¡Viva El Vez!
In the bargain basement of the entertainment world, among the dross and dreck of failed talent and unquenchable dreams, there lurk the Elvis impersonators. These are the lowest of the low, who play out their pitiful fantasies by thieving the soul of a dead icon. But one act transcends such pathos to truly become the King, or better, el Rey.
And that man is El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Backed by his Memphis Mariachis with vocal support from the Lovely Elvettes, El Vez has risen from humble beginnings to regale the world with his vision of rock 'n' raza. For nearly 15 years, Elvis has indeed been alive, albeit transmogrified into a Chicano. And he fronts a pop-culture phantasmagoria where music, culture, politics, social issues and spirituality collide with the trivia and mythology surrounding America's greatest pop icon. The result: red-hot music, visual treats, belly laughs and flashes of brilliance.
El Vez is the brainchild of Californian Robert Lopez, whose musical career began some two decades ago with influential San Diego punkers the Zeros. (Lopez proudly reports that the Zeros' debut single is enshrined in Seattle's Experience Music Project.) In the mid-1980s Lopez was working as a curator and publicist for La Luz de Luna, a Los Angeles art gallery, where he curated a show of Elvis folk art. "We had an Elvis impersonator, and he wasn't very good," recalls Lopez. "But he inspired me enough to think, sheesh, I could do that. I could be El Vez, the Mexican Elvis."
And so a star was born, albeit accidentally. Thanks to the gallery show, Lopez met some hard-core fans who pointed him in the direction of Memphis for "Weep Week," the Elvis tribute on the anniversary of the King's death. "So I just dared myself to go," he laughs. "And I said, okay, I can make a fool of myself since I don't know anyone there." He arranged for a band to back him in Memphis, and then, he says, he just faked it. "I rewrote some words on the plane, and practiced my dance moves in the hotel room, and it got a mention in the Los Angeles Times. And then I got a call from an NBC TV show called 2 Hip 4 TV. So I was doing national TV before I'd even done my first show in L.A. Then my very first show in L.A. got pick-of-the-week in both papers, and no one had even seen it yet. So I was really on a con roll. It was like, how much can I get away with?"
As El Vez's hillbilly-cat Spanglish would have it, Lopez seized el momento. "All the things I'd learned from doing PR for the gallery, I just turned onto myself," he explains. "Okay, let's give the people a product. People are interested in this. The first year was great. I was just making it up as I went along It was just like a little test. I guess it kind of backfired, because here we are 15 years later."
Even after more than a decade as El Vez, Lopez still feels that his character has endless potential. He points out that Elvis himself performed 363 songs, and there is plenty of outside material he can fold into the El Vez oeuvre. His next show will feature a modernistic El Vez in outer space (AzTech). And further down the road? "I fantasize about being an older El Vez in Branson, Missouri," says Lopez. "Come to El Vez's Hacienda for the 7:30 show. Mojo Nixon once said to me, 'You're what Las Vegas is supposed to be.' "
Until then, El Vez will continue to make pointed parody. A look at the El Vez record catalog reveals brilliant transpositions from Elvis himself, such as the album G.I. Ay Ay! Blues, where the cover art parallels Presley's own. Lopez dabs from the broader palette of popular music with Graciasland, referring both to the King's palace and Paul Simon's Grammy-winning ode to the South. He's even managed some treble entendre with the 45 El Vez Calling, which refers to the Clash album that refers in its cover art to an early Elvis release.
"I think I'm working on many different levels," says Lopez. "I'm working on a level of rock history, so I'm throwing in Elvis and Elvis Costello and Alice Cooper and David Bowie and the Beatles and Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols all in the same pot. It's like live sampling. Those references are one thing. Then Chicano social studies is another thing. Then there's the other pop culture references and the social and political commentary and the religious things in the gospel show." (For this week's Houston gig, El Vez celebrates Merry Mexmas.)
But for all the laughs, the El Vez experience does have elements of serious purpose. "The first stuff was just really silly ditties, like 'You Ain't Nothing but a Chihuahua.' Then with 'En el Barrio,' I realized that this guy can put some messages out there," Lopez explains. Hence "Suspicious Minds" becomes "Immigration Time," which decries the plight of undocumented Mexican workers. He mixes up the Memphis Mafia's TCB slogan (Taking Care of Business -- In a Flash!) with the hoary BTO rocker for a commentary on how Latinos have become the backbone of America's service economy. And then Elvis meets the Godfather of Soul at a Chicano pride rally in "Say It Loud, I'm Brown and I'm Proud." Through it all, El Vez reflects the burgeoning Hispanic influence in American society via a Mexican-American funhouse mirror image of our greatest white-trash godhead.
For Lopez, using humor to make political points is a fascinating paradox. "I think you can be serious and pay tribute to Cesar Chavez, but at the same time I can be up there shaking it in gold lamé pants. To me it's about blurring that line, a very yin-and-yang idea. Like in Latino culture, there's the example of the Day of the Dead, where we celebrate life by making fun of death."
Besides, audiences take away many different things from the El Vez experience. "There's the great rock 'n' roll, the band, the dancing, the entertainment, the costume changes. People are going to go on different levels, and I don't expect everyone to get all the nuances. And I wouldn't expect that. And if they misinterpret it, that's great, because to get lost in the translation makes it into something new."
While Elvis Presley used the stage to share his easily digestible visions of romance, kung fu and patriotism, El Vez's worldview is far more complicated. Fans "will get it or they won't or it'll be subliminal," he says. "Next time they hear 'Suspicious Minds' on the radio, they'll think, oh, yeah, what was he saying? 'Immigration Time.' It's like a subversive seed that's been planted. It's like putting the medicine in the ice cream."
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