As friends of Harvey Pekar and his wife and frequent writing partner Joyce Brabner, my wife and I have been gratified to see the attention Harvey’s death has received in the printed press and all over the web. But in addition to being gratified, we’ve been surprised. The attention is deserved. But she and I agree that Harvey would have been stunned by the amount of it. Make no mistake, Harvey was no shrinking violet; he wasn’t one of those writers who was “only about the work,” to the exclusion of caring how his work was received and by how many. He derived pleasure from the attention his work brought him; he thrived on the crowds that showed up for his lectures, readings and book signings; he enjoyed that the movie American Splendor opened up new audiences to him. But I don’t think he dreamt that as many people cared about him as actually did, or that his impact on the culture was as large as the sheer number of obituaries and other commentaries about his passing testify to.
When Harvey appeared on David Letterman’s show several times twenty-some years ago, he and Joyce would ask us to call them in their New York hotel room that night to give them the view from out there in televisionland. I confess that on the night he confronted Letterman with the war-making sins of General Electric (parent of NBC, Letterman’s network at the time), I cringed. I knew he had burned his bridges, and that most of the viewing audience along with the studio audience and Letterman had turned on him. I suppose I said something fairly anodyne to him that night, along the lines of “wow, that was gutsy,” but I thought Harvey hadn’t been wise. Now, watching the video of that appearance on YouTube in the light of Harvey’s passing, I see it differently. I see it as an amazing act of courage. The fact that that sort of thing still doesn’t happen on television only makes it more heroic in retrospect. It stands out as a singular moment of bravery in broadcast history.
The New York Times has a good obituary on Harvey. It’s sort of ironic, because he was always trying to get pieces into that paper. He succeeded once or twice, but I remember lots of conversations with him telling me how they were jerking him around, delaying publication on something of his or canceling it altogether, not paying him on time, not returning his phone calls, etc. I don’t think he would find any particular revenge-gratification in how they’re honoring him now, I think he would simply be pleased. “Hey man, The New York Times. Not bad, huh?,” I can hear him say. He knew he was somewhat famous, he knew he had fans, but I don’t think he knew just how much he meant to people and to the culture. I would like to believe that wherever he is, he knows it now.
When comic book writer Harvey Pekar stayed with us for a few days over the summer, we listened to some CDs together, and I decided to lay on him some of my favorite discs by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. This was a risk. Steve and Eydie are widely understood (by those who misunderstand them) to be far from hip, while Harvey’s hipster credentials are impeccable — DownBeat record reviewer in the 1960s, advocate for jazz’s avant-garde in numerous articles and reviews, author of a libretto for a jazz avant-garde opera (Leave Me Alone, premiered at Oberlin College earlier this year) the subject of which was the avant-garde itself. So I was delighted to discover that Harvey is an Eydie Gorme fan, with an appreciation for Lawrence as well.
“She’s got great time, man…Her breath control is really amazing…I’ve always liked her.” I’m paraphrasing a bit, because it’s been about four months since our listening session, but that was the gist of it.
This gratified me immensely. It’s hard to make a case that someone as well-known as Eydie Gorme can be called underrated — it makes no sense, on the face of it — but I think the word applies, because, famous and successful as she is, her name seldom comes up when people make their lists of the great female singers of the American Songbook. Other deserving names always come up: Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand. Never Eydie Gorme. But listen to the body of work which Eydie recorded alone or with Lawrence in the fifties through seventies, and you hear a singer of astonishing gifts. Her intonation, range and control are second to none. She swings. She has humor. Her interpretations can be warm-and-gentle, or broad-and-brassy. (She’s more often remembered for the latter style, since she made something of a shtick of it in the sixties, but there’s plenty of recorded evidence of her lovelier and more restrained singing as well as singing from her that is pure, exhilarating excitement.)
To some extent Steve and Eydie brought their undervalued status upon themselves, by making self-parody and self-deprecation (and deprecation of each other) a part of their act — they actually seem to relish their Vegassy reputation, which does them a partial disservice — but their recorded legacy on ABC-Paramount, United Artists, Columbia and RCA in the fifties, sixties and seventies stands as testament to their true artistic contribution to classic pop. Their singing in those years, together and apart, with the arrangements of giants like Don Costa, Marion Evans and Pat Williams, was simply superb. If Ella and Peggy were jazz, and Sinatra was jazz-pop, Steve and Eydie are pop inflected by jazz with several teaspoons of musical-comedy theatricality thrown in. Which makes their recipe uniquely treasurable. I do feel slightly defensive about my appreciation of them sometimes, because it’s not the most popular opinion or the conventional wisdom even among fanciers of The Great American Songbook — so discovering that I have company in Harvey Pekar made me feel pretty good. I always knew they were hip.
The newest issue of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is out, and at fine comic book stores everywhere. And guess what? I and my wife Angie are in it.
Harvey and his wife Joyce Brabner have been friends of ours for about twenty years now. A couple of years ago they were in Chicago again, staying with us, and Harvey writes about this trip in a story called “Chicago Visit,” illustrated by Hilary Barta.
Here are a few frames from the story. We entertained Harvey and Joyce at home, took them to some of our favorite haunts (including our friend John’s hair salon Urban Lift, where Harvey got a haircut, and to our favorite deli, The Bagel, so that they could meet our favorite waitress, Brenda), and went with them to the venues in which Harvey was appearing. We really enjoyed the days we spent together, and it was gratifying to read in the story how much they enjoyed it, too.