Cometbus #52: The Spirit of St. Louis; or How to Break Your Own Heart, A Tragedy in 24 Parts

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On most sunny summer days, Aaron Cometbus can be found leaning back in a folding chair behind a well-organized used book table on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, scribbling in Sharpie on little scraps of paper. He is an imposing figure: enormous hands, basketball-player height, shock bleached-blonde hair, and often covered in a ripped-up Hulk shirt that looks like it has been dragged beneath a car for a distance. Though over 40, he still looks preternaturally youthful and healthy, content with the choices he has made. There is an aura of Diogenes the Cynic about him—emaciated and unshaven, living out his life in the public square, contemptuous of what is considered legitimate society. Passerbys have no way of knowing that this street vendor is a legendary figure within zine and punk culture, an elder statesman that many young people view as a canary in a coal mine—a living example of what getting older might look like without settling down.

Aaron Elliot, pseudonymously known as Aaron Cometbus, started Cometbus fanzine in 1981 when he was 13-years old and living at his professor dad’s house in Berkeley. He made his first issues with childhood friend Jesse Michaels (son of the legendary writer Leonard Michaels) who went on to play in the seminal ska-punk band Operation Ivy. The first photocopied fanzines that Cometbus made had a different name each issue—Impending Doom, Rats in the Street, and Blind Obedience, to name three, before settling on the now-infamous Cometbus. He did interviews he did with his favorite bands: Butthole Surfers, The Slits, Black Flag, and of course The Ramones. Today, Cometbus, which has put out more than 70 issues and been translated into numerous languages, is considered the grandfather of all punk zines, predating even the seminal Bay-Area monthly Maximum Rock N’ Roll.

Cometbus does things essentially the same way he’s always done them: He makes the zine without the help of a computer. He illustrates and designs the gorgeous rasterized covers by hand himself, and uses photocopies to design the chapter and title heads. When a new issue of Cometbus is ready, he takes the originals down to a printer in Chinatown, where he prints 6-9,000 copies (sold for $3 a piece). He has a ritual of going to the all-night post office in Penn Station to mail off all the packages to the independent distributors who disseminate his work—he keeps his own records and collects payment as he goes along. Cometbus is socially reclusive and does not consider himself a ‘zine writer’, but rather just a ‘writer’ who uses the zine medium to get out his work. He does not do public readings. Selections from the many issues of Cometbus, each about the length of Winesburg, Ohio, were compiled into a massive 2666-sized tome in the early 2000s that was titled Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus. Up until a few years ago, the text of every issue of Cometbus was laboriously written out by hand in the author’s instantly recognizable block-caps handwriting. The handwriting is so consistent and perfect that for a while there was heated John Henry-style speculation that it couldn’t possibly be handwritten and that the author was actually using a ‘Cometbus font.’ This rumor was flatly denied, and recent issues of Cometbus have come to be typeset. Up until the late 70s, when punk music zines came into existence, photocopied pamphlets were primarily a medium for political tracts or science-fiction fans (hence the name that has stuck—‘fanzine’). The early Cometbus was a cut-and-paste affair not unlike the many other blossoming punk rags at the time, filled with interviews and rants and columns, an archive from a young underground music fan. But after a several year hiatus from making the zine in the early 90s, Cometbus shifted course and became something unique that drastically altered the history of zines—Cometbus switched the focus from documenting bands and music to documenting the stories and subconscious of the punk lifestyle. This change heralded in the Golden Age of zines, and not coincidentally, the Golden Age of Cometbus. In the early 90s as punk broke through into the mainstream with bands like Bikini Kill and Sonic Youth, fanzine culture came burbling to the surface along with it (Kathleen Hannah and Tobi Vail put out zines that are still being reproduced today. Thurston Moore used to write Cometbus to order zines) Starting with Cometbus #24, the zine became a kind of serialized novel that documented the author’s itinerant lifestyle through the nationwide punk diaspora. During this period, Cometbus moved from town to town, living in each one for only a couple of months at a time. Long walks, lonely diners, and late nights working at the copy shop filled the pages. Tropes like punk love and too much coffee and long trips on the Greyhound bus reigned supreme. Sentimental, 90s-era Cometbus narrative reads like:

I got off the bus in Missoula just after the sun came up, and the city was still cold and covered in thick fog. Sunday morning and not a soul out on the streets beside me, it was wonderful. I walked through the big piles of fallen fall leaves and along the railroad tracks and past thousands of dilapidated trailer homes. I strolled around seeing all the different neighborhoods, not worried about hicks or cops or anyone. The only thing I had to worry about was the packs of mangy rabid dogs.

During this wandering era, young Cometbus lived in sublets, squats, maniac punk houses, and spent his winters holed up in college libraries. Minneapolis, Arcata, Gainesville, Asheville, Cape Cod, Chattanooga, Pensacola, Lincoln, Boise. This solitary, ghostly non-student haunting college campuses across the country wrote of his itinerant self-education, “I started auditing classes and going to lectures. I’d use the sound booth at the student resource center to listen to my records while I answered mail. At the front desk, they didn’t stop and ask to see my college I.D. card.” The dozens of bands that he started in each of the towns he lived in can be synched up with the writings in his zines and novels, like the lyrics to the song “Gold Coast” by the shortly-lived Asheville, North Carolina band Cometbus wrote the words for, Astrid Oto— I want to read about Nkrumah! / I got my own seat in the corner of the college library! / hide and hope the pervert guy / don’t find me!

The towns and landscapes of Cometbus are filled with the social ephemera of the now departed Nineties: fliers coat telephone poles, punks hang out at payphone banks all night, having random encounters with skinheads on the streets. The lone writer sits in all-night cafes scribbling away on paper, bathed in cigarette smoke, getting periodic free refills from the bald barista girl in the Mudhoney t-shirt. Cometbus’s alternative America now seems as historical and dated as Reality Bites or Slacker, disappeared by the inexorable pace of progress in the last ten years. The independent record stores have all closed, the cafes are filled with droves of pale zombie-like youth, stuck in the tractor-beam glow of their laptops and iPhones. People now find out about punk show with Facebook events rather than fliers pasted around the main drag of town. Punks in the 21st century are increasingly self-aware of their fashion, their politics, and their subcultural lineage as a result of the recent historicizing frenzy, all the different scenes being served up cold in books like Please Kill Me, American Hardcore, Fucked Up and Photocopied, and Our Band Could Be Your Life. The punks of the late 2000s are more self-conscious than punks ever been before: they slip identities on and off with relative ease, hear any band they want on the web, mix and match and tweak their identities rather than ever having to take a firm stand, like the punks of the 80s had to do when they spiked their hair mohawks, which seemed to say: This is who I am and I willing to suffer for it. Cometbus describes his bygone 80s adolescence in the intro to Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus: “Punks just weren’t as self-conscious then, as a culture. Not in the habit of saving things for posterity of thinking of themselves as history. Not caring about the past, not seeing much future to look forward to.” Today there is no updated subcultural mirror to look into, no new documentarian of our increasingly complex and confusing times. The DIY punk community is in many ways still basking in the glow of the Cometbusian 90s—starting Nineties-sounding bands, invoking Nineties indie ethics of “selling out” versus not, even though the world has moved on, leaving them and these petty concerns in the dust.


Aaron Lake Smith writes a zine called Big Hands that was featured in The New Museum's Generational Show. He has written for Time, Vice, Truthout, and the New York Times, among other publications. He is editing his first novel, THE SHAMBLER, and maintains a website at http://www.oldwaysways.com. More from this author →