Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus
This is a love letter.
It goes like this: Once upon a time in the early Nineties, I did something ridiculously stupid and somehow got away with it. It's a long story, but the gist of it is that I rode the damn Greyhound bus around the country for six weeks using a fake "go anywhere" pass I'd forged at a copy shop in Minneapolis. As you would assume, it was a fairly miserable, soul-crushing experience overall, but at the time I was a fairly miserable human being in general, so it suited me fine at the time. Sort of.
I'd had enough by the time I hit California. I was broke and tired, had lost 20 pounds, and was dangerously close to losing my fool mind. It was time to stop riding the bus. San Francisco seemed as good a place as any to mop myself up. The one person I knew in the area was vacating his room for a couple of weeks, and I snapped at the opportunity. It was a punk house, smack in the belly of punk-rock Oakland. The folks who lived there were nice enough, but all I could do at the time was shut the door and not emerge for four days. Most of that time was spent wallowing in my own misery (make that "misery"), and when one of the house members knocked on the door, inviting me to go watch the Chinese New Year celebration in the city (and drink), I immediately declined. Two more hours of wallowing and I bolted out the door, hoping to catch up with them.
Chinatown was a madhouse: hordes of people, fireworks, screaming. There wasn't a chance in hell of me finding them. I felt like an absolute moron. I sat on the curb and cursed myself for turning down the one opportunity I'd had in the past two months to go HAVE FUN with NICE PEOPLE. Instead, I was by myself yet again, sad, lonely, and a million miles from home. I tried to enjoy the parade but couldn't. I started walking toward the train back to Oakland.
About a block later I looked up from the pavement and stopped dead in my tracks. There was a face speeding toward me that I knew. It was Aaron stinking Cometbus, a ubiquitous punk-scene presence I'd last seen 2,000 miles from here in a Stadium Village copy shop, where he was running off copies of his zine at 4:00 a.m. I sat there sputtering for two seconds--all the time it took for him and his friend (both of them wearing sneaky-assed grins) to get a hold of me. They did not pause or break stride in any way--they just grabbed my arms as they went by, dragging me along with them.
"We're going this way now."
And we did. We went that way. As always, with Aaron, it's pretty hopeless to try to avoid going along for the ride.
This is a love letter, not a book review. There are a good number of you reading this right now who know exactly who Aaron Cometbus is, and exactly what Cometbus is. To you I say: Hi, how are you? To those of you who have no earthly idea what I'm talking about, I say to you also: Hi, how are you; and furthermore: This is your lucky day.
Either way, both groups should rejoice, as Last Gasp of San Francisco has just released Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus, a ridiculous telephone-book-sized tome compiling selected moments from 40-odd issues and 20 years of the Cometbus zine. It is huge. It is thick (the pages aren't numbered, and there are enough of them that counting is out of the question); it is firmly packed; and it is dead cheap ($14.95!). The thing is just a treasure, any way you'd care to slice it. And it is my belief that you should go out and purchase one for yourself right now.
There. That's that.
Now, were this an actual book review by a real writer (as opposed to a jackass who bends guitar strings for a living) this would be the part where I tell you all the important things about Despite Everything: what the book is about, what it means, how it fits into the grand scheme of things, etc. The truth of the matter is, I don't think I could describe this book if I tried.
Frightening as it may be, sometimes the easiest way to come at things is to report the hype first, just to get it out of the way, and work backward from there. There is a quote on the back cover of Despite Everything that reads: "Cometbus is considered a classic in the subterranean world"--Time magazine. As I said, it's hype. But it's also the damn truth: Cometbus has been in a league of its own for quite a while now, and deservedly so. Many great zines have come and gone over the years, but the ones that have exhibited the intelligence, consistency, honesty, and pure writing ability of Cometbus can be counted on one and a half hands. And the ones that are still around in 2002 can be counted on a couple of fingers. Like any great zine--or, more to the point, any great body of writing--Cometbus has refined and honed itself to a degree where you can say that there's nothing else like it anywhere.
Cometbus has cut a mighty swath over the past 20 years. Sometimes it has taken the form of a regular magazine, with articles and features and regular columnists; but at other times it has appeared to be one man's journal, or a travelogue; at other times still, it's been a collection of short stories; and let's not forget those issues that were self-contained novels. A few very recent issues consisted entirely of interviews with a specific group of people (with Aaron as the invisible interlocutor) or a specific subject. One issue was all comics (by longtime Cometbus contributor Bobby Madness), and before that there was at least one issue of Cometbus that was a vinyl LP. And I'm reasonably sure that I'm forgetting some things here. Throughout, Aaron has put together every single issue of Cometbus himself (including Despite Everything), with his own two hands: No editors or secretaries or marketing strategists were involved.
And that's just the format: We haven't even gotten into what is actually being written about in those individual issues, and that's an even bigger can of worms.
We're working backward now, and 20 years is a long time. Aaron started his first zine, which would eventually turn into Cometbus, back in 1981 at age 13. This was long before the zine revolution of the mid-Nineties, and Cometbus was basically what every young punk zine should be: messy, loud, rambunctious, and obsessed with its immediate surroundings (i.e., punk). Eventually, though, Aaron apparently got tired of writing solely about bands and records, and after taking a couple of years off, he changed the rules entirely.
I have no idea to what extent Aaron knew what he was getting himself into, but the new Cometbus (beginning with #24) concerned itself with people's lives first, and punk rock second. It set him (and Cometbus) on a course that would drag his ass all over God's green earth from that moment until, well, today. And--lucky us--we get to read about it. Cometbus has doggedly pursued this interest in people all over the country (and the world). Issues of Cometbus have been written while Aaron was living in Chicago, and Richmond, Virginia, and New York City. Aaron even settled down for a while here in our little Minneapolis, where he worked overnights at a Kinko's. (The written record testifies that although he liked the West Bank and the river, he had less appetite for the cold.)
Some people go on vacations; Aaron walks around some town he's never been to, getting as lost as he possibly can, then eventually finds a coffee shop. Other people go visit friends; Aaron goes looking in dumpsters in Florida until he makes one, then they both get some beer and that new friend that Aaron just met tells Aaron the story about the time he found a dead body down by the river...and then we read about it in Cometbus.
I heard that the guy walked from Minnesota to Kansas, just because. That story hasn't been substantiated, but the point is, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if it were true. The fact is that Despite Everything is, in every sense, almost psychopathically all over the map. Aaron (and the other Cometbus folks) have done things and lived lives that, by common standards of what is normal or safe, could be considered certifiably insane. From hopping trains to riding through Europe with flame-juggling street performers, from working a shitty, soul-destroying job to living entirely by your wits, from love to frustration to hate and back around again, from wide-eyed idealism to world-weary cynicism--Cometbus is about all those things and a hell of a lot more.
My own story ended up just like something out of Cometbus. Aaron and his pal hauled me all over the nooks and crannies and secret places of Chinatown. We snuck in, over, under, and around the streets, scrounging for leftover firecrackers and climbing up lampposts for a better view. We had a veritable shitload of fun, and at that particular moment in time, it kind of saved my life.
At some point, after the parade was long over, the three of us were wandering the empty streets, searching through detritus. I looked up and the person next to me was this pretty (but unknown) girl, just looking around, same as me. We ended up sort of idly looking for stuff together, and when I glanced up from the street, Aaron was gone. So was his pal. Those rotten sons of bitches. I was (and still am...) far too repressed to make friends with that girl, but still I had a dandy night for the first time in ages, and that was enough.
I stayed in Oakland for two and a half years, and they were, hands down, the most insane years of my life. I ran into Aaron a couple of weeks after the event described above, and yelled at him: "Why the hell did you ditch me?! What was that all about?"
He looked genuinely surprised: "Well...I just figured that was the time for me to leave....You and that girl searching the street for garbage--it was just too great and I didn't want to stick around to see how it worked out, you know? It was just too perfect."
I looked at him like he was insane. He ditched me.
I think I get it now.
Your story of being a wing nut may not be in Despite Everything--but, then, in a way, it may be. And after making your way through the anthology you may find yourself reflecting on your own Cometbus moments. I haven't seen Aaron in years now. He wrote me a postcard awhile back--the response to a letter I'd written him six years earlier--and at the bottom was a note: "Found this in the files, never threw it in the mail. Still seems appropriate."
The same thing could be said of 20 years of Cometbus, an anthology of perfect moments, and imperfect ones, and everything in between. But there's no reason in the world to wait another six years before finding that out for yourself.