The Godfather of Espaol
'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.
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."
With a documentary of this extravaganza slated for release next year, the El Vez phenomenon seems to be on the rise. But Lopez is philosophical about his success. "Elvis--and even El Vez, for that matter--are very universal things," he says. "People can superimpose their own stuff, their own personal experiences over El Vez. One of my favorite stories was when I was in Berlin and these two Turkish kids came and told me, 'We love your song "Immigration Time." That song is about us.' Even though my songs are usually based on a Southern California viewpoint, these Turkish kids were able to apply the song to their own situation--immigrating from Turkey to Germany.
"In a way, they were proud to be walking away Mexican," he says. "Even though they weren't."
El Vez, with Paul Galaxy and the Galactix. 9 p.m. Saturday, December 12, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $10, 303-329-6353.
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