Under the Influence: The Story of My Life, Cont’d

SM 7-15

Q: What did Holden Caulfield do when he grew up?

A: He got a job.

That is the elevator pitch of my novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, reduced to two lines, a simple question and answer.

(Here is an excerpt that expands on the narrator Byron’s dilemma:

Something was wrong with me. I applied to the appropriate colleges and one of them accepted me. I applied to the appropriate graduate schools and one of them accepted me. I decided not to apply to any PhD programs (it didn’t seem appropriate) and so none of them accepted me. The unreal world of academia beckoned; the unreasonable world of reality awaited. Neither seemed particularly appealing and I found myself paralyzed: options aplenty, none of them especially enticing. And so I decided it was time to go underground for a while. I found myself serving the people who had the sorts of jobs I regarded with the ugly envy of the underclass. I made less money than I might have liked but I got more free drinks than I could ever have imagined. One way to see the glass being half-full is to ensure that it is always half-full. While I worked on emptying those glasses I came to the conclusion that money is wasted on the wealthy and retirement is wasted on the elderly.

Something was wrong with me. I drank myself sober and couldn’t commit myself to more serious indiscretions. I did the unthinkable: I started thinking about that unreasonable world again. I found myself skulking around the library, picking up magazines and thinking about that itch I could never quite scratch. I read an article about this world wide web. How ridiculous it all seemed. So this is what people do during the day? A million possible futures unfurled in unreal time, right in front of my not so open mind, none of them remotely appealing. There it was, I thought: it’s already over; I’m out of options. And then a funny thing happened. I got a job.)

Of course, I’m taking some presumptive liberties and the question would not be possible without the heavy lifting J.D. Salinger did to create Holden Caulfield in the first place.

My novel does not mention The Catcher in the Rye, does not in any conscious way imitate it and the invocation of Caulfield is only a conceit.

citr

 

In fact, and for full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on Salinger’s novel (inspired to do so shortly after his death, in 2010). I concluded that I was perhaps a tad too old or insufficiently impressionable when I first encountered it, though I did –and do– love the short story “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”. Here’s a taste:

The narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. It is, for me, difficult to recall a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

Q_ What did Holden Caulfield do when he

Speaking of becoming part of the so-called real world, one of the reasons the instant classic film Office Space is so beloved is because it’s so real; it resonates with just about anyone who has spent a single day in the unreal world of corporate America. More, it retains a nostalgic vibe for its irreverent and accurate deconstruction of the dot.com error, I mean era.

To be certain, Office Space, and any work of art that attempts to take the piss out of our increasingly mechanized, complicated and incomprehensible modern world, owes a tremendous debt to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s sardonic assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of military muscle is at once accurate, but selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is also distressingly relevant, well into the 21st Century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups would divide the spoils and conquer their 401-ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s not the commanding officers, but the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who epitomizes what our country has become, and who has engineered the shift. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via stocks and shares and seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Suffice it to say, Catch-22 has informed my sensibility as a writer (and thinker) and has more than slightly inspired some of my writing. The corporate shenanigans in Not To Mention a Nice Life owe a debt of respect and gratitude to Mr. Heller.

And I think all of us, dot.com veterans or not, owe some measure of approbation to the iconic Steve Jobs, one of the few citizens who we can actually claim changed the entire world.

Certainly, the dot.com era and the online reality of the Internet would be very different (if it happened at all) without his input and influence. Here is some of what I said on the occasion of his passing in 2011:

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence. As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, counter-cultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him.

HarveyPekar

It’s easy enough to admire (and envy) the abilities and lifestyles of the great artists, especially the ones talented (and/or fortunate) enough to actually make a living out of making art.

For me, I take a special inspiration (and kinship and solidarity) from the folks who never had it easy, who struggled to make art and/or a living. The ones who plugged away, with little assurance of pay-off, artistically or otherwise. They did it, ultimately, for the same reasons anyone tilts at the creative windmills: they don’t really have a choice. As such, Harvey Pekar remains someone that anyone with artistic aspirations can appreciate. In the excellent film about his life, American Splendor, he wakes up from a nightmare, and then remembers he still has his job. He actually stops to appreciate that he can pay his bills and understands how much worse things could be. In that one scene he provides proper perspective for all the naval-gazing narcissists who feel the world owes them a living, and lament that the world is so full of imbeciles who can’t appreciate their genius.

Here’s some of what I wrote in tribute to Pekar, when he passed, in 2010:

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).

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 soul-crushing 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.

PTa

Finally, I pay tribute to the force in my life that rivals the solace and inspiration I take from books and friends and family: music.

I could say more (and likely will), but I put my love affair in writing for my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (2013). While the book describes my relationship with my mother, whom we lost to cancer just after her 59th birthday, the memoir is also the story of my life, and the things that have helped motivate, galvanize and shape me. The chapter is entitled “Bright Moments”, and an excerpt is below (the inspiration for that title is written about in detail, here.):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music.

I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

To be continued, of course.

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2010: Time To Die (Part Two: July-December)

2010: In pace requiescat!

This one hurt. The spectacular career of Bob Probert had already ended; his life ended entirely too soon (at the absurdly young age of 45), on July 5 while smoke from the previous day’s fireworks still hung in the air.

Quick tally: #24, over 3,000 penalty minutes. Member, along with Joe Kocur, of the legendary “Bruise Brothers” tandem back in the days when the Detroit Red Wings were more feared for what they could do after the whistle stopped play. Participant in a handful of the all-time classic fights in hockey history. Man who inspired t-shirts that read “Give Blood. Fight Probert.” Simply put, if one were to try and create the ideal enforcer (especially for an era that may not have been the toughest or most iconic era but was one of the most enjoyable), one could hardly imagine a more suitable cartoon character than Bob Probert.

As The Kinks once sang, Let’s All Drink To The Death Of A Clown.

And lest anyone think I’m using the word clown carelessly or disrespectfully, it is in fact chosen with the aim of being both accurate and approbatory. (A Probie-tory, if you like.)

Think about what a clown does: he is the minor but essential character who shows up at a circus with the objective of instigating misconduct. Above all, his purpose is to entertain with a mixture of mischief and cheer. A superficial assessment might conclude that a clown is simply doing, in make-up, what any drunk idiot might do. But of course whether it is juggling, dancing or doing tricks, not just anyone could be (or would want to be) a clown. It’s a job.

Think about what a hockey enforcer (what we used to call a goon just like we used to call escorts hookers or stockbrokers sociopaths) does: he is the minor but essential figure who shows up in an arena with the object of instigating misconduct (hopefully without receiving a game misconduct). Above all, his purpose is to settle scores and entertain a crowd while uplifting his teammates. A superficial assessment might conclude that an enforcer is simply doing, in a colorful costume, what any drunk idiot might do. But needless to say, trading bare-fisted blows (sober or especially drunk) in a bar is considerably different than standing on skates and going toe to toe with an opponent who is well-prepared (and in some cases, well-paid) to kick your ass in front of thousands of people. Many people without athletic ability are very capable goons; only an extremely select group of individuals are able (much less willing) to abide by “The Code”. It’s a job.

A much longer appraisal of his life, and the odd algebra of hockey enforcement here.

The best hockey fight of all time (please appreciate the affectionate head-butt and head-pats at the end):

 

 

The dog daze of summer got a bit more unbearable with the passing of Harvey Pekar. I gave him as loving and thorough an appreciation as I could, and his loss can be summed up with the understanding that we won’t get many, if any, like him down here anytime soon.

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).

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 soul-crushing 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.

In October we lost Barbara Billingsley. This was a rite of passage, however symbolic, for many people who remember black and white TV (and I don’t mean knowing about it, I mean watching it).

I don’t know about calling her “America’s mom”, as I’m sure many obituaries will claim, but she was inarguably the “sitcom mom”.

It’s funny. My peers and I (born in or around 1970) were, obviously, not around in the ’50s, but that earlier era loomed large in our lives. Let me explain: the people who raised us did live in that time, and they were invariably informed by the mores and cultural imperatives of that era. As such, many of our parents were either inculcating or reacting against the buttoned-down (repressed?), black-and-white (i.e., white) reality shows like Leave It To Beaver portrayed. Hence the hippie sensibility that at least had a fighting chance for a few years before the door slammed shut in the back-to-the-future adventure of the Reagan years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Many of us watched syndicated repeats of shows like Leave It To Beaver at an age when the TV functioned as a stop-gap between swim practice and spending the majority of the day at the pool, or in between morning chores (remember those?). It was all about the escapades that Beaver and Wally got into, and Ward and June were, well, not older so much as ageless. Ward was kind of like God (a very white God): firm, upright, not one to be fucked with. But He brought you into this world and he always had your best interests in mind, even when you screwed up. Billingsley was, to the average eight year old (I’d imagine, unless I’m alone here), less a woman than a matron; equal parts perfect casting and appearance. She was kind of like Jesus (or Mary?): she helped hold down the fort and there was never any dissension in the Cleaver crib. But she was the (ahem) kinder, gentler hand, the one whose shoulder you could cry on and the one who would buck you up even if you let her down. That, after all, is what mothers are for. (The adult looking back on clips from that show can’t help but notice Barbs was a fine-looking woman indeed. One imagines that outside of the kitchen, once the boys were tucked in and a few very dry Martinis later, with Ward nodding off in his recliner after another heroin fix, our all-American mom was ready to party; let’s hope for all of our sakes this was the case. Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which, I guess, is one way of trying to articulate the obvious: if America needed a manufactured (but, according to colleagues, family and friends, more than half-genuine) mother figure to enshrine in sit-com heaven, we all could have gotten much worse than Barbara Billingsley.

A little over a week later we lost the great Gregory Isaacs, AKA “The Cool Ruler”.

A fond adieu to one of reggae music’s silken voices. Certainly not as known or celebrated as many of his peers, Isaacs has always been a reggae-lover’s reggae icon. Those in the know appreciate his understated charms and subtle mastery. Of the many artists we can –and should– say this about: Isaacs was meant to sing and make music, and we should be grateful to the forces of the universe (however fickle they might be, and however many other angelic voices they’ve not deemed fit to anoint) that the Cool Ruler was able to find his way onto record, and into our hearts.

The hockey world lost one of its heroes in November when cancer finally got the best of Pat Burns.

You have to hand it to Cancer. It does not discriminate: all it requires is a living body to inhabit and attack. That’s it. Certainly, if you are impoverished or unable to acquire adequate medical care, this disease will make quicker work of you. But even the wealthy, well-connected and powerful are ultimately susceptible to the Big C.

This week the universally despised and dreaded ailment claimed another influential life. And it proved that no matter how tough you are, it likes its chances if it can remain undetected long enough to get a head start. If there is any human whose prospects I’d wager on in a mano a chemo battle, it would be Pat Burns. (Decent overviews of his career and achievements here and here and especially here.)

This excerpt pretty much sums it up:

“As for my career,” he said at the arena ceremony, “I always said to my kids, ‘You don’t cry because it’s over, you’re happy because it happened.’ That’s the main thing. I’m very happy that it happened.”

A few weeks later, Mr. Burns said he could not imagine himself being anything other than a cop and a coach.

“No, that’s all I was,” he said.

November turned out to be a rough month indeed when we lost the inimitable Leslie Nielsen.

Anyone who can remember the era when Beta briefly held sway over VHS will surely remember seeing Nielsen in Airplane! (Don’t call me Shirley). Impossible as it might be to believe, nobody from this generation had any idea who he was, which only made him funnier. As in: who is that old guy and holy shit, he’s hilarious! And he was. I’m sure you’ve already read more than a few career retrospective/obituaries that detail his long, patient struggle to make a mark –meaningful or otherwise– in Hollywood. (If you haven’t, they won’t be hard to find). It was, clearly, as unexpected for him as it was for audiences all around America when he ended up stealing the show in that low-budget 1980 movie.

(It is both ironic and a tad eerie to see Nielsen pass a little more than a month after the other enduring scene-stealer from Airplane!, Barbara Billingsley. In fact, that movie was a vehicle to give America’s mom one last moment that lasted forever, while for Nielsen it served as the springboard that launched his most unlikely late-career ascent to superstardom.)

And aside from Airplane he’ll be best remembered for his almost too-perfect-to-be-possible role as the bumbling Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun series. (Nobody begrudged Nielsen milking that particular cow long after the udder ran dry, because the brilliance of the first film made up for the increasingly lame follow-ups).

For an extended appreciation of my favorite Nielsen work (hint: it’s not in Airplane! or The Naked Gun) check it out here.

December 7, 2010 had the dubious distinction of being the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I’ve written quite a bit about it, and him, in recent years, and you can find them here, here, herehere, here, here and here.

Some samples are below:

It was thirty years ago today…

John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).

Lennon, despite the perfectly legitimate and understandable lionizing he was subject to during –and especially after– his life, was, arguably, the most human Beatle. Ringo and Harrison were more down to earth (partly because their abilities, frankly speaking, kept them more firmly grounded), and McCartney has always seemed a genuinely friendly fella (his long and by all accounts happy relationship with wife Linda until her death speaks eloquently of the superficial Sun-King entitlements he was able to avoid or eschew, to his considerable credit). But Lennon, ever inscrutable, bigger than life –and Jesus–(he said, he said) and impossible to pigeon-hole, must be, in the final analysis, the most easy to understand, on human and artistic levels.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, (not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

As anyone who reads this blog well understands by now, The Beatles are, for me, like the mafia was to Michael Corleone; every time I think I’ve said all I can (should) say, they pull me back in. And if I’m going to be pulled back, I’d better Get Back.

Finally (I hope, as we still have a few days left in 2010), just before Christmas the cruelest blow of all: Don Van Vliet thumbed his nose at the planet, cosmically speaking.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

In the end, Van Vliet’s obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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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 (a film celebrating the life of curmudgeonly comic book artist Harvey Pekar) 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 don’t get me wrong: Jay “Company Man” Leno 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? Well, between the movie and the dozens of other respectful obits, the Wikipedia overview of his achievements will be amply documented. 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 soul-crushing 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.

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August Left Our World A Poorer Place x2

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You don’t have to be a jazz fan to appreciate that picture. But it helps.

Most people have never heard of Joe Maneri, so not too many folks are mourning the August 24 passing of this great musician. In addition to being a beloved teacher and father of jazz violinist Mat Maneri, he is rightly considered a pioneering figure in music. His inclusion of Turkish and Klezmer music into a more free jazz (think Ornette Coleman playing with one of Sun Ra’s bands covering traditional European music at a Greek orthodox wedding and you begin to get the picture) helped liberate and expand the possibilities of jazz improvisation. Like Coleman and Sun Ra, Maneri was an astute and original composer: his work is not immediately accessible, but patient ears quickly identify a very consistent logic and style.

Anyone who has seen the excellent American Splendor (a film celebrating the life of curmudgeonly comic book artist Harvey Pekar) 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.

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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 revelatory 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.

Father and son, together on stage making a joyful noise:

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If asked who kept time for John Coltrane, most folks would go with Elvin Jones, as Jones was part of the “Classic Quartet” for the better part of the ’60s. But once Coltrane began moving further and further out, the great McCoy Tyner was replaced by Alice McLeod (later Alice Coltrane) and Jones was replaced by Rashied Ali (who passed on August 12). Although he was a serious and prolific musician in his own rite, he is most famously associated with Coltrane, particularly his work on what turned out to be Trane’s last sessions, (the ones that subsequently resulted in Interstellar Space and Expression). Much has been written about the former, not so much about the latter. Interstellar Space is in many ways all things to all people: it is simply a series of duets between Coltrane and Ali, but there is nothing simple about it. It is forbidding, volcanic, disorienting, gorgeous and exhausting. Simpletons would say it can scarcely be considered music; true believers insist it’s revelatory. For me it’s certainly sacred stuff, but an experience sufficiently intense that I only crave it on special occasions. Regardless, it was, and remains, remarkable–in concept but especially in execution–that Ali was willing (and able) to work without a net and go mano a mano with Coltrane, then at his most excoriating. It is a unique document for this fact alone; that it manages to succeed helps underscore the devotion fans have attached to it over the years.

And while I can only handle Interstellar Space in irregular doses, I continue to be mesmerized by Expression. This one features a full band, including Alice Coltrane (piano), the great Jimmy Garrison (part of the Classic Quartet) on bass, and Ali on drums. For the album’s centerpiece, the sixteen-plus minute opus “To Be”, Coltrane makes an especially inspired choice by bringing in Pharoah Sanders: the result is a duo of sorts (Coltrane for the first and only time playing flute for an entire song on record and Sanders accompanying him on piccolo). Garrison and Alice Coltrane provide an anchor for the woodwinds, which circle and flutter like moths above a streetlight. But in many ways, Rashied Ali is the focal point of the proceedings; he is never busy but always present, expertly managing to remain quietly intense in the background. This is percussion as painting: each brush stroke adding up to something bigger and more meaningful. It is a near perfect symmetry of cerebral instinct and graceful dexterity, and it is the type of sensitive yet forceful accompaniment that made Ali a legend. He is already missed.

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