Somehow longtime author, punk rock drummer, and self-described "punk anthropologist" Aaron Cometbus (born Aaron Elliot) has managed to stay relatively under the mainstream radar while simultaneously gaining great notoriety and deserved respect among underground punk circles for close to three full decades now -- ever since the beginning of the eighties when, barely a teenager, the highly intelligent and gifted Berkeley youth began writing his seminal punk fanzine Cometbus.
He also played music in many bands from a young age. His second band Crimpshrine, in which he played drums, was the pioneering East Bay punk band which had a major impact on the burgeoning East Bay punk scene, up until their demise in '89. Since then Aaron has continued to consistently make music as a member of, literally, dozens of different bands -- most of them short lived groups. Some, such as Pinhead Gunpowder, which he formed with Billie Joe Armstrong and others in the early nineties, still play occasionally. His most recent band is the Thorns of Life which formed a few months ago in Brooklyn and features Blake Schwarzenbach (of Jets to Brazil & Jawbreaker fame) and bassist Daniela Sea (known for her former membership of the Gr'ups and Cypher in the Snow as well as her acting role in the TV show The L Word). The band, who played their first club date ever on Monday at the Hemlock in SF followed a few days later on Thursday last by a "secret show" at Thrillhouse Records with a reported 100 folks squeezed into the small Mission Street retail space., play 924 Gilman tomorrow (Sat. Jan 31st).
Tomorrow night's Gilman show is anticipated on many levels, including the fact that Aaron himself has been an active participant in the legendary, unique, all ages, volunteer, not-for-profit, Berkeley, CA music collective. As a writer Aaron has consistently written and published his unique and coveted Cometbus series, sometimes taking a year or more to fine-tune and publish an issue. In September he published issue #51 The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah which is a partial history of Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, telling the story of Moe's Books and other places (including the original Amoeba Music). Like all of the Cometbus books it is available at Amoeba and other select independent record and bookstores.
I know Aaron Cometbus from way back in the day during the Crimpshrine era when both of us were volunteers at KALX radio, but I hadn't talked to him in a long time. However, over the years I had kept up with him through his writing by religously reading Cometbus. I really love his writing style and thought about a year ago that it would be good to interview him for the Amoeblog since his books are so popular at Amoeba, especially the Berkeley store, where they get snapped up by eager readers upon arriving on the counter. In fact Kent, who works at the Berkeley store, is old friends with Aaron, and many longtime Cometbus readers might remember him from the "Ask Kent" section of Cometbus. Aaron can be a difficult man to track down, so a couple of months ago when I finally did I get in touch with him in New York City, where he currently lives, I was happy. I invited him on my WFMU show to do a dual radio/Amoeblog interview.
I asked Aaron about his latest band, the Thorns of Life, which, at that stage, had not played out in any clubs. “We will be playing as many (gigs) as possible. But we’re kind of avoiding the clubs, and just playing odd spots: houses, restaurants, readings, whatever, just to keep it kind of low-key, and avoid the doormen, and the IDs, and what not," he said. "But we are planning on recording either in the middle of this winter or in the early spring. We already have a bunch of songs.” Tomorrow at Gilman, as earlier this week in SF, they will be performing many of these songs. Aaron said he likes doing house shows more than anything and when I asked him what one of his most memorable gigs was over his long career he answered that it was probably a show at a house in Mississippi a few years ago that about a dozen people attended.
Around this time last year he played Gilman with Pinhead Gunpowder and I was told by a friend who attended that show that he played the drums in such a wild frenzy that he almost passed out by the end of the show. Apparently that is the usual for Aaron. "That is the plan," he said. "If you're not dead at the end of the set, you've failed." By the way, if you plan on going to Gilman tomorrow to see the rightfully hyped Thorns of Life, get there as early as possible because it is going to be mobbed. Earlier this week on Monday when Thorns of Life played their first club event ever at Hemlock, approximately three times the club's capacity had lined up outside, most disappointedly turned away. Read Gabe Meline's wonderful review of that show online at City Sound Inertia.
Aaron distinguishes between musicianship and playing the drums. "I'm a drummer, not a musician, is what I like to say," he told me, clarifying that, "I always feel like music takes over everything a little too much. And I want to just enjoy it." I asked him, half-jokingly, if it is 400 or 500 bands he has he been in over the years? "About 35 bands I have been in," he replied. "People always think that I want to have short term bands but it's just that they don't all last. It's like relationships or something. They're all a good idea. Some last. Some don't." In addition to playing in bands Aaron has also played roadie, something he found to be less stressful and much more fun. "I toured a lot with my own bands and I also toured as a lot as a roadie for various bands, usually when they were in their formative stages. I did, I think, the first three or four Green Day tours when it was still fun and, I think, I went about a week with them (on tour) a couple of years ago just to visit. I enjoy it. When you play a show and are in the band it is not very much fun because you cant get drunk and you can't dance cause you are trying to make everyone else dance. So as a roadie you get the best of all worlds....and you can enjoy the shows."
Exactly when did Aaron start writing his fanzine? "I started doing Cometbus in late 1981 and have continued it on and off since. I was very young at the time and also a KALX volunteer...It sort of grew from being a fanzine about bands into being a fanzine about the way we live and more about the stories behind the songs and behind the bands and it sort of ran from there and it's changed over the years." In many ways writing became his own self-schooling while simultaneously attending King Junior High and Berkeley High. "I did it [wrote] all the time. And that was my school pretty much." I told Aaron how perhaps the greatest compliment I could give him for his wonderful Cometbus series is that many times my own copies have been stolen or borrowed by friends who never returned them. He has heard similar stories himself. "I get a lot of letters from people who have broken up and they lose the magazines in the break up and they are looking to see if I have back issues," he said. But then he told me of the best compliment of all, as a writer, he has received: "One of the best compliments isn't so much when someone says they like a certain book or a certain story. It's when someone tells the story to you as if it is theirs...they say 'Oh this happened to a friend of mine.' You know it's just entered into their consciousness and they forget that they read it from you."
Cometbus is available at Amoeba and other independent spots. "I try to have in all the independent book stores and record stores and anywhere that will take it really, video shops, toy stores...," he said of the publication that he originally Xeroxed copies of by hand. "But now I just use the printers in Chinatown and that works just as well, if not better." One of the things I appreciate about Cometbus is how it is so reasonably priced, $2 or $3 a pop. Affordable by any standards. "I try to keep it low," he said. He also, apparently, likes to keep it looking like it is very limited. "Obviously I am happy if people are familiar with it but I also want it to look interesting and weird so that people who don't know it might be willing to give it a try...I think it still looks strange enough that people think it is a special thing that they've found one of a few copies of. And that's fine, but sometimes it keeps them from taking it seriously. And I think that a lot of things that come out on major presses or major labels sell very few copies and I think that people don't realize that."
So how many copies of each Cometbus does he publish, say of the Mixed Reviews issue? "I think I did maybe 8,000 copies of that but on the normal issues I do about 10,000. So I'm lucky. It sells well." The DIY philosophy also serves Aaron well. "It turns out that (DIY) is the way that works best," he said. "I think that people think that I am sometimes punishing myself by trying to prove a point: you know that you can do it independently, that you can do it cheaply. But I actually sell many more and make more of a living off of the things I do myself than when I've published with other people."
One of the most common and engaging traits of the Cometbus writing is its tales of alienation and struggling in everyday life situations and the cast of (real life) characters that Aaron has been surrounded by over the years of writing his Cometbus series. I asked him about this overriding theme of gloom and struggle. "I just thought it was important to, I guess to sort of glorify not just the bad parts of your life but sometimes the suffering...some of the things that are difficult at the time, but when you look back at it you are able to enjoy it again, or maybe enjoy it for the first time. Some of them are sort of comical situations or struggling situations. I've lived in some ridiculously lonely crappy small towns and I've lived in some slightly crowded urban environments...and it's all the stories that come from that naturally." For those who have never read any Cometbus issues, I recommend you pick up Aaron's book Double Duce (Last Gasp) which takes you inside the squalid and crazy, broke-as-fuck Berkeley punk household he dwelled in and the cast of entertaining characters he is surrounded by, and which one reviewer described as "like a reality TV show from the lows of Berkeley punk life."
Aaron, who over recent years has been referencing his Jewish roots more and more in his writing, published his most recent Cometbus (issue #51) in September. TItled The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah, he described it as "A sort of history of the subculture of Telegraph Avenue. It started out as an argument between two bookstore owners (Cody's and Moe's) in the late fifties and sort of traces that. It's this sort of local legend that I explored and I was surprised where it took me, you know, led to the roots of a lot of underground culture not just in Berkeley but across the country in terms of records stores, used record stores, used bookstores, underground comics, some kind of metaphysical publishers, poster shops, and just all sorts of things." Many Telegraph Ave. mainstays are included in the book such as Ace Backwards and a poem by Julia Vinograd (aka The Bubble Lady who you will still see at Cafe Med beside Amoeba on Telegraph). And of course, Amoeba Music is also included in the writing of this issue.
Aaron said that he had a lot of fun researching and writing the latest issue, especially as someone who grew up in Berkeley. "It was a fun project to look up, to look for these people and figure out the genesis of everything that you grow up with, that you already know but you kinda take for granted and to find out how accidental and how improbable it all was. When you grow up you think of yourself as an outsider in the city and in society in general and you don't realize that a lot of these people were also outsiders and that they either had a lucky break or completely ridiculous idea or, you know, just faked it. And I think for young people at other times it was easier to take a chance, to have a wild idea, and to pursue it," he said, noting that the research alone for the 96 page book took about four to five months. "The important point is that I didn't know any of the people. Berkeley is a strange place in that I think that the generations don't mix very well. I'd been publishing an underground paper there for 25 years and I had never met anyone who was involved in publishing underground papers in the sixties. And the sixties spread into the early seventies. And I had started publishing in '81. In hindsight it is not a huge difference between the two, so there is just a huge generational divide there mostly because the baby boomers are self-involved and didn't reach out to the younger people except in a maybe patronizing way," said Aaron, quickly adding that, "The process was really rewarding to meet these people and the stories that came out of it."
One thing that distinguishes Cometbus is the HANDWRITTEN ALL BLOCK LETTERS style often adopted by the author. I asked him about this and if he wrote it in one take, as it would appear, in his perfectly legible penmanship? "I often handwrite the issues but sometimes I type it," he replied. "I think that people see the handwriting and they think that there is something instantaneous or spontanous about it but that is the feeling I am trying to give off. But I probably rewrite my things like 500 times. I am not a very spontaneous person actually. I think the more you work over something the more spontaneous it often feels. I don't agree with most people, who think that the first draft is always the best and things are the freshest. I think the more it is smoothed over the more it has a flow."
As for the future of Cometbus and his writing? "Like everything, it's a struggle. Each time you come out with something you have hopes for it and the hopes are dashed. And you always hope for more. And after a couple of years you've forgotten the anguish and you still have the energy so you continue and then you really get the support for the thing you've done [before] when you put out the next one cos they say 'It's not as good as the last one' (laughs). You have to have a sense of humor about it. But I have a lot of support of a lot of people and I am blessed that way. I've been doing it forever and sometimes your hopes are more grandiose than the results. That's part of the deal."
Thorns of Life, Hunx & His Punx, the Revolts, and Off With Their Heads as part of Punk Rock Joel’s Birthday Bash -- at Gilman Street on Saturday (1/31) at 8pm. $7, plus a $2 membership card if you are not already a member. This show already has quite a buzz so get there by at least door time of 7:30PM or preferably a lot earlier to ensure admission. Click here for directions if you need em.
Pick up several Cometbus titles at Amoeba Music (at the Berkeley store they are on the counter, at SF with the books and magazines), including the most recent issue #51, The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah (only $3), Mixed Reviews ($3), and the 608 page, 2002 Last Gasp published Cometbus collection, Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus ($16.95) which includes some "Ask Kent" excerpts.