In the strange world of rock ‘n’ roll, little of the following would be remotely surprising: Squirrel Jam, wherein Rocket J. Squirrel moves from Frostbite Falls, Minn., to Seattle and starts a band. Or the Hateful Dead, wherein Jesse Helms and Freddy Krueger play “Casey Jones” and other Deadhead favorites. Or perhaps Buns N’ Moses, a group made up of Playboy bunnies fronted by Charlton Heston doing Guns N’ Roses tunes? Or Sirhan Duran, a failed Jordanian techno pop group with no label deals and no Get Out of Jail Free cards.
Dread Zeppelin, which more than holds its own on the Weirdo Scale, is just like all those bands, only more so, but also it’s for real. Imagine a band fronted by an overweight Elvis impersonator who converts Led Zeppelin songs into reggae numbers. His name is Tortelvis. This Elvis-not-on-the-stamp orchestrates the one-joke, one way-out experience with a whole lotta love. And towels. And leis.
The proprietor of Graceland West (located in beautiful downtown Temple City), Tortelvis and the rest of his bandmates--who also dress funny--will play Ventura Theatre on Sunday, with Deadhead-friendly Mr. Ectomy opening.
Greg Tortell (Tortelvis), 34, former milkman and part-time King, sounds enough like Elvis to pull it off. He also has the clothes, the painted-on sideburns, the attitude, the sneer and a guy to towel off the sweat or apply some leis when things take a Hawaiian turn.
Would the real King be doing this? Much like Cary Grant in a Diet Coke ad, he has no choice. At least Elvis was a reggae fan anyway, according to Tortelvis, who spoke during a recent phone interview.
“You know, I think he would be doing this,” Tortelvis said, sounding like Elvis. “That’s where I got the idea for the band. One time Elvis was talking about how he was into this reggae thing. The way he said it, it was like he invented it or something.”
Dead rock stars seem to be doing quite well except for one obvious drawback. Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix keep putting out albums with regularity although their touring schedule has been adjusted. And Elvis? Well, the King keeps making albums and inspiring others, from Elvis Costello to Velvet Elvis to El Vez and even Elvis Hitler.
“Yes, that’s all pretty amazing,” Tortelvis said.
Dread Zeppelin’s origins are more elusive than that stairway to heaven, partly because of their goofy bio sheets. Tortelvis was asked for his version.
“The guys in the band had a reggae band, the Reggae Blades, and I asked them if they wanted to do this thing, sort of let’s do one gig,” Tortelvis said. “So we played at the Ice House in Pasadena in 1989, and here we are in our seventh year. We just have a lot of fun. It’s just entertainment, no messages.”
But even the King needs a break today when he gets dazed and confused. And so it came to pass that Tortelvis, too, needed a rest from those bright lights, brighter clothes and wide belts.
“The whole thing was getting to me there for a while,” he said. “I wanted to go back to the dairy and drive a milk truck. Really, it was just something I had to do. For a while, the band had a Barry Gibb impersonator doing a disco thing, but I started to miss it all, and when I came back we went back to the basic formula.”
The basic formula, much like life, contains no justice. Otherwise, how could Jimmy Page and Robert Plant go on tour without Tortelvis, Charlie Haj (towels and leis), Boytaro and Jah Paul Jo (guitars), Spice (drums), Buzzy Fuzzman (bass) and Fernandez Zeppelin (congas)?
“Can you believe that?” Tortelvis said.
Recently, both bands did shows in Las Vegas. “We went to their show and went backstage, then they were supposed to come to our show, but they had press or something, so they didn’t make it,” Tortelvis said. “But Plant was definitely cool--he said he liked what we were doing.”
The record labels, however, are less than excited. The band, after a fling with I.R.S. Records, is back on its own label, Birdcage.
“It’s kinda cool,” Tortelvis said. “We’re pretty much in control of what we do, and any copies we sell, we get the money. A label can help with the promotion and distribution, but we’re not really shopping for a deal. It’s a little extra work for us, but the money we make is ours.”
Who goes to their concerts? “Anybody who has ever seen Elvis is into it,” Tortelvis said. “Families bring their kids, plus we get a lot of college kids, and we play to the pierced-body crowd. Most of it is from word of mouth since we don’t really get any airplay.”
While “Black Dog” has become “Hound Dog” and “No Quarter” is now “No Quarter Pounder,” there’s still plenty of Led Zeppelin songs that haven’t gotten the reggae treatment, mon.
Dread Zeppelin has written a song about Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. It’s called “Little Baby Elvis Jackson.”
* WHAT: Dread Zeppelin, Mr. Ectomy.
* WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.
* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St., Ventura.
* HOW MUCH: $10.
* CALL: 648-1888.