Directly following his 60th birthday celebration on Oct. 1, John “Elvis” Schroeder at long last left the building, the city and the state for a whirlwind tour of Sin City’s glitzier attractions accompanied by the most-trusted capos of our local Memphis Mafia (Old Town Oligarchy?) equivalent.
Musician Jedediah Aaker and Voodoo Doughnut co-founder Tres Shannon—our Elvis’ long-standing Colonel Tom Parker and Sam Phillips, respectively—wanted to ensure our busker laureate enjoyed a proper holiday. Aaker expected the Saturday Market fixture would need to be persuaded to venture far from home, but never guessed a lifelong Elvis impersonator would need to be convinced about Las Vegas’ appeal. Imagining downtown’s living landmark traveling elsewhere feels wrong. Learning that he had zero interest in walking the footsteps of his forerunner feels impossible, as if the Unipiper swore he never knew two-wheeled bicycles also exist.
Schroder might harbor some misgivings. More than just a fount of Elvis impersonators, Las Vegas is home to a cottage industry of wan lookalikes replicating the same plasticine pompadour and sexless swivel. While this standing army of men who would be the King has become as much a defining civic feature as Venetian gondoliers—copies of copies who lose their luster after a few generations—public perception has relegated the gig to a somewhat ridiculous entry-level showbiz position that bears no resemblance whatsoever to Schroder’s truly singular vision.
For our newer residents or visitors just passing through, Schroder’s performance style draws inspiration from Elvis but not much else. He does not look like the rock-and-roll legend, nor does he sound like him. When cavorting through the title track on Jailhouse Rock like a loose-limbed jungle cat, our Elvis seems to be a different species altogether. But every Friday happy hour set at Dante’s teases the same rarefied blend of cornball sentiment and bristling contempt that fueled a young Presley’s star turn, which can’t be easily faked. Portland’s Elvis may be a crap mimic, but echoes of the true King resonate through the bloody-minded commitment to a suspect songbook pushed forward by sheer force of personality.
In recognition of the living legend’s 60th birthday, WW asked the honorary King and his contemporaries for their reflections before Schroder’s crowdfunded Sin City sojourn. Less an oral history than shared myth-making exercise, the outpouring of support for the tireless troubadour underscores all he’s meant to the city and its musicians, performers and keepers of weirdness.
Nik Sin (Lonesome’s Pizza co-founder, World’s Smallest Escape Artist): Since the day I moved here, Elvis has been a downtown staple and trophy among the lot of us making Portland weird.
Mona Superhero (Danzine co-founder, duct tape portraitist): Everyone should realize that they’ve probably seen Elvis play more often than any other musician or band. I know I have!
Dante’s security staff member: Me and my wife, girlfriend at the time, used to go down to Saturday Market all the time. When we first saw John and his cardboard guitar screaming out Elvis songs at the top of his lungs….What the hell, you know? This guy’s fucking wonderful!
“Private” Mike Albano (guitarist, sculptor, Chariots of Rubber rock opera co-creator): Takes guts for an Elvis, even a dressed-down Elvis, to wear sweatpants on stage.
Enrique “Soriah” Ugalde (internationally acclaimed performer, master throat singer): He’s still there at Saturday Market full on doing his thing. In a sense, he’s kind of an ambassador. Anyway, who’s going to tell him he isn’t?
Jedediah Aaker (Portlandia regular, Portland Beardsman ringleader): The legend of Elvis? I think he was born with it.
John “Elvis” Schroder: It was all really a mistake. This was 40 years ago. One of my friends from high school had dared me to do something, but I didn’t know what I was actually going to do until I saw this old Elvis movie.
Aaker: He went to Lincoln with [Portlandia, Shrill, Documentary Now! producer] David Cress and [beloved Dead Moon drummer] Andrew Loomis. Matt Groening was a little before.
Schroder: So, right after school, I went down to Saturday Market and sang “Hound Dog.” It just exploded from there.
Schroder: [Street musician’s] a job like anything else. Just be careful where to go. Keep your tip jar right in front of you as close as you can, and look for the crowds. When he was filming The Hunted here in Portland, Tommy Lee Jones dropped $50 and asked me to sing “Don’t Be Cruel.” I said I would on one condition—that he’d do a Two-Face line from Batman.
Tres Shannon (X-Ray Cafe and Voodoo Doughnut co-founder): I met Elvis in 1986 around the Church of Elvis on Ankeny. They were scoping out the X-Ray [Cafe] from across the alley. He was a lot thinner then, but Elvis was talented, always.
Aaker: Church of Elvis was a coin-operated art museum and wedding chapel. You put in a quarter and the screen had buttons to push and these weird questions—do you believe in pterodactyls or snowballs? Then you’d get a little prize.
Schroder: I worked there, but I wasn’t a part of it.
Shannon: It was called the Church of Elvis. He was very much a part until Berbati’s turned the space into their pool room. It’s the Kit Kat Club now.
Aaker: Like everybody else, I saw Elvis a million times at Saturday Market. Then, the X-Ray [Cafe] when Tres started working there. And, eventually, I was asked to be in Elvis Last Band with Elvis and [Farewell to Satyricon author and photographer] Dean Fletcher and [Dandy Warhols frontman] Courtney Taylor-Taylor on drums. There were a couple of records. There was the Elvis All-Stars with [Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers founder] Greg Odell…
Schroder: People get in touch with Jed. He gets in touch with me…
Aaker: We became buddies, and I’ve been helping Elvis out with bookings for the last 15 years as unofficial official manager.
Schroder: Most of what I’m trying to do is teach. I like ‘50s rock and old country, and I want to get people used to those songs again.
Aaker: He opened for the Dandy Warhols at their Crystal Ballroom show.
Schroder: I was on Jay Leno—one of his JayWalking things. He came to Portland, and I did a couple songs for them.
Aaker: The Tonight Show was a big deal, but John doesn’t like Jay so much
Schroder: I’m not the only one.
Schroder: I’ve had regular happy hour gigs since Dante’s has been open—15 to 20 years?
Aaker: They built the side stage just for him.
Frank Faillace (Dante’s and Star Theater owner): Elvis is the icon of downtown Portland. That’s his stage. He actually lives underneath it. (Kidding, kidding.)
Schroder: I gigged with Bud Clark twice for the Weird Awards of Portland and when they brought all the llamas and alpacas together. I’ve played with Dead Moon. I played Dante’s and Starday with Jenny Don’t. Jim Beam has talked to me about sponsorship.
Shannon: Watching footage of the new Karaoke From Hell movie, there’s me with a bullhorn and Elvis leading all the children in the Hokey Pokey on Burnside during the Rose Festival parade.
Aaker: He played the waterfront during the Rose Festival.
Schroder: Sir Mix-a-Lot was going offstage as my band went up, but we did introduce ourselves.
Aaker: They voted him Grand Marshal five years ago. Second place went to the airport carpet, which we’ll leave behind en route to Las Vegas. Fuck that rug.
Sin: My first time in Portland, 2010, they had mats down in front of Dante’s stage for Portland Organic Wrestling, and Elvis was on the floor in wrestling attire, slapping elbows, calling out the moves. I saw wrestler Elvis. Then, karaoke Elvis. I’ve seen all aspects of Elvis. He hasn’t aged a day.
Ugalde: In the early days of Elvis, we did this whole match for Portland Organic Wrestling. I was Captain Booty Beard, and he played this Elvis-Frankenstein hybrid. He’s really fragile, you know, and can’t do much physically, so that became an interesting bout.
Schroder: Let’s just say, if I jumped on somebody that was the end of them.
Ugalde: We ended up in this ridiculous slow-motion fight where he’s lifting an imaginary boulder above his head. How the hell does one get out of that? The boulder knocked me cold, but the Captain’s pet rat went for Elvis’ jugular.
Dante’s security staff member: He’s become such a huge part of our community. John’s a good dude, he really is, and he’s doing a wonderful thing. I love John, man.
Ugalde: He does that haunted house every fall.
Aaker: Underhill Manor below the Coliseum! Five stars! Last year, he scared the pants off my date.
Ugalde: Marty from Satyricon had him in the studio for a spoken-word Halloween album called Creepy Tales That Chill. They play it on KBOO once in a while. It’s hilarious.
Shannon: Presidents Day weekend, we did a thing at Satyricon, might’ve been a Sunday nighter, and Elvis dressed up in a stovepipe hat like Abraham Lincoln to do his Elvis thing while lip-syncing to a record of the Gettysburg Address. It was kind of like the old Elvis’ “An American Trilogy” in a weird way.
David Cress (Portlandia producer): I once served at a macaroni-and-cheese contest judged by local celebrities and others—I’m certain I fell under “and others”—and was stunned by John’s considered approach. Of all the judges, his summary and critique of each contestant’s offering were easily the most carefully descriptive and nuanced. John will surprise anyone who only knows the Elvis impersonation work. There’s a lot more to him.
Shannon: What does Elvis mean to the city? Elvis has to make the top five of everything in at least a 300-mile radius—Bud Clark, Clyde Drexler, Lorna Miller, Tom Peterson—Elvis is in the top five.
Aaker: He’s the heart of Portland. Anybody that goes to see him should try talking with him. He remembers everybody.
Schroder: I’m older than Elvis ever was, and that feels weird. Man, I never even dreamt it would go this far. It’s been a bumpy ride in some areas, smooth in others. I like to go with the smooth.
Ugalde: We all hold up the mythology. He ‘s like a fairy in that way. You don’t have to understand. You just have to believe.
You can still donate to Jedediah Aaker’s GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Schroder’s birthday trip to Las Vegas.