Ever have one of those things happen where you're thinking about someone or something for no apparent reason?
As I was driving home from visiting family last weekend, I thought of one of the stories I'd read by graphical storyteller, Harvey Pekar. The following day when I checked my e-mail, I found a message from a friend telling me that he had just died. I went to Wikipedia to confirm it, and I saw the same words that I'd previously seen above the entries for James Brown and George Carlin: “This is about a person who has recently died”. I learned through other online sources that he was found dead in his home. By his wife. At 1 in the morning. Can you possibly imagine how she and their adopted daughter must have felt on that night? I don't want to.
I've never met Harvey Pekar myself, but I feel like I've known him since the mid-1980's.
Back around '85 or so, I saw an article in the Village Voice which was illustrated with panels by R. Crumb. Me being an R. Crumb fan since high school, I checked them out. It wasn't the usual Crumb fare, no fantastically voluptuous young women, no soft cars and buildings, and the snoids were nowhere to be seen. Instead, it was gritty closeups of equally-gritty looking men engaged in what sounded to me like fairly heavy philosophical dialogue. This wasn't the good-timey R. Crumb that I was used to. It caught me totally unawares and pressed every “does not compute” button in my head. I skimmed the article and caught the name of a co-author, “Harvey Pekar”. I said to myself, “That's a pretty weird name. Harvey...Peck-are?”, and turned the page.
At a comic shop in Ithaca, NY in the mid-1980s, while searching out back issues of Omaha The Cat Dancer, I happened upon an early issue of a comic titled American Splendor. There was that name again, Harvey Pekar (whose last name, by the way, is Slavic for “baker” and is pronounced "pee-kar"). The book contained a monologue by the man himself, illustrated by close personal friend R. Crumb in which he riffs on his name (he hated it when an acquaintance called him “Harvey Pecker”), and the fact that he found two other Harvey Pekars in the Cleveland phone book. “Who is Harvey Pekar?”, concludes our man in the final panel.
Pekar's comic books are like blogs, long before there were blogs. His accounts of life during the 1950's and 60's are a damn sight more real than any of the American Graffiti or Flower-Power romanticism which glut the mainstream media. That's because he isn't trying to sell us nostalgia. All of his work, his comics and his graphical documentaries all come down to what really happened, why it happened and with whom. He was an ordinary guy but he had a talent for making you interested in what went on in an ordinary guy's life. Who else could regale us with a wordless visual play-by-play about eating a tangerine and disposing of the seeds, and make us want to read on?
(Video and links below may be NSFW)
The man who penned that antiwar anthem and who was co-founder of the group that recorded it was beat poet and publisher Tuli Kupferberg. His sense of humor, like that of his contemporary Lenny Bruce tended to focus on things most people didn't talk about in polite company but which everyone could relate to, like not being able to get into a public toilet when you need to – bad (Caca Rocka) or outrageous sexual fantasies (Supergirl, My Bed Is Getting Crowded) and the frustrations of being but a mere peasant here in the land of the free (Defeated). No one else had the brass to set The Ten Commandments to music and give it the loose, slightly deranged treatment that the Fugs did (song credits: Tuli Kupferberg, God). Jackoff Blues has got to be the ultimate breakup song. Nothing is a traditional Yiddish folk song about poverty and monotony, which Kupferberg and his crew bent and twisted into an outrageous put-down tune about everything the Fugs hated, including some countercultural sacred cows like The Village Voice and Folkways Records.
A lot of us considered our parents' generation to be too staid, too conservative to get anywhere near this loose. Thing was, Tuli was a member of our parents' generation! In an age when you supposedly couldn't trust anyone over 30, Tuli was the fortysomething-year-old hippie, saying “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” right along with his younger cohorts.
According to an article by Paul Krassner, this stunningly brilliant man with his joyfully profane wit spent his last days on life-support, in and out of a state of dementia, and in pain. He definitely deserved better.
“...State of the Union/When I go/I don't want you [corporate and government] ghouls/to even know!” - State of the Union from the 1982 album of that same name