If John "Elvis" Schroder is truly the "King," as his friends call him, then the streets of Portland are his court.
For 33 years, he has reigned, singing gruff, impassioned interpretations of Elvis Presley classics, most often at Saturday Market, while pretending to strum a cardboard guitar. (Willamette Week actually discovered him first, back in 1988, when we named him Best Elvis Impersonator.) As the city has changed around him, his act has remained the same. He's outlived the 24-Hour Church of Elvis, another favorite haunt, and Satyricon, where he opened for the Dandy Warhols and Dead Moon. Earlier this year, Voodoo Doughnut Records released a compilation of his original music, called 57 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong.
And now, the city is bestowing upon him the greatest honor a Portland folk icon can receive. Following in the footsteps of Petey the PDX Carpet, Schroder will serve as grand marshal of the Rose Festival's Starlight Parade. Ahead of the evening when he'll be cruising downtown in a red 1951 Mustang, WW caught up with the King at his favorite bar, Ash Street Saloon, to talk about the honor, his career and why he feels like New Portland and the Old Portland he represents aren't so different.
WW: What does it mean for you to be named grand marshal of the Starlight Parade?
John "Elvis" Schroder: It's a pretty big honor. But I'm really not sure about all the details. I feel like this is Portland's way of saying, "Thank you for what you've done."
Do you have any memories of the Starlight Parade growing up?
I remember how fun it was. All the lights, all the music. How loose everything was. The only thing that dwarfs it is the Electrical Parade at Disneyland.
How did you get started singing Elvis songs?
Well, actually, I didn't really start out singing Elvis songs. I more or less sang whatever came to my mind. I did an Elvis song down at Saturday Market, and your paper picked it up and voted me Best Elvis Impersonator, so I thought, "Oh well, I'll run with it and see where it goes."
What was it about you singing Elvis that you think people were responding to?
I think it was more the music than the actual person. It was nostalgia. Everybody was like they are now, kind of going back to that period—innocence and love, stuff like that.
You don't go very far into trying to impersonate Elvis.
I'm a soundalike, not a lookalike. I'm not being him, I'm doing him. What I want people to know is, I'm not Elvis. I'm not going to be Elvis, I'm not trying to be Elvis. I'm more or less going, "Hey, these are the kinds of songs from my generation, and this is the guy who sang them." I don't try to be him. I don't try to be anybody.
What's your favorite Elvis song to sing?
It's a little-known song called "American Trilogy." It's almost like a hymn and a patriotic song at the same time.
You used to open shows at Satyricon. Were you into the punk scene here?
I liked the punk rock, but I don't like death metal. Death metal is kind of annoying. But the punk scene? Yeah. A lot of my friends, then and now, are punks. So it's kind of cool.
Did you ever sing punk songs?
I kind of ad-libbed and made my own punk style. I did a couple of Ramones, some Billy Idol.
In your original material, you seem to enjoy writing songs with spooky themes. Why is that?
I've always been infatuated with horror movies, especially B-movies and how fake they are. Take Plan 9 From Outer Space. I love how people are so terrified of that movie, and yet, it's like, "Oh my God, you can see the concrete right there by the grass, people. You can see the little string on the UFO. I mean, my God." I like doing stuff, especially in spooky stories, that keep you on the edge of your seat about what's going to happen next. I like to put in a "What's going to happen next?" feel.
What's the craziest reaction you've ever received while performing?
The craziest thing I had was there was this couple from Memphis, and I don't remember the song I was doing, but the guy looked at me and said, "You sound better than Elvis." I said, "Can I have some of the drugs you've been smoking?"
You were talking about nostalgia, and you're seen as one of the few surviving representations of what's considered "Old Portland." How do you feel about that? Portland has changed so much in the time since you started performing.
I don't really care. OK, it's changed. No big yip. So the buildings have changed. So what? Every place is gonna change regardless. Here's an example: Look at Disneyland when it was first built, and look at Disneyland now. Different attractions, different buildings. Same exact place. Portland—different buildings, different attractions, same exact place. I don't know why people get so whole-hog about, "I don't like this," or "I don't like that." Shit, it don't like you, either!
How much longer do you think you'll be performing?
I don't think very much longer. I'm gonna be 55 this year.
What're you gonna do with the retired life?
Probably go out to the country by myself. Or maybe go to Miami or something.
The Starlight Parade pre-party for Elvis is at Dante's, 350 W Burnside St., on Saturday, June 3. 4 pm. Free. 21+.
This Year's Rose Festival Highlights
For the third year in a row, the rump-loving rapper is returning to the Rose Festival to play "Baby Got Back" and, um, other hits? Waterfront Park. 8 pm June 3.
A parade of illuminated floats and marching bands putz around downtown in a garish display of civic pride. Starts at W Burnside & 9th Ave. 8:30 pm June 3.
Joe Nichols, author of "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," headlines a night of emerging country radio stars, presented by 98.7 The Bull. Waterfront Park. 4 pm June 4.
A parade for the wee ones, led by local Bill Nye knockoff Professor E. Clipse. Hollywood District. 1 pm June 7.
Bow down before your new Rose Queen, peasant. Veterans Memorial Coliseum. 8:30 am June 10.
Grand Floral Parade
Elliott Smith's least favorite Portland tradition features three members of the 1977 Trail Blazers as this year's grand marshals. Starts at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. 10 am June 10.