Through A (Broken) Glass, Darkly: Celebrating The American Splendor of Harvey Pekar

Man, what a rough week for Cleveland.

It’s never easy to watch a homegrown talent — a native son who defied odds to become a national treasure — abruptly depart. Even if you figured it was inevitable, it doesn’t make it any easier.

I’m referring, of course, to the death of Harvey Pekar.

I don’t have a great deal to say about this, other than suggesting you see the fantastic movie based on his life/life’s work entitled American Splendor.

The title of the film was also the title of his long-running comic book. And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor… that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

Perhaps most importantly, the man knew his music. He liked jazz, which says a lot about him and a great deal more about the peers he could scarcely tolerate. If he did nothing else (and of course he did plenty) Pekar warrants our eternal praise for his efforts to get Joe Maneri the recognition he deserved. When Maneri passed away last summer, this is what I had to say (about him and Pekar):

Anyone who has seen the excellent American Splendor has heard Maneri: his impossibly cool “Paniots Nine” accompanies the opening credits. Pekar allegedly insisted that Maneri’s music be used, and this stands to reason as Pekar (himself a jazz critic) championed a largely obscure Maneri back in the ’90s. Indeed, it was John Zorn who helped release Paniots Nine (the title of the first track is also the title of the album), which makes all the sense in the world considering Zorn effectively took up Maneri’s baton in the ’80s and began cleverly integrating traditional Jewish music into his own compositions. It’s fair to say that Maneri, though lamentably overlooked for entirely too long, was the first major composer to actively bring those disparate elements and influences into free (but still swinging) jazz.

Anyone interested in some adventurous, unexpected, yet oddly familiar jazz would be happy to hear this album. The fact that this baby was languishing in the Atlantic Records’ vaults is both unbelievable and entirely typical. Of course this rapturuous music would fall on the deaf ears of the dumb executives. Same as it ever was. Suffice it to say, jazz enthusiasts are forever indebted to Harvey Pekar for helping this see the light of day.

The other thing that we can (and should) remember Pekar for is his interesting relationship with David Letterman. The movie does an excellent job of succinctly conveying the love/hate dynamic that undoubtedly benefitted both men. But looking at the actual footage (there is plenty on YouTube; I was old enough, then, to recall seeing some of these confrontations as they aired in all their awkward glory toward the end of the ’80s), there is something more there. It is at once infuriating and, ultimately, invigorating. I’ll attempt to explain.

Does anyone remember, back in the day, when David Letterman used to be funny? When he used to be edgy? When he used to be watchable? I do, which made his languid (but very profitable) descent into prickly bitterness that much more unfortunate. By the time he jumped shark, I mean ship, and went from NBC to CBS, he was already well on the way to irrelevance (his somewhat hysterical scorched earth reaction to the Jay Leno/Johnny Carson debacle has always made him look more than a little like an entitled brat having an extended (and very profitable) temper tantrum; and this in no way is meant to defend Jay “Company Man” Leno, who is about as clownish as they come). But even in the ’80s Letterman was too smarmy for his own good, and his envelope-throwing humor was always cut with a palpable disgruntlement: watching him for too long became like being trapped in a room with a taciturn older guy kvetching about his chronic reflux. But more than that, he was a bit of a bully, even then. And during his mano a mano encounters with Pekar, it became increasingly clear that Letterman saw more than a little of himself –the nerd, the kid who never got picked first, the itchy dude always uncomfortable in his own skin– in the man sitting next to him. And his own insecurities and obsession with control compelled him to poke fun at Pekar and act the way bullies act: glad that there is someone smaller or less successful than them, grateful that they couldn’t be called out by the weakling. To his credit, Pekar did call him out (as well as GE, the entity that owned Letterman, I mean NBC) and after a few too many uncomfortable comments, he was not invited back. In the movie when Pekar’s wife, who has a propensity for one-word psychological assessments, blithely decrees Letterman a megalomaniac, it is a perfect moment, and accurate appraisal.

Why linger so long on Letterman while ostensibly celebrating the life of Harvey Pekar? For me, the odd interactions with Letterman manage to represent the truth of what Pekar scribbled about on pieces of scrap paper. With Robert Crumb’s divine (artistic) intervention, his efforts captured the disaffection of the underdog and gave words to the shmucks destined to be forgotten. To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the cautious streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.