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Beat Your Heart Out 

Sneaking Out With the Zeros

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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When glitter-tinged Class of ’76 punk masters the Zeros took the stage at Bomp Records‘ recent 25th-anniversary bash, guitarist-singer Javier Escovedo experienced something unusual -- a bad case of nerves. Forget the fact that original bassist Hector Penalosa had pulled out, due to imminent nuptials, just four days earlier; never mind that they’d only squeezed in one rehearsal with fill-in Victor Penalosa, Hector‘s younger brother; this is all-in-the-family punk rock, after all. What had Escovedo keyed up was the fact that his brother Alejandro was in town and set to join them onstage. “I’ve never really gotten nervous before a show,” says Javier, “but I realized that we have to be good, everybody expects it, and having Alejandro get up with us was a really big thing to me.” On the nightclub floor, Al seemed keyed up. “We‘re supposed to do ’Chatterbox,‘” he told a fan, “but I can’t remember the words. Do you know how it goes?”

Once he hit the stage it all came back, of course, and as the siblings burned through the Johnny Thunders oldie, it was a glimpse back at the band‘s embryonic days, when teenage Javier formed the Main Street Brats, a trio that he wanted -- more than anything -- to impress his older brother, who had just started his own punk rock band, the Nuns. One of the great musical clans (as in veteran salsa champion Pete, timbale temptress Sheila E), the Escovedos have always staked out rich musical ground, and when Javier jumped into the game, he had to seriously come through with the goods.

Although the Zeros called it quits in ’81, in their brief life span they churned out a slew of classic songs, delivered with an emphatic, natural-fact rock slam that won them the tag “the Mexican Ramones.” Like the Ramones, the Zeros were one of a very few punk rock bands that traded not only in extreme, amphetamine-amped punk snarl but just as easily looked back to 1960s forebears like the Seeds, Standells and Sonics, and, more important, were able to put it all over to a crowd ruled by stringent, almost incestuous standards. And “the Mexican kids with pointy shoes” (as Tom Waits once described them) were readily embraced: Patti Smith joined them onstage, the Damned checked them out in ‘77, and they shared bills, from the Masque to Mabuhay, with every West Coast punk band worth mentioning: Dils, Avengers, X, Plugz, Nerves, Wipers; the Germs’ first performance was in an opening slot for a Zeros-Weirdos show. Punk rock pedigrees don‘t come any finer than the Zeros’.

The Zeros -- Javier, Hector, phenomenally steady-handed drummer Baba Chenelle and Robert Lopez (a.k.a. El Vez) -- have sporadically erupted several times in the past 10 years, to the delight of aging punk rockers from Hollywood to Madrid, and with the Bomp release Right Now!, a newly recorded album of vintage Zeros tunes, the band itself has once again compelled its personnel to reunite, tearing down any individual ambivalence and essentially forcing them back into action.

Strangely, that‘s a big part of the Zeros’ entire on-off existence. Initially re-formed to perform at a 1991 benefit show for ailing punk rockerwriter Craig Lee, they wound up recording an entire album and touring internationally. Indeed, the songs seemed to take on a life of their own -- prime example being White Flag manZeros booster Bill Bartel sending an old demo copy of “Black and White,” unbeknownst to composer Javier, to Swedish band Sator -- whose version went to No. 2 on the Swedish pop charts. The Zeros have been covered by bands all over the world: Spain‘s La Secta (“Wild Weekend”), Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus (“Wimp”), Hollywood‘s Muffs (“Beat Your Heart Out”) and another version of “Wimp” from Sweden’s the Nomads.

Zeros songs -- by turns curious, furious and philosophical -- mix naked teen naivete with biting discourse on romance and the punk rocker‘s street life, and by virtue of their instinctive minimalism stand as some of punk rock’s very best. Their ability to withstand time‘s diminishing passage has to do with the subject matter and a recurring theme of frustration, which lends these tunes a universal ring that, when matched by the band’s mastery of rock & roll‘s in-the-blood requirements (that mystery gift common to Elvis and Iggy), has served the Zeros extremely well.

Rock & roll entered Javier’s life early on: “When I was a kid, I always had a transistor radio on my bike,” he says. “I had a paper route, riding around town, and the Seeds were on the radio, Strawberry Alarm Clock. I was a huge Animals fan -- ‘It’s my life and I‘ll do what I want’ I thought was such a cool statement, and I‘d think, ’Oh, I gotta write something like that.‘ And all the time, my brother had his room down the hall and there’d always be loud music playing.

”Later on, I used to go over to Alejandro‘s house, hang out, listen to records. He started telling me about the glitter-rock scene, the Berlin Brats, telling me about the lyrics and stuff, and I was reading Rock Scene, Circus, but more Creem and those writers, Lester Bangs. And I’d think, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ And my brother starts the Nuns, I hear some tapes, and I‘m just absorbing all of this, 14, 15 years old and thinking, ’Oh, I‘ve got to write some songs.’ I just had to do it: Write some cool songs, start a cool band!“

After his high school sweetheart (and now wife), Rhoda Lopez, introduced him to her brother Robert, Javier and Robert formed the Main Street Brats in 1976 with pal Baba and worked out a rough set in a trailer behind the Escovedos‘ Chula Vista home. ”I was already playing guitar in my room,“ Lopez recalls. ”There was no prospect of playing in a band, and when Javier came along, I jumped on it. We had the same background, liked the same songs. And we were such bad procrastinators, we would sit and plan how things should be, but they’d never work out the way we planned -- we didn‘t know what we were doing anyway, so we’d just go do it. I didn‘t write that much; it was really like I was just along for the ride.“ Still, Lopez’s ”Beat Your Heart Out“ is at the top of the Zeros-fave heap, as are a few other Lopez-penned tunes, like ”Sneakin‘ Out,“ a fascinating slice of drunken teen confusion, and the foul-mouthed punk sexuality of ”Rico Amour.“

By the time the band changed its name to the Zeros, punk rock was exploding and the boys eagerly jumped onto the circuit, knockin’ ‘em dead in clubs all over the country. Eventually punk rock itself imploded (a subject pithily addressed in Javier’s ”Getting Nowhere Fast“), and the Zeros finally canceled themselves out. Twenty years later, they concede the slightly awkward nature of these reunion jaunts, and it‘s that acknowledgment which enables them to pull it off -- an ambivalence that forces them to make it crunch.

Ultimately, what drives any periodic Zeros return is audience demand and response. ”We travel all over, and there’s so many fans,“ says Lopez. ”The most honorable mention was when we were in Valencia, Spain, and ‘Rico Amour,’ which was a rehearsal demo that hadn‘t even gotten released until a few years ago, these people got ahold of it and loved it so much that they named a nightclub after it: Rico Amour, with a neon sign that looks like Rick’s Cafe Americain, and leopard wallpaper -- and all this from a song I‘d written when I was 16!“

Those songs, churned out in the heat of teenage passion, remain as addictive and anthemic as ever, as the new Right Now! disc makes clear in powerhouse fashion.

”When I was a kid,“ Javier says, ”I was listening to Lou Reed, and I really got into this thing about ’Sweet Jane‘ and what a classic song it was, and I wanted to do that: Write a song that would just go on forever. But writing for the Zeros seemed like something different -- we were just a garage rock & roll band. ’Cosmetic Couple‘ I thought was pretty good, and when I did ’Don‘t Push Me Around,’ I really thought that was good. And now that a couple of bands have covered ‘Wimp,’ I listen to them and think, ‘Hey, that’s really cool -- I sorta kinda did it.‘ So yeah, I think they hold up -- somehow.“

Reach the writer at jwhiteside@laweekly.com

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