that he's no actor, Pepe is having fun coming out in the weekly sitcom.

"Producers tend to ignore you," stating a fact without a hint of bitterness. He recounts a story where the producers did not include him because they heard that Pepe would not show up. He challenged them to name a gig in which he didn't show up. "No act of God could stop me from going there. As long as it's well organized [I'll be there]."

The punk cruises by again. He revs his car a few times and then slammed on the accelerator. "Get out of here!" Pepe yells after him, brows furrowed.

He said he has no favorites among his creations. "I got tired of them," he admits. I asked about "Ang Himig Natin" what he feels whenever he's asked to play it in gigs. "Maybe it's your Himig, man!" he laughs. He leaves it out of his playlist these days, but organizers get pissed and pounce on him for not playing the crowd-pleasers. "For me, I should really come up with a new album," he says as a way of going around having to play his old songs.

I ask him how he wants to be remembered:"Just a simple musician who gave fans a few minutes to forget their problems," Pepe said without skipping a beat. "Not as a good drummer or a good guitarist or good songwriter?" I pressed. He said he knows there are a lot of better musicians than himself. "Mas maraming magaling sa akin. Nagkataon na ako yung sinuwerte," he said with a laugh."I just hope things get better," he said.

There are only a few more moments with Pepe as he says he's on his way to a taping of Sharon Cuneta's talk show. "Rock and roll!" Pepe Smith said in lieu of "goodbye," and so we went on our separate ways.

The punk drives by again, revving his machine like Shell didn't raise prices. Pepe and I are forced to step aside. As the punk passes us, Pepe flips him the finger. Rock and roll.

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