Dr. Boogie Nights
“This next song is for everybody that loves me’’
Listening to Juan de la Cruz
She has no idea why I’m gulping down the last bit of wine from what was left of my third glass. I’m sitting at the corner table behind the plate glass ceiling-to-wall window facing out onto Carlos Palanca street in Legaspi Village, Makati. Cyrano’s is my favorite wine bar on the street. Of course, it probably helps to know that it’s the only wine bar on the street. But the other joints in the area don’t come close. The musical selection at Gweilos never seems to rotate off of New Order’s Low-Life, and the bistro across the way has some of the slowest service in town.
“In a rush?” Chris asks from behind the counter. I tell her I’m headed to see Juan de la Cruz play at the World Trade Center in Pasay. “Another reunion concert? I thought a couple of ‘em were dead. Wasn’t one of ‘em in jail?” She wasn’t far off the mark. Like most bands, JDLC has had its ups and downs—fights over creative direction, personnel changes, addictions, arrests, big gigs, obscure gigs, and those required “band meetings” where things (occasionally) get hashed out. Unlike most bands, though, JDLC is so closely identified with their genre and their time that they have become iconic. Music journalist Eric Caruncho wrote about Pepe Smith, one of the group’s anchors, in his great collection of essays, Punks, Poets, Poseurs: Reportage on Pinoy Rock & Roll: “For many people, Joey [Pepe] Smith wasn’t the inventor of Pinoy rock. Joey Smith was Pinoy rock” (115-116). Chris doesn’t seem all that impressed.
Born in 1947 to an American father and a Filipino mother, Smith spent his early years on U.S. military bases in the Philippines listening to big band, swing and even country ‘n’ western. A mirror of his influences, Smith listened wide and deep, soaking up cues from the blues, Mersey Beat, pop, hard rock and everything that followed. But music-making isn’t just about listening and reflecting, it’s also about those precious moments when you create original work. It can be as grand as an act of testimony or maybe just a case of telling it like it is. It can sound like an anthem that reminds us what it’s like to truly be “in concert,” or perhaps a melody or lyric that sounds as if it had always existed. Caruncho meditates on Smith’s “Ang Himig Natin”—the song for which he’ll always be remembered: “Here was the precise moment of self-definition, and one can only imagine what a flash of revelation it was for audiences to hear the Juan de la Cruz Band perform it in public for the first time. It had always been our music. But now our music had a name.”
Ang himig natin
Ang inyong awitin
Upang tayo’y magsama-sama
Sa langit ng pag-asa
I’m late. The traffic heading to Pasay from Makati is awful. It had been awful all afternoon long. It’s not that long of a cab ride but cutting through Manila traffic is a concept that doesn’t really exist unless you use sirens and lights to fake the appearance of being in a politician’s car on official business. I waited too long to hail a cab. I square my bill. “Take pictures for me,” Chris requests. “I want to see what those old guys look like nowadays.”
The concert’s cover charge gets me one bottle of Red Horse beer. The 500-peso ticket (the one I get) holds me behind a black metal, waist-high fence that is set thirty meters from the stage. Standing next to me are the veteran male fans of the band, now in their late-40s, former teenage rebels and rock star wannabees. The higher priced ticket grants access to the area immediately in front of the five-foot high stage, in the company of 20-something-aged starlets and their well-moisturized boyfriends.
There’s no opening act. The backing musicians get to the stage first without fanfare—Dondi Ledesma on bass, Wowee Posadas on keyboards, and two trap set drummers. You know when you have a major reunion gig when you double up on percussion firepower. Finally, the trio we’ve been waiting for. With a nod to that indelible counter-cultural image of the rock rebel on the open road, each of them take turns on Harley choppers to ride up a ramp onto the stage. First is Mike Hanopol. He’s got a bandana doo-rag on, a vest embossed with gold embroidery, and is wearing a black t-shirt & jeans. Next is Pepe Smith—tall, gaunt and topped with a vintage black motorcycle cap. He’s clad in black leather. Last is Wally Gonzalez, sporting a short-sleeved black shirt accented with country-‘n’-western piping.
On either side of the wide stage are large video screens capturing the action on stage. They have distinctive styles. Hanopol is the hard-driving commander belting out lyrics from behind dark shades. Smith is sly with the humor, dance moves, and blues slide playing. Gonzalez looks dour, occasionally smiles and delivers soaring solos. The band roars through a set of their greatest hits.
Younger musicians are brought up by Hanopol to front the group on a few tunes. Kat Agarrado of Sino C Kat and Hannah Romawac of Session Road churn through “Divisoria.” On another, Lourd de Veyra of Radioactive Sago Project fires off his signature fiery spoken word delivery. Unfortunately, of all the younger ones brought up on stage to join the veterans, it’s Marc Abaya of Kjwan that adds the wrong punctuation at the end of an otherwise serviceable performance. At the end of the tune, before leaving the stage, Abaya yells into the microphone with his eyes closed: “JUAN DE LA CRUZ, MOTHERF@#$%&S!!!” The guys I’m standing with all had a nice chuckle.
Juan de la Cruz stayed together for only two years, releasing four albums. By 1976, it was all over. Over the course of their careers—before their experiences with JDLC and after—the list of bands they either founded or joined reads like a hall of fame of Pinoy rock: the Blue Jazzers, the Villains, the Sapphires, the Surfers, the Downbeats, Mother Earth, Zero History, the Victims, the Bureau, the Force, the Suspects, the Chetniks, the Bulwarks, the Glenmores, the Jungle Cats, the T. Tinio Band, and Speed, Glue & Shinki.
Following in the musical steps of jazz musicians like Angel Peña and other bands from an earlier generation, Pinoy rockers jammed in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Saigon. Some of the often-overlooked aspects of that early era of Pinoy rock were the local and regional crises of the times. With the Philippines as an ally of the U.S. in its latest southeast Asian war, Smith found himself playing in Vietnam in 1965. Two years later, Hanopol would also play there. Back home, musicians picked up raucous gigs at Subic Bay and Olongapo.
If crisis marked musicians’ travels, fans and other rockers found communities forming in the air and elsewhere. Family-owned radio stations DZRJ and DZUW programmed American and British fare as well as a nightly broadcast of “Pinoy Rock and Rhythm.” In the company of other teenagers, fan and journalist Eric Caruncho recalls the no-cover Saturday late-night jam sessions in Manila’s Santa Mesa neighborhood: “The ‘stage’ was usually two flatbed trucks parked back-to-back, on which would be piled amps, instruments, musicians and groupies in one promiscuous mound”(16).
By the end of the reunion concert at the World Trade Center, I’ve run out of beer money. I’m also hoarse from all the shouting and yelping. I jump in a cab, still high from the musical history lesson. On the way back to my place, I nearly miss my street. Cyrano’s is still open. Chris is about to close for the night. “What’ll it be?” she asks.
© Theo Gonzalves
Profile: Pepe Smith
Editor’s Note: This article appeared in Pulp Magazine Issue #1.
Permission to reprint was given by the author.
Album Cover Concept
by Joy Jasmin D. Bo / Alpha Viscom
"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 one 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.
Pepe Smith, Dondi Ledesma and Jun Lopito
Photo courtesy of Dondi Ledesma
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.
© Mark Gatela
| Download Joey "Pepe" Smith's "Eto Na Ako!" mp3 |
Lyrics & Music by Pepe Smith / Arranged by Jun Lopito
THE EDITORS WISH TO THANK:
Alpha Records / Harmony Music (Philippines)
Ben Yanto and Pinoy Classic Rock
The Rock of Manila
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