splendorous american: harvey pekar, 1939-2010

Harvey Pekar was pissed at me. He told me so himself but I'd seen it coming because, as a parting gift, the outgoing editor of the jazz magazine I'd just taken the reins of had repeated to Harvey my criticisms--all legitimate--of his article about Jazz at Lincoln Center, knowing it would raise his substantial ire. I was "one of those Wynton sycophants," he raged, another "spineless suckup" looking for power and missing the real music. Harvey was wrong. I mean, he was right about the real music--Harvey was more often than not right about music; he had great taste and the knowledge to place it in context. But he was wrong about me: I agreed with his point of view, I just had some issues with the way he'd expressed it in print, with his research or lack thereof.

There was no such thing as a short conversation with Harvey. And boy do I miss that today. Not just because there will be no more conversations with Harvey -- in truth, there haven't been for me in a decade, since I left that gig (yet now there's not even the possibility of another one with him)--but also because the world I've now entered, one filled with emails and texts but little in the way of actual human discourse, is a place Harvey predicted, along with a dozen other dour but spot-on prophecies. Harvey's shit could bring you down if you let it, sure, but it was usually accurate.

Harvey was again incorrect a few calls after that first one, when he called me a "garden variety Jew" in a combative tone when I queried his commentary about Sephardic musical themes. (I think he was reviewing something by Joe Maneri, but it could have been John Zorn. Or maybe neither.) When I explained that my grandfather on my mother's side came from Greece, that I'd been Bar Mitzvahed in a Sephardic temple, landing on t's, not s's at the ends of words, he seemed convinced of my legitimacy as a Jew (if not an editor) of some distinction. 

Things went more smoothly after that. 

The intern in the Florida office still had to transcribe into computer files the stuff Harvey would fax from the Cleveland Veterans Administration hospital where he worked as a file clerk. And he'd call, excitedly, always late on a Friday night or early on a Sunday morning, upset that a certain Albert Ayler reissue had not arrived in the mail or troubled by the inadequate wordcount for his pending review. (Years later, when the "American Splendor" film came out, I wondered if I was part of the composite asshole editor implied in a scene wherein Harvey can't find his Ornette Coleman recording, and needed to file; I'd have been honored to be another asshole provoking Harvey's anxiety, so rich and productive was his worry.)

I was working on a shoestring budget then and working too much, smoking too much weed, and trying to see what I could get away with in a jazz magazine till they took the thing away. Once Harvey sensed my mission--to avoid at all costs the same stuff every other jazz magazine was and had been doing--and once I upped his paltry pay, he was a willing accomplice. When I put together an issue devoted to Duke Ellington, I asked Harvey to do a comic strip. He came up with one, illustrated by his longtime collaborator Gary Dumm, about trumpeter Arthur Whetsol titled "Duke's Forgotten Voice." Harvey was like that: He'd hone in on forgotten or neglected voices and give them treatments that were memorable and attentive. Aside from Don Byron's essay on Duke's subversive musical tendencies, was the best thing in that issue.

You know, rethinking, maybe Harvey was right. About me being a garden variety Jew, that is.  I think he might have been too. Harvey was never really one for pretense, you know. And whatever is good enough for Harvey--who made artful suffering out of everyday life and faced genuine suffering with artful heroism and rolled the stuff of everyday conversation into bona fide art--is more than enough for me.

July 13, 2010 3:33 PM |


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