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'It's a late August night at the Bluebird Theater, and El Vez, the self-proclaimed "Mexican Elvis," is commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Elvis Presley's 1968 comeback TV special as part of his "gospel show." After escorting from the stage his four lovely Elvettes (Priscellita, Gladysita, Lisa Maria and Que Linda Thompson), Mr. Vez, decked out in a skintight black-vinyl suit and sporting a starchy pompadour and pencil-thin mustache, sits down beside Chris Bagarozzi, guitarist for the four-piece dubbed the Memphis Mariachis. The two soon launch into an acoustic version of "Mystery Train"--but a few bars later, the Presley standard takes a bizarre musical turn, mutating into a medley of odd but somehow appropriate rock hymns as disparate as Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" and George Michael's "Faith." Still brimming with the power of love from the Man upstairs, the singer then begins to testify about the correlation between the Mayan temples of Mexico and divine beings that "some believe to be aliens from outer space"--wisdom that came to him via a little thing he likes to refer to as the "Mex-files." He underlines this declaration with "Mayan Saucers," a reworking of the traditional spiritual "Mighty Numbers" that includes an attack by a UFO-shaped pinata that swoops down at him from overhead. As he bobs and weaves in an effort to avoid it, a smiling El Vez shouts, "Hey, watch out for the hair!"
Today, San Diego native Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, is no longer being menaced by runaway spaceships. For his latest tour, he's created a special Christmas-themed show complete with "plenty of merchandise for stocking stuffers," he says. But while this spectacle will likely be campy, it should also be more than that. After all, Lopez is a sexy performer (he moves like a Viagra-popping James Brown) who has a lot more on his mind than the King of Rock and Roll. Indeed, he doesn't even consider himself an Elvis impersonator. According to him, "I'm an Elvis interpreter."
He's got a point. Much of Lopez's material revolves around Presley's: He transforms "Blue Suede Shoes" into "Huaraches Azules" and reshapes "In the Ghetto" as "En el Barrio." But he also uses Elvis's mystique to help convey his own clever, lovably cracked views on religion, politics, pop culture and Chicano history. His "Never Been to Spain" is a humorous rebuke of Columbus Day ("Well, I've never been to Spain/But I've heard about Columbus/Well, they say the man's insane/Because he says he discovered us"), and "Immigration Time," a modification of "Suspicious Minds," is a surprisingly poignant tune about illegal immigrants.
"I use El Vez as a messenger," Lopez explains. "When people come to one of my shows, they come in with preconceived ideas of what Elvis is or who Mexicans are or what have you, and it's my job to take those ideas and turn them upside down and inside out. I mean, people don't take Elvis impersonators seriously to begin with. I think they almost see them as court jesters of sorts. And American culture is just basically shtick on shtick on shtick. So, okay, I take the shtick and put a mustache on it and make it even more garish than before. I make a Mexican Elvis, and out of that vehicle, I'm able to talk about the history of Mexico, or spiritual ideas, or safe sex, or the revolution in Chiapas. Rather than soap-boxing, I'm able to educate with a smile. I'm delivering smart things from the package of a court jester.
"Plus," he adds, "it gives me a good excuse to wear gold pants."
Of course, some people may not get the joke: It's not difficult to imagine the political-correctness police taking issue with gospel-show highlights such as "Lust for Christ," sung to the tune of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," or a version of "Heartbreak Hotel" that's been reborn as a tribute to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. But Lopez isn't concerned. "I think most people walk away with a real heartfelt feeling when they come to my shows," he says. "I mean, it's not like I'm trying to be Speedy Gonzales up there. When people ask me, 'What do you think of Speedy Gonzales?' I say, 'I think he's fine. He's a cartoon.' I've never thought that people are going to see him and think, 'Oh, that's what all Mexicans are like.' It has nothing to do with me. I'm not a mouse.
"Stuff like that has never affected me," he goes on. "People are overly concerned with it, but I'd like to think that we've moved on from that by now."
Lopez has been shattering stereotypes his entire life. While most of his peers at the San Diego high school he attended were busy trying out for the basketball team or sneaking smokes behind the gym, he was splitting his time between schoolwork and his band, the Zeros. "That was back in the late Seventies," he remembers. "When we started out, we were just playing in our garage, and the only real show we had ever played was a sweet-sixteen party in Tijuana." That changed when a friend of the Zeros' guitarist hired the act to perform in Los Angeles with two of the city's foremost punk bands, the Germs and the Weirdos. Shows with other notables followed. "We would drive up to L.A. and play at the Whiskey and then hurry back so that we could get to class the next morning," he says.