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A 250-pound young man claiming to be Elvis' son sits in a private upstairs room at a bar in Scottsdale, trying hard to stay in character. Anyone who believes in Pee-wee Herman and the boogieman would say he's doing a mildly convincing job. Tortelvis, as he calls himself, is clad in the polyester red-and-black jump suit, luxurious wig and false sideburns that so charmed a roaring audience at Anderson's Fifth Estate moments before. He and his L.A. band Dread Zeppelin have just finished their typical set, an assortment of Led Zeppelin cover songs, done up reggae-style. They've made a hip crowd laugh, cheer, bang their heads and feel good about themselves.
Now, affecting the kind of naive, hickish manner you'd expect from the King's only son, Tortelvis politely recounts the circumstances of his birth. Looking as if he's stepped out of a publicity still of pill-poppin'-era Elvis, the singer reveals that the then-Priscilla Beaulieu bore him out of wedlock "when she was about eleven or twelve, I'm not sure. My daddy Elvis was a little embarrassed. He shot me up into space. I was on Skylab for about two years."
Tortelvis says that he then landed in the Southern California backyard of the man who raised him--Daddy Telvis.
(Only a couple of times during his spiel does Tortelvis slip out of character. Greeting strangers, he introduces himself as "Greg," then tells a reporter to forget what he just heard.)
Just before the King kicked off, though, Tortelvis continues, his pop appeared to him in a dream, ordering him, "I want you to play Led Zeppelin songs the way they were meant to be played--reggae-style."
A mere ten years or so later, Tortelvis formed the band Dread Zeppelin, which does what Elvis instructed--to a painstakingly exacting, dizzyingly successful degree. Dread Zeppelin ganja-fies all the oldies that drone on endlessly via classic-rock radio--"Immigrant Song," "Whole Lotta Love," "Stairway to Heaven." I.R.S. Records thinks the Dreads are so hep that the almost-major label has signed the group--probably because its concept is higher than that of any joke-rock band around today. Sure it's amusing when Mojo Nixon disses Debbie Gibson. And who can suppress a chortle when the Dead Milkmen have fun at Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe's expense?
But Dread Zeppelin's shtick carefully chews up some of the cheesiest acts and trends in pop-music history and coughs out a comedically correct hairball. Tortelvis is not so much a play on Elvis as he is a statement on Elvis impersonators. And playing Led Zeppelin songs with an irreverent reggae beat is less of a reflection on the original band than it is on groups that mimic Zeppelin for gross amounts of profit. Dread Zeppelin calls attention to the absurdity of Kingdom Clone, Whitesnake, and Bonham (a band featuring the son of Led Zeppelin's drummer!) getting rich off essentially plagiarized music.
Dread Zeppelin doesn't call it a day there. The idea of reinterpreting Led Zeppelin as a reggae band delivers a swift kick in the butt to all the SoCal white Rasta-wannabes who've exploited the style as vitally hip fashion. For anyone who gets queasy at the sight of surfers who dread their hair with Jell-O, sport the Jamaican flag's colors on their clothes and yell "Irie!" at Ziggy Marley concerts, Dread Zeppelin is the antidote. In short, we have seen the future of Spinal Tap, and its name is Dread Zeppelin.
The crowd smiles as Dread Zeppelin takes the stage at Anderson's. "Good evening, my name is Wayne Newton," Tortelvis says, dropping to his knees and flashing a peace sign.
The band, dressed for the most part in heavy-metal hippie duds, breaks into "Misty Mountain Hop," that transcendental ditty from Zeppelin's fourth album. Bassist Put-Mon, wearing bikini briefs, plays on one leg. As funny as Dread Zeppelin is visually, it takes a mild leap of faith to convince yourself that the band is playing reggae. It could just as easily be an average bar band with a severely unimaginative drummer.
The Dreads' "Black Dog" is funnier. They slow it down hideously to about five mph and add a Twilight Zone-theme guitar solo in the middle. Then Tortelvis really gets rolling with a wildly mutant Presley-Zeppelin combo: "You ain't nothin' but a black dog . . . b-b-b-black dog!" A stagehand drapes a lei around his neck, and when the song concludes, Tortelvis announces, "It's good to be back in Hawaii."
As the set continues, the in-jokes are often more recognizable than the songs. Silk-shirted guitarist Jah Paul Jones plays a marathon lead, pausing several times for longer than he should to admire his own handiwork. Tortelvis wows his fans with karate moves that would make Elvis Presley, eighth-degree black belt, right proud. The stagehand leis him so many times, Elvis has to fight the colorful necklaces to get the microphone near his mouth.
A few songs into the show, Dread Zeppelin hits an early peak. The skankified "Houses of the Holy" degenerates into thrashy Slav-rock, leading 'telvis to say, "That's some sick shit." And with that comment still lingering in the air, the singer sits down at the drum kit and re-creates, lick for lick, the famous drum solo at the end of "Rock and Roll." Tortelvis is everywhere. With each hip thrust, vocal hiccup and spasmatic hand gesture, 'telvis is pushing the Elvis impersonation envelope.