Harvey Pekar In A Time Before Google

Aug 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar, Not Long
After We Met

Comic Book innovator Harvey Pekar died last month at the age of 70. I met Harvey a long time ago when I was a young musician and on-and-off student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. This was well before his comic book series American Splendor, or his appearances on David Letterman, or the HBO movie with actor Paul Giamatti as Harvey. I didn’t hear about his death until about a week after it happened. But eerily, I had been thinking about him on the day he died: my blog post that day – On Facebook, Nobody Knows You’re A Dick – reminded me of a very funny riff Harvey did in the movie about other people named Harvey Pekar listed in the Cleveland phonebook.
(It’s PEE-kar, BTW – and American Splendor is a cute movie, watch it.)

But still I couldn’t figure out what I could possibly add to the existing obituaries that would make any sense here on Readable Web. Then I got to remembering…

A Jazz Maven First

A Frame From His 2003 NY Times Op-Ed Piece

I only met him once and briefly. But well before that, I heard about him from mutual friends and fellow musicians. Harvey said this, Harvey said that – voiced with a combination of reverence and awe. Harvey was a legend in the Cleveland jazz scene. A local whose articles and reviews had been published in Downbeat and Jazz Review! His knowledge of jazz was encyclopedic. An entire room was set aside for his record collection. Harvey was The Jazz Maven, The Expert. And in the days before the web, before mobile phones, before damned near everything or so it feels like when I think back to that time – the maven was invaluable: a human search engine. If you wanted info on the best recordings by a particular jazz artist, or you wanted to know the names of the sidemen on a particular record because the record jacket didn’t say – you could get answers or at least clues from Harvey Pekar.

By the time I met him, he was in his mid thirties and had stopped writing about jazz. He was writing about politics – or so I heard. He was still acquiring jazz recordings, though – out of habit. Years later, I read an article about American Splendor and, at first, wondered if it was the same Harvey Pekar I met in Cleveland. Frankly, I thought the idea of an autobiographical comic book was weird. And after all, I had an unremarkable existence of my own to keep me entertained, thanks, and that was enough. But American Splendor slowly gathered a cult following. It caught on. It led to appearances on Letterman and Harvey became a minor celebrity. It’s a pretty unique individual who can turn being a nobody into a basis for fame. In retrospect, American Splendor foreshadowed the personal blog and reality TV.

But being a jazz maven/search engine was Harvey’s start. Cartoonist Robert Crumb was a jazz fan, too, and that was the connection that initially brought them together. Today, the local maven doesn’t count for anything. No, you can’t get insight from a search engine but it will lead you to all the relevant data you could possibly process in a lifetime. Plus a list of mavens all over the world who’ve already processed parts of it and are happy to share their insights. In ten years, if you try to explain to someone who was my age at the time I met Harvey, that asking a human was once your first and sometimes only path to information, they might not believe you. And they certainly won’t be able to comprehend it.

Oh yeah… I met Harvey when he stopped by the house I was living in to connect with my friend, teacher, and house-mate Willis Lyman – one of the best double bass players in town at the time. I think they were heading to a party or a gig, or something. We sat around shooting the breeze for five or ten minutes while Willis finished getting ready. We talked a little about jazz, and made some wisecracks. Just two guys killing time, shooting the breeze. I remember him unusually clearly – that’s what’s odd. True to the spirit of American Splendor and Harvey’s legacy, it was completely mundane yet worthy of note.

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