Commander in Cheese

How El Vez plans to be the next presidential impersonator

"My country needs me, I would say. It's goofy times now, and we've got to get people out there to be aware that the power lies in the people. It's up to 'we the people' to make the changes."

So says Robert Lopez, known professionally as El Vez, about why he's running for president. "The elected officials work for us. The strength lies in the people acting in union."

While El Vez's campaign is a mite slow out of the gate, the Brown Party challenger seems unfazed by poll numbers that suggest a public which is almost totally unfamiliar with his candidacy. "It's a write-in ballot. So 'right on' with that. They'll get the message. That's why I'm going across the nation. It's an electoral campaign. My opponents have been invited to my debates, so we'll see if they show up."

The debates to which the Mexican Elvis refers are not the FEC-sanctioned joint press conferences which begin tonight. Instead, "debate" describes the pastiche that this purveyor of pop pulchritude is planning to present in his live performance, pre-presidency. "The idea (is) to make a musical debate. It's presented as questions from the audience, platform ideas, but the answers come across in my songs, in the songs we've chosen ... of course the foreign policies will be addressed, the immigration rights. America is such a closed door right now because of fear ... Songs like Elvis Presley's 'Suspicious Minds' turns into 'Immigration Time' at the El Vez show. Ideas like the people having the power, something like John Lennon's 'Power to the People' mixed with Patti Smith's 'The People Have the Power' becomes a 'Jailhouse Rock' Elvis version."

By way of explanation, El Vez is merely your garden-variety, Elvis-impersonating Mexican with a punk-rock background, an autodidactic knowledge of rock and popular culture, and Siegfried's sense of flamboyance (minus all the tigers). But words can be so limiting when one tries to describe a show that includes multiple costume changes, the El Vettes ("They're the first ladies of rock"), his band the Spiders from Memphis, and an unrivaled gift for musical farrago. "My work is very collage-based ... It's like nothing is really new; it's just chopped up and thrown out in the cultural blender. And that's what I do, but I work in the rock and roll pop culture genre. I guess I'm into nostalgia, but the thing is I take it and then I twist it, so I just don't present it as, 'Oh, here's a golden oldie.' I'll put it in a different context. I'll put a mustache on it. An El Vez mustache," he says.

Furthermore, El Vez takes his impersonation of El Rey quite seriously. His latest album is a reissue of the out-of-print G.I. AY AY! Blues with a bonus CD of unreleased tracks. His record label is called Graciasland. He owns a couple hundred jumpsuits. He eats wacky food. "If you add Ortega chiles to the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, it makes it almost like a Thai dish, between the chiles and the peanuts mixed with the sweetness of the banana. And of course, I always like to use a heavy, whole-wheaty, grainy kind of bread, and it makes a nice Mexican-Thai-Southern dish. It's still from the South. It's just a different South." And like Elvis, he feels a need to contribute to the public good.

Presidential candidacies with a less-than-completely-serious bent are nothing new, of course. Who can forget (or remember) Alice Cooper's 1988 run under the auspices of the Wild Party? And how many teens wasted their first opportunity to vote on Beavis and Butt-Head? What about party animal Spuds Mackenzie's '92 bid? It would seem Karl Rove and the Republicans took note of Mackenzie's anthropomorphic success, because in the current presidential campaign, they had the comic audacity to actually run a chimpanzee--for the second time!

Call them publicity whores or marketing campaigns or viruses, the aforementioned "candidates" contributed nothing of merit to their respective campaigns. El Vez, by contrast, is truly motivated by the welfare of real people, and he uses humor and nostalgia as the sugar to help the medicine of political responsibility go down. "I mean, (my show) is fun but it has serious aspects, too, and it's addressing issues, so it's a double-bladed sword of humor and trying to get points across," he says.

Should El Vez capture the presidency, he promises a bold first move. "I will get us out of the war and occupation and bring the troops home. Just in time for Christmas and the Christmas tour." A great sentiment, but it should be noted that he wouldn't be sworn in as president until January of '05, a skosh too late to bring the boys home for Elvis' favorite holiday.