I recently picked up Cometbus #52 (The Spirit of St. Louis) at the Berkeley Amoeba Music store -- one of several fine independent retailers that carry the legendary, decades old, punk-literary series. As with all the previous installments of this Aaron "Cometbus" Elliot- penned slim book, such as last year's Cometbus #51 The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah, ever since I started reading it I can't put it down...which is a problem, in a good way, because I know in no time I will have read the entire engrossing 66 pages of this latest Cometbus. So I find myself rationing my reading, allowing myself just nine pages, which is three Cometbus chapters, a day.
Cometbus #51 was a sort of history of the subculture of Telegraph Avenue, focusing on its bookstores and record stores. It incorporates into its story Cody's, Moe's, Universal, Rasputin, and (of course) Amoeba Music, as well as such age old Telegraph Avenue characters as Ace Backwards and Julia Vinograd (aka The Bubble Lady), whose poetry was included in that last issue.
For the The Spirit of St. Louis Cometbus, as its title implies, Aaron writes about St. Louis and the close-knit cast of colorful characters (including Brett, Pete Feet, Spike, Wayne Two, Penguin, Jody Lee, & Katie from Haiti) in the local punk scene that he interacted with in a previous time -- he never says exactly when, but, based on the music references, it seems like it is circa early/mid nineties.
As always, the author (one of my favorite contemporary American writers) paints beautifully vivid stories centered on flawed but endearing characters that just pull you right in and make you feel like you too are amongst them all and their day-to-day challenges and life adventures. This time out the cast of characters are The Rats, a loose knit young crew who share living quarters (The Rat House), similar tattoos, and (of course) a love of punk music. Here is a sample of some of the fine writing from Cometbus #51 The Spirit of St. Louis:
"Nothing sounds quite so good as failure. A band that ages well, whose members go on to interesting careers as filmmakers and silkscreen artists -- such a thing does not interest me. Yet put on a song sung by someone who went on to be a preacher in Cuba, Missouri; who hung herself in an art gallery; whose moment of hope, as captured in the scratchy grooves of a seven inch, was but fleeting before an avalanche of total doom and failure -- now we're talking! Now that's music! That's punk. Listen to the Smoking Pipes or Violent Femmes, for example, with their terrible hole-in-the-soul wounded passion, before both patched it up with religion. You can hear how it was either god or suicide -- no other choice. To which I must respond with a quote from Code of Honor: 'Better to die than to live a fucking lie.'"
Aaron Cometbus, who for a long time used to publish all of his short story books in perfectly legible handwriting, but now publishes mostly in print, always makes his work seem so effortless for him to churn out. It often seems like he writes these stories in one take. But as he told me in his Amoeblog interview, "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."
Do yourself a favor and pick up the new Cometbus #52 at Amoeba Music or other select indie booksellers and record stores. It's only $3 and more than worth every penny.