Putting the "Prez" Back in Presley

Down with the King: El Vez

Down with the King: El Vez

The brilliance of El Vez lies in the utter seamlessness of what I'll call his concepts. (Really, they're just jokes, but their richness demands a loftier noun.) Not only is the idea of El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, funny as infierno, but it gets funnier and deeper as its author, Los Angeles musician and actor Robert Lopez, further mines the possibilities for semiotic parody and political proselytizing. Twelve years after Lopez, once-and-future guitarist for L.A. punkers the Zeros, created the character for an appearance at the Mecca for Elvis impersonators, Bad Bob's in Memphis, the conflation of Elvis iconography, Mexican Americana, and radical politics doesn't seem so otherworldy. Immigrants and blue-collar types have since found common cause against unfettered free trade. And that Phil Ochs quote about the revolution coming when Elvis becomes Che (Lopez's mantra) might have special meaning for a South rapidly filling with Zapatista sympathizers.

Now, after years of crying, "Che it loud, I'm brown and I'm proud," and pointedly Mexicanizing the King's catalog ("En el Barrio," "G.I. Ay Ay! Blues") the ever-opportunistic Lopez has decided a campaign is in order. Under the banner "El Vez for Prez," and with the slogan "Uncle Sam might say, 'I want you,' but El Vez says, 'You want me,'" he arrives in Minneapolis with a new documentary, Marjorie Chodorov's El Rey de Rock N Roll, which unpacks the method in his mythos. Not that he has seen it yet. "It seems too much like a eulogy," he says, speaking by phone from his East L.A. home.

At the very least, the film plumbs a fascinating phenomenon for the first time. Until now, Lopez, like Presley's own Seventies live pastiche, hasn't been taken nearly as seriously as he should be. His revues, which combine Vegas-style tear-off costumes, backup singers (the Elvettes), and Public Enemy-ish political theater, make smart, subtle connections between the struggles of la raza and the iconography of pop. (This is a guy who calls his pencil 'stache "DuChampsian.") Who else but Lopez--who tells Chodorov that he thought Elvis was Latino as a kid--would be fated to run into Chuck D during a tour of Sun Studios? (Recognizing El Rey immediately, the Chuck honored him by signing an Elvis glossy.) The bracing spectacle of an openly gay guapo courting a loyal contingent of rabid Priscillas in his audience seems the pinnacle of confusion-as-entertainment.

"Being onstage is maybe the least sexy time for me," he admits. "But presenting a sexual image onstage is part of your craft. At those moments you connect with Elvis, Little Richard, Mick Jagger--the programmed rock 'n' roll genes just surface."

Lopez had ducked out of rock 'n' roll for years before he began playing Colonel Parker to a new alter ego, and Elvis never meant [bleep] to him as a punk. His way back into the King came through folk art, a designation he gives to the craft of Elvis impersonation. In 1988 Lopez curated an Elvis exhibition, complete with a lame impersonator, at the L.A. gallery where he worked. Thinking he might do it better, he made the Graceland pilgrimage, bluffing his way into a gig during the Elvis-mourning Weep Week, saying, "Haven't you heard of me?" He's been bluffing ever since.

"It was just a dare to myself to see what I could get away with," he says. "To me, that was kind of like the art: What do people believe, and what do they want to believe. The craft and songs came later."