Harvey Pekar died last week.
From the outside, Pekar was just some guy who worked as a file clerk for a veterans hospital in Cleveland. He lived what most would consider a relatively uneventful life, except for one thing: he chronicled that uneventful life in a comic book series called American Splendor. His sharp, fierce autobiography-in-progress gave him a measure of fame, both inside the comics world and out, culminating in 2003 with an American Splendor movie starring Paul Giamatti. (And Pekar himself, playing himself, right next to Giamatti, who was also playing him. Trust me, it works.)
It would be hard for me to overstate the impact Pekar had on comics, particularly autobiographical ones, which basically didn’t exist before American Splendor came along. The first issue was published in 1976, thrust into a comics marketplace bursting with superheroes and fantasy tales. But Pekar steadfastly refused to glamorize or sensationalize his life. His stories celebrated the mundane, the lives of average everyday people – and not just Pekar, but his co-workers, his wife, and even a few of the jazz musicians he loved. Even though he couldn’t draw, he enlisted an army of indie comics legends to illustrate his tales, and they basically lined up around the block for the privilege.
Pekar was irritable and irascible and difficult and bad-tempered and full of self-loathing, and he never shied away from any of that in his comics. There’s no doubt Pekar opened the door for the younger crop of autobio artists, like Seth and Chester Brown, people who latched onto the idea that everyone’s story is worth telling. It’s an idea I subscribe to myself, so I’m grateful for Pekar’s work too. If someone asked me what’s so special about Harvey Pekar, I would say nothing, and that’s exactly why he was such a treasure.
Pekar died at home on July 2 after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 70 years old.
* * * * *
On Sunday, I saw Iron Maiden play for the first time. I’ve been a Maiden fan since my teenage metalhead years, but somehow, I’ve never plunked down the cash and caught a show before. As part of my ongoing attempt to prove I’m not a doddering old man, I bought tickets for a Sunday night show in Tinley Park, more than an hour from my home, and steadfastly refused to take the next day off of work. I’ll show them, I said. I can still hang with the young folks, headbang for three hours, and be up at 6:30 a.m.
That was silly. Tired doesn’t even begin to describe my Monday.
But the show was fantastic. Here’s the thing: if you’re going to be in a band like Iron Maiden, who often goes as far over the top as gravity will allow, you have to commit to it. You need to give 150 percent all the time. And man, these guys delivered. Bruce Dickinson is 51 years old (which is about five years younger than I thought he was), but he spent the entire two-hour set running, jumping, leaping and singing at the top of his considerable lungs. He was a wonder to behold, and the rest of the band was amazing as well.
Maiden music is complcated and aggressive and relentless. They’re the original operatic metal band, and their songs routinely stretch to eight and nine minutes. Their set consisted almost entirely of material from the past 10 years, which probably disappointed some people, but since I love the last three records, I was happy to sing along. Plus, they blew through an amazing encore of “The Number of the Beast,” “Hallowed Be Thy Name” and “Running Free” before leaving the stage.
As if that wasn’t enough metal madness for one night, Dream Theater opened, playing a 45-minute, six-song set of their heaviest material. I’d never seen them live either, and watching guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess do their tandem soloing thing live was revelatory. I don’t know how these five guys possibly got to the top of their game the way they have, or how they found each other and created this musical mind-meld that merges all of their astonishing skills. But watching them pull off this insanely complex material live was pretty awesome.
Thanks to Nate and Grant for being my concert buddies. I’d love to do it again. But maybe not on a work night. My aging joints still ache.
* * * * *
Speaking of things that are old, let’s talk about the longest-running science fiction show in the world.
Doctor Who began in 1963. It ran for 26 years, got canceled, returned with a TV movie in 1996, and was fully revived in 2005. All together, there are 31 seasons, two movies (including The Five Doctors) and eight specials, with a ninth on the way. There are more than 800 episodes, comprising about 500 hours of television.
You’d think the idea would have grown stale by now, right? But the central concept of the show is so basic, so open-ended, that it can be anything. As a famous comics creator once said, only the limits are imaginary. Here’s what Doctor Who is about: a strange man has adventures in time and space, and he brings people along with him for the ride. That’s it. It’s so simple that its possibilities are infinite. Who is often about Daleks and Cybermen and intergalactic war, but at its heart, it’s about the wonder of the universe, about the joy of discovery.
And in its just-completed 31st season, one of the best in the program’s history, it’s about stories, about the myths and legends that live in our minds. Forty-seven years in, and Doctor Who is finally plumbing its own status as modern myth, as cultural icon. The season, the first under the stewardship of head writer Steven Moffat, was an often heady mix of fairy tale and logic game, a 13-episode puzzle box that, when opened, revealed a joyous tale about the stories we tell ourselves, and the power they wield.
The final episode of that season airs Saturday in the U.S., but through the magic of the Internet, I saw it weeks ago. (Spoilers lie ahead, naturally.) I’ve had some time to think about the shape of this season, and compare it to previous ones. Moffat is a very different showrunner than his predecessor, Russell T. Davies, but they each are strong in areas where the other is weak, and this season underlined those differences. This season had no standout episodes, like “Blink” or “The Empty Child.” But then, the standouts under Davies were most often written by Moffat, and with him at the helm, the overall quality of plotting rose. Put it this way: Moffat set a higher bar, but fewer of this season’s episodes vaulted over it.
Having said that, here are a few things Moffat did right.
1. He hired Matt Smith. I have no idea where Moffat found the 27-year-old Smith, the 11th and youngest actor to play the part of the Doctor. But his intuition was spot-on: Smith was born to play this role. He is, without doubt, my favorite actor to step aboard the Tardis since the glory days of Tom Baker and Peter Davison. He’s goofier and more awkward than David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston, his two immediate predecessors, but he also has an alien quality those two fine actors lacked. I look at Smith and I instantly buy him as a 900-year-old Time Lord.
And he’s such a joy to watch. His repartee with River Song in “The Time of Angels” was masterful, and his attempts to settle into suburban life in “The Lodger” were comedy gold, but he brings a genuine heart and a piercing intelligence to his more serious scenes. Take, for instance, the lengthy sequence in “The Big Bang” where he travels back through time, finally ending up at the bedside of seven-year-old Amy Pond. Watch his face as he tells her his story, and says goodbye. It’s emotionally wrenching stuff, underplayed to perfection.
2. He hired Karen Gillan. She’s more than just a pretty face, although she certainly is that. Gillan was the perfect match for Smith’s Doctor, standing toe to toe with him as an equal partner. The entire 31st season is about Amy Pond, about the crack in time that robbed her of her life, and about how a childhood fairy tale made her whole again. Still, the character was underwritten, I feel. But Gillan found the soul of this strange and wonderful girl she’s playing, and made her presence felt. (Moffat also hired Arthur Darvill as Amy’s love, Rory Williams, and he was astounding as well.)
3. He wrote six episodes himself. Moffat is easily the best writer in Who’s stable, and this year, we got to see what he could do with a full season at his disposal. His half-dozen episodes were the best of the lot, I think, even though his writing often errs on the side of complexity over emotion. “The Eleventh Hour” is the strongest season premiere since the show’s revival, and “The Big Bang” one of its strongest climaxes. But it’s the creeping dread and final turnabouts of “The Pandorica Opens” and the dazzling Weeping Angels two-parter that I think really show off what Moffat can do.
4. He turned to writers you wouldn’t expect. Aside from Moffat’s six, the two most successful stories of the season came from writers who’d never penned an episode of Who in their lives. Simon Nye, creator of Men Behaving Badly, turned in the dreamscape fantasia “Amy’s Choice,” and Richard Curtis, writer/director of Love Actually and Pirate Radio, wrote a brilliant examination of depression and hope called “Vincent and the Doctor.” Neither of these are like anything seen in Doctor Who before, and the freshness that comes from not knowing or caring about the formula is unmistakable.
5. He brought fairy tales to Doctor Who. I’m amazed that no one tried this earlier, since it seems so obvious. A madman with a blue box who spirits people away on adventures through time and space? Who is already a fairy tale, and it’s so steeped in British culture at this point that it’s become a story parents tell their children, just like the works of the brothers Grimm. Moffat added a generous helping of fairy dust to the proceedings, beginning with young Amy Pond’s encounter with her “raggedy Doctor,” and ending with the adult Amy conjuring the Doctor and the Tardis from her memory, drawing on the power of a story she’d clung to most of her life.
It didn’t stop there, though. The season-long threat was a fairy tale, a crack in the wall, with monsters living on the other side. The Pandorica, the box in which the Doctor’s enemies finally trapped him, was a story passed down through generations, a modern myth. And even the trap the Autons laid for him came from a story – the memories of Amy Pond, retold through living plastic. Moffat’s thesis, that the stories we tell one another are alive, and have power, was given full flower in “The Big Bang,” particularly in its resolution. It doesn’t make sense, but it feels right. It feels magical.
6. The bow tie. Bow ties are cool.
And of course, some things he did wrong:
1. He approved “Victory of the Daleks.” Hoo boy, was this one lousy. Mark Gatiss wrote this absolute disaster, the third episode of the season and the only one I flat-out don’t like. The premise is brilliant: Winston Churchill uses Daleks to win World War II. The execution, however, is atrocious. This episode just keeps tumbling further and further into failure as it goes, concluding with the worst redesign of the Daleks ever (and they’ve been around almost as long as the show). Moffat needs to exercise some better quality control.
2. He went with Davies’ stable of writers. The weakest episodes of the season were the ones not penned by Moffat, Nye and Curtis, but by the same writers responsible for bog-standard Who episodes over the last five years. We’ve discussed Gatiss, but there was also Toby Whithouse and Chris Chibnall, turning in decent but unimaginative sci-fi tales. Only Gareth Roberts rose above with “The Lodger,” based on an old comic strip he’d written – that one got by on glorious dialogue and Matt Smith’s dazzling performance. Next year, I hope Moffat turns to even more novice or outside-the-box writers. He’s already enlisted Neil Gaiman for an episode, so that’s a good start.
3. He didn’t leave much time for character development. Russell T. Davies wasn’t particularly good at long-term plotting, and his resolutions often left much to be desired. But he was aces at character, at giving the Doctor and his companions real beating hearts (two, in the Doc’s case). Moffat has the opposite problem. His plots are brilliant, but his character work was lacking this year. I still don’t feel like we know Amy Pond very well, even though she was the center of the story, and all we know about Rory is he’s a simple guy who likes Amy. Next year, we need more space to breathe. We need to take our characters out of the maze of plot for a few minutes and really get to know them.
4. The fez. Fezzes aren’t cool.
That’s essentially it, though – the only faults I can find with an otherwise exemplary season of Doctor Who. It was funny, it was sad, it was crazy convoluted and mind-blowing, but most of all, it was magical. It reaffirmed the mission statement of the show: it’s a big wide universe, and anything is possible. Bring on the Christmas special, and season 32. And here’s hoping Matt Smith stays for years and years.
* * * * *
What’s that, you say? Music column? Oh, right, sorry. Here, have a review:
It’s a real surprise to me that Marc Cohn is considered a one-hit wonder. His one big smash remains “Walking in Memphis,” and if you’re gonna have a hit, you can only hope it’s as good as this one is. “Memphis” deserves to be one of those songs everybody knows. But then, so do so many other Marc Cohn songs. There’s “True Companion,” of course, which has somehow become a wedding staple, but there’s “Silver Thunderbird” and “No Rest for the Weary” and “She’s Becoming Gold” and “Girl of Mysterious Sorrow.” Most recently, there’s “Dance Back From the Grave,” from Cohn’s long-delayed fourth album, 2007’s Join the Parade. I swear, I didn’t hear a better song about New Orleans after Katrina from anyone.
Cohn is a terrific songwriter, is what I’m saying. So I’m not sure why he thought we’d want to hear an album of covers from him, especially since he’s only managed four records of original material in 19 years. I bought Listening Booth: 1970 simply because I’m a completist, and I want everything Cohn does. But I admit I didn’t approach this project with much excitement. When I buy a Marc Cohn CD, I want what I’ve always wanted from him: more wonderful original songs.
That said, I fully enjoyed this little record. For one thing, it’s not your standard covers album. It doubles as an argument for 1970 as one of the most important years in music history. All of these 12 songs were released that year, and you will know every single one of them. I was truly surprised to find out these dozen little masterpieces all have a common year of origin. Cohn’s wonderful liner notes describe the old listening booths record stores used to have, where customers could slip on headphones and cue up records of their choice, in semi-private. This album reflects many of the songs Cohn heard as a child through those headphones, songs that informed his early musical growth.
I can’t quibble with the selection. The album opens with the Cat Stevens classic “Wild World,” moves on through John Lennon’s “Look at Me” and Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” (both released as the world was coping with the Beatles’ breakup), and includes “The Letter” (the Box Tops), “The Only Living Boy in New York” (Simon and Garfunkel), “The Tears of a Clown” (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles), “No Matter What” (Badfinger), “New Speedway Boogie” (the Grateful Dead) and “Into the Mystic” (Van Morrison). It closes with a gorgeous take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I Can See the Light.”
Musically, this is soft, mellow, acoustic and lovely. It was produced and largely played by John Leventhal, Shawn Colvin’s musical partner, and if you know his work, you know what this sounds like. Cohn’s voice is deeper than it used to be, but he sounds invigorated by the chance to sing so many of his favorite songs. He enlists some left-field help, like India.Arie, who sings on Bread’s “Make It With You,” and Aimee Mann, who provides harmonies on “No Matter What.” Everything falls into place nicely – this is a sweet little record, one to put on for a rainy Sunday afternoon, and Cohn sounds comfortable and happy.
So okay, Marc, I like your covers record. Now, how about writing a few more songs?
* * * * *
As I was putting this column to bed, I got news that Andy Hummel, Big Star’s original bassist, died at age 59 after a struggle with cancer. Man, it’s a bad year to be a Big Star fan. The band’s mastermind, Alex Chilton, died in March, leaving drummer Jody Stephens as the last surviving member of the band. Rest in peace, Andy.
Next week, a look at recent releases from the Lilith Fair set, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.