Walking into murky San Diego joint Bar Pink Elephant on a recent golden, dusky evening was disorienting enough — a host of iridescent bubbles dangling from the ceiling, glitter-flecked black walls adorned with baby pachyderms wallowing in martini glasses. But then to realize that, goddamn, the Zeros are up onstage, that was overwhelming. Finishing up a late sound check, they suddenly rip into “Wild Weekend,” and it comes rushing back: that mixture of teenage dreamt elemental purity and sheer overstimulated rock & roll aggression, as flabbergasting today as it ever was. And they’re hitting it with a fang-bearing ferocity, particularly Robert Lopez’s ultramaxi, skull-busting rhythm guitar, an exquisite, relentlessly thundering buzz. Lead axman Javier Escovedo and bassist Hector Penalosa lock in and grind with the true-blue intensity and precision that earned them the “Mexican Ramones” moniker 32 years ago. Fucking gorgeous stuff. Next, they kick into raving high school fury anthem “Shannon Said,” in back of it Baba Chenelle’s unspeakably perfect knockdown drumming, delivered with the distinctively soulful, metronomic man-machine zeal that ranks him as one of the greatest rock & roll trapsmen.
Their high-geared, duty-bound commitment was as hypnotic as the swirling, red-and-white vortex of the target-design backdrop hanging behind them. It pulls you in, and you never want to leave.
The Zeros, of course, were the hands-down top-dog punk-rock band of the ’77 West Coast conflagration, one whose seamless natural-fact mastery has always placed them above anyone else in the Golden State (and yes, we’re necessarily dismissing X, Weirdos, Plugz, Dils, the whole damn lot; the late Lux Interior said it best: “When I first got the ‘Wimp’ 45, I just played it over and over. I couldn’t believe how great it was.”). A clutch of misfit Chicano teenagers, they first formed the glam-mad Main Street Brats in an old trailer somewhere in Chula Vista, before deducing the Zeros equation and playing their first show, in Rosarita Beach, Mexico, in the spring of ’77. Despite the fact that they only released two singles before evaporating circa 1981, they consistently exhibited an admirably low-key, straight-up dedication to their singular type of punk-beat expression, and anyone fortunate enough to have seen their shows remained saddled with a permanent craving for more. No one else had the unwavering quality of the Zeros, and with three lead singers, they always had refreshing degrees of variation, a rare quality in punk rock. Subsequent infrequent reformations in the 1990s were hotly anticipated and ecstatically received, but for the past decade, they have only favored international audiences (rarely, and primarily in Spain). Then they disappear, as if they’d just grudgingly fulfilled an obligation.
All that may be changing. “It feels pretty good,” Penalosa says after they wrap up rehearsal. “We’re going to the Bay Area tomorrow and actually have shows booked, on and off, until September.” But just what got the band back together? “Some kid who books [East Bay punk pit] Gilman Street just kept bugging Javier for the last two years or so to play, and finally we all just said, ‘Let’s do it.’” While it’s been a hell of a long time coming, most fans fear they’ll simply go back into remission. The Zeros today all look as good as they sound: lean, lively, more than able to thrill. But it’s rock & roll, kiddies, and she’s always been a bitch.
While Lopez has a worldwide following for his El Vez persona (“the Mexican Elvis”), and Penalosa has led a series of mess-around-for-kicks bands, most recently Baja Buggs, it’s Escovedo, nominal patriarch (he was the only one with a driver’s license in ’77, making sure everyone was back in class the next morning), who has toiled the most arduously chasing rock’s phantom promise. He has, in years past, been strangely ambiguous on the subject of the Zeros, as if fearful that the band represented his artistic peak. But that, of course, is ridiculous. His current solo effort, the nine-track City Lights set, is intense, compelling and passionate, and the message throughout is bitter-sweaty sweet, equally fraught with cutting frustration and abiding trust.
“I’m very proud of it,” Escovedo says. “Everybody was really into it and dug the material and were happy that I was doing something and had my shit together — I got sober a while back. I wanted to be really honest and I wanted to be positive, but there’s a lot of stuff I’ve gone through; my dad passed away, me missing him, and there are still things unresolved. But the other part is me going through all the changes, coming through and seeing that there is hope.
“I’ve definitely been competing with my past,” he continues. “I want to get past the Zeros but at the same time, I finally really appreciate the Zeros. Now that I’m older, I can look at it in a really objective way and see that it was a really cool band, they’re really cool songs and I can get excited about it — when for a while, I couldn’t. That may be the reason why subconsciously I always concentrated on playing shows and not recording. I really slugged it out in the clubs with the Sacred Hearts, but we never really recorded anything. I’ve got to a point where in rehearsal I hear some lyrics of ours and think that’s a great thing to write, a cool way of putting it. It’s like hearing a different band, because it was a different me, a lot younger me.”
That realization is mutual, and the band doesn’t seem in its usual frustrating hurry to split up as soon as the summer’s bookings are honored. “We never look at the Zeros as we’re going to do this and that — but now we will consider whatever is offered to us. We definitely want to tour Japan, and we want to go to England,” Escovedo says. “Everybody’s got a good attitude right now, and everybody else who comes around lets us know it — they all seem very happy about where our heads are. And I think we are, too.”
The Zeros perform at the Troubadour on Thursday, July 16.