Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The many trips of Pepe Smith, Part 1

Pepe Smith came to visit one day, bringing with him a dozen tales of travel and adventure.

Let’s face it: You don’t get to be Joey “Pepe” Smith, Rock God, without developing some sort of wild-child reputation—earned or not. He swaggered in for the interview an hour late, looking so much like a battle-worn tomcat who had figured in one too many back-alley skirmishes. Tall and gangly, wearing a leather jacket, skinny jeans, his hair slicked back in his trademark semi-pompadour carrying a guitar case, Pepe Smith looked every inch the rock legend that he is.

His craggy face was more Keith than Mick; it’s not one that can launch a thousand ships, to be sure, never mind a few canoes, but it does have that quality more common in teenage boys bent on having a wild night out on the town than on 60-year-old men.

But that’s Pepe—he has the dissipated look aspiring rockers hope to hone to perfection, and yet the man hasn’t quite let go of that devil-may-care attitude that only the youth seem to possess.

YOU CAN'T JUST PLAY IT

Perhaps that’s his secret. “You can’t just play it, you have to live it,” he was once quoted, paraphrasing Charlie Parker. And it may well be a personal philosophy, whether or not he realizes it. The guy is always totally in the moment—whether hanging with the boys at a corner store, drinking beer at a high-rise penthouse in the middle of Makati, or gamely posing for phone shots with children’s minders, as I witnessed a few minutes into our shoot, when the neighborhood nannies realized there was a bona fide star in their midst.

His is a popularity that cuts across classes—the masses love him because he’s one of them, a local boy who made good. Pepe has the common touch—he knows how to talk to people. Just minutes into the interview, he was chatting away with everyone, as if we’ve been friends for years.


THE GIFT OF GAB, AS WELL

Pepe has a gift for storytelling—and what stories!

“This is what happened,” he’d say more than once during that long evening, arms flailing in all directions, and he’s off into the past with another fascinating anecdote about life on the road—before he became Pepe Smith, father of Pinoy Rock.

“For many people Joey [Pepe] Smith wasn’t the inventor of Pinoy rock. Joey was Pinoy rock,” writes Eric Caruncho in his book Punks, Poets, Poseurs: Reportage on Pinoy Rock & Roll. It’s a heavy burden, becoming a myth in one’s own lifetime, something Pepe is all too aware of. In more than one interview, he has decried the mantle young musicians have placed on him, a status he probably didn’t aspire to.


“It’s not my place,” he has been heard to say at one point, alluding to the god-hood he’s been bestowed. “They shouldn’t expect me to carry the flag.”

But can you blame them? In an industry that celebrates longevity as much as talent, Pepe has more than earned his place in the pantheon. People say the times shape the man. And Pepe Smith is certainly a product of his time.

POST-WAR BABY

Born in 1947 to a Filipino mother and an American serviceman father, Joseph William Smith grew up in the American bases in the Philippines at the cusp of an era that was leaving behind the conservative 50s and embracing the hippie mantra of free love, and the flowering of liberal ideas that would soon overtake the world.

Growing up in the turbulent 60s, the young Joey (“I wouldn’t use the name Pepe until I was in Juan dela Cruz”) was certainly exposed early on to the music and the mores that would shape him and his music. By 18, he was already playing in a band, feet set toward a road he would cleave to for the rest of his life.

LIVING IT UP IN VIETNAM

Meanwhile, let’s picture a dive—in Saigon of all places.


So—“This is what happened...” Cue the soundtrack. There’s a bar full of US servicemen drinking, a pall of thick cigarette smoke in the air. Some of them are nursing their drinks in silence, no doubt thinking of loved ones at home. Some are at tables, their conversations punctuated by “F--k yous” and “Holy sh-ts,” as if swear words will keep death at bay. Overall the air is thick with desperate merriment.

It is 1965 and the bar, a makeshift affair that doubles as the airmen’s open mess in daytime, is full of young men, most of whom won’t likely be going back home alive. The booze, smoke, and music are a narcotic that make the men forget for a night the business of war and death.


On the small stage is a lanky young man, not yet out of his teens, his swagger reminiscent of a young Mick Jagger, whose onstage antics would soon become known to thousands of young Filipino rockers, belting out covers by The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and The Animals, and trading insult for insult with the soldiers. The young man is Joey Smith and he is 18 years old.

“Man, I get goosebumps remembering that time,” he says. “This production company needed some singers to entertain the soldiers in Vietnam, ” he continues.

“It was something else. We got into Tanson Nhut Airport, and I remember thinking then that Vietnam looked just like the Philippines. You know, open fields and all.” Pepe and his band were tasked to perform at a makeshift bar. And what a bar it turned out to be.

“It was noisy, and everyone was drunk and would insult each other, including the band—and we’d insult them right back,” he says, without missing a beat. “We’d dedicate most of our songs to the ‘short-ribs’—those who only had short-time ribbons—and we’d get heckled by those who’d already done several tours,” he says, laughing.

Even then, Pepe was already living the life. “We were put up in the villa of the French ambassador, and from the villa, I could see the countryside. I felt like I was in the Philippines!”

THE VIETNAM WAR


Apparently, even with a war on, they weren’t in any real danger because they weren’t in the frontlines. “We could hear the bombs sometimes in the distance, though.” Although one time, “we took a chopper—you know, those big ones you see in movies about the Vietnam War—to Dha Nang,” he begins, warming up to the story.

“We were playing for the servicemen when there was this really loud explosion. We all ducked— suddenly everyone was on alert. That was the only time I felt like we were in the middle of a war. One of the GIs was taking a shower when the explosion happened, and he came out all covered in soap, shouting, ‘Let’s get out of here!’”

It could almost be a scene in a movie.

Did it never occur to him that it would be dangerous? Why go to a war zone?

“Well...” he goes, seemingly at a loss for an answer.

“It was an adventure,” he finally says with a shrug.

To be continued.
This appeared in a previous issue of TRAVELIFE Magazine.

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