reporting from san diego
Climbing onto the small stage at Bar Pink for an afternoon sound check, Javier Escovedo, singer-guitarist for the Zeros, unloads a flash of ringing guitar during "Cosmetic Couple" and snarls into a microphone: "When it gets dark we all come out / looking for love, ready to rock out / We look so pretty, so so dressed up / Walking down the city, so so messed up." Unfurled behind him is a hand-painted backdrop of red circles descending into a vivid bull's-eye.
Part of the first wave of West Coast punk, the Zeros were four teenagers out of Chula Vista, Calif., fueled by the rough edges of the New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground, whose music burst onto the scene in the late 1970s. By 1980, the Zeros were over, having released just a handful of songs on Los Angeles-based Bomp! Records, but they've now reconvened for a series of summer shows, delivering the old thrills and bad attitude to another generation of edgy rock fans.
In the intervening years, the band's members, Escovedo, guitarist-singer Robert Lopez, bassist Hector Penalosa and drummer Baba Chenelle, have spent plenty of time on stages with other ventures -- among those were the True Believers, Escovedo's band with older brother Alejandro, and Lopez's international career as El Vez, "the Mexican Elvis." But performing together as the Zeros offers the musicians a singular kind of nostalgic thrill.
"We don't think about the coulda been," Lopez says. "We were just kids when we did it, and we were doing it for the love of it. We were 16, 17, 18, and lucky enough to be in high school and still play the Whisky a Go-Go. We were enjoying the moment and we never had a plan."
The band still doesn't have much of a plan beyond the handful of scattered tour dates that will deliver it to the Troubadour on July 16 and to Europe next spring.
Aside from a few covers, the repertoire remains limited to the 25 to 30 original Zeros songs written in the '70s.
"We don't plan to write new songs, because what you write when you're 16 is completely different from what you write when you're 49," Lopez says. "Trying to recapture that would be silly."
The band's brief career is evidence that large movements in pop music do not emerge from any single artist or city, but represent a collective force from many directions at once.
Although the Zeros were sometimes called "the Mexican Ramones," when the players first gathered in Escovedo's bedroom in 1976 to plug in their guitars, they had never heard of the seminal New York outfit. But they were reacting to the same electric charge of early garage rock, Iggy and the Stooges and the fading glitter rock movement.
In 1977, the Zeros appeared on San Diego's "Sun-Up" morning TV show, where Lopez's father worked behind the cameras.
In grainy black-and-white footage available on YouTube, the band looks and sounds like a contemporary act, both timeless and raw.
"The glitter era really got all the freaks and the weirdos, and punk rock started to happen," Lopez remembers. "The reject kids could be that, and if you didn't fit in with the social kids and the popular kids, music could be your salvation."
During their four years together, the Zeros opened for the Clash, toured with John Cale, played with Devo and survived the notorious Elks Lodge skirmish of 1979, when 60 Los Angeles riot police arrived at a concert by X, the Go-Gos, Los Plugz and the Zeros.
"The cops showed up and they just busted everybody. They busted heads," bassist Penalosa says. "It was like a war zone. They were marching in file with the batons, with helicopters and the whole thing, and a lot of our friends got hurt."
Lopez was the first to move on, relocating to Los Angeles and joining the local punk act Catholic Discipline. At that point down to a trio (including drummer Chenelle), the Zeros set up in the Bay Area before officially disbanding in August 1980, after a few final shows in San Francisco and road trips to Austin, Texas, and New York -- where they played legendary clubs CBGB and Max's Kansas City and had two guitars stolen.
"After that," says Escovedo, "we were going, 'Man, this is getting tough.' "
The Zeros reconvened before: in 1992 at a benefit for ailing LA Weekly music critic Craig Lee and later that decade, the band reunited long enough to complete an album, "Knockin' Me Dead," recording songs left over from the old days.
On tour in Europe to promote that release, they found fans with their original 45s and vintage magazine clippings, and a club in Spain named Rico Amour, after one of their songs.
Back in San Diego, the musicians discovered an all-female Zeros tribute band called Wild Weekend, the title of another Zeros song. Now, most of the Zeros are living again in San Diego, though Lopez is based in Seattle.
Opening the summer tour dates in the band's hometown was fitting and convenient.
Hours after the Zeros' sound check, Bar Pink is packed.
The room is owned by Don Reis of Rocket from the Crypt, another storied San Diego band, and it's a high-concept operation, with images of euphoric pink elephants dancing amid the bubbles. On the TV above the bar is an old episode of "The Muppet Show." Escovedo steps up to the microphone and looks at the stage floor by his feet.
"I need my glasses to read the set list," he says with a smile. "It's come to this."
What follows is an hour of accelerating riffs and breathless melody.
There are some gray heads in the crowd, but it's mostly younger fans cheering the band on.
Earlier in the day came news of Michael Jackson's death, yet the Zeros have another musical icon in mind. The final encore song is "Pushin' Too Hard," a garage rock classic and anthem of romantic angst by the Seeds, whose singer Sky Saxon also had passed away that day.
The crowd shouts along, loud and elated, joining the Zeros in pushing one ecstatic musical traditional deep into the present.