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POP MUSIC

He's Fine. Trust Us

Four years after the murder of his wife Selena, guitarist Chris Perez emerges as a survivor, a new father--and as the shy leader of his own rock band.

May 09, 1999|ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ | Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

As the primary songwriter, Perez deserves bandleader status, say other band members. And one listen to the album makes it clear that the listener is dealing mostly with the workings of Perez's post-Selena soul. While many of the tunes are upbeat and danceable, the lyrics speak almost uniformly of loss, anger, violence and abandonment.

On "Best I Can," the Selena muse is obvious: "Every day I live, I live with you / And with all the things we'll never do / Heaven holds a place for souls like mine / Trying to leave my troubled past behind."

"I remember the day I wrote 'Best I Can,' " Perez says. "I'm still not comfortable with that song. It's pretty straightforward, in that you know people are going to know what it's about by listening to the lyrics. I was kind of a little skeptical about using that because, if anything, I've made it harder on myself so that people won't relate--so they won't say I used what happened to my benefit."

Keyboardist Ojeda, who was a close friend of Selena, says he is certain she would have supported Perez's rock efforts. "She always supported him 100%," Ojeda says. "She would have been happy for him. She knew that was what he always wanted to do."

*

Perez started his musical journey at age 10--playing French horn in his grade school concert band "and carrying that dumb-ass case all over the place." In high school, he played trumpet in the jazz band, and B-flat horn in the marching band, and a cheap Casio keyboard in his bedroom.

"Believe it or not, I locked myself in my room and played with that thing all the time," Perez says. "I thought it was the greatest thing in the world."

When Perez was 15, he lied about his age so he could get a job at McDonald's to save the $500 he needed to buy his first electric guitar.

"Yes, McDonald's," he says, laughing at the memory. "I did it all. I cleaned up the crickets under the trash can. I took out the trash. All that nasty stuff, all the way up to working the register."

When he was 17, Perez moved out of his mother Carmen Cadena's house, where guitar-playing was seen as a dreamer's useless passion. He moved in with his father, Gilbert Perez, a computer programmer who encouraged the teen's budding musical skills. The couple had divorced when Chris was 4.

"It's kind of a touchy subject," Perez says. "I tried to tell her how much my father helped me, but she's got that whole 'he was never there while you were growing up' thing, you know. I mean, she's got a right to talk about that. But now everyone wants to know how I became a musician, and my dad plays a big role in that. But it's been hard for her."

At that time, Perez began playing in rock bands around San Antonio and took his first job with a tejano band because "they told me you could make 20 bucks a night, and I was like 20 bucks? Wow!"

Perez's quick fingers and good looks garnered him a reputation in the insular tejano music scene, and in 1990 he found himself auditioning for Los Dinos, the band of a relatively unknown singer named Selena.

As Selena's star rose, Perez achieved limited fame as her backup guitarist and husband. With her death, he became famous.

Perez says he had to sell his house after the murder because he couldn't mow his lawn without being harassed by media and fans. He is trying to sell the second house so he can move back to San Antonio.

"The reason I stayed in Corpus [after Selena's death] is because I think at the time I needed, or I felt I needed, Selena's family around me," Perez says, finally appearing comfortable talking about a topic he has scrupulously avoided publicly for years.

"Because she was taken away, in my eyes, and it's true, they're a part of her walking around over there, to be literal," he continues. "Her dad, her mother, her brother, her sister. I was looking for her in them. . . . And now, you know, I want to go back home. I want to be with my family."

As Perez speaks, the newest member of his family coos softly.

"Man, I love being a father," Perez says, eyes glowing.

About Cassie's 28-year-old mother, Venessa, Perez does not say much--except that he's in love. They've been together for more than two years, they met through Garza, and that, as he sets out on his solo rock career with the Chris Perez Band, he will never make the same mistake with Venessa and Cassie that Selena once made with him: pretend for the press that he's single, to sell records.

Perez pauses to recall how much it hurt when, on the advice of a publicist, Selena denied "rumors" she was married to him on her first Mexico tour--in front of him, no less. Now that it's his turn, he says, his partner and child will be known to the world as his.

"I look forward to every minute I can spend with them," Perez says. "If anything, it's made me a little bit anxious to get back home, now that I'm on the road."

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