“Pepe Smith always had a riff with him. He lived and breathed rock ‘n’ roll,” writer fellow musician and friend Francis Reyes. Photograph by Geric Cruz
Culture Music

Pepe Smith was the coolest of rockstars and the warmest of men

Pepe Smith the personality was all about rock ‘n’ roll, but Pepe Smith the man always made you feel like an old friend.
Francis Reyes | Jan 30 2019

“Sir, sampaguita?” The evening is slightly damp outside an expensive Chinese restaurant, and the flower vendor gently offers his merchandise to the tall denim-decked mestizo with the storied facial lines. The response was delivered loudly and swiftly: 

“Sampaguita? Hindi ako si Sampaguita, noahhh? Ako si Pepe Smith!”

His companions laugh. The vendor laughs and apologizes. It was not an outburst of a sensitive ego obviously, but the lightning-quick display of wit of the class clown, the “Titser’s Enemy Number One.” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sa Ulan,” too would have fit that Greenhills evening. 

Smith, writes Reyes, would defer to the comedic route often when he’s onstage. Photograph from @jdlcband on Facebook

Pepe Smith always had a riff with him. He lived and breathed rock’n’roll, whatever the iteration, literal or otherwise. He would sometimes greet you with an open mouthed grin, nose scrunched, finger in your direction, “Hey maaan!” followed by a big hug, like he really missed you: “Franciiiss! How are you, pare?” You felt like he meant it, too.

It would be easy to conclude he wasn’t always “there” given his rep as a hard livin’ rock legend and his indulgences. Pepe was always sharp. One time on a cold Baguio evening during a three-day musicians workshop, he was telling stories with fervor and detail like a rock ‘n’ roll ermitaño.

There was alcohol all around and he was on a roll, and he will be up all night. “So there we were in Abbey Road Studios...” I forget the details of how he ended up there but his band did open for the Beatles’ ill-fated Manila gig. “I looked inside one of the booths and we saw Pink Floyd, pare. They were recording... (points at me) hey, help me out, Francis pare... you’re a radio guy.” What year was it, Peaps? “1967.”

The rock icon passed away on Monday at the age of 71. Photograph by Geric Cruz

It was during The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, The Floyd debut. The Beatles were also probably recording Sgt. Pepper’s at the same time, according to music history books. “Yeah, Piper! The Syd Barrett album. I saw Syd Barrett recording.”

During the rest of the evening, as the alcohol flowed and temperatures dropped, and the stories and jokes still kept coming, I slowly and discretely inched my way in the general direction of my room. Like a foot a minute. He suddenly turns to me, “Hey man! Kala mo ’di ko halata? You were standing there five minutes ago, now you’re there. You’re trying to French ’no? You disappoint me, pare!” He wasn’t mean about it, and everybody laughed. I sheepishly stay 10 more minutes.

He was a funny dude but I found it rather sad, truthfully, whenever he went the comedic route far too often onstage. Anyone who has seen and heard him play stinging slide guitar can attest to his zen-like focus and killer lines. Then something happens—like his cable getting accidentally unplugged— and he would just pose, ham it up, and crack jokes. 

Smith, whose band Juan de la Cruz opened for the Beatles in manila decades ago, has a lot of anecdotes to tell, including hanging out with Pink Floyd at Abbey Road Studios. Photograph from @pepesmithofficial on Facebook

He took his playing seriously, until a technical glitch would derail it; I wonder if he was like Maximus in Gladiator who sarcastically addressed his crowd: “Are you not entertained?” But then again, he didn’t seem to have a mean bone in his being. “Pare, are you a Joe Satriani fan?” I told him yeah, but the last album I bought was in ’93. “I have all his albums, pare. I love Satch, but you should check out Super Colossal, and Professor Satchafunkilus.” He then elaborated on the technical and emotional elements of Satriani’s playing, how the shred master matured. I had accepted at that time that Pepe was more comedian than musician. His assessment of Satriani reminded me that this is the co-architect of Beep Beep, the ultimate Pinoy Rock Riff. We talked like guitar players and I kinda felt bad that it was a conversation I wasn’t expecting from him.

Smith has a wide knowledge of music, and was a fan of such artists as Joe Satriani.

Late October 2013, I was walking around Rockwell Powerplant and who do I see but this lovely scarecrow of a man.

“Hey man! Watchu doing here, pare?” 

I tell him I’m looking for clothes, bound for Korea the next day for a music marketing conference. He checks his watch. 

“It’s November, which means the Siberian cold front (what’s it called again? He said the correct term) will have an effect. It’s approaching winter there, pare, so buy a scarf, gloves, thermals... you have a leather jacket? Bring that, too...” 

He checks my shopping bag a bit. Why does he know so much?

“I had a girlfriend and I lived there for eight months, pare. You take care, keep warm when you’re there.”

Of course, on both counts, those two sentences pretty much sum up the man.

 

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