Cleveland Rocks

RIP Harvey Pekar

Cleveland Rocks

Not three weeks ago, my girlfriend Agnes and I had dinner with Harvey Pekar around the corner from his house in Cleveland Heights. He had a pita and a Black Cherry milkshake.

Cleveland hadn’t been my idea. On our passage from Pittsburgh to Chicago for Eric Clapton’s third Crossroads Guitar Festival, Agnes suggested a stopover in Drew Carey’s hometown to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. One word lit my marquee after telling Agnes hers was a great idea: “Harvey!”

I’d inherited Harvey at the paper in 1996, having absolutely no idea who he was. Mad magazine, whether by neglect or circumstance, remains my beginning and end in comics, and as for pop culture in general, well, let’s just say my parents never brought soda. Only after seeing American Splendor did I glean whom I’d been working with all those years already over the phone.

Harvey was a character, all right. It didn’t take an R. Crumb rendering to teach me that, and as such, after an initial adjustment period of glad-handing an obviously freaked out individual, I came to cherish his phone calls. Harvey always talked business – he wrote jazz reviews and feature-length graphic comics for the Chronicle – and I likewise asked him always about his home life. Pulling up in a taxi to his brownstone on June 23, I felt out of a graphic novel myself, Harvey tucked like the Grinch in a corner of his front porch. Not the Grinch as in mean or green, the Grinch as a being not entirely comfortable with the human race. The look on his face was grim but determined.

Our dinner with Harvey was once in a lifetime it now seems. The three of us chatted about Austin, and Agnes and I promised to take him out again on our return. Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro had been quite clear about that before I’d set off to Cleveland: “Dinner’s on us.” Indeed, Harvey enjoyed our buying him a modest meal, one whose check came silently halved by the wait staff at Tommy’s. We weren’t the only ones fond of him. Afterward, we stopped two doors down at a record store. Harvey was too fidgety to shop much, but the owner knew him as well, so we stayed ‘til Harvey whispered in my ear and then drove us back to our B&B.

You’ll have to ask Agnes what it was like sitting in the front seat of Harvey Pekar’s careening compact, the Cleveland native summing up the city of his birth as a giant hospital due to its health care industry, but for me, backseat interviewer, it was a wild ride, like the time Margaret Moser crammed a bunch of us into her tiny clown car with John Cale during South by Southwest.

Harvey Pekar wasn’t a rock star, but when Audra Schroeder informed me of his death upon walking into the office this morning – before anyone but the Associated Press had the story – the heart punch for me was like hearing about John Lennon or Stevie Ray Vaughan, two men I didn’t have milkshakes with.

More on Harvey Pekar in this week’s paper.

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