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El VezThe cultural cuisinart - cuisinartist? - known as El Vez (aka Robert Lopez) really must be seen to be appreciated. Like musical revues from days of yore, his concerts are more than mere performances - they are shows. El Vez, his crack band (the Spiders from Memphis), and his comely back-up singers (the Elvettes, what else?), mount a multimedia production with little more than homemade props and a few gallons of sweat. By mashing up rock classics (punk, glam, and, of course, a big hunk o' Elvis Presley) with Hispanic history and high camp, they teach a little lesson while tearing the roof off the sucker. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll become more culturally competent.

El Vez' Christmas shows, especially, are truly phenomenonal. In comparison, Merry Mex-Mas (1992) is merely a souvenir. All the same, several songs convey the magisterial madness of El Vez having fun onstage, especially "Feliz Navi-Nada," wherein he fuses PIL's "Public Image" to Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" at the genetic level. This sort of thing is El Vez at his finest; hearing those two songs played in tandem is absolutely the last thing we would expect. But El Vez not only dares to do so, he pulls it off with demented aplomb.

(It's worth noting that two versions of "Feliz Navi-Nada" exist, from Merry Mex-Mas and Happy Birthday Baby Jesus: The Second Coming - both released in 1994. To my ears, it sounds like both versions employ the same backing track. But the Baby Jesus version has a distorted, messy vocal, some extra guitar feedback, and some studio chatter at the end. In short, it sounds more "punk.")

The rest of Merry Mex-Mas isn't nearly that brilliant, though it's damn fine entertainment all the same. Lopez recasts Presley's "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" as a paean to Latin pride ("Santa Claus Is Sometimes Brown"), and he does much the same with Bing Crosby's White Christmas ("Brown Christmas," as if you hadn't guessed). In tribute to his low riding brethern, El Vez transforms Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" into a hopped-up car anthem a la "Whittier Blvd" (by pioneering Chicano band Thee Midnighters), then eases gently into "Christmas Wish," a holiday romance sung to the tune of "Sleepwalk" (an instrumental by Latino guitar duo Santo & Johnny).

El VezBut then, El Vez turns the whole concept on it's head by reclaiming two (benignly) racist songs as his own. The first, "Donde Esta Santa Claus," dates all the way back to 1953 (as performed by little Augie Rios) and is just a Latin-flavored variation on the kiddie records like "Nuttin' For Christmas" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" so popular at the time. El Vez performs it with spirit, if little else.

The second song, however, is more telling. "Pancho Claus" is the creation of Lalo Guerrero, known as the "Father of Chicano Music." Released as a single in 1956 (backed with the equally uproarious "Christmas In Mexico"), "Pancho Claus" tells the "Night Before Christmas" story from a peculiarly Mexican-American perspective - cacophonous, self-mocking, very funny, and oddly dignified. In Guerrero's mix of pride and parody, we hear what El Vez would become; his rendition of "Pancho Claus," in fact, is startlingly faithful to Guerrero's original, just faster and louder.

In 2002, El Vez released a sequel called Sno-Way José. Six of the ten songs are new recordings, while the remaining four were (poorly) recorded at one the Barrio King's aforementioned Christmas shows. Nothing here touches "Feliz Navi-Nada," and I'd be lying to say that some of the novelty hadn't worn off. After all, Lopez has been plying this schtick for a long time. After starting off in seminal L.A. punk bands like the Zeroes ("Don't Push Me Around"), he adopted his "Mexican Elvis" persona in the late 1980's. But, with his relentless energy, wry optimism, and wacky juxtapositions, he still makes it work after all these years.

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El Vez

"Little Drummer Boy," for instance, commences with the pounding beat of Gary Glitter's "Rock 'n' Roll, Pt. 2." Then, it layers on the chord progression from Eddie Floyd's "Knock On Wood" and segues into Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)" before finally introducing the famous Harry Simeone Christmas classic. Of course, Lopez can't resist inserting a bit of "Peace On Earth," the song David Bowie sang in medley with Bing Crosby during their version of "Little Drummer Boy." And that's just one song!

From there, El Vez blends the "Dreydel Song" with "Jingle Bell Rock." Then, the Elvettes (his backup singers) take a sexy spin on "Cool Yule," written by Steve Allen and recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1953. Roy Wood's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday" is interpolated with Elvis Presley's "If Every Day Was Like Christmas." "En El Barrio (At Xmas Time)" is a holiday adaptation of a previous adaptation of Elvis Presley's "In The Ghetto" (the b-side of El Vez' very first single). Lopez even throws in an original composition, "La Pinata" - though it has little to do with Christmas.

Though the sound quality is muddy and the mix painful, the live portion of Sno-Way José is worth a listen, if only for the glimpse it affords of El Vez' epic Christmas shows. More zaniness ensues (Elvis' "Blue Christmas" is woven into the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for The Devil"), but the real treasure is hidden deep in the final track after 10 minutes of silence. Lopez, dressed as a vato malo, riffs on the racism of Charles Schultz over a bed of Vince Guaraldi. "Hey Charlie, I'm brown!" El Vez exclaims, asking, "por que no Latins in your comic town?" The bit is hilarious, but it hurts - the essence of great comedy, schtick or otherwise.

Consumer notes: Merry Mex-Mas was released by Sympathy For The Record Industry, an indie label of some repute, but it can be hard to find. In 2000, UK indie Poptones issued a slightly reconfigured version of Merry Mex-Mas called NöElVezSí - very rare. Sno-Way José, on the other hand, was self-released; it was never well distributed and is now nearly impossible to find - try El Vez' website, www.elvez.net. El Vez has also released several Christmas singles, including a 10-inch, Santa-shaped picture disc of "Donde Esta Santa Claus?" and an Iggy Pop tribute featuring "Now I Wanna Be Santa Claus" (nee "I Wanna Be Your Dog"). [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • En El Barrio (At Xmas Time) (2002)
  • Feliz Navi-Nada (1994) star Top 100 Song
  • Little Drummer Boy (2002)
  • Pancho Claus (1994)
  • Sleigh Ride/Christmas Wish (1994)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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