Touring the Punk Diaspora

For an astonishing three decades, since he was only thirteen years old, Berkeley native Aaron Cometbus has been publishing the eponymous zine that, more than any other, testifies to the power of low-fi print. With personal touches like his distinctive block-capital hand lettering and bracingly honest assessment of his travels and travails, Cometbus remains a crucial bulwark in the battle against inauthentic living. Reading even a few pages is enough to put the feed-me-now mentality of our technologically oversaturated age in perspective.

Whatever topic he is writing about, Aaron – he prefers to use first names – manages to communicate the sense that it deserves the sort of in-depth scrutiny that computerized social networking impedes. Again and again in his stories, he relates situations in which taking a detour proves the fastest route to illumination. In the latest issue of Cometbus, his fifty-fourth, he provides another classic proof of this paradoxical insight:

For the first time on the trip, I felt the shock and thrill of being in a truly foreign place. Until then, I’d been surrounded by friends or in areas that had seen their share of tourists. Now I had no idea where I was.

Where the parking lot ended, so did the pavement. I passed under the highway we’d come in on, then took the first turn. The dirt road was rutted and flooded in places like those I’d walked on through farmland in the American Midwest.

I felt tipsy. Nothing I like better than walking down an unfamiliar street.

A few bicycles slowly passed, one by one. But where were they coming from?

A long metal pole blocked the road at one point, cutting off access to cars, had there been any cars to stop. The further I got, the more I seemed to be escorted by guys on bikes, as well as a few on foot who appeared out of nowhere, wading out of the thick, lush foliage that grew head-level on both sides.

I was concerned, but not alarmed, until I spotted a huge cluster of ragged people further ahead, gathered in the middle of the road. Just in case, I decided to take a quick right and beat a path through the bush myself. When I stepped out onto a different road, a soldier on a motorcycle nearly creamed me, coming around the corner at top speed. He drove into some sort of military base tucked into the bush, in what appeared to be a burned-out squat.

What to do? Where none of your preconceptions applied, everything was a total mystery. You could compare it to what you were used to, or just throw your hands in the air and accept that you were helpless and didn’t have a clue. You could either enjoy it, or let it scare and worry you.

Aside from the fact that Aaron’s prose here is more polished and better proofread than it was when he was in his twenties and was printed from a computer instead of handwritten – this issue is so long it would have taken ages to produce freehand – this passage could be from one of the peripatetic issues he put out in the early 1990s, when he was restlessly documenting his punk-inflected mode of alternative tourism. His rule of thumb? Make a beeline for those places where a visitor isn’t supposed to go.

What sets this passage apart is not the sensibility that informs it, but the context in which it appears. This latest issue of Cometbus doesn’t chronicle just any journey, but the tour of Asia he was invited to take with the mega-selling rock band Green Day. The reason he is working so hard to get off the beaten track in this passage, regardless of the risks involved, is that he has just stepped out of the stadium where Green Day will soon be performing for thousands of adoring Thai fans. He needs a break from the highly scripted plan to which the band’s large entourage must adhere.

As readers previously unfamiliar with Cometbus learn in this issue, Aaron was very tight with the trio before they made the leap to major-label stardom, serving as their roadie on a number of low budget North American tours. But once they went platinum, his continued investment in independent music and publishing gradually pushed him away from the band. They remained friends, for the most part, but not the sort who still hang out together. To have his expenses paid for the Asia tour then and be given so much opportunity to interact with them is a really big deal.

And Aaron forcefully expresses his gratitude. “The fact that Green Day had invited me to share their world for two weeks was especially generous because they knew we didn’t always see eye to eye,” he notes. “Not only did they invite judgment by bringing me along, they practically insisted on it. Mike said that if I came along on the trip, I had to write about it.”

Write about it he does, at the length of a novella, and with his penetrating gaze directed at the band and himself. His characterizations of Green Day’s members are not always flattering – this is no puff piece – but they are far more convincing than the standard magazine profile. He cares about each member of the trio enough to portray them as they are instead of how they wish to appear.

There have been similarly “naked” depictions of the rock-and-roll lifestyle, of course, including Robert Frank’s notorious and rarely screened documentary of the Rolling Stones on tour, Cocksucker Blues. But this issue of Cometbus has a different feel. If Aaron is exposing Billie, Mike and Tre, he is also exposing himself. Sometimes they come off as excessively detached or trapped in their public personas. Yet their continuing enthusiasm for music and for each other is salutatory, particularly when compared to the overly analytical posture that Aaron has a tendency to assume.

Part of this has to do with their respective class backgrounds. Aaron does a wonderful job of distinguishing between his upbringing, as the son of a professor in one of the world’s most liberal cities, and that of Billie and Mike, lower middle-class kids from one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s forgotten industrial outposts who grew up without privilege. Contrasting them with his friend Al, their first drummer, Aaron puts their decision to “sell out” in the proper perspective:

Al started to burn out just as the rest of the band stepped up. He’d always been a madman, a visionary, and a bit of a missionary, but he’d never had to do it all full-time. He’d kept a very private life to offset his gregarious public front. He’d stir up trouble, then beat a hasty retreat—and always had somewhere to escape.

That was what differentiated him from the rest of the band: he had two lives. He kept a second set of books; he hedged his bets. He was a fiercely uncompromising purist with a savings account and a separate track on the side that he could switch over to when the time was right.

In this, he was in no way unique; most people have a back-up plan or safety net—but not Billie and Mike. Blame Al the idealist for Green Day’s signing to a major label, for he made punk idealism seem like a parlor game for people who have other options, a luxury which Billie and Mike could not afford.

There is a great deal to admire in this issue of Cometbus, from the spot-on character studies to the fascinating asides about daily life in the different stops on tour. But it’s in limning the class conflict in places like Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street club that Aaron performs the greatest service.

Anyone who cares about the fate of alternative culture in our era, in which the use of superficially “leveling” technology hides inequalities, needs to read this issue and ponder its lessons. It makes a compelling case for reordering our priorities. That’s the only way to take maximum advantage of the opportunities that present themselves when the Culture Industry is in a state of perpetual crisis. To insist on purity is both to condemn yourself to irrelevance and to confess your own privilege. The real challenge is to do what Green Day has rather improbably managed to pull off: getting big without forgetting what it was like to feel small.

One of the most memorable scenes in this issue of Cometbus comes towards the tail end of the tour, when Green Day is in Japan. When their crew decides to hold a party in an Osaka bar, the band joins in with reckless abandon. Eventually, Mike takes over in the DJ booth. “I expected Otis Redding or The Who, but the records he chose were all scathing, straightforward punk. I had no idea he actually listened to that kind of stuff.” Witnessing this moment prompts Aaron to reconsider a question that has been worrying him throughout the tour: “Were Green Day punks?” The more he thinks about it, though, the less interested he is in a yes-or-no answer:

In an active sense they weren’t, but in a private sense they were, inasmuch as punk had affected their lives deeply enough to remain an integral part. I remembered how pleased Tre was when he found a Gilman Street sign in Hong Kong and took a photo underneath the sign, though it had been ages since he’d actually gone to Berkeley’s Gilman Street for a gig.

But what surprised me more was how obviously, genuinely moved by the music they still seemed. Mike acted as if the records he played were a natural extension of his own deepest feelings and moods. Tre too; he was so excited that he picked me up from where I stood and lovingly lobbed me halfway across the room. . .

. . . Punks or not, we were all together in the pit, including Mike, who would miraculously emerge from the whirlwind to put on another angry anthem just as the last one came to an end. I’d been dancing every night of the tour, but not like this. It brought me back to my pre-teen days—not at gigs, where I was too shy to enter the fray, but in basements where we killed the lights and put on This is Boston, not L.A..

It was pure bliss, without irony or embarrassment. Being in motion with your friends, crashing and being crushed against them, was one of the purest feelings in the world. It was also one of the hardest to come by as everyone got older, grumpier and less active. I certainly hadn’t expected to find it in Japan with Green Day.

Yet it felt as natural as could be. 80s punk was our native soil, our mother’s milk, regardless of the different directions our lives had taken in the decades since. What we still had in common was greater than our differences, or so it seemed in Osaka as we flew through the air or found ourselves flat on our faces on the floor. We were like landsmen from a country that no longer existed, performing the old rituals and finding that they still made sense and still spoke meaningfully to our needs.

Aaron’s reference to “landsmen” here situates this moving expression of rediscovered solidarity in relation to his own Jewish heritage, implicitly invoking the idea of diaspora to articulate the persistence of punk.

It’s a complex move, transposing a spatial concept into the domain of time so that youth itself becomes that “country that no longer existed.” But there’s no better way of redeeming that era without becoming fixated on all that has been lost along the way. Yes, American punk has metamorphosed into a mainstream consumer option, little different from other ways of customizing the self. Yes, Green Day’s success is a major reason why.

But that doesn’t reduce the band to mere sell-outs. Nor does Aaron’s decision to accept their hospitality mean that he has lost his edge. As this issue of Cometbus brilliantly demonstrates, the impulse to get off the beaten track and the desire to revisit one’s past are not mutually exclusive. No matter how smooth a pathway has been worn, each trip down it has the potential to reveal something new. Just because one’s country has ceased to exist doesn’t mean that it has to be closed to visitors.

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