"[Pepe] was a natural musician, although he never seemed to work very hard at it," recalls the musician's friend, Rafael A. S. G. Ongpin. Photograph by Geric Cruz
Culture Music

“Huwag mo kaming bugbugin. Si Pepe Smith ako, pare!”

In which a good friend recalls the two Mr. Smiths: the person and the myth—along with the tales that helped make him the latter: the no-shows, his 1992 arrest, the writing of “Himig Natin” in a ladies’ room cubicle. Apa Ongpin pays tribute to the man behind the legend—the one they also called "Piyaps." 
Rafael A. S. G. Ongpin | Jan 29 2019

The 1998 Juan de la Cruz band reunion gig, ‘Pagbabalik’ opened with the musicians appearing onstage one at a time. First, the drummers, Wendell Garcia and Edmund Fortuno, laying down the beat; then the bassist, Dondi Ledesma, building on it; then the keyboardist, Wowee Posadas, filling it out. Wally Gonzales and Mike Hanopol roared onstage on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, slung their guitars on and joined the jam. The song was now, identifiably, ‘Maskara’. The crowd was hyped up, but the crescendo seemed to go on and on, and yet, no sign of Pepe Smith. But just as the jam was about to collapse into a genuine lull, someone in the crowd called out: “Ilabas ang bangkay!” [Bring out the corpse!] The venue erupted in laughter, and there he was, as if on cue: the (literally) late, great Pepe Smith. It was a defining moment.

Many called Pepe Smith the King of Pinoy Rock, which is probably not fair to his colleagues in the Juan de la Cruz band, Gonzales, Hanopol, and Fortuno, and other stars like Sampaguita, Resty Fabunan, and Gary Perez, all of whom were at least as responsible for the explosion of Pinoy Rock, which as few people remember, happened a few years before Original Pilipino Music, or OPM. Nevertheless, Pepe was the Juan de la Cruz frontman, and he wasn’t only physically taller, he also had a bigger, more extroverted personality, so he became the symbol.

 

Skull-like quality

I was privileged to be Pepe’s friend. He was very distinctive-looking. He was regarded as quite handsome in his younger years, but by the time I met him, he was gaunt, and his face had that trademark skull-like quality. He looked the part, a dissipated rocker, perhaps even a little scary. But that was always outshone by his tremendous natural charisma.

Pepe has a charming quality about him; he was quite handsome, too in his younger years. 

Broadcast journalist Howie Severino keenly observed that there were two Pepe Smiths, the person himself, and the legend, which he called ‘Pepe’s Myth’, the title of his definitive documentary. Pepe’s Myth is a genuine Pinoy archetype: a rebel, a Merry Prankster, a counterculture icon who appeals to our fundamental anarchy. It is what people expected Pepe to be, and he played the part. Yet, he was always very self-aware, and never got caught up in his own legend.

I remember one time, a friend (I’m pretty sure it was musician and NU107 DJ Zach Lucero) ran into Pepe Smith at Unimart supermarket in Greenhills pushing a full shopping cart. Taken aback by the sight, he said, ‘Pepe! What the hell are you doing here?’ Pepe had a good laugh, and told him, “Hey man, I go shopping too, you know? What’s so weird about that?”

Pepe in his teen years.

"Sequestered" for a couple of days

I met Pepe in 1988, at the Pasay house of Pepito Bosch, on Protacio st., which was a hangout for the Pinoy Rock crowd in those days— late nights, actually. I was pleased to discover that Pepe, in person, was a sweet, warm, funny, boisterous and intelligent man, who could talk about anything, and never took himself—or his myth— too seriously. Unlike many Filipinos, he had a keen sense of irony, so his edginess was real.

In the early years, Pepe, baptized Joseph William Feliciano Smith, was widely known as ‘Joey Smith’, but at some point people started calling him ‘Pepe’, the standard nickname for ‘Jose’. According to Ricky Avanceña, whose Gilmore house was also a hippie hangout, the nickname ‘Piyaps’ came about when one night, someone on Quaaludes, was trying to say ‘Pepe’. Whatever the reason, the name stuck.

He was a natural musician, although he never seemed to work very hard at it. He played drums and guitar pretty well, but could pick up a bass or sit at the piano and make something happen just as fluently.

Smith, along with Juan de la Cruz bandmates Wally Gonzales, Mike Hanopol, and Edmund Fortuno with their artist contemporaries, led the charge for Pinoy Rock in the 1970s. Photograph from ABS-CBN News

Pepe had a reputation for being unreliable, and during the ‘Pinoy Woodstock’ revivals that Ramon ‘RJ’ Jacinto produced starting in 1989, at Amoranto Stadium, RJ would have Pepe “sequestered” for a couple of days before the gig, just to make sure he would be physically present. RJ had Pepe brought to a house, and watched 24/7 by minders, to make sure he didn’t wander off somewhere, which was a very real possibility. RJ told me he would also try to make sure Pepe had no access to drugs for the period, although Pepe would drink as usual, starting with beer on his cornflakes for breakfast.

Pepe had lots of stories about his adventures over the years. He related how he had written ‘Himig Natin’ in the rest room at the Manila Observatory at the Luneta in 10 minutes, before a gig. It was the ladies’ room, he admitted, because the door to the men’s room was busted, and there was no one in the ladies’ room anyway.

He also confirmed the apocryphal tale of how, one night after a gig, he and Bosyo Fortuno and, I believe, bassist Eggpie De Castro, were walking down an alley in Ermita and got mugged by about six guys. The guys started beating them up, and Pepe told them, “Huwag mo kaming bugbugin, si Pepe Smith ako, pare!” [Don’t beat us up, I’m Pepe Smith, dude!] He said it was the first thing that popped into his head, he didn’t know what else to tell them. It kind of worked. The guys stopped beating them and apologized, but they took their wallets anyway, saying, “sorry, pero kailangan namin ito.” [Sorry, but we really need this.]

Pepe was raised by his grandmother; his mother died when he was eight.

Busted for shabu 

When I met him, Pepe was living at his grandmother’s house in Kamuning. His grandmother was a lovely, warm lady from Pampanga who everyone called ‘Lola Smith’, and she would even introduce herself by that name. I didn’t find out until much later that her name was Concordia Go. She had brought Pepe up, as his mother had died when he was eight years old. Lola Smith was very kunsentidor [consenting], and doted on Pepe as if he were about nine years old— he was in his early forties, at the time. He was, in turn, very affectionate with her— she was practically his mother, after all.

Pepe told me he never again saw his father, who had left when Pepe was in third grade. Many years later, he said, he was able to connect with his half-sister, who was, if memory serves, living in Texas. He said it was a fulfilling experience.

Pepe in his teen years.

Pepe was busted for shabu (crystal methamphetamine) dealing in 1992. The bust had happened, we heard, at the behest of a (still prominent) politician, who wanted to make an example of Pepe. In fact, he was presented, in handcuffs, to the public, in a TV press conference, with that politician front and center.

Of course, Pepe was using drugs at the time— he usually was. That was one thing about him that not even drug rehab would change. But I am pretty sure he wasn’t dealing— sharing, maybe. Pepe wasn’t what you would call entrepreneurial, or business minded, let alone organized.

I visited him regularly, first at the Quezon City jail in Kamuning, then later at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, where he was subjected to the government version of drug rehabilitation. I brought him food, and more importantly, cigarettes, which were currency, in jail. Most importantly, I just wanted him to know that he was not alone, and we were working to get him out. I helped marshal his legal defense, with funds raised by Pepito Bosch and the gang.

Fortunately, the police raiding team had been sloppy, and procedure was violated in almost every detail. They had brought along marked money, invisible powder, the whole deal, but they failed to get him to actually accept the money, and he was thus negative for the powder. Despite the botched entrapment, Pepe stayed in jail for 19 months, before he was acquitted. I wish I remember the name of the Public Attorney who represented him, because she did a good job, under the circumstances, aided by private counsel who Pepito had hired.

Pepe before the Juan de la Cruz years.

When Pepe got out, in 1994, he had very little in the way of resources, and I got him a guitar, so he could at least start gigging again. I went to Audiophile, which I believe still had its Ermita branch then, and bought a used white Kramer guitar, which was in the genre of a Fender Stratocaster, and was a well-made, decent general instrument. That axe served Pepe for about a year, although he later asked my leave to sell it, as it didn’t really suit his hands.

 

Kalabog, Bosyo and Blue Rats

A year or so later, I featured him in a TV pilot I produced for June Rufino, hosted by, of all people, Kris Aquino. June was attempting to cast her in the role of a serious broadcast host a la Korina Sanchez: yes, really. The interview was weird, but interesting. We held it at Club Dredd on Kilometer 19 EDSA, I was a minor partner in that establishment, and Pepe had been gigging there occasionally.

Pepe guested with my then band, The Blue Rats, a number of times over the years. Our drummer, Edmund ‘Bosyo’ Fortuno was probably the best friend he had in his life, and they were named ‘Kalabog en Bosyo’ after a pair of comic-strip characters in the 1970’s. It was always a thrill for the rest of the band to have him on stage, and a challenge to follow his volatile energy. I do remember though, he’d sometimes show up wired to the gills, and spend about 15 minutes tuning his guitar, which he insisted on doing by ear.

The musician after coming out of jail would try to find his place back in the limelight.

Pepe’s existence was always tenuous, and I often wondered how he was getting along. But he seemed to get gigs, and even spent some time as a regular actor on a TV sitcom. He also profitably endorsed a brand of beer, at one point. Every time I saw him, he would greet me with a bear hug, and a slew of his latest jokes.

Pepe moved to Baguio for a few years, about a decade ago, and seemed to have a happy and quieter life there. Age did slow him down, although he tended to ignore his health problems as long as he could. When I ran into him in Baguio, he was building model airplanes, and was astoundingly knowledgeable about them. I commented on this, and he said, “Well, as you know, my dad worked for the U.S. Air Force, so maybe that’s something I got from him.”

Pepe enjoyed a quieter life in Baguio, where he had the chance to also build model planes. “Well, as you know, my dad worked for the U.S. Air Force, so maybe that’s something I got from him.” Photograph by Geric Cruz

Pepe had his first stroke around 2016, and a later one in 2017 left him with a speech impediment. He was hospitalized for an operation in late 2018, and the gang rallied around him once again to raise funds to pay for it. But it was pretty clear that his health was going down.

I am sad to see him go, but not miserable. Despite the ups and downs, he lived a pretty interesting life. We, as a culture, may have lost the man, but we will always have the legend. Mabuhay ka, Piyaps!