Saturday, August 03, 2013

“Ellison, Pekar and Pere Ubu”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

"Practically everybody in New York has a mind to write a book, and does." - Groucho Marx

Living and studying in New York State was a fascinating experience for this writer. Before 1978, I had never set foot in that region of America. It seemed eerily distant and foreign.
Much of my five years in the Empire State was tempered by the fact that I remained, by birth and upbringing, a Midwestern kid. My inclinations were toward NFL football or the science of refining big-block V-8 automobile motors for street use. Not the esoteric artistry of Cornell University.
Yet while a NY resident, I encountered genuine Buckeye kin who had to leave the nation’s midsection to find real acceptance.
First of these inspirational examples was the experimental Cleveland group Pere Ubu. Formed in 1975, they were usually classified as a New Wave band, though their sound defied such restrictive labels. I encountered an import copy of their “Dub Housing” LP at a local vinyl emporium off the college campus, called Discount Records. The tracks on this recording remain favorites, even today.
I took them to heart, especially because they were odd and from Ohio. Amazingly, enduring frontman Dave Thomas shared his moniker with the founder of Wendy’s Hamburgers. The irony only made his band more special. I became a fan, forever.
Another icon during this formative era was comic-book hero Harvey Pekar. A friend who collected such illustrated works introduced him cheerfully. “This guy is from the Midwest, like you!” he said.
Pekar worked as a file clerk at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, in Cleveland. He was an avid fan and critic of Jazz music. The stories he penned were brought to life by various artists, beginning with Robert Crumb. Revered around the world, he remained ignored and largely unknown at home on the Northcoast.
Included in this small group of wandering Buckeye natives was the prolific writer Harlan Ellison. Born in Cleveland, he grew up in the nearby community of Painesville.
Ellison was known for being expelled from Ohio State University for hitting a professor who had trashed his creative ability. In subsequent years, he sent the man copies of ever story he had published. His creative work included television scripts for the original Star Trek series. Later, he would be a creative consultant for the Sci-fi program ‘Babylon 5.’
Ultimate in this tribe, perhaps, was another counterculture Rock group, Devo. Upon first hearing them, I reckoned that they must be from Europe. Likely of German origin. But a record collector I knew repeated the declaration used for Harvey Pekar. “Those guys aren’t Krauts! They come from Ohio, like you!”
Friends in New York had a particular term of non-endearment for the Midwest. They called it ‘flyover country.’ I couldn’t help feeling a bit inferior. They frequently attributed my minimalist outlook to being from that part of the nation. Yet this conflict also made me truly empowered to find excellence. I had to prove my worth. It was my familial siblings who were loose in the land of F.D.R., wreaking havoc with cultural paradigms. Those from the outside had energy for change. I wanted to be like them and create my own streak in the sky.
Eventually, I decided that it was necessary for someone with extra imagination to leave the nation’s center, in search of success and fulfillment.
But my own artistic output was admittedly much different in nature from these transplanted Buckeyes. I had in mind an opposite path to self-realization. My thought was to speak from the viewpoint of an ‘Average Joe.’ Someone with an appetite for unusual things, yet with the steady heart and mind of an everyman.
In 1982, after television and radio experiments, I tried writing motorcycle fiction. My stories combined the diverse elements of these expatriate heroes and the heartland, in a rowdy setting. They were not fit for general consumption. But they served to hone my writing abilities.
Returning home, a year later, completed my life circle. After a period of readjustment, I began to try different sorts of wordsmithing projects with limited success. It often seemed that I had lost the chance to soar like Ellison, Pekar and Pere Ubu. Devo haunted me with their quirky, pop-star entrance onto the national stage.
But the thrill of offering prose to a general audience remained.
Back home again, I worked to find meaning from my New York adventure. But then came a result that was completely unexpected – a series in the newborn Maple Leaf newspaper, called Thoughts At Large. The opportunity to sling ink in a local venue changed my perspective completely. As the 90’s drew to a close, I found maturity as a scribe.
Closest to Harvey Pekar’s comedy of everyday living, this series has been the story of one life in small-town Ohio. Over fifteen years later, the echoes of my drifting Buckeye kin continue to resound.

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