Splendor, Mundanity and Strenuous Briefness

Harvey Pekar died this weekend. Fans of graphic novels knew him as the “master of the mundane,” creator of the long-running series American Splendor, whose emphasis on the less-than spectacular events of an ordinary life became an inspirational treatise on how to extract the profound from the mundane.

Harvey was here at UCLA Live just a few months ago, appearing with Alison Bechdel, a truly stunning graphic novelist and generally brilliant woman who spoke frankly of the ways in which Pekar inspired her over the years. She even shared a short strip she had drawn based on a stick-figure outline Pekar handed her one day. “Here,” he said. “You should draw this.” Her multimedia presentation on the Royce Hall stage  flashed on a yellow, lined piece of paper with a few scribblings Harvey had made, simple scribblings that somehow inspired a story.

Pekar himself talked about his somewhat incongruous rise to fame in the graphic novel world…after all, he can’t draw at all, but one of his early and most prolific collaborators/supporters was R. Crumb who is pretty much a legend in the genre.  Harvey was, in person, much as like his character is in the  American Splendor strip—just a guy. A guy like the rest of us. For me, the most endearing part of his appearance here was seeing him interact with Bechdel, and seeing first-hand the impact his work and vision had on fellow artists. His latest work is The Pekar Project, an online strip for Smith Magazine for which he worked with a variety of talented up-and-coming artists.

Harvey’s life and death calls to mind a lot of questions. What is art? What is profound? What is mundane, and where do these ideas converge?

It makes me think of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“Out of the unreal shadows of the night comes back the real life that we had known. We have to resume it where we had left off, and there steals over us a terrible sense of the necessity for the continuance of energy in the same wearisome round of stereotyped habits, or a wild longing, it may be, that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours and be changed or, have other secrets, a world in which the past would have little or no regret, the remembrance even of joy having its bitterness and the memories of pleasure their pain.”

Don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Don’t we all lay down our heads at night sometimes and wonder what it would be like to wake to a different world?  But we never really do. We wake to our own lives every day. We go about our routines. We do our jobs. We think our thoughts. We live. We live the only way we can because that’s all we can do.

Our actual lives are largely defined by our most mundane habits and necessary behaviors. But those things don’t necessarily define the self. Harvey Pekar knew that.  It’s in the mind,  and through art and literature that we can perhaps, if we are lucky and inspired enough… extract the beauty and profundity from those simple and often mundane behaviors and tasks. There’s beauty in the breakdown.

Life is brief, more brief than we would like…strenuously so. We have our moments of pleasure and pain, of joy and bitterness and then we go. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we leave a little inspiration behind.

Rest in Peace, Harvey Pekar.

Here’s a little something from another inspirational chap to see you off.

…e.e. cummings

into the strenuous briefness
handorgans and April
darkness, friends

i charge laughing.
Into the hair-thin tints
of yellow dawn,
into the women-coloured twilight

i smilingly glide. I
into the big vermilion departure
swim, sayingly;

(Do you think?) the
i do, world
is probably made
of roses & hello:

(of solongs and, ashes)

The Soundtracks of Our Lives–Live

Yes I dig the band whose name is alluded to in the title of this blog entry, but it’s other self-created “soundtracks” that are running through my mind right now.

I’m talking about those albums that worm their way into your heart and life, the ones you play over and over incessantly (I can’t be the only person who does this!). The ones that either started out meaning something to you, or that grew on you until they did, or that carry such powerful emotion or pack such an evocative punch  in 13 or so tracks that they literally become a soundtrack to periods in your life.

I’m thrilled that we’re starting off our season in September with an event that strikes a chord like that. The legendary John Cale is coming to perform his Paris 1919 album in its entirety. I admit, before coming to UCLA Live, I was not well versed in Cale outside of The Velvet Underground.  But I am absolutely intrigued by this upcoming performance.

It’s a very nostalgic album, written while Cale was living in Los Angeles and apparently thinking very fondly of cities in Europe that he loves—sort of a soundtrack to a time in his life, not to mention  inspired (at least titularly) by the Treaty of Versailles. (Only John Cale could set the Treaty of Versailles to an artistic rock soundtrack nearly half a century after it occurred.) It’s been called his most accessible solo work and it’s extremely appropriate for our Royce Hall stage considering Cale originally recorded it with the UCLA Philharmonia. He’ll be accompanied by a full orchestra here too.

I love the concept of performing albums in their entirety. I’ve only witnessed it a few times….Roger Waters doing Dark Side of the Moon at the Hollywood Bowl and at Coachella a couple of years ago. The Pixies doing Doolittle at the Palladium just last fall.

It works for me. It’s like this ride that you’re on with the artists on stage….you know what’s coming next, they know you know,  and you can just go with it together. It’s a beautiful thing.

Obviously it’s not appropriate for every single album ever made. I can think of a few of my personal favorites that it just wouldn’t be right for.

But I can also think of a few others of those aforementioned soundtracks of my life that I think it might work out with, including The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Green Day’s American Idiot, (though I suppose I could just go see the Broadway show, don’t mock me), Radiohead’s OK Computer, The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan. (I have yet to truly hone in on why I love that album so much, I’m just going with it).

What do you think of the complete-album performance conceit? What are some of the soundtracks to your life that you might like to experience live and in full?

Even if Paris 1919 may not be on that list (yet), it’s sure to be a magical night in Royce Hall. Hope to see you there.

Photo courtesy nati via Flickr.

Roots and Inspiration

One of the highlights of our upcoming season for me is Mavis Staples and Billy Bragg: The Hope, Love & Justice tour Nov. 5.

I mean really, yes I am mostly a hyper-emotional sucker who regularly tears up at the “Star Spangled Banner” but  I think it would be hard for any music or arts lover to not to get behind the ideas of hope, love and justice.

Looking at our whole lineup of roots music this year has me waxing philosophical about the power of music to inspire, and also waxing nostalgic about my experiences with performing arts and music in Los Angeles.

The first time I’d ever heard of Billy Bragg was also a big first for my Los Angeles music life.

It was sometime in late 2000-early 2001. I’d been living in Orange County for a short while (I know, I know, it was for a job) and had a friend in town who wanted to drive up to the Knitting Factory on Hollywood Blvd. The now-defunct club was hosting Billy Bragg and this was my first live-music experience in Los Angeles outside of a few nights with a friend’s band at Brennan’s in Marina Del Rey. (I have a soft spot for that place too.)

Anyway, being the Teamster’s daughter I am, that first night at the Knitting Factory (RIP) helped instigate an undying love for Billy Bragg, especially punctuated by the Mermaid Avenue albums, which subsequently inspired my unrelenting passion for Wilco. (Side note: Did you know Jeff Tweedy produced Mavis Staples’ forthcoming album You Are Not Alone?) Also, if you’ve never seen this movie, you should totally check it out.

Obviously, ten years later, I’ve had countless more inspiring live-music experiences all around this amazing city— including feeling the Hollywood Bowl practically levitate in an Underworld glow, nights under the stars at the Greek theater with everyone from the Mars Volta to Tori Amos,  countless evenings perched aloft the stage at the Troubador, where one evening many years ago, an Alexi Murdoch performance brought an image to my mind that resulted in my purchase of a sewing machine, which in turn resulted in such a wealth of projects to come out of my tiny apartment that it has often been dubbed “the sweat shop.”

In short… music inspires. I’ve always felt like seeing live music was such a powerful experience. I don’t care how big or small the venue is, or if you’re close enough to see the sweat on the artist’s face or so far away you need binoculars. To me, from that first thrum of sound, you’re part of it. You’re part of something that didn’t exist before and wouldn’t exist the same way if you weren’t there.

I had a few of those moments in Royce Hall last spring, most notably with Tinariwen, Baaba Maal and the Blind Boys of Alabama. I anticipate many more of those such moments this season, especially thanks to our roots lineup. I hope you’ll join us for one or more of those events.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your comments about acts or venues in this town that have inspired YOU over the years.

Hit me back below!

Welcome to UCLA Live’s 2010-11 Season!

Greetings true believers,

Jessica Wolf here, senior publicist for UCLA Live. And, well if that salutation doesn’t establish me as some kind of pop-culture geek I’m not sure what will.  Of course a general penchant for pop-culture geekdom is partially what makes me suited for a gig that requires pumping up the programming of UCLA Live. I think, if you’re like me and love music, pop-culture, spoken word and performing arts in general, you’ll find much to geek out over too as I say….welcome to UCLA Live’s 2010-11 season, which is accompanied by this brand-spanking new UCLA Live website.

Here you’ll find a wealth of information on our program, our awesome events, this new “Live Wire” blog, tips on how to get here and where to park (it’s really easy!) and  oh yes, even buy tickets.

That’s right. Tickets are officially on sale today for subscriptions to our 2010-11 season which includes something for every culture lover via a truly vibrant panoply of music, dance and spoken-word. Click around the calendar section, or sit back and flip through our series brochure to read up on the stellar acts we have lined up for you as you make your series selections.

Series subscription prices represent 20% off individual ticket prices, the biggest discount we’ve ever offered, so grab one (or more) series packages while the grabbing is good (through July 18). You’ll get the best possible seats and first dibs on individual tickets to any add-on shows throughout the year. You’ll also get the chance to purchase individual tickets to any shows not in your subscriber package a week before they go on sale to the general public Aug. 9. Sign up for our periodic e-news newsletter and we’ll keep you in the loop.

Feel like mixing it up? Not a problem. Choose your own UCLA Live 2010-11 adventures with our (aptly titled) Choose-Your-Own subscription offer. You’ll save 15% on tickets when you mix and match four or more events.

We want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to enjoy UCLA Live subscriber benefits. To that end, we’ve established a new payment-plan option this year. Pay half at the time of your order and pay the rest by Aug. 16.

Above all, please enjoy the season. We’re incredibly proud of it and proud to be part of the cultural flavor of this fabulous city. This communiqué is reaching you from the basement of Royce Hall where we are all debating what our favorite shows this year are (more to come on that front in a future blog entry). There’s so much to choose from.

Visit the Live Wire blog often and share your thoughts on our shows, and even on other performing arts from around the city and country that thrill and inspire you. We love to hear from our patrons and look forward to making some great memories in Royce Hall this year.

Stay tuned…..

Thoughts from the staff of CAP UCLA