Sunday, April 22, 2012

El Vez: Con Safos!

This is the story of a lad named El Vez

It's early in the evening and  El Vez is standing in front of the big picture window facing the front drive at Graciasland. He's flanked by the Elvettes ( Priscilita, Gladysita, Lisa Maria, and Que Linda Thompson)  They are all mesmerized by the sight of Jerry Li Luis repeatedly ramming the gates with his car, while El's Akal rent-a-cops cower nearby.  A frantic El Vez  yells into the intercom "Pendejos you better do something, he's bending my wrought iron guitars!"

Jerry Li slings open the door to his six four chevy impala (metallic silver with a drop top) and leans on the gates to balance himself, he yells "Ya llego el matador!" He produces a Glock 9 from his waistband, crowing "Chinga tu madre, El Vez... you think that you're first when you're really just second" The police sirens slowly work their way up Rio Grande Blvd. Jerry Li ignores their approaching wail and fires off a hail of bullets into the air and towards the monolithic mansion.

"You can't miss him, he's the puto standing at my gates with a gun... babosos!" El Vez yells into the phone "911 is a joke we don't want 'em" the Elvettes chime in on cue. "Qieto chicas" El Vez says "I'll flick you off like fleas, este cabron me quiere romper la madre" Jerry Li has stopped to reload, as APD swarms around him he pauses in amusement. For an instant he thinks they've come to help him ferret out the culero that has caused him so much grief.

The first bullet hits Jerry Li Luis right between the eyes, but he doesn't drop, because the next 100 rounds that strike hold him up. He finally hits the ground with a cow pattie plop. "Ala verga!" screams El Vez "Lock the fucking door and draw the curtains" he yells at the Elvettes "that crazy chilipino has more holes in him than Johnny Thunder's arms." The Elvettes coo in unison, "Papi, you better wake up and smell the real flavor, 'Burque cops shoot and ask questions later."

Ray bans, ice cube underwear and urban sombreros won't spare you from burning fires of hell, and no small number of Shakespearos could ever explain what the fuck Jerry Li was thinking. El Vez glared out the window as police cordoned off the crime scene. The Elvettes had gone outside to schmooze with Dan Mayfield and Marty Chavez. "In life, you ain't nothing but a Chihuahua and in death you ain't nothing but dead meat" El Vez said to nobody in particular.

If I told you that El Vez grew up in a housing project on the wrong side of the tracks on Tupelo Ave. in East Los Angeles,  it wouldn't be that far fetched. Many a great man has been born into poverty, greatness being the quality that ultimately allows him to rise above the circumstances. When  Lil' El was but a boy, he would search for an escape from lonely street by pointing a clock radio to the east and slowly turning the dial.

One night a disembodied voice softly oozed out of the speaker from the great beyond (KOMA in Oklahoma City) "Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own" mesmerized by the clippity clop beat Lil' El fell to his knees, "Dios Mio!" he exclaimed "It's the sound of heaven" suddenly he had a vision, an Americano appeared before him, it was Elvis "Ain't you a funny lookin' lil' beaner!" the King snorted in disbelief.

"Lookee here, I don't decide these things, I just deliver the message" King Elvis declared with his trademark sneer, "I here by anoint you as my successor, shit!... don't ask me why, but better you than P.J. Proby" Elvis glanced around the modest abode "Ya'll got any of them hot tamales?"  Lil' El closed his eyes, "Blue Moon, you knew just what I was there for, you heard me saying a prayer for, someone I really could care for." when he opened them Elvis was gone.

The river rolled slowly, each wave ringing like a Scotty Moore guitar lick. Jesusito's reflection beckoned off the sheen of muddy water, his skin was blue... almost black "I couldn't draw a breath inside my mama" he sadly stated "It weren't her fault, my brother's head was pushed up against my chest." From within the waters a sound rose, "that's alright mamacita, that's alright with yoo....." Jesusito cried out "that's my carnal!" just as the tow from a passing barge pulled him under.

The soul of Jesusito Garon, denied life in a two room, shotgun shack, had traveled the astral plane alongside Ritchie Valens and his flying guitar. That night on Tupelo Ave. Jesusito re-claimed his rightful spot alongside Elvis and La Virgen de Guadalupe. "Ding-a-ding-a-dang-a-dong, Jerry Li Luis was the devil" I got to get back to the trailer park, so I can jot down my thoughts. I always knew that both Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley were Chicanos, now I could prove it! 

The Value of Zero is Nothing (and to me you're just nothing, anyway)
The Zeros are often referred to as the first Mexican/Chicano punk band (that honor really belongs to Question Mark and the Mysterians) Although, they were clean cut and downright ordinary, make no mistakes, The Zeros were punk and there was nothing punk ass about them. At a time when punk meant razor blades and safety pin appendages, they cast off all those stereotypical trappings and played it straight. They proved their worth and by not imitating the Brit punk ethos. 

Hailing from Chula Vista, Ca. The Zeros came together in 1976. Originally the band revolved around Chula Vista Hs. classmates, Javier  Escovedo (vocals,guitar) and Ray Wise (drums) they then recruited another classmate, Robert Lopez (vocals,guitar) to join them. In a few months the trio, now known as The Main St. Brats, evolved from playing in a trailer behind Javier's house to playing at parties and gatherings. 

Then the surging Brats were dealt a sudden setback, when Wise quit to join the Navy. Robert Lopez would come to the rescue, suggesting that they add his cousin Baba Chenelle on drums and Baba's best friend Hector Peñalosa on bass. It was decided that a name change was in order, and after a quick brainstorming session they settled on The Zeros (inspired by something Lester Bangs once wrote about "I don't wanna be a hero, I just wanna be a zero.)

In 1977, The Zeros were now ready to dive bomb the nascent Cali punk scene. They landed their first major gig at The Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles (masquerading as the Punk Palace) The show was promoted by Peter Case (The Nerves, Plimsouls) and included The Germs (making their debut) and The Weirdos (who had top billing) The Zeros were added through the efforts of Phast Phreddie (editor of the fanzine, Back Door Man) and a well placed demo tape.

The Zeros would follow up with the release of their first single Wimp / Don't Push me Around,  released later that year by Greg Shaw on Bomp! Records. In 1978 they went into the studio with producer Craig Leon (Ramones, Blondie) but the band was not happy with the results (made us sound like Phil Spector, Escovedo would remark) they would record different versions without Craig Leon and Bomp! released Beat on my Heart / Wild Weekend as their next single.

Not all was peachy keen with The Zeros. Hector Peñalosa (who had a beef with Javier Escovedo) quit the band. Guy Lopez (Robert's brother) was quickly brought in to take his place. Within a few months both Lopez brothers quit the band and the group prepared to disband. At the last second, they received a call from Ken Friedman offering them a paying tour that would cover the length of the West Coast. The Zeros lured Hector Peñalosa back into the fold and continued on as a trio.

As a result of the tour, The Zeros relocated to San Francisco (Javier's brother Alejandro played with the Nuns) They became regulars at The Mabuhay Gardens, The Deaf Club and The Temple Beautiful. Along the way they played with The Dils, The Avengers, The Nuns and even had Patti Smith join them on stage for a song.  The highlight of their stay in San Francisco was opening for The Clash at a benefit for New Youth in 1979.

On March 17th, 1979 they returned to Los Angeles for a show at The Elks Lodge Hall. The bill included The Zeros, X, The Alleycats, The Go-Go's, The Plugz & The Wipers. The St. Patrick's Day Massacre as it came to be called started when the LAPD waded into crowd while The Plugz were playing and proceeded to bust heads.  The Zeros had followed The Wipers, while X and The Alleycats were waiting backstage to play.

Escovedo described the action "It was cops randomly hitting people with billy clubs, I mean little punk rock girls, what threat do they pose to a 280 lb. police officer?" The blood did flow and the sirens did wail, L.A. had itself a genuine punk rock riot. The Zeros retreated to their hotel across the street  to watch the mayhem. It was then that some armed men came in and robbed the place, since the police were occupied...  they got away.

In 1980 following a stint as the opening act for John Cale on his West Coast swing, The Zeros returned to the studio for the first time since the Craig Leon sessions. They then embarked on a series of tours that took them across the country ( Austin,Tx., New York City's CBGB's, Max's Kansas City) before returning to San Francisco. The first punk rock wave was receding, the music was changing, the time was right for The Zeros to hang it up.

Of course, you can't talk about Robert Lopez without talking about Javier Escovedo and you can't talk about Javier without mentioning his extended family. The Escovedos are to music what the Wayons once were to television, movies and cheap laughs. After The Zeros, Javier would join Alejandro in Austin, Tx. to form the True Believers. Their debut album produced by Jim Dickinson and recorded in Memphis was a critically acclaimed masterpiece. 

Pete Escovedo is a well known percussionist, as was Coke (Joseph) Escovedo, who played with Carlos Santana during his initial period of fame. Pete and Coke (both were born almost 20 years before Alejandro and Javier) played together in Azteca, a popular Latin fusion band in the late 1970's. One of Pete's daughters is Sheila E., who is best known for her work with Prince (Glamorous Life) Pete's son Peter is a television music producer and Nicole Richie's biological father.

After the True Believers, Alejandro stayed in Austin and has since become one of America's premier singer/songwriters. Javier moved to New York City and played guitar for The Lost. He would continue his work with The Zeros (Hector Peñalosa still has a beef with him)  Mario Escovedo, a younger brother is best known as front man for indie rock combo, The Dragons. All of which would make for some interesting holiday gatherings and one hell of mix tape.

EL VEZ- The Mexican Elvis- The Latin Sensation that is sweeping the Nation...and the world!

Elvis Presley crapped out on the crapper at Graceland, thus opening the flood gates to a host of impersonators. The usurpers tried to fill the void, but to no avail. In my opinion one of the best was pro wrestler The Honky Tonk Man, who took great pleasure in bustin' his opponents over the head with a cheap guitar. Andy Kaufman was also known to mix elements of pro-rasslin' into his act that included an Elvis impersonation that Presley himself endorsed as his favorite.

But, nobody does it better, with more panache and devotion than the man who embodies everything that is and was, Elvis. I'm talking 'bout El Vez, "The Mexican Elvis", "The Chicano Elvis" The Thin Brown Duke who suffers no fools and accepts no imitations other than himself.  Most of what Robert Lopez has done gets tagged as Mexican, the Mexican Elvis, the Mexican David Bowie etc. It's only fitting that he got his start in a SoCal punk band that came to be known as the Mexican Ramones.

El Vez sez: "And when I was a kid in the '60s, I had uncles with continental slacks and slight pompadours in that Elvis style. I thought Elvis looked like my uncles. He looked Latin, the whole trip to El Vez-ness was a search for identity, how brown can I be? What are my roots?" 

Who is this El Vez and why is he the chosen one? Volumes have been written about him, he's been queried and prodded by the best and worst of journalists. All of which makes my job easier and harder in equal turns. What can I say, that hasn't already been said? While my mind flickers with the infinite possibilities, I've already made up enough shit. Like Albert Goldman and Nick Tosches my only remaining option is to tell the truth.

Robert Lopez left The Zeros in 1978 and the following year turned up in Catholic Discipline, a band better known for the musicians that were in the band than for its music. Most notably (beside El Vez)  Phranc, "the world's best Lesbian Jewish folk singer" and Claude Bessy (Kickboy Face) editor of Slash Fanzine. The band's only other claim to fame was an appearance in Penelope Spheeris rockumentary film "The Decline of Western Civilization"
El Vez sez:  "The nice thing was when I started, it was all on a dare to myself. In going to Memphis, I figured, 'If I make a fool of myself, it'll be in Memphis, where they won't know who this fool is.' I started off with a real what-the-heck attitude. That's what made it fun, because I was taking chances and didn't care."  "I had only planned on doing it once, but it's become a full-time job." 

Lopez introduced El Vez during Elvis Week which commemorates the anniversary of his death each August. "In Memphis there was a place called Bob's Bad Vapors," he says. "From 3 in the afternoon until 3 in the morning you could see an Elvis every 20 minutes." For his initial show, El Vez would have to run through the gauntlet of diehard Memphis locals, scores of Elvis Presley impersonators and the Memphis media circus that surrounds the event.

If Elvis fans were fearful that he would take the piss out of it, that is to say.... mock the King. They had no reason to be concerned.  As Lopez explained, "If you see the shows, you'll know I do love Elvis, My whole house is full of Elvis stuff. I don't think you can do this unless you love and admire Elvis. This isn't some fat-man-on-pills Elvis parody."  Although, the kitsch factor was high, the rabid Elvis fans liked him and El Vez became an instant celebrity.

El Vez sez:  "I'm really lucky that I can nod in any direction I want to . . . The neat thing about being El Vez is people at first think, 'Oh, you can only do this,' but when you're Mexican and you're Elvis, combining the two kind of nullifies everything, and your artistic range is free to go wherever you want."

"Mexican-American meets East L.A. in a Tijuana taxi while wearing a sequined jumpsuit." That in part, is the slogan for "El Vez" a Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia that is restaurateur, Stephen Starr's vision of "Tijuana-on-the-Schuylkill"  El Vez endorses his namesake beanery and their vomitous guacamole and stale chips. Starr a big fan of the man, regularly books El Vez, with his Cinco de Mayo shows already approaching legendary status

The  Memphis Mariachis  play as the cleverly named Elvettes sway (Priscillita, Lisa Maria, Que Linda Thompson and Gladysita) Robert Lopez doesn't shy away from pushing the line between campy and social commentary. El Vez is a multicultural hybrid, a post modern twist on the Chicano experience through skewed remakes of Elvis songs. Lopez expresses his political activism through the satire and humor in his songs, without alienating his non-Hispanic audience.

El Vez sez: "I love Philadelphia because they make me feel at home, and because of the El Vez restaurant, it's my home too,"  "We have a business deal. I was paid nicely. We do things together sometimes, like Cinco de Mayo block parties for the restaurant. I was shown layouts and design before they were starting.... [Starr] liked the name and was a fan."

Robert Lopez, "has often been called the most intelligent of the Elvis impersonators" a thinking man's Elvis. It's praise that he deflects by stating "Yeah, in the company I'm in, that's not saying much."  I don't think Elvis Presley would have liked the El Vez act or understood it.  He was a product of the old south, he didn't stray far from those roots. He sang Sinatra's "My Way" but he didn't live that way. Elvis was manipulated by others in some form or the other his entire life.

El Vez sez:  "Aztlan, the idea of California, Texas, Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona all being one big area before the Mexican-American war. It was all occupied by Mexicans and governed by Mexicans. It's the idea of a Chicano space, what was ours, a self-governing, self-supporting land. It's about the Chicano trying to find one's identity."

 *all apologies go out to James Reich (I, Judas) Nick Tosches (Hellfire) and Public Enemy (911 is a Joke) but none to Albert Goldman.... never to Albert Goldman!