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The Long Way Home 

Looking for that Great Bay Area Writer? He's been here for two decades, composing in longhand.

Wednesday, May 29 2002
Everything that's good and bad about West Coast literature is stuffed into the consignment rack of City Lights Bookstore. From hand-stapled zines to perfect-bound poetry collections to puckish comic books, these shelves are teeming with hundreds, if not thousands, of writers who've nobly (or involuntarily) bypassed traditional routes to get their voices heard. It makes sense for City Lights to carry the stuff; the store's a Beat icon, and nothing better exemplifies the Beat spirit than self-publishing.

Alas, for all its good intentions the consignment rack mostly proves that unspoken caveat to the First Amendment: Freedom of speech doesn't mean you have something interesting to say. Many of the volumes on display are filled with ranting, complaining, and (most often) whining, but things brighten up considerably when a new issue of Cometbus arrives. On its face, Cometbus shouldn't be any better than its solipsistic brethren. It's a handwritten, black-and-white fanzine by a Berkeley punk-rock drummer that can be pretty solipsistic itself: Topic A in most issues is its creator, Aaron Cometbus (an unlikely nom de plume, but his real name is a remarkably well-kept secret). In the last 20 years, his zine has evolved from a typical punk rag filled with reviews, interviews, and scene reports into a more meditative, writerly journal of Cometbus' travels across Europe and America, and especially here in the Bay Area. Though the short observational vignette is his hallmark, Cometbus has increasingly used his 80-some pages to zoom in on a particular place (Northern Virginia, say, or an East Bay dive bar), or, more recently, on a particular idea.

Cometbus has long been a must-read for the local punkerati. But parts of recent issues -- especially the latest one, "Back to the Land" -- suggest that Cometbus is bigger than the scene that spawned it. It's not just fine zine writing; it's fine writing, period. Critics, authors, and well-read kaffeeklatschers spend a lot of time arguing over which writer best defines the "soul" of the Bay Area. (Who was our last soul-definer -- Joan Didion? Wallace Stegner? Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Ambrose Bierce?). Few have made the case for themselves as rigorously as Cometbus.

"I heard many people saying the same things," he writes in the introduction to "Back to the Land." "The cities are getting worse. Crime is on the rise. Can't trust anyone anymore. Gotta get some land and make a real life away from all this misery, all this capitalism." For most zines, this would be a cue to launch into an extended broadside, but Cometbus instead begins a serious, Studs Terkel-like investigation of the '60s and '70s "Back to the Land" movement and its legacy. In interviews with people who packed up and moved to rural Northern California, the issue reveals that the recollections of hippies, pot farmers, and their children at once celebrate the freedom of the idea and underscore the downsides of its harsh reality. Rural land was supposedly fresh and pure, but Cometbus wisely asks the difficult question: What made hippie communal life any different from white flight to the suburbs in the '50s?

The difference was motivation: In the case of the "Back to the Land"ers, it was apocalyptic fear. As one subject notes, "You need to remember that in 1968 there were a lot of people who genuinely believed the revolution was imminent, that the whole system was coming down." But the system stayed up, and the dream of starting anew didn't become reality. Neighbors didn't always get along, and kids grew up resenting their hippie parents. As Anderson Valley Advertiser Publisher Bruce Anderson says in one interview, the movement "suburbanized the North Coast and made it, I think, a little worse."

That statement, like many others in "Back to the Land," deftly expresses what you might call the Great Bay Area Irony, which Cometbus often explores: We live in a place obsessed with the idea of community, yet we vehemently pursue individuality. Despite his first-person narrative style, Cometbus is no navel-gazer. He questions what community is, over and over, in different ways -- angrily or jokingly, but always with a sober and informed wit. As a product of the Berkeley punk scene, he looks for his answers, understandably, in the less obvious places. Many of the zine's stories are set among the punks and squatters and commune types hidden around the East Bay, but he does branch out occasionally. "Lanky," an issue released late last year, is stuffed full of odd characters: Iranian copy-shop owners, Cal scholars, bus drivers, Telegraph hippies, and "Xavier X, legendary king of the East Bay punks, two hundred and eighty pounds of solid steel with a toothache and a bad hangover, who has worked security at the local record store since approximately 35 B.C."

Of course, Cometbus can't explain the community-vs.-individuality conundrum -- that question is so big you'd have to spend 20 years writing in longhand even to start asking it correctly. Stylistically, Cometbus leaps all over the place; "Lanky" is described as a novel, but it's more like pastiche, a collection of vignettes that, in a cut-up way, fit together into a gritty love story. One of the zine's strengths is its piling on of everyday folk -- "the clerks and counter jobs and crossing guards, the bus drivers and donut makers and sidewalk vendors" -- and Cometbus' willingness to explore how they interweave and what motivates them. His greatest talent is for close, thoughtful observation. Some of "Lanky"'s best moments are small digressions, like this wry, delicate snapshot of the Powell Street Muni station: "An endlessly repeating pattern of circular tiles, cool and pleasing to the touch. A sixties era Star Trek motif. Not as scary as the future, not as outdated as the past, but something in between. The most sentimental of all things: The future that never came. Because, isn't that what we miss the most?"

It hardly matters that Cometbus has yet to find an answer to his question. What matters is that he keeps asking it, and that he strips his asking clean of the politics, statistics, and rhetoric that define most conversations about community. He's not trying to tell the official story of this area, but rather the deeper human one. Larger truths of this sort can come out of punks -- and often have. "We make most of our things by hand, for the good of the community rather than for fame and fortune," he writes in "Lanky." "We put out cranky little newsletters, just like I.F. Stone."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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