He's Fine. Trust Us

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

Chris Perez is staring at his 4-month-old daughter, Cassie, who at this moment rests in the arms of her smiling mother, Venessa Villanueva.

Perez's bright and beaming face is nothing like it appears in the mournful publicity shots for "Resurrection," the debut rock album by his new group, the Chris Perez Band, due out on Hollywood Records on May 18. No. A grinning, affable new daddy just ain't what one would expect of the most famous 29-year-old widower in pop music.

He was Selena's husband and guitarist. Yes. But as the new band, album, girlfriend and baby attest, Perez has fought hard to heal in the four years since the famous tejano singer's murder by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar (now serving a life term). With the help of counselors, family and friends, Perez has moved on. And he's tired of the misconceptions about him.

Misconception Numero Uno: "That I'm sad all the time."

But because he is shy, because his mustache and eyes droop down, and perhaps because he carries himself in the vaguely tortured manner of irresistible bad boys such as James Dean, it might be easy to misconstrue the natural Perez presence as a permanent state of grieving. It's simply not so.

"I'm not sad," Perez says, taking a break from practicing with his new group at a North Hollywood rehearsal studio to change a diaper and talk to a reporter. "I'm not a basket case."

Which leads us to Misconception Numero Dos: That Perez's career died with his wife.

Perez, who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas, is on the road to promote "Resurrection," an eclectic pop-rock collection featuring nine Spanish- and six English-language songs, all but three written by him. Though he found fame in the tejano scene while backing Selena, Perez, who grew up in San Antonio listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden, says he never let go of his dream of being a rock star.

"People expect Chris to be a cumbia or tejano act," says Julian Raymond, who produced "Resurrection" and has produced recordings for artists such as the Wallflowers and Fastball. "But that's just not who Chris is. He's always had other goals. He's your classic rock 'n' roll guitarist."

Perez may be on his way to fulfilling his rock dreams: The English-language single "Resurrection" has sparked interest from mainstream radio stations from Seattle to Boston, and the video is set for MTV.

If Perez and his band succeed in the mainstream rock market, they will be the first U.S.-born, all-Latino act to do so since a Los Angeles teen named Richard Valenzuela changed his name to Ritchie Valens in 1958.

Cameron Randle, senior vice president for artist development at Hollywood and the man who signed the Perez band, says he could sense the band's reluctance to admit they wanted to play rock.

"Their resistance to being completely candid was palpable," Randle says. "They came from a background where they'd been told all their lives that the music industry regarded them as tejanos, period, even though they were born and raised in the United States and their influences were as much KISS and Metallica as the next rock band. I was the first record executive to tell them they could be a great rock band, period."

While Perez, by virtue of his name and fame, is the obvious entry point into his self-titled band, it is lead singer John Garza, an unknown from Corpus Christi, who is the focal point. Keyboardist Joe Ojeda, who also played in Selena's band, is a driving force in the band, co-writing most of the songs.

Perez, a self-described follower and "team player," fades into the background when the group performs, and Garza, who was a construction worker and part-time club musician, stands out.

At 25, the charismatic Garza has the earnest inflections of singers like Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. Though Perez wrote all but three of the album's songs, it is Garza who gives them their bite. Randle compares Garza's star quality to that of Jim Morrison and Roger Daltrey.

Critics have not, however, equated the Chris Perez Band's music to such heavyweights. In fact, many have accused the group of being too predictable. Garza, Perez and Ojeda defend their music by saying they've made a conscious effort to go after a classic rock sound they say reflects their identity as Mexican Americans from southern Texas.

Perez admits he didn't initially want to name the band after himself, preferring the name Cinco Souls. But the other members voted to name the band after Perez, who describes himself as the group's "reluctant celebrity."

"Chris and I are really good friends," Garza says when asked about taking a back seat to his backup guitarist. "We understand each other, and we understand the business. We have an agenda. I love to sing, you know. I groove off everybody. I feel like I'm just another instrument."

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."

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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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