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The Zeros eventually became a prominent contributor to a punk movement that also spawned Black Flag, the Dils and the Avengers. Lopez is proud of his band's place in the scene's history. "It was a great thing to be a part of as a kid," he says. "I mean, punk is still a big force today, but then it was so much more of an us-against-the-world thing, and you really felt like you were part of something. In retrospect, I'd say it was a pretty important part of time."
So smitten was Lopez by the musical environment in the City of Angels that he picked up his guitar and moved there permanently, thereby spelling the end of the Zeros. He subsequently joined Catholic Discipline, a group best known for its appearance in The Decline of Western Civilization, director Penelope Spheeris's acclaimed hardcore documentary, but he also became entrenched in the area's burgeoning art community. He sold Mexican folk pieces such as Day of the Dead masks and Semana Santa skeletons to art dealers in L.A., San Francisco and New York, eventually establishing contacts that helped him land a position as curator at La Luz de Jesus, a progressive gallery that catered to hip, up-and-coming artists such as Coop, Robert Williams and Gary Panter. La Luz de Jesus also featured conceptual exhibitions, one of which proved to be very inspirational for Lopez. "We put on an Elvis theme show, where we invited artists from all over the country to contribute a piece of artwork having to do with Elvis," he says. "And at the opening, we had an Elvis impersonator--and believe me, he wasn't the best. It got me to thinking, 'You know, I could do that.'"
This idea grew during the next several weeks, when Lopez says he was "immersed in Elvis-ness. We had his music playing 24 hours a day, and we were running two independent films about Elvis. At the time, I was already a big Elvis fan, so I knew that by the time the exhibition was over, I was either going to totally hate the guy or have him permanently burnt into my psyche."
The result of this experience was the birth of El Vez, whom Lopez decided to debut at "Weep Week," the annual Elvis vigil held in Memphis. "I just sort of dared myself to go there," he says. "I literally rewrote most of the songs on the plane. I figured if I was going to make a fool of myself, I might as well do it in Memphis, where nobody knows me. I guess the whole thing sort of backfired, though." He laughs. "Here I am, seven albums later, still stocking up on hair products."
Fortunately, Lopez has put the last decade to good use. His first two albums--I'm Not Hispanic, on the Munster imprint, and Fun in Espanol, put out by Sympathy for the Record Industry--are made up primarily of Elvis-oriented material, but since then, his musical vocabulary has expanded dramatically. On 1995's Merry Mex-mas, a Christmas disc, Lopez tackles Jose Feliciano, Public Image Ltd., Irving Berlin and Lalo Guerro, whom he describes as "the forefather of El Vez. He's this Chicano folksinger who lives in Palm Springs and tells all these famous stories from a Mexican point of view." (Guerro's "Poncho Claus," a warped retelling of "The Night Before Christmas," serves as Mex-mas's laugh-out-loud centerpiece.) El Vez's two most recent creations, Graciasland and GI Ay Ay Blues, are even broader in scope. The former features a Lopez original, "Cinco de Mayo," as well as references to Santana, Jimi Hendrix and even Adam Ant; the latter makes stabs at Ono-esque experimentalism, Dixieland jazz and "cholo rock opera."
El Vez's live shows have become more elaborate as well. In addition to the Elvettes and the Memphis Mariachis, the productions incorporate entertainingly gaudy smoke and light displays and a wide assortment of costumes that range from preacher's frocks to Lux Interior-esque latex slacks. In many ways, the revue resembles a miniature production in Las Vegas, a town Lopez would like to conquer.
"I've only played there once--I played at the Fiesta casino for Cinco de Mayo," he says. "It was fantastic. The show was in the parking lot, and it was packed. We had Mexican nationals, pierced kids, little old ladies from Ohio--and they all loved it. Las Vegas would be a great place to get the message out, because it's the place where you at least think about thinking, and everyone in the world goes there. So if I could land a show in Vegas, I could enlighten people all over the world and they wouldn't even know it. They'd just walk away filled with information, like my little pods--like Invasion of the Body Snatchers--and they could go back into the world entertained but also having learned something.
"Just imagine: El Vez with showgirls and a thousand white Chihuahuas. It could be Elvis and Siegfried and Roy all rolled into one."
A bit of a stretch? Not really. In many parts of the world, El Vez is nearly as well-known as his deceased alter ego. Fans in Spain desperate for a lock of his hair have attacked him, women in Oslo have offered him diamonds and gold jewelry, and many Los Angelenos regard him as a hometown hero. He drew a huge throng in L.A. for the kickoff of his gospel show, in which he was supported by a cast of 56, including an actor portraying John the Baptist and a thirty-piece choir. "I even walked on water," he notes. "It's a very special trick of mine."