My first reaction when I saw that the latest issue of Cometbus had been subtitled Post-Mortem was, “Wait, who died?”
Having read a pre-publication copy of the text, I had come away feeling nothing like a funeral. Quite the contrary, in fact: it was a rich, thoughtful, and insightful investigation into the cultural landscape in which the author had been both participant and observer for most of his life.
Over that length of time death will naturally be a factor, overtaking institutions as well as individuals, but what I read seemed more a tale of adaptation and survival. Maximum Rocknroll may be gone, along with most of the magazines like it, but Cometbus, which preceded nearly all of them, endures. If that’s not a case of the cream rising to the top, I don’t know what is.
Aaron Cometbus is a legendary but sometimes shadowy figure, even in the underground scene. Many writers and artists don’t deliberately seek out the limelight, but far fewer make a point of actively avoiding it. Photographs of him are rare, especially considering the many luminaries he’s rubbed shoulders with, and even close friends will sometimes get a vague non-answer when they inquire as to what he’s been doing or working on lately.
He’s always preferred to let his work speak for him, and even then he meticulously curates what goes out to the public. This has been the case with not only his magazines and books, but also his music. At least two of his bands, Crimpshrine and Pinhead Gunpowder, had the potential to be far more famous than they were, but in neither case did he allow them to be packaged and marketed in a way that would make that likely to happen.
It’s not – at least as far as I know; it’s always dangerous trying to interpret someone’s intentions – as though he were deliberately trying to stay under the radar. That was often the effect, but I’ve always assumed he was amenable to being more widely recognized – but only if he remained in charge of the terms and conditions.
Aaron started out in a strictly print-and-vinyl world, and has made few concessions to the onward rush of technology. Eventually, years after the fact, he allowed some of his music to be released on CD, but I have no idea if he’s made the leap into the streaming universe – or if, if he hasn’t, if he ever will.
As someone who’s been championing his work for well over 30 years, I used to find this frustrating, but now, like Elvis Costello, I try to be amused. Aaron and I have had some lively discussions (to put it euphemistically) on this topic over the years, even though I’d discovered when he was still in his teens that while he might concede a point, getting him to change his course of action was another matter altogether.
Nowadays, I prefer to talk with him about the many things we agree on. I’d love it if more people – many more people – could be exposed to his work, and I have to assume that someday they will be, but for now he seems determined to value quality over quantity. In other words, if you’re looking for the online edition of Cometbus, let alone Facebook or Twitter accounts alerting you to new Cometbus developments – don’t hold your breath.
Many of my readers will already know Aaron, of course, dating back to the days when you could find his handmade and handwritten zines at punk shows and record shops everywhere, and when you’d often run into the man himself selling newly minted copies out of a ratty backpack. But many more, especially younger ones to whom words printed on paper are either a hipster affectation or a relic from their grandparents’ era, might need an introduction.
Simply put, Aaron is one of the leading voices of his generation. He’s been writing about music and culture and history and everything in between since he was a child, and his work skirts and transcends the boundaries of fiction, nonfiction, journalism, and agitpop (sic). Some, myself included, have glibly compared him to Kerouac (I later amended this to “Kerouac with a good editor”), but unlike the seminal beat, Aaron’s work has grown stronger, tighter, and more direct with the passage of time. Instead of succumbing to the bitterness and cynicism that overtook Kerouac when he should have been in his prime, Aaron goes from strength to strength. The freeform odes to the open road and new horizons (never, it must be said, as rambling, disjointed, and directionless as Kerouac’s amphetamine-fueled discursions) have evolved into gentle and indeed loving explorations of what it means to be a part of – and apart from – a society that is itself constantly in flux.
In this incarnation, he might have more in common with Joan Didion, except that while Didion explored the counterculture as a very observant tourist, Aaron has always been a local. Post-Mortem finds him at the top of his game, exploring his own innate curiosity while creating an invaluable document of the broad spectrum of subcultures, countercultures, and odd little niches that typically get lumped together under the rubric of “punk.”
Before beginning to write, Aaron set out on an investigative journey that took him what must have been close to 10,000 miles around the country, visiting old friends and associates and finding new ones that he barely realized existed. His purpose was to investigate how – or if – the various countercultural institutions he’d grown up with had weathered the years. He referred to it as an “inquest,” which might seem to carry with it a little confirmation bias, but also broadened his inquiry to include enterprises he confesses to having “ignored or dismissed” in the past.
“I wanted to get past the rhetoric and find out what actually worked,” he says, and I nearly cheered aloud when I read that, because it neatly summed up my own views on the matter. It also seemed to build a bridge across one of the few continuing differences of opinion I’ve had with Aaron. As it would turn out, some division remained, but far less than before.
My questioning of the title Post-Mortem hints at but doesn’t fully cover the point I raised (but not too vigorously; it was too nice a day for philosophical debates) during a long walk across Brooklyn. It wasn’t so much whether the counterculture was alive, dead, thriving, or barely hanging on; what I wanted to know was if the concept of a counterculture was even still useful.
“The main failure of the underground, as I saw it, was setting our sights too low,” Aaron writes. But aren’t you, by defining yourself as “underground,” situating yourself in society’s basement right from the start?
However, I don’t want to pursue that line of inquiry beyond simply raising the question. What I do want is for people to read Aaron’s new work, think about it, talk about it, maybe even write to him (yes, pen and paper, that still happens!) to share your views. I wish I could give you a link to where you could read it online, but ha ha, fat chance of that.
So what you’ll need to do is to seek out a copy at your local independent book or record shop, or get in touch with one of the DIY distributors who make sure valuable stuff like this gets out to the public. If you’re not sure what that means, ask a punk. Or, um, you know, try the internet.