Remembering Beloved Local Drummer Mando Perez Jr.

Imagine running a marathon inside an enclosed space where everyone is drunk and the room is filled with smoke. For decades (before the smoking ban), that is what it was like to be a rock and roll musician in Houston. And drummers, who almost always take the most physical pounding of anyone onstage, bore the brunt of the punishment.

Now, consider doing that with a heart condition, all the adrenaline and extreme physical exertion forcing your heart to pump faster and faster. Only, yours just won't. It cannot oxygenate the cells in your body fast enough, and you start literally turning blue.

That was my friend, Mando Perez Jr., the toughest person I've ever known.

For three decades, Mando played drums in countless bands around Houston. He was tireless, with a boundless energy and enthusiasm that belied the fact he was born with a congenital heart defect. His parents were told Mando's condition would cost him his life as an infant; it had already taken the life of his younger brother when Mando was still very young. On November 23, 2015, nearly 50 years after his parents were told he wouldn't make it to his first birthday, Mando passed away surrounded by his family.

I met Mando in 1985 as a junior in high school playing with a band and recording some songs at a nondescript studio on Houston's north side. Our drummer knew Mando, who everyone in my school understood was one of the best drummers around, and invited him to come by and do some background "yelling," something we later dubbed the "Friday night heys!"

Our paths didn't cross again until I was 19, working at a music store not far from his parents' home in Spring. We decided almost immediately to put together a band. On and off for the next 30 years, we played together in a variety of projects and saw countless shows together. As his mom described our relationship, "They played music and got in trouble together."

Of course, I was just one of the hundreds whose lives he touched in the Houston music scene. Artists he played and filled in with included Under the Sun, Crash Comfort, Lisa Novak, the Surrealtors, Clay Farmer, Eighth Day, Personality Crisis, the Basics, Orange Is In, the Sonnier Brothers, Lee Alexander, Joel Stein and many, many others.

For 20 years, if he wasn't onstage every weekend, he was likely in the audience. Even over the past decade, as his condition began to get the better of him, he continued to work as much as his body would allow. But while his life as a troubadour was slowly coming to an end, he would begin a new chapter with his wife, Amy, and their daughter, Sophia.

Mando had a mischievous sense of humor, but he could be known for being a bit on the churlish side as well; I frequently referred to him as "my curmudgeon drummer," something he actually appreciated. That changed when he met Amy, and it abated even further with Sophia. I had never seen him happier, and God knows we had some damn good times together, nearly all of which involved music.

I can't count the number of nights we shared a stage or how many times I feared he would pass out in the middle of a show, his lips purple as he gasped for air. He would probably be pissed at me for even bringing it up now. He hated people asking him if he was okay. He didn't want anyone to think he wasn't tough enough, to say he didn't have heart, even if his had a literal hole in it.

His father, Armando Perez Sr., summed it up best in his loving obituary to his son:

Son when you were little you wanted so much to play with your friends on the school softball team. I would not let you. Do you recall when the school gave me the team to coach? I imagine you thought you had a shoe in and I would let you play. I said "NO". You and mom gathered your ammo and on next visit to your doctor all of you ganged up and told me to let you play. I caved in and you were on the team. I also let you play one inning after which I promptly benched you. What a commotion that started. Did you not know son I wanted to keep you safe. I needed you to be safe. I did not want to loose you. My beautiful son, how I wish that I somehow on the moment just before you left us I could have benched you one more time.

Mando was, after all, as rock and roll as you could possibly be, minus the drugs. We are shocked when we hear of the passing of rock stars. How could they have survived that lifestyle and not live forever? I wondered the same when I heard Mando had died. He could barely breathe some nights, and instead of calling it off, he hit the drums harder and harder, almost daring his heart to quit in front of a captive audience. Better to burn out than fade away, I suppose. What is more rock and roll than that?

On November 22, I got a phone call. Mando and I hadn't spoken much over the past year, he busy with his family and I with mine. He asked me if I would like a couple of tickets he had to Cheap Trick. He was too sick to go. I assumed he had the flu, but I still asked if he was okay, knowing how much he didn't like answering that question. He paused for a second and said, "Yeah, I'll be all right." The hesitation took me back. It was so out of character for him. But then I thought, "This is Mando we're talking about. He's like Keith Richards but with a heart condition instead of a heroin addiction." I passed on the tickets and told him it was good to hear from him and we needed to get together soon. The next day, he was gone.

This Sunday, many of his friends and fellow musicians will pay tribute to the toughest man we ever knew at a memorial benefit. Bands like the Sonnier Brothers, Under the Sun, the Surrealtors and others will reunite and take the stage to raise money for an education fund for Sophia. There will be a silent auction, a raffle and plenty of toasts to our dear, departed friend.

I'm sure he'd be annoyed by the fuss people were making over him. He loved his friends, but preferred to be in the back, behind the kit, lips turning blue, scowling at us for insinuating he might need a break. He'd rather be onstage, and something tells me, on Sunday, he will be.

The Mando Perez Memorial benefit is this Sunday, April 10, at Cottonwood, 3422 North Shepherd, from 2 to 6 p.m. Visit the Facebook event page for more information.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke