Who the hell was Peter Ivers? There are a lot of answers to that question: ’60s avant-garde bandleader, ’70s “pop” singer/songwriter, ’80s New Wave firebrand, film composer, Harvard-certified genius, underground TV personality, punk provocateur—the list goes on and on. Anyone who hung out with David Lynch, John Belushi, Jello Biafra, Ron Howard, Van Dyke Parks, Devo, and Harold Ramis is bound to flummox even the most astute biographer.
As Josh Frank, author of 2008 Ivers bio In Heaven Everything Is Fine, put it, “The world is not full of people that think like Peter Ivers.” And a new collection of mostly unreleased Ivers material, Becoming Peter Ivers, fully bears out that idea.
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More than three-and-a-half decades after Ivers’ still-unsolved murder turned his story into a sort of rock ‘n’ roll Black Dahlia case, the irrepressible L.A. maverick’s music remains relatively unknown. Most people who are aware of Ivers know him for one of two things: the song he wrote and sang for David Lynch’s quintessential midnight movie Eraserhead, and his high-powered hosting of early-’80s cable music showcase New Wave Theatre. But those are just two threads in a complex tangle.
Ivers grew up in Brookline, MA and attended Harvard University in the second half of the ’60s. A research study at the school revealed he had a genius-level IQ, but—much to his money-minded father’s chagrin—Ivers was mostly interested in music, banging around Boston, playing with rock bands and jamming with touring bluesmen, reportedly even earning the admiration of Muddy Waters. In 1969, two years after he graduated, Ivers met Lucy Fisher, who would be his romantic partner for much of his life. That same year, Ivers finagled a deal with Epic Records to release his first album, Knight of the Blue Communion, with lyrics by Tim Mayer and vocals by Sri Lankan jazz singer Yolande Bavan.
Even in the acid cloud of the late ‘60s, Blue Communion was like nothing else. Its wild collision of free jazz, blues, post-psychedelic rock, and sheer, unalloyed strangeness would have been ahead of its time—if anything remotely like it ever followed. Unsurprisingly, this shockingly visionary work didn’t exactly endear Ivers to Epic’s accounting department. His 1970 single for the label was a funky cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar,” with vocals by another Eastern singer, Bombay-born Asha Puthli. But the flip side, “Clarence O’Day,” was closer to Captain Beefheart; when he offered the label an album’s worth of that, an impatient Epic hustled Ivers to the door.
He moved to L.A. in 1971, where Fisher joined him after a few years. At first he lived in the Tropicana, a notoriously sleazy West Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll hotel now famous for hosting the likes of Jim Morrison and Tom Waits. He worked on film scores at the American Film Institute, where he befriended a simpatico eccentric artist—a young, aspiring director named David Lynch.
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Lynch was in the early stages of creating Eraserhead, and he asked Ivers to provide music and vocals for the now-famous scene where the ghostly Lady in the Radiator sings a song called “In Heaven.” It was a busy time for Ivers. He’d made the acquaintance of another eccentric auteur: songwriter/producer Van Dyke Parks, best known as Brian Wilson’s lyricist for the notoriously troubled Beach Boys album Smile. Impressed by Ivers’ writing, Parks brought him to Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin at Warner Bros, which netted him a record deal and an advance in excess of $100,000. By this time, Ivers and Lucy had settled in a house in Laurel Canyon that became a sort of 24/7 salon, with associates of Ivers constantly coming and going. “He and Lucy together were this sort of magical couple,” remembers Steven Martin, who would become Ivers’ close friend and manager. Soon, a thriving artistic scene would develop around Ivers and Fisher’s house.
Terminal Love, released in 1974, introduced the world to Ivers the singer/songwriter. The album was no wistful collection of gently introspective ballads: Its songs sport unorthodox structures, shifting tempos and time signatures, and arch, witty lyrics referencing everything from Freud, Adler, and Reich (“Holding the Cobra”) to time and space travel (“Alpha Centauri”) and physical entropy (the title track).
But the album’s most idiosyncratic element of all was Ivers’ voice. High and reedy enough to make Neil Young sound like Johnny Cash, it has more in common with future innovators like Television’s Tom Verlaine or The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano than any of Ivers’ contemporaries.
Sure enough, Terminal Love died on the vine, but it’s hard to imagine Warner Bros expecting anything else. “I do think major labels were taking more risks at that time,” says Becoming Peter Ivers producer Matt Werth. “I don’t think they would have invested so heavily in the record to have it flop. Unless they were thinking, ‘This is, like, a shot at Bowie.’ There aren’t any other benchmarks of weirdness I can imagine them holding Peter up to.”
Around this time, Fisher’s career began taking off with a job at United Artists, and Ivers was increasingly immersed in the Hollywood film-biz milieu. Between his girlfriend’s connections and the ascendance of Ivers’ old Harvard friends like National Lampoon creator Doug Kenney, Ivers would begin crossing paths with high-powered Hollywood stars like John Belushi and director Harold Ramis.
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Seemingly undaunted by the failure of Terminal Love, Ivers brought a second batch of tunes to Warner Bros, which were released on a self-titled album in 1976. As an apparent sop to the label, he sanded some of the rough edges off the music and production. But his lyrics and singing were as proudly radio-unready as ever, if not more so. “I think there was an attempt at one point for Warner Bros to polish him up, to make it slicker,” recalls Martin. “I always liked the rawest stuff.”
Around this time, Ivers’ urge to provoke came to the fore. He’d always been given to button-pushing behavior, like randomly disrobing in public, briefly eschewing the use of utensils for any meal, or engaging in onstage outrageousness. “An agent provocateur? Absolutely,” confirms Martin. “In the best way. In a funny way, not in a picking-a-fight way. ” One of the most notorious examples is his opening slot for Fleetwood Mac at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre in 1976, in support of his new album, for which he took to the stage clad only in a diaper. That sort of move might have endeared him to punk/new wave audiences a few years later, but under the circumstances, they were not warmly received. “I think Peter wanted to shock people and be outrageous,” says Martin, “which I always found weird, because he was so musically skilled it seemed like he didn’t have to.”
After his second record for Warner Bros flopped, Ivers created the score for the road comedy Grand Theft Auto, Ron Howard’s 1977 directorial debut. That same year, Eraserhead—which had spent a grueling five years in production—was finally released, and Ivers’ eerie song brought simpatico spirits like Devo into his orbit. (The song soon became a staple of Devo’s live shows.) In the ensuing decades, “In Heaven” would be recorded by countless artists, including the Pixies, Bauhaus, Tuxedomoon, Miranda Sex Garden, Modest Mouse, and Jay Reatard.
By 1978, Lucy Fisher had become VP of Production at 20th Century Fox. Ivers remained as much of a creative whirlwind as ever, writing songs and screenplays, and making a series of short music films that presaged the coming of music video. But while his pals were becoming famous and his girlfriend was finding success in the film industry, Ivers was struggling. “These are some highly respected people that really respect him,” says Steven Martin. “I think it was probably tough for him not to have more success.” Josh Frank agrees. “He had to have that in his mind when he was hanging out with Doug Kenney and Lucy and David Lynch and Devo.”
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The dynamic between Ivers and Fisher has often been painted as a sort of Peter Pan/Wendy scenario, with Fisher enabling her boyfriend to remain the eternal sprite. But as Fisher became increasingly interested in grown-up ideas like marriage and kids, she realized those things didn’t seem to figure in The Ivers Plan, a manifesto he wrote in the late ’80s. In 1980, Lucy moved out—though they would never officially break up, and an entirely different energy entered his life in the form of David Jove. The Canadian filmmaker, musician, and sometime drug dealer had briefly lived in England, where he was an LSD merchant called Acid King Dave who aided the authorities in the notorious 1967 Redlands drug bust of The Rolling Stones in exchange for legal leniency.
Jove had dreamed up a low-budget TV show for local UHF station KSCI that he dubbed New Wave Theatre, intended to tap the rich loam of L.A.’s punk and new wave underground. Ivers agreed to host the show, donning outrageous duds (spangled jackets, bug-eyed glasses, glittering feather boas) and delivering equally outrageous rants written by Jove and music journalist Ed Ochs. Ad hoc production values and a punk aesthetic gave the show a sharp, disorienting feel that complemented the music. “It was all late-night crazy business,” recalls Ochs. “I’d pull the copy out of my typewriter and hand it to Peter as he jumped in front of the camera and read what was just written minutes earlier.”
Between Ivers’ larger-than-life appeal and the excitement of the music, New Wave Theatre took off. A few months after its January 1981 premiere, it went national, picked up by the USA cable network. Energized, Ivers wrote two musicals: Nirvana Cuba and the Vitamin Pink Fantasy Revue, the latter of which was co-produced by Harold Ramis, and which had a pair of sold-out preview performances at Hollywood’s Club Lingerie in 1982. He also experienced some overdue commercial success: Ivers had met songwriter Franne Golde in 1981, and the two began a writing partnership, penning straightforward pop songs for other artists. June Pointer of The Pointer Sisters cut their song “Little Boy Sweet,” which eventually landed on the soundtrack of National Lampoon’s Vacation. Marty Balin of Jefferson Starship recorded “All We Really Need,” and Diana Ross’s recording of “Let’s Go Up” hit the lower rungs of the pop and R&B charts.
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At the same time, Ivers fled the pastoral Laurel Canyon for a loft space in gritty downtown L.A. He seemed to be turning some kind of corner, leaving a little bit of Peter Pan behind and finding ways to ride his art to a more “grown-up” lifestyle. He sold a treatment for a fantasy screenplay called City of Tomorrow to Warner Bros, and in late 1982, he landed a songwriting contract with ATV music publishers, earning him a steady income. By 1983, Ivers decided he’d had enough of New Wave Theatre. “Peter tired of the role,” says Ed Ochs, “gave it everything he had, and was ready to pack it in and move on.”
Then, shockingly, on March 1, 1983, Ivers was found bludgeoned to death in his bed. The murder investigation was shambolic at best — police failed to cordon off the scene, enabling people to come in and out and even remove items from the premises.
Theories ran rampant, with New Wavers and Hollywood hotshots each blaming the other faction. “Both groups had their own crazy stories about the other group,” says Josh Frank. For a brief time Harold Ramis was under suspicion, due to allegations of an affair between his wife and Ivers. David Jove, who was by all accounts a loose cannon, was also on the suspect list, especially after Fisher hired a private eye to pick up where the shoddy police investigation left off. Jove passed away in 2004. Ivers’ murder remains unsolved.
After Ivers’ death, Lucy Fisher established a home for his considerable archives at Harvard, and established a scholarship there called the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Program. Several collections of Ivers’ work have been released over the years, including the 1985 compilation Nirvana Peter and 2008’s The Untold Stories. Now Becoming Peter Ivers extends the legacy. The collection is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a close-up view of Ivers’ creative process, containing demos for much of his Warner Bros material, as well as “In Heaven” and material from Nirvana Cuba. The sparseness of many of the tracks—some featuring just vocals, keyboard, and maybe a primitive drum machine—gives everything a sense of intimacy, while the gritty, full-band demo of “Alpha Centauri” has an even more off-kilter edge than the studio version. On some tracks it seems possible to detect Ivers’ influences —Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon on the gentle “Take Your Chances With Me,” Marc Bolan on the lusty-but-otherworldly “Love is a Jungle.”
“He didn’t sound like anyone else,” says Martin, “and it took the rest of the world this long to catch up with it.” That style was realized through Ivers’ jacked-up work ethic, keen intelligence, natural talent, and fearless adventurousness.
“He was the kind of guy that didn’t not walk through an open door just because it wasn’t the open door he was looking for,” suggests Josh Frank. “He was like, ‘Oh cool, man, there’s an open door. I’m gonna see what’s in here.'”