Probably the echt
moment for me in all the volumes of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor
comics comes when the eternally bedraggled and grumpy Harvey receives a fresh package of review vinyl from Downbeat
magazine and grumbles about getting yet another Sonny Stitt record. "He always makes the same kinda record . . . Couple blues, couple standards, couple of things based on 'Rhythm' changes."
"For cryin' out loud," says his long-suffering significant other. "A few years ago you wanted to write for them so bad." No matter. Any freelancer will recognize Harvey's eternal dissatisfaction — the once heady dream of publication become routine, a burden, a job. "Those schmucks send me stuff no one else wants t' review because they know I'm so hard up I'll do it." Say it, brother.
It would be nice to think that by the time he died in Cleveland on July 12 at the age of 70, Pekar had found some measure of satisfaction. His comics were widely anthologized and new projects appeared with regularity — a comic-book history of the Beats, a history of SDS, a comic-book adaptation of Studs Terkel's Working, a hardcover comic-book autobiography of his early years, The Quitter. He even wrote a libretto for a jazz opera, Leave Me Alone!, performed at Oberlin College in 2009. There was the award-winning 2003 film American Splendor, based on his comics and which chronicled his struggle with lymphoma. A New York Times BookReview approved comparisons of Pekar to Chekhov.
But for many — and maybe even to himself — Pekar was the ultimate everyman as outsider, chronicling life "From off the Streets of Cleveland," his job as a file clerk in a VA hospital, his record collecting, his arguments with girlfriends and spouses. The titles said almost everything about his slice-of-life autobiographical anecdotes (illustrated by a large cast, including, most famously, his longtime friend R. Crumb): "How I Quit Collecting Records and Put Out a Comic with the Money I Saved," "Awaking to the Terror of the Same Old Day," "Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines," and "A Short Weekend: A Story about the Cosmic and the Ordinary."
Pekar wrote countless short CD reviews and occasional book reviews (including for the BostonHerald and the Phoenix). For the Village Voice and other publications, he produced a series of lovely one-page cartoon bios of some of his jazz heroes, including the Boston microtonal master Joe Maneri, whose music was also featured in the film of American Splendor. And of course, it was typical of Pekar's contrariness that years after grousing about Sonny Stitt, he wrote the liner notes to a three-CD set, Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings 1949-'52, in which he extolled the alto saxophonist's virtues as one of the founders of bebop.
Years before the film made him even more famous, Pekar gained fame for his on-air spats with David Letterman, now YouTube-able. Wild-eyed, he had no patience for Letterman's conventional show-biz queries, and his honesty is like ice water over the head. He doesn't need to do TV, he says in one segment. Letterman: "But you're here because you like me, don't you?" Harvey: "I don't even know you, man!" And then, wearing an "On Strike Against NBC" T-shirt, he tears into the alleged anti-trust violations of Letterman's then-boss, General Electric.