Notes On Nothingness:A Journal of Zero Consciousness
Griffin Nicholson

"What I sought was the rapture of vertigo ... the relapse... to nothingness."‹Samuel Beckett

Kind of odd to be recording thoughts and impressions of theZero scene. It feels a little illegitimate; as if it is somehownot what's appropriate for Zero consciousness, that zen-likeconcept of effortless trance meditation, anchored in the immediate,floating and drifting with the musicians who are spinning theirspells on stage in front of you. I used to take notes on mostof my concert experiences, mostly for fun, sometimes for a writer's exercise‹a focused journal entry‹and occasionallyfor absent friends who wanted to know ... but that was alwaysdifficult for Zero. They were tough. After a particularly sublimemoment, at a Maritime Hall show this past spring, all I couldwrite was "nothing will be mine, here ... nothing, asin Zero." It reminds me of a line from one of Ken Kesey's journals: "Only nothing is instantaneous./ Everythingelse takes time." Amen, Ken. Let me tell you about thisband ... because the feeling they project now is that this partof their history won't last much longer; and like all histories,it carries the promise that the record of time will mean morethan just itself.

June 15, 1996 Zero show tonight. Notpsyched, but a promise made ... And what a show. Only a few notesscribbled ... Best I've ever seen them perform. A perfectcatharsis, musically: some great bluesy, heavy rock, intersplicedwith long instrumental jazz numbers; simply elegant, sublime musicianshipthroughout. Zero is cantankerous; they have a definite edgy personality.When they're on, they'll amaze; and when the moodisn't right, they can sink to the moment. But tonight,from the moment they opened‹with some gorgeous instrumental‹they could hit no wrong note. I was transported. Even though incrediblytired, almost passing out on my feet by the end, but enjoyingevery note. Highlights were the opener; "She's So Heavy," with a great job on vocals and the kindof building crescendos that acknowledged the Dead's influencenicely; and the final two tunes of the second set, long instrumentalsthat carried you through every stage of emotional response. Splendidcatharsis, indeed.

That was the show that I 'got it'‹hadmy first Zero epiphany. And even then, I was still thinking ofthem as a temperamental‹though consummate‹musicians.From the outset, a characteristic of Zero was that it had therep as a musicians' band: they had the imprimatur of MarinCounty's finest for years before their audience surgedfollowing the post-Dead phenomenon of Deadheads pouring theirefforts into surrogates. But Zero also inherited the anti-celebrityattitude of many musicians' bands: no star trips, somethingthat saxophonist Martin Fierro had reputedly brushed up againstwhen he was involved with the Dead for a few projects, includinghorn arrangements an album as well as playing with Jerry Garciain a couple of his side-bands. It left a mark on Zero that canstill be seen in the resolute and natural way that they move throughtheir audiences, who respectfully give them room, occasionallyapproach and are invariably dealt with politely; and why the bandmakes it a point to bring their infant children to shows. Allpart of the 'Zero Family' ethos that they successfullyproject.
Martin exemplifies that, to some extent: the guy who refusesto take himself too seriously, yet when he plays, it'snothing but serious ... but what a goof, off the sax. Even Stevecan show some of that self-deprecating humor, musically. Thisspring I saw him with his own band, Steve Kimock and Friends,and he took a stunning solo with the guitar held up behind hisneck, Hendrix-style‹great spectacle to have with your musicalvitamins. And the solo was first rate, too; at first, I thoughteverybody was just cheering for the licks I was hearing, as Iwas swaying with my eyes closed. Martin was the reason I firstwent to see Zero, though. I had first encountered him on the Dead's studio masterpiece, Wake of the Flood, yet another ofthe many introductions they provided to so many other musics andmusicians. It made me interested in hearing my first Zero gig,in the spring of 1988 at a San Francisco club. Even then, I thoughtthey picked up on much of the feeling I had come to expect fromthe Dead‹but Zero was very much its own beast. They laidclaim to that elusive common territory that improvisation of allstripes seems to aim for at its heart, some sort of ur-communication‹communion really‹that describes acontinuum encompassing performer and audience, from intentionto composition to anticipation to reaction, that is seamless andwhole and transcendent; and that is where Zero shines.

July 6, 1996 Zero was good last night.Very good. Several of those moments when the music was just perfect;in the presence of the X-factor. Such a cool, small place, too:the Fairfax Pavilion, which is nothing more than an old-fashionedhigh school gymnasium. And Zero was so down-home, so approachablein that context. First set was strong‹the band played asif they were seriously enjoying themselves; not playful, but very,very interested in getting somewhere. And they did. ... By thesecond tune the place was sweltering‹San Franciscans forgetits summer elsewhere in the Bay Area. And it was about ninetydegrees and very humid, soon, in that place. ... Seeing the bandfrom the side‹a vantage the looseness of the crowd andthe position of the beer pavilion permitted‹was somethingof a treat, too; such a small, small place, and the musiciansso accessible, seeing Steve muttering and mouthing the notes hewas thinking, picking, pulling out on the moment, weaving hismelody lines around Martine's sax or Chip's Hammond.Impossible not to dance, even when guarding a beer from otherdancers, and everyone in the pavilion is boogieing to Zero, too.Hot and sweaty in a high school gym again‹it's beena while.
The reggae tune was well done, too‹all I jotted was'wow.' Zero is a band that can make much complexityand beauty from the simplest of platforms; a trait they sharewith certain other nameless Marin County bands, and a hallmark‹the hallmark?‹of great improvisation. This was so simplea launch vehicle ... and such a wondrous result. I had a coupleof great conversations with fellow Deadheads at the break, discussingZero, Quicksilver, some other Haight-Ashbury bands, and all mattershippie for a leisurely couple of bowls and the remainder of mybeer. As I debate whether to have another, I saw a chance to speakto Martí n and did‹and after thanking him, somehow foundmyself asking him for his autograph. And he was so friendly andpersonable and seemed delighted, drawing a little picture forme on one of my notecards and signing it, in a big bold scrawl;it kind of made me think of some of his solos‹and he huggedme as he handed it to me; I was flabbergasted. Not exactly thestereotype of the unapproachable artist.
Second set is where this show shone. The Chance In A Millionjam was nirvana; I wrote: "All the music I need." They covered all of my sacred musical bases, all of the emotionallandscape necessary to make catharsis flow. Then came Little Wing.Get this tape. Jimi smiles when he sees tribute like this. Thecrowd went nuts; a sea of surging, pulsing leaping tie-dye. Thespirit lives on, I think. My last comment was next to Pits ofThunder‹"wow, Zero stripped to a four-piece," which smoked. As Ralph Gleason used to say to close one his concertreviews for the Chronicle back in the Sixties, even one like theFillmore Acid Test, 'Quite a night.' Indeed.

So why write it now? Because they have thisnew album out ... and it's very, very good ... and it feelsstrange, as if this might be a scene, an artistic community thatis about to break open, reach a whole new level of exposure andpopularity and fame, and lose some of itself in the process, almosta flashback to the sense of dread I had when I listened to theDead's In the Dark, and thought that the secretwas finally out. Old Deadheads called the new converts In-the Darkheads,and the scene never really got its feet back underneath itselfafter that; there just wasn't enough time and oldtimersto teach the new seekers how to behave, how to fit in, how tolearn and grow and make their own contribution to the scene. Ironically,in that sense Deadheadom was sunk by the same ethos that sunkthe Haight, which Garcia talked about in his long Rolling Stoneinterview with Greening of America author Charles Reich:"For any scene to work, along with that freedom there's implicit responsibility‹you have to be doing somethingsomewhere along the line‹there is no free ride. And youhave to know where you're going. It's helpful tohave a scene that will indulge you long enough to let you findout." Too many peopleand it simply sinks.

April 18, 1997 The Zero crowd strikesme as being awfully similar to the most sophisticated part ofthe Dead audience, drawn by something like the inverse of theDead's central form of improvisation: the limits of suggested‹implied‹improvisation, the way classical music embracesthe limits of interpretation. Catalina comes off beautifully,and the end makes me realize‹this is the nascentDead; I am watching a scene take shape and grow. Yes I know it's already a decade‹more than a decade‹old, but thevibe has that feel ... if they just push things a bit, this couldplay in Peoria.

Which may be part of why the Zero scene doesn't have that same level of absolute openness that the Dead scenedid. There is an initiation. As you walk in, the first sense youget before a Zero concert is more like the feel of a jazz club,with bright musically literate patrons who reflect the passionand competitiveness of the musicians in front of them. And ifyou listen well, respectfully, attentively, and make the rightnoises, and get it‹without giving a goddam for anythingelse around you‹then you pass, and next time you'll get a nod. Zero's fans are a bit more ebullient andeffusive than that, but they're every bit as reflectiveand literate. And enough of them were Deadheads to know that theydon't want their scene to outgrow itself, and get dilutedinto that old traditional audience-performer dichotomy epitomizedby a pool of drunk faces yelling at a stage of besieged musiciansto play their radio hits.
But the scene opens up, when you show your interest; whenyou dance to the music, and not to show off or cruise for romance,though that can happen at Zero shows when you don't makeit a goal. It seems like shows have more and more dancing, overthe last couple of years, though whenever I crossed the bridgeinto Marin, it was always wall-to-wall movement, swaying and grooving.It takes a little longer for San Franciscans, I guess; or maybeThe City is where they are picking up their new, younger fans,most of whom have never been trained to listen and dance and forgetand flow. Zero is teaching them. They are nothing if not greatmentors. Demanding teachers, too. The funniest moment my fifteenyears of concerts came at a Steve Kimock and Friends show, longpast midnight, at a tiny bar in San Rafael, bandstand so low abeer glass on the floor stuck up an inch or so above, and a devoteewas getting tired, no longer able to do much more than twitch,and as Steve is taking another solo, subtle and eloquent, thefan yawns, right in front of Martin, only a couple of feet away,holding his horn, attentively waiting for his friend to finish,catches sight of this stifled power yawn‹and just thwacksthe fan, "hey, wake up! pay attention!" and I just collapsed with laughter. The performer-audience barrieraccording to Martin.

They came on at a little past 9:30, startingoff with a slow groove, nice and mellow; a good blues, good vehiclefor the mood, and the jam, to evolve. Steve's first soloshowed lots of energy. Then some punch, a groove tune next andMartin just soars over the melody, punching through the groovelike a paper bag; he shines. When Steve jumps in and on and aroundhim, it feels like you're listening to a bull-fighter dancingwith a bull, leading him around the ring gently, respectfully,and Martin is allowing himself to be led. Rigor Mortis was superb.'Wow' was all I could manage to write. So much spacein the groove; part of what Zero does so well: simple arrangementsplayed simply, opening them up and out and exploring every crackand crevice.

Over the years that I was seeing other bands, I kept checkingin with Zero. I still didn't fully 'get it'‹there were always those around me who clearly were gettingmore of what was going on than me. But there was always enoughto draw me back. After this many years of seeing bands for whomthe live performance was the principle means of artistic expression,I knew it might take a few times. At first, I found their rhythmtoo clinical, their sound too bright and thin; now I wonder whetherI simply was clueless, or if their sound reinforcement has improved,or if I have simply learned and grown. When I heard their newalbum, I thought back to that impression because Judge's vocals seemed too bright, as if the bass had been lopped off;there may be some truth to that‹in concert, I think hisbaritone has much greater depth than on the disc. But speakerswash everything together, and maybe they mixed for that. It's still a good sounding CD. It should win a great many converts,if it gets decent distribution and any kind of airplay at all.
That first gig made me feel that they had absorbed much ofthe Dead's feel for improvising, since their jams definitelycaptured the ethos that the Dead did, but I didn't knowat the time to what extent that terrain had been explored by somany others, including several other Haight-Ashbury bands in theSixties, including one that featured a guitarist who would goon to play with Zero, John Cipollina, whose work with QuicksilverMessenger Service in the Sixties was a major contribution to rockguitar's electric vocabulary. The more I learned, the moreI realized that Zero was drawing from the same well of predominantlyAmerican musical forms that the Dead and Quicksilver and Janis's first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and CountryJoe and the Fish and several others all explored, each emphasizingcertain currents over others, mixing them all together and exploringcollectively, elevating the jam into the grand artistic grailfor the evening. Most of those bands said then‹and someof their surviving members continue to say today‹admiringthings about the others; they all seem to feel that on a givennight, one of their peers was the best band performing at thetime. Zero falls so squarely in that long, loose lineage, heirsto the same rich and diverse set of traditions, all the way downto their generosity in crediting those early San Francisco rockgiants. In their new album, they thank Jerry Garcia in the credits,and despite their large spiritedness, I wonder if there was apause over that one; the critically mindless dismissive comparisonsto the Dead must rankle a bit by now.

First set began‹and at the very firstsolo, I wrote "SK owns the guitar-tripping audience." The 'lineal successor to Jerry' appelation is containedright there: more than anything else, that is the reason. Thosebeautifully articulated, liquid, pure-picked notes‹whya certain core of people find it intoxicating to listen to him.My favorite comment from a clueless scenester behind me was "they sound like a jazz band!" and the sneer stretchingout 'jazz' was simply poetic in its irony. Thatwas where I stopped taking notes for the first set, concentratinginstead on dancing and floating. Great great set: they smokedand sang and wailed in fine and high style.

In a recent America On-Line interview, one fan wrote to askif it was true that Steve had studied with Garcia, prompting theresponse: "NO, I NEVER STUDIED WITH ANYBODY."

August 15, 1997 And second set ... Aperfect one ... how did that go? Well ... very, very well. Andwith dire thoughts of what success could do to them and us andwhat it would feel like to hear them in so much bigger venues... but yeah, they could fill a stadium ... their sound is sofull, so round; their command of dynamics is so complete.