Robert Lopez on the Unhappy Hour, El Vez, the Early Diverse Days of L.A. Punk, and more
Robert Lopez is known the world over both as one of the founding members of seminal California punk rock band the Zeros as well as the inimitable El Vez. The singer, actor, writer, performer and songwriter, however, continues to reinvent himself through new projects like the Little Richards and the upcoming show, The Unhappy Hour. We were delighted to spend a lovely and rare rainy San Diego evening recently with Mr. Lopez, as he spoke with us about projects old and new, and lent insight into his illuminating chapter in the John Doe book, Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk.
Bobby Weirdo: Great seeing you again, Robert! Thanks so much for sharing your time like this. I wanted to touch on a few things this evening, if we could…there’s so much to cover with you, including The Unhappy Hour, El Vez, your chapter in Under the Big Black Sun, and more.
Robert Lopez: It’s funny. A filmmaker is working on a film about The Zeros. I’m reading the script this week. He’s making a dramatization, sort of like the Runaways movie, as opposed to a documentary about the scene. So it’s about four young boys, having no scene at home, meeting, finding the scene, and I think it ends when we first broke up in ’78. I haven’t gotten that far in the script yet. But it’s funny, because everything is bigger in the script than it was in reality.
BW: So the filmmaker is consulting the Zeros for this project?
RL: He started meeting with us about a year ago. I think he also got some stuff from my chapter in the book. The audio version of that book, by the way, just got nominated for a Grammy.
BW: Fantastic! I want to get into the chapter you contributed that book in a bit, but I thought we’d start off with an upcoming project -- your show The Unhappy Hour. I heard through our mutual friend Stephen Rey a while back that this was something you’ve been working on for a while. How did it come about?
RL: Early this past summer, I got the idea to do it. The nice thing is, I’ve been moving fast on it. I did the workshop in August. It was a month of Tuesdays in Seattle at a nightclub. Before that month was over, the theater said they would put it on, so we condensed the workshop performance to an hour, and it is going to premiere there in mid-January.
I’m glad I struck while the iron was hot with me, because I’ve got tons of other projects. I’ll have shows with The Little Richards, El Vez shows, and I’ll be over in Spain with Los Straitjackets, so I’m going from one project to another these days. There’s no time to stop, so everything has to be ready.
BW: Is The Unhappy Hour essentially a one-person show – you and a piano player?
RL: Yes, Tom Kellock. I work with a theater company called Teatro ZinZanni, and I’d worked with him there, but we had never worked one-on-one. I had the idea for the show, and said, “Hey, why don’t we do this workshop?” It’s mainly my ideas and stories, and then Tom suggests things like key changes for my vocals, if something should be in a minor key –those kind of things. Also, if I’m doing a monologue, he’ll play something under it that refers to something [I’m talking about].
The stories cover everything from cannibalism, to gun violence in schools, to love, to the Grindr app, to becoming your parents, to childhood stories of depression, to clowns as sad people. And the music is from ’71 to ’78, which is my pre-punk days. So these songs are standards, but not like Gershwin standards. These are songs by artists like the Carpenters, or Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again”, and are songs I consider standards of a later era.
BW: So are you doing original songs inspired by these artists, or actually doing the songs by those artists?
RL: It’s all songs by them, but they’re done slower, or I’ll take something from them out of context. It’s very El Vez-ian, in that El Vez will take a song and put it in another context, and then change a couple words. But while El Vez is always positive and uplifting, this is sad…and funny. El Vez has more rapid-fire jokes, while this is more about one joke at a time, with no physicality or costume changes. It’s taken from from a single, 56-year-old gay man’s perspective who had more fame in the past, and is talking about the state-of-the-world, and politics.
And again, the idea of becoming your parents -- everyone does, as you know. Taking it into the political realm, my dad voted for Trump. And so there’s the idea of arguing with him, and wondering if I’m arguing with my future self. There are themes of parental stuff, teenage stuff, angst, and depression. It’s really funny and really sad. I cry a couple times during the show, and it’s interesting. I’m really enjoying it very much, and it’s a different way of working. It’s opposite of El Vez, but still using music and word play. Instead using it for good, though, I’m using it for sadness. Not that sadness is evil! [laughs]
Suzy Weirdo: It sounds really cathartic.
RL: It is really cathartic. And the best thing is that people I don’t know come up to me and tell me the show is really good. It’s like that in the Little Richards, too. When you’re in a band, that doesn’t happen a lot, so it’s a nice thing. They might applaud sitting in the audience, but I don’t think enough people say afterwards, “That was really good.”
BW: And all of this is done through the character of Mr. Bob, right?
RL: Yeah, which is me with more dra…ma…tic pause, and he’s a bit more of a downer than I am. I’m a pessimist, but he’s more of a pessimist. El Vez is kind of me. As with any actor [portraying a character] some of me is in the character. But it’s a nice thing that Mr. Bob is a flip-opposite of El Vez.
BW: You're premiering this show on January 19 at West of Lenin in Seattle, right?
RL: The same weekend as the Presidential Inauguration, which is another reason to be unhappy [laughs].
SW: Are you going to bring The Unhappy Hour to Los Angeles?
RL: Yes, we’re going to do a run at Casita Del Campo sometime later this spring. I made this show specifically because it’s harder to tour these days, and the El Vez shows involve something like seven people. So in my “old age” I’ve been thinking about how I can work smarter, but still have a show with the same kind of ideas. It’s easier to fly two people out and do a tour, and there’s a whole market like the Edinburgh Festival, the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, the REDCAT, or Joe’s Pub in New York. So I’ll be going to those kind of places instead of rock and roll venues because The Unhappy Hour is more of a theater piece.
BW: Will you be putting out an album in conjunction with the show, or is it only something we can experience as a live show?
RL: I think it’ll just be a live thing.
SW: It seems like something that should be filmed.
RL: Yeah, but it’s really funny – we’re making promos, and it’s a slow unwind, so it’s not like you can go straight to the joke. It’s not a laugh-a-minute thing; it’s a slow burn. The workshop was nice. First I did the whole show like a sad sack. But then I started being animated and enthusiastic, slowly turning and going darker, and then bringing it up again. So it goes up and down.
BW: When you workshopped The Unhappy Hour, was this just for colleagues?
RL: I whittled the show down to 70 minutes for an audience, and we were doing 9:00-11:00 p.m. shows with the piano. When you have that much time, you have a break in the middle. After we’d return from the break, we’d put on a peppier song – still about sadness [laughs]. And now when it premiers in the theater, we’ll be using projections and dramatic lighting, which we didn’t get to do in the bar setting.
BW: Could Mr. Bob be someone like El Vez, who we will be seeing again and again in the future?
RL: Yeah, I just did a thing with Puddles, who is a 6 foot 8 Pagliacci clown with an amazing operatic voice. He became a big Internet sensation doing a version of Lorde’s “Royals”. He does a comic thing without talking – the only time he talks is when he sings, and it's great. I did a show with him and Dave Foley from The Kids in the Hall. It was a Christmas show, and I wrote a new piece just to do with those guys. So I’m sure there’s more. Like El Vez, Mr. Bob can comment on any subject. I like the idea of getting someone like Mr. Bob or El Vez – who might not have anything to do with a given subject – and hearing his take on it.
BW: Does Raul Raul still appear?
RL: In my Christmas show I used one of his poems. This Christmas show was really politically charged: Black Lives, a Leonard Cohen tribute, a David Bowie tribute, and building a wall of Christmas presents [laughs].
BW: I wanted to ask some questions about your great chapter titled "Punk-Rock Teenage Heaven" in the new book Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk. First, you write about growing up eating “poor people’s chop suey”. What was that?
RL: It was like hamburger helper without the package: ground hamburger, bok choy, soy sprouts, and a lot of soy sauce. It was cheap to make, so we had it many times [laughs].
BW: There’s something you mention in the chapter that both you and I have in common – we both cried a lot as kids, and ate lunch in the library at school!
BW: I wonder what influence it had on your creative life.
RL: It’s funny, because I don’t think I held on to being sad, but now I’m using that sadness. I could cry at the drop of a hat [back then]. I was overweight and picked on a lot. I was always a misfit kid. I remember a teacher always called me "Smiley" in this kind of way [poking gesture], because I wasn’t smiling back then [laughs].
BW: An idea you wrote about that I think is really interesting is that you had to imagine what the bands you liked reading about in publications like Creem sounded like, because you’d never heard them.
RL: Yeah, or even the bands I saw on record covers. In the old days in downtown San Diego around Horton Plaza, they had great record stores. When Johnny Cougar first came out, he was on Mainman, so they tried to make him look like James Dean. I didn’t have the two dollars to buy the record. He looked kind of glam, but I didn’t know what he sounded like. And I remember the [Johnny Thunders] Heartbreakers' first album came out at the same time Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers were around. So when I heard Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at around fifteen, I remember thinking, “This is not what I thought it was going to sound like” [laughs].
It was really neat though. Today you can download everything by an artist right away, but back then you would gather a picture you found in a magazine, hear a little snippet somewhere, and wonder what a phrase like “never once gave it away” meant. It was these little romantic ideas, as opposed to immediately reading what the lyrics to this or that meant. And before videos, you didn’t get an image explaining what the songs meant. It was more about your imagination leading you down a path, bits at a time. It would stimulate your mind more.
BW: I wanted to ask about the influence the Zeros’ first L.A. show had on you. Your first show in L.A. was also the Germs first-ever show, and the Weirdos were also on the bill. You wrote that it was almost getting close to performance art, seeing how far something could be pushed. Did that attitude and relationship to performance art influence your later work as El Vez, or even your work in the Zeros?
RL: Well, it was the John Cage kind of performance art that I noticed there, but whenever I do performance art, there’s a plan or agenda, along with the unknown things. So when I do my performance art, I let there be some freedom, but I know that I want to lead that to the resolution, punch line, statement, or question. But on that night in L.A., it was about making the noise until someone said to stop. It was about chance – what will happen? What will people do to stop us? It was that sort of performance art.
BW: So, the art of El Vez and Mr. Bob is performance art?
RL: It’s performance art. But in the theater version, I know when I’m going to cry, and when I’m going to sing. There’s that question of how does it make a person feel, and that awkward moment when I’m crying and singing. There’s laughter, but it’s nervous laughter.
One funny thing at the beginning of the shows is that unlike a lot of shows, I’m going to say you can leave your phone on [laughs]. The idea of the phone is something I’ll be using in the show, and the possibility of it ringing during the show, or someone taking a picture, is left to chance. Also, I’ll be taking a picture of myself with my phone during the show in full-cry mode [laughs].
BW: In the book, you mention that while you were never opposed to the Zeros being dubbed "The Mexican Ramones", you also didn't feel it was that relevant.
BW: I mean, everyone wants a tagline to explain something. But we never set out with that agenda. It’s a funny thing, because in the script I’m reading I saw something that I guess is kind of true: We didn’t want to be known as Mexican, because we thought there were too many preconceived ideas that went along with that, like Mariachi, folk music, wedding bands, or stuff like that. In later terms of El Vez, it was about “What’s going to get your attention? I’m going to make it the most Mexican I can make it.”
BW: You wrote “many of us-- Alice Bag, Tito Larriva, Kid Congo, and myself as El Vez-- would later mine our roots, embracing the music we heard as kids.”
RL: Yeah, because we all knew we grew up with the same stuff: Eydie Gormé, Los Panchos, and Vincénte Fernandez. It’s all in the roots, and it’s great. People like Los Lobos were mining that already, but when you’re 16 or 18, you want to be as far away from your family roots as possible.
That’s the romance of teenagers – they’ve always gone against the grain. Especially since the 1940s and ‘50s, since teenagers generally didn’t have to go straight to work, there's been more time for the romance of being a teenager. You can strike out on your own and try to be different. It’s not that we were ashamed of our family roots, but we wanted to show that we were not like our parents, and that this was not our parents' music.
BW: You wrote something that was important and illuminating about the early days of punk, and how it has been remembered since that time:
"If you look back at any of the pictures of the period, it is not a sea of camera-ready punks. There were kids with long hair and flares; there were regular looking 1970s-looking folks tossed in with the mess. There was no need to specialize and subsect the Latino punks from the gay punks."
RL: Yeah, which is true, because you were just glad you had an audience. Later, the audiences were bigger, and everyone was dressing the same. But at first, it was all kinds of people. Like when you see movies of the past or the future – in Blade Runner, it’s not all hover cars. You see the old Chevy. Everything blends.
And then there was the whole idea of what punk then became with hardcore. There was a rock DJ named Marco Collins who used to live in San Diego. He was a great guy, and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a DJ. He came out later in life as gay, and there is a film about his life, called The Glamour and the Squalor. In the film, he talks about how he was introducing the Supersuckers, and they said something like, “Get on the stage, you faggot” in what they meant to be an endearing, loving way, but he thought he just got outed, because punk rock was never accepting of the gay lifestyle. When I saw that, I wrote him a two-page letter, saying, “I know you had all these records,” and I sent him a list: the Ramones, Patti Smith, the Runaways, Joan Jett, the Bags, Zeros, the Germs, the New York Dolls…
Especially if you're gay and hiding it, you’re looking for any scrap of where you are represented in this music. And I told him, know that punk rock was made on the back of gays and lesbians. When glitter rock died, punk was the new thing. People were going to discos and punk rock shows. Later, punk became homophobic, but the music was so varied in those early years: dada-esque, Zappa-esque like the Deadbeats, rockabilly, straight ahead punky bands, to Los Lobos.
Everything was mixing in the beginning, but later it became just the male hardcore thing. With punk, there were so many females and people of color that it didn’t even make a difference if you had, say, a girl bass player, because everybody did. So for me, it was the opening years of punk that was the more romantic time. It was more art, and coming out of “we are different” as opposed to unifying into this idea of “let’s be one thing”.
BW: Is that the shift you refer to when you write "those new guys came from Orange County", and everything changed?
RL: Yeah. That was Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks, and stuff like that. And I guess a little bit too, it was when Darby [Crash] came back from London, and was starting to go more hardcore. And all the people who were causing trouble and closing clubs. There was a band called Fear who are portrayed in the film The Decline of Western Civilization. They were a bar band who were already good players, but thought they’d outsmart punk bands by being more punk than actual punk bands. They meant it as a joke, being homophobic and misogynistic in songs. The audience took it seriously, and started being misogynistic and beating up people.
BW: Is that about the time you joined Catholic Discipline?
RL: Yeah, because we didn’t go out much anymore at that point. It was too violent, and clubs were getting closed. It wasn’t fun anymore.
BW: In your chapter, you mention a collective called “The Cactus Heads”: David Wiley, Don Bolles, Paul Cutler, and Rob Graves. I know some of these people and names as individuals, but never knew there was an informal group name for them.
RL: Yeah, there was a band called The Consumers, and some of them went on to 45 Grave, and Don Bolles went on to playing with the Germs as well. They were all kind of art students, which to me was the best, because they had more variations on the theme. The Cactus Heads were super smart, all super talented, more experimental than everyone else, and did more drugs than everyone else. I liked them, although I wasn’t doing drugs during that period. They were smart and interesting.
BW: Did you just seem them play live, or hang out with them?
RL: Oh yeah, I hung out with them. I was living at the Canterbury, so we were all friends. They were are all smart, crazy, art people that had new, great blood.
BW: Were you friends with Jane Wiedlin, or was it just coincidence that you ended up living in her old apartment?
RL: We were friends. I saw the first Go-Gos show.
BW: Looking at 2017, it’s going to be a busy year with The Unhappy Hour, El Vez, and the Little Richards.
RL: And Big Sandy and I are working on a project. We’ve both worked with Los Staitjackets. Now we’re going to be doing a Mexican Sam & Dave, doing harmonies and wearing matching suits. It’s a 60s, surfy, Sam & Dave/Martin and Lewis kind of thing. Our first show is the first week of February, and it’s going to be fun.
The Unhappy Hour premiers January 19 at West of Lenin in Seattle.