On Monday Night’s Agenda: El Vez for Prez in the Cradle of Liberty

Wednesday started off decently enough when I picked up my free copy of the Weekly Dig at the Green Street T stop. Seeing a thumbnail of El Vez sporting the table of contents, I was eager to see what their writer had to say about Robert Lopez’s creation. What followed was a pretty good profile that I found lacking in the end. Then again, for how short the piece was, it was a decent try. The writer’s misuse of the term kitsch worked me up enough to ask whether anyone could get beyond the speechless wonder that comes with encountering El Vez for the first few times.

I’d argue that there’s nothing kitschy. Kitsch is possibly the last word to describe what’s at work in the El Vez character. He recovers certain cultural references from their being relegated to kitschiness. But I digress. Some of the more interesting points the Dig’s writer could have mentioned in reference to Lopez’s work in the guise of El Vez:

  • Lopez’ contribution to punk rock history as a member of The Zeros, arguably the first Chicano punk rock band. They were hailed as “The Mexican Ramones”, and played at the Germs first show in 1977.
  • Post-Zeros, Lopez moved to L.A. from his native Chula Vista and became keyboardist for Catholic Discipline, a ur-post punk outfit that counted Phranc (nee Susan Gottleib, whose own music would garner her the title of America’s Best Jewish Lesbian Folksinger) and writer Claude Bessy among its members. Footage of Catholic Discipline performing at the Hong Kong Cafe appeared in the quintessential film document of L.A. punk rock, “Decline of Western Civlization”.

  • His curatorial and collecting work in the mid-80s with L.A.’s most recognized outre folk art gallery La Luz de Jesus, which ultimately served as the impetus for finally creating the El Vez character in 1988.
  • The near cult-status of El Vez as an underground figure. Far from being a musical project, the El Vez juggernaut puts Lopez in the middle of some pretty fascinating goings-on. He’s been on hand to officiate the occasional wedding, such as those of Exene Cervenka and Anton LaVey’s gradson Stanton (suitably on 6/6/2006). In the latter event, El Vez took a turn towards the demonic, appropriately changing forms as Hell Vez, replete with a pitchfork staff and horns peeking out of his pompadour. He has been on hand to celebrate the achievements of burlesque dancers as MC of the Miss Exotic World Pageant in 2007. Even more amazing, he also helped send off fellow shape-shifting San Diegans Rocket from The Crypt during their final Halloween 2005 show, introducing Speedo, Petey X, Apollo 9, Ruby Mars and the rest prior to their blistering set. This is just aside from mentioning his regular performances that have had him sharing stages with Morrissey and Astrid Hadad, and play in the visually stunning west-coast cabaret/circus/dinner theater, Teatro Zinzanni. (It didn’t seem as if the Dig‘s profile writer wasn’t terribly aware of El Vez’s cabaret performances, but it was an acute observation.)
  • El Vez’s place as a topic of various cultural studies that have caught the attention of academics in fields as varied as Chicano Studies, Popular Culture Studies, Queer and Women Studies and Comparative Literature. What remains to be thought is the manner in which the performance of the El Vez character bears philosophic meaning. As Lopez’s performance appeals to thinking in a multitude of disciplines and works in topics touching upon the idea of politics, language, social justice, identity, ethics and love, such a treatment is entirely possible.
  • Lopez’s role as a primary source in recording the history of Latinos in American rock. He was a key figure in Seattle’s Experience Music Project’s current exhibit, American Sabor. Some impressions of the keynote address he took part in during April’s Pop Muisc Conference here, here, and here. (My thanks to Carolina Gonzalez at Sound Taste for the great coverage.)
  • His multi-recording output that proves Lopez’s El Vez as a master of detrournement, taking on the shapes and images of rock history and popular, both in sound and image, from Bowie and Paul Simon, to The Clash and Brian Eno, from Mexican flyweight boxers and mambo kings to Santa Claus. Of course, his send ups of El Rey are as loving as Astrid Hadad’s take on Lucha Reyes.

Lopez’ genius lies in the way he works as a cultural super-collider, turning themes and references from various quarters on their heads giving them new relevance by enframing them in El Vez’s distinctly (and multiply) chicano perspective. Notice how Lopez uses El Vez by layering the chorus of James Brown’s I’m Black and I’m Proud over Public Enemy’s Welcome to the Terrordome. In the process, he takes issue with Chuck D’s dislike of Elvis from Fight the Power and internalizes J.B.’s pride in a way that shows a certain solidarity between African-Americans and Latinos in the U.S. In an act that only makes El Vez even more complex, Lopez gives the Elvis character the appearance of a militant in a camouflage jumpsuit and bandoleer, offering up the possibility that even one of the most commodified figures in the pop culture pantheon, The King of Rock and Roll, can speak the language of emancipation.

So my point? That the Dig’s profile could have benefitted from better advance intelligence.

Rant aside, El Rey de Rocanrol will be making his Boston campaign stop on Monday, August 11 at The Middle East in Cambridge. He’ll be doing his style-bending brand of politicking, brining along props, costumes, and a town hall format that will have you longing for the possibility that politics can be conducted in a manner that’s far better, more exciting, and Chicano-fied than we’re used to seeing in these parts.

Here’s some early punk rock-era footage of a pre-El Vez Robert Lopez (far right), quietly doing his work with the Zeros in 1977. See you at the show.