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Notes from underground
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Notes from underground

Marilyn Johnson, in The Dead Beat, her marvelous appreciation of the modern obituary, noted how people “have been slipping out of this world in occupational clusters.” One day the obituary pages features two late actresses, the next it’s a trio of old-time baseball players.

“[S]urely it cannot all be by chance,” she writes. “These are mystical forces, and what better place to find them at work than in the obituaries?”

The mystical forces were at work when the July 12 Times obits page featured Harvey Pekar, the self-absorbed underground comics author, and Tuli Kupferberg, the leader of the underground ’60s rock band The Fugs.

Both were sons of Jewish immigrants; both never really left the gritty urban streets where they were raised (Pekar in Cleveland, Kupferberg in Lower Manhattan). Both were artists working on the edge of respectability and were more influential than well-known. Pekar, even as he toiled as a postal clerk, wrote the text for a series of confessional autobiographical comics known collectively and grandiosely as American Splendor. Kupferberg and The Fugs wrote proto-punk antiwar songs that both reveled in and mocked rock and folk conventions.

Both flirted with fame. The Fugs’ eponymous debut album made it to 95 on Billboard’s “Top Pop Albums” chart, and Pekar was a regular guest on David Letterman’s show, until flaming out with a series of spectacularly obnoxious appearances.

Pekar is probably best known thanks to the 2003 film American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as his wife. It’s a great film, although your enjoyment of it will depend on how much time you like to spend with a terminally morose protagonist and his slacker friends. Nothing much happens in the movie or in Pekar’s comic books — but then, nothing much happens in Proust.

The 2005 memoir Quitter, illustrated by Dean Haspiel, is a helpful introduction to Pekar and his method. He depicts the yawning cultural gap between him and his Yiddish-speaking parents, his youth as a lonely kid with anger-management issues, and his spectacularly unsuccessful stabs at college and the Navy. Pekar finds redemption only when he discovers the world of underground comics.

Kupferberg, who was 86 when he died, was already in his 40s when the Fugs came together. He had one foot in the Beat Generation. Yiddish culture bubbled up in his work. His protest song “Nothing” was an adaptation of “Bulbes,” an Old World dirge about the monotony of an all-potatoes diet. They actually sang a verse in Yiddish (“Montik gornisht, dinstik gornisht, mitvoch un donershtik gornisht”).

Kupferberg was more self-consciously political than Pekar, but here they also share a sort of mystical bond. Pekar chronicled and Kupferberg represented a Jewish type encountered less and less these days: the blue-collar Jew who never quite made it into the professions or suburbs. We all have a cousin or an uncle like Pekar: smart or maybe not-so-very, hard-working but too curmudgeonly or principled or uncompromising or self-sabotaging to play the kinds of games that spell typical success.

“Principled” is a key word. Pekar, who was 70 when he died, and Kupferberg were among the last links to the Jewish working class. They grew up in a world where social justice wasn’t just a synagogue committee but a political imperative. Pekar’s mother supported the communist candidate for president in 1948; The Fugs became a sort of house band for antiwar rallies.

Pekar seemed to care more about his art than politics; Kupferberg seemed more political than musical. But they burned with a kind of passion that I, born in 1961, rarely encountered in the suburbs in which I was raised. Ideas mattered to these Jewish guys in a way they didn’t to me and my bourgeois peers. Neither was a “careerist,” and both would have scoffed at the word (Pekar wanted enough money to support his wife and daughter, but beyond that yearned most of all for recognition as a writer).

I don’t mean to idealize their bohemianism. But it’s worth it now and then to pause and remember how Jews expressed themselves in America before we “made it.” Perhaps their form of Jewish secularism couldn’t reproduce itself, but it left a cultural stamp worth celebrating and preserving. American splendor indeed.

* * *

I can’t mention the passing of these two artists or the generation for whom ideas mattered without saying goodbye to David Twersky, my predecessor as editor of NJJN. David was 60 when he died last Friday; the demographers would call us both “baby boomers,” but David was truly a product of the political ferment the term implies. He was a passionate Zionist who made aliya, fought in Lebanon, and helped reestablish a moribund kibbutz. He was an adviser to Labor Party officials and a confidante of American politicians. Jewish journalism is itself a sort of “underground,” and he helped raised its profile by expanding this paper’s reach and horizons. He reveled in dialectic, and argued politics and policy “for the sake of heaven.” I envied his passion and his commitment (although not his temper), and hope wherever he is he finds those who enjoy a good argument as much as he did.

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