Monday, July 12, 2010

Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff

Harvey Pekar (1939 - 2010)

I don't normally mourn the loss of celebrities. Some deaths affect me more than others, but usually I feel so detached from people who have garnered a certain amount of fame, that I am only momentarily saddened. This sadness undoubtedly returns when I reintroduce myself to part of that person's body of work. I cannot listen to Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay" without feeling a deep ache. His cover of Big Star's "Thirteen" sends prickly chills up my arms, especially now that we've lost Alex Chilton as well. But I never knew Chilton. I never knew Smith. They were brilliant artists, but they existed in another world. To reach them, I have to put on a record. I have to be transported. When J.D. Salinger died, I was upset at the loss of one of my greatest creative influences. But where was he? Hadn't he always been missing? When Michael Jackson died, we all listened to his greatest hits, acknowledging that we had already lost the man who made those records years ago.

Harvey Pekar was not a celebrity. He shunned the term. Scoffed and snorted at it with that trademark jeer. The man wrote comics about nothing, which we found out was actually everything, the only thing. After alternative and underground comics rose to popularity, he built up a cult following. Eventually enough people thought his life and work were important enough to be committed to celluloid. I had the pleasure of acting in this spectacular film, American Splendor, as a featured extra. Harvey himself was never on set the days I was called in, though I did share a sweet moment under an umbrella with Paul Giamatti, a moment that I would have never experienced if not for Harvey Pekar himself.

After the movie got released and won some high acclaim, we saw pictures of Harvey on the red carpet. Pictures, which I think we can all agree, looked pretty odd. He might have earned some fame, but he was still that hard-working son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, tied to his rustbelt roots and uncompromisingly honest, caustic at times. Unwilling to give in to the glamor of Hollywood. Completely uninterested in its fakeness. More content to hang out at Mac's Backs and sign copies of his work for all the eager local kids who wanted to meet the elder voice of their city.

He lived in my city, my hometown, the heart of my existence, his whole life. I never once needed to be transported to gain entry into his world. We inhabited the same sphere. We beat the same sidewalks in Coventry and around Cleveland Heights. How cool that he never left Cleveland, even after Letterman, even after Sundance. And yet, knowing Harvey, how unsurprising.

Re-reading Pekar's American Splendor series, I am stricken with how relevant his portrait of my hometown continues to be. We are still a hard-working people. Since the first issues in the mid 70s, our city has undergone quite a facelift. But those old ethnic neighborhoods are still there. The empty docks in the flats, the abandoned buildings on the outskirts of the city--decaying remnants of old industry days. We have a lot of Harveys around here. People who carry the troubles of the city and the world. People who carry their families, who keep scratching by. People who love Cleveland but feel put upon when they meet someone who can't imagine why.

I'm not a working class, blue-collar woman. The parts of Harvey's work I most identify with are the seemingly insignificant minutiae of everyday life. Tales of the neurotic and the obsessive. Getting frustrated in a long check-out line at the grocery store. Trudging through the monotony of a nine to five workday. Freaking out over a rare LP in a beat-up box at a garage sale. Calling attention to these little details validates the existence of all of the world's non-celebrities. We, the unheard masses who trudge through life searching for things to smile about. Just simple stuff. Beer, books, records, a pretty girl or boy noticing us. Harvey noticed us, and he put us in his comics. He treated us with care and respect.

A few years ago I wrote a song called "American Splendor" about Harvey Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner. I really think it's one of the best songs I've ever written. I still feel personally affected by it when I perform it live. I always meant to send that song to Harvey but I kept thinking of reasons not to. Like, he wouldn't appreciate the attention. Or he'd be embarrassed. Or he'd think my interpretation of his work was off-base, or tell me to get a life. In other words, the reason I never sent Harvey Pekar the song I wrote about him was because I had a bit of a Harvey Pekar complex. But I hope he heard it somehow while he was still with us. And if he didn't, I'm playing it tonight in his memory, on the front porch of my house on a street in Cleveland. I miss you, Harvey. You never left Cleveland and you never will. The city loves you, and I love you. Thank you for everything.