zine, [zeen] noun. 1. abbr. of fanzine; 2. any amateurly-published periodical. Oxford Reference


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cometbus #51 Recounts History of Moe’s and the Ave

Cometbus #51 Recounts History of Moe's and the Ave.

By Ken Bullock
Thursday October 30, 2008

"Once upon a time in Berkeley, two incredibly stubborn men decided to go into business together." So begins Cometbus #51, The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah, opening like a fractured—or fractious—fairy tale with a title in hipster kabbalah tacked on.

What follows, spinning out for almost 100 pages, is an ambling narrative that proves to be a combined oral history (as related by its raconteurish collector and author) of, and bittersweet love letter to, Telegraph Avenue—at a moment, a very long moment, when hardly anybody else has a good word to say about it, at least in public.

The lens—or should I say perspective?—for this curious piece, at once ambitious and modest, takes as its focal point the break-up of the doomed partnership touted above, between Moe Moskowitz and Bill Cartwright for the founding of Rambam bookstore in 1963, and telescopes out from there, in time and (mostly) down the line of sight of The Ave. between Dwight and Bancroft, showing the evolution of this fabled and decried neighborhood through the generation of newer and often innovative enterprises—bookstores, poster shops, underground comix publishers, used record emporia and pizza "parlors" (more like dens) alike—that descended from the chaotic primal scene, the Big Bang of break-up on Telegraph.

Cometbus goes back to that crucial moment via the reminiscences of its principals, verses 2 and 3 of chapter "Rambam," the Genesis of this Telegraphic screed:

"Morris 'Moe' Moskowitz later de-scribed it as 'one of my briefer, poorer partnerships.'"

Bill Cartwright said, "I'd just as soon not talk about it."

(Somehow, mixing Scriptural and Darwinian similes seems just right—perfectly outlandish, that is—for the tribal procession named and enumerated that trooped in and out of Moe's doors, up and down the sidewalk, through changing times and finally into the prose of Cometbus.)

The successive foundation of Moe's Books (and Cody's), of Shakespeare and Co., the (Re)Print Mint, Shamballah, Lhasa Karnak Herb Co., Black Oak Books, Berrigan and Brown's jazz records (to name a couple of off-Ave. spinoffs), Rasputin's Records, Leopold's, Amoeba, Blondie's Pizza ... and the tag teams of proprietorship, from founder to employee (or the miniature Pandemonia created when rebel angels were expelled and took up their stock-in-trade a few doors or blocks away), is told of with a reasonable alacrity, which touches on (rather than dwells in) acrimony, coming across with a few funny impressions, expressions and obsessive digressions—nothing unusual, as it comes itself from the impressionistic, expressionistic and completely digressive streetlife that is the water these fishes sport in.

Perhaps the biggest obsessive digression is a kind of shaggy dog story in homage to the SLA, a shaggy tale indeed for those who recall that gang's trumped-up start as the subject of surveillence of prisoners in the state pen and the women who wrote to them.

The wryest impression, at least for booksellers and bibliophiles, past and present, is the sanguine description of the various figures of this history, black and white and red all over, like the old Hearst papers, physiognomies rendered either glowingly or gloomily. (One lifelong veteran of the scene intoned, "It makes Fred Cody seem like he was just some capitalist!")

These takes will be argued over well into tomorrow, I'm sure, grist for the mill of Telegraph gossip. But that's where the author went to refine his his own thoughts. If it came out as a course meal, maybe that's what our daily bread is made of.

More apropos to its point of view, sometimes the telling of the tale seems to jump off the tracks and into personal outburst or sour grapes. But the author's trying to speak both for himself and his generation. When one shop proprietor puts him off by snapping that he doesn't care about the past, the previously whimsical folklorist buckles. "Maybe even a refreshing sentiment from someone of a generation so consumed in nostalgia and their own legend ... [with] a future, a stage, real estate. For the rest of us, the only thing we'll ever own—especially on the Ave.—is our stories ... it [has] been a lifetime of dealing with these smug, self-centered hippie entrepreneurs ... I thought, 'There was a reason for punk, and you are it.'"

He goes on: "The bookstores whose story I was trying to tell had never been welcoming when I tried to tell mine—Cody's had refused to even consign Cometbus for the first sixteen years, Shakespeare & Co. the first eighteen, and Moe's the first twenty-five."

Cometbus is named after its eponymous founder Aaron, nee Elliott—or isit the other way around? Drummer, lyricist, "punk anthropolgist," Aaron was born not long after New Year's '68, and started his 'zine at 13. "I publish because I don't know anything else. I grew up with it," he said at 27, and: "As you get older, you realize punk is folklore and oral tradition and myths. I went from that to writing about people's lives, but I still see the zine as a part of a looseknit community."

His genial note to The Planet with a review copy: "Perhaps you'll find it newsworthy ... Thanks—from one local paper to another."

This engaging issue's decorated with stencil art by Caroline Paquita and retails for $3.

The round-about sketch of The Ave's equally elliptical history returns to Moe for the final word:

"I like this street," he said, "Even though it makes me sad."

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