ho is eXtreme Elvis?" Maybe you've seen these words spray-painted in crude stencils on the sides of bus shelters in Oakland or on the sidewalks of the trendy 16th and Valencia corridor in San Francisco's Mission District. Perhaps you've read the recent news story about a freak-show Elvis impersonator who's fed live chickens off his body and flung shit at patrons of Bottom of the Hill. Or maybe you've been enjoying dinner at Hayes Street Grill or getting drinks at the Ruby Room when a seemingly familiar jumpsuit-clad figure appears, unzips, and pisses into a glass before downing its contents in a single swig. If he follows this cocktail with a pantless, sweaty tableside rendition of "Love Me Tender," then you've probably just been serenaded by eXtreme Elvis.
This Elvis is an Alameda-based impersonator who has both beguiled the local underground music scene with his confrontational, unpredictable, high-energy shows and enraged club owners, feminists, sound engineers, animal activists, and supporting bands with his scatological shock antics. Perhaps more unpredictable than his shows are his guerrilla-style performance art assaults on East Bay watering holes and San Francisco's Mission and Marina districts. Typically, Elvis and his gang will hit a dozen nightspots in a given evening, wreaking havoc, getting naked, and just barely escaping bouncers, police, and angry club kids.
Due in part to the inflammatory nature of his act, eXtreme Elvis is short on personal details. Over several shots of Jack Daniels in a working-class El Cerrito bar (the only place he'd agree to meet), eXtreme Elvis expands on the premise of his show: "It's a combination of influences, really. Performance art, magic, Andy Kaufman, punk rock, S&M, and Elvis himself. The show originally came from a simple premise: What if Elvis were still going and had just let it all go? Just completely embraced his id. That was the seed."
Like Elvis Presley himself, eXtreme Elvis (or EE) has been a lightning rod for controversy. A recent performance at San Francisco's Dadafest at the SOMArts Gallery enraged animal activists with its use of live chickens and initiated an investigation by the animal control agency. EE has been permanently banned from Bottom of the Hill for shitting onstage, and eighty-sixed from Mission District bar the Odeon for shoving a pool cue up his ass.
Despite these dubious credentials, EE has become a staple of the local music scene playing to packed crowds at the Paradise Lounge, Covered Wagon Saloon, and Kimo's. His performances consist of faithful renditions of Elvis tunes from every era. Elvis and his ten-piece band, comprised of brass, keyboards, percussion, and backup vocals, cover everything from staples like "Hound Dog" and "Blue Suede Shoes" to obscurities like "Rubberneckin'" and the "Blue Hawaii"-era "Ito Eats."
Though the music may change, what remains constant is EE's penchant for getting naked and touching his audience. "What everyone misses is the amount of love in this show. It's crucial that I touch as many members of the audience as possible. This is nonsexual, but sensual touching. It's intended to be intimate, not abusive."
Though it's hardly a staple of every performance, EE has flirted with another kind of physical contact with the audience. During one performance at Kimo's in the Tenderloin, he called an estranged friend up onto the stage and smashed a whiskey bottle over his head. That show came within seconds of getting shut down as band members rushed to phone an ambulance. "The fucker woke up and canceled the 911 call. He's okay now. I'm open to being friends with him again if he wants."
EE is quick to remind me that much of the violence in his show is implied. "It's really the threat of violence that keeps things on the edge. This is still a piece of psychodrama, not a wrestling match."
But what about drunk yahoos, frat boys, or the kinds of chaos-seeking denizens of the scumpunk scene who frequently go out to violent shows looking for a rumble? "I know this kind of person exists out there, and I guess I have to take my chances. But I've got about ten people in my band, plus a bunch of fans. So, there are definitely people who can watch my back." If that's true, Bill Paoli isn't one of them. The Union City-based father and guitarist is just another musician looking for a steady gig. "I can tolerate his nakedness and the insulting banter. As long as the dude doesn't piss on me, I'll keep doing this show," Paoli says in a phone interview. Like most of the band, Paoli is one of the brave handful of musicians who answered an ad on Craigslist seeking performers for "Live S&M Elvis act." Bassist Eric Shickengruber of Danville agrees with Paoli:
"If Elvis keeps paying me, I'm down for anything. I haven't played this many gigs in my life before."
Other members of the band like classically trained vocalist Ann Marie Taylor and trumpeter Daryl Henline say they're prepared to do everything eXtreme Elvis requires. Says Taylor, "You've got to put total faith in him, because every show manages to be something special. I've never doubted any of the choices he's made."
EE traces the origins of his show to a life-changing experience he had at the Landmark Forum. Founded by Werner Erhard as Est in the 1970s, the controversial self-improvement organization has a checkered history, but EE contends it's the place he learned how to really be himself. "Before I went to Forum I didn't have the confidence to put myself out there. I couldn't have gotten naked and felt okay with being fat, with just being myself naked in front of people." As a student and later a graduate instructor for Landmark Education, EE says "I see a lot of parallels between my show and Landmark. Both have been accused of being abusive and being cults. But Landmark and my show are transforming, revolutionary experiences. People cannot possibly leave without having their lives changed."
If the notion of a naked, obese, self-styled cult-leader-cum-Elvis-impersonator gets you a bit wary, sit down --eXtreme Elvis has begun to develop a following. A recent show at Kimo's played to a capacity crowd on a Tuesday night. He's been featured in the Australian edition of FHM and on the airwaves as a shock-radio guest in several major cities. Even Spin magazine in its July issue gushed that eXtreme Elvis is a one-man "pop cultural revolution." But he will continue to have his detractors. Situationist writer and avant-garde composer Keith Schurholz of Oakland calls EE's act "tired and one-note." From his Rockridge porch Schurholz explains: "(eXtreme) Elvis is not the first person to eat his shit onstage, and he won't be the last. Too many people think that challenging art has to be transgressive, shocking, and alienating. I think we've already learned our lessons from the fascist iconography in early punk and goth music that this kind of stuff gets played out and loses its impact."
For his part, EE feels misunderstood. He says shit, piss, nudity, and bodily contact are demonstrations of the kind of intimacy he wants his audience to feel. "When you just let it all go and have nothing to hide anymore, it's liberating. I hope that if people can see me performing with total freedom that they can also free their own minds."
Whether you buy EE's line or not, if you're feeling adventurous enough to put an evening into his hands, wear a raincoat.
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