'An Einstein among Neanderthals': the tragic prince of LA counterculture

David Lynch, Devo and others remember the murdered outsider Peter Ivers, who dressed in spandex, sang about frankfurters and pre-empted the pop energy of MTV

When the musician and actor Peter Ivers was found dead in his apartment in downtown Los Angeles on 3 March 1983, at just 36 years old, he was not as successful as he had wanted to be. He pined for mainstream acceptance, but stayed stuck stubbornly left of the dial. With an indomitable spirit, he whirred through the worlds of comedy, film and music, able to conjure good fortune for those around him, if not always for himself. Ivers’ career highlights read like a fabrication; he acted as a talent spotter, dot joiner and circumstantial benefactor for an astrological chart of interlinked stars.

Ivers was deemed “the best harp player alive” in his 20s by Muddy Waters. His music was covered by Pixies on their dealmaking first demo and Bauhaus on their farewell tour. It was through Ivers and his long-term partner, Lucy Fisher, that David Lynch’s work was introduced to Mel Brooks and Francis Ford Coppola. Ivers’ closest friend was Doug Kenney, the founder of National Lampoon magazine; in the early 80s, the Lampoon star John Belushi was an avid viewer of Ivers’ anarchic cable TV music show New Wave Theatre, taking cues from the confrontational humour and sense of punky chaos. Unlike peers who succumbed to the excesses of the era, Ivers worked prodigiously until the grisly end, when he was murdered with a hammer.

A compilation of demos and deep cuts culled from Ivers’ mid-70s period, Becoming Peter Ivers, aims to bring fresh interest to an artist known almost solely to film and record buffs. Matt Werth, the founder of the label RVNG Intl, had more than 500 tapes of material to trawl through, stored in safe havens by Ivers’ inner circle – and more have emerged since.

Peter Ivers
‘Talent spotter, dot joiner and circumstantial benefactor’ ... Peter Ivers. Photograph: Publicity Image

Yet every record Ivers released in his lifetime was a commercial flop; his live antics – supporting Fleetwood Mac in a nappy and squirting a phallic gun filled with milk at New York Dolls fans – embellished his legend, but were not wise business moves. “Peter’s curiosity about the human experience was his blessing, but also a bit of a challenge,” says Fisher. “He was interested in interacting with anybody and anything, even if it was to elicit a shock. It was always about having an encounter, as opposed to gliding through life unaware.”

He was, as his collaborator Paul Lenart echoes, “this thrilling individual, and absolutely fearless. He didn’t give a shit. He was just going to go and be who he wanted to be.” During one meeting with the Warner Brothers bigwig Mo Ostin, Ivers leapt atop a table and broke into a mean harmonica solo, waggling his hips in the executive’s face. He was able to secure record deals, but not make good on them.

Ivers met Fisher at Harvard; he was a few years her senior and already known about campus as a raffish character. They moved to LA and settled in the hippie-friendly Laurel Canyon, scraping together $250 a month for rent. “It was a fairytale land for us,” Fisher says. “Music literally bounced across the canyon all the time.” Ivers responded in turn, cranking out tunes day and night. He would even pack an electric piano for the beach, just in case inspiration struck. Their apartment welcomed a rotation of friends and collaborators. Kenney was so fond of Ivers and Fisher that he crashed out with them for months while struggling under the weight of National Lampoon. The trio would take trips to Disneyland to get his spirits up.

The single most important drop-in was Lynch. Lynch and Ivers first connected at the American Film Institute in LA in 1971. In 1976, at the end of a five-year gestation period for Eraserhead, Lynch and the sound man Alan Splet knocked on Ivers’ door. They arrived with a sketch of a song and a secondhand recording of the organist Fats Waller. “We only had these quarter-inch tapes of Waller’s that Alan had got ahold of,” says Lynch. “As we were explaining to Peter the feel of this 1936 pipe organ, he walked over to his shelf and pulled out the exact album that we had been hunting down for years. We knew we had come to the right place.”

Ivers grasped what was needed to complement the tone of the groundbreaking film. When Lynch returned a few days later, “Peter laid down on his bed, put on headphones, picked up a microphone and, in this falsetto voice, he sang exactly what is in the film”. Sung on screen by a ghostly apparition, In Heaven – which had the suffix “(Lady in the Radiator Song)” added over time for emphasis – was unnerving and enchanting. At 98 seconds long and with only 14 unique words, it was simple enough to be scrawled down quickly. And so it transpired: in 1977, when a group of eager Eraserheads from Ohio named Devo asked Lynch to grant them rights to perform the song live, all Ivers had to do was scrawl the chords and lyrics on a napkin, while Lynch sat slurping a chocolate milkshake.

‘Unnerving and enchanting’ ... In Heaven by Peter Ivers.

An extended version of In Heaven appears halfway through Becoming Peter Ivers: piano keys hammer down to meet Ivers’ voice, almost unrecognisable to the strained version, which had a slow creep on the public consciousness. The music on the compilation, rich with associative imagery, sounds like the hungover jauntiness of the west-coast songwriters Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman, as well as the seasoned arranger Van Dyke Parks, with whom Ivers often collaborated.

Ivers had a talent for looking at the world and adopting the perspective of more or less anything, elevating the mundane to something memorable. “The amount of different personalities and vivid little portraits that are explored in his music capture the way he was,” Fisher says. “He would make a moment out of anything.” Take Happy on the Grill, when Ivers becomes a roasting frankfurter, happy even if a vengeful God were to rain fire down on Earth: “That’s the thrill!”

Ivers’ eccentricities started to make more sense as the US shifted into the new wave era. By 1980, National Lampoon’s slash-and-burn humour had mounted an insurrection on the screens, as Devo did on the airwaves. Ivers’ particular niche was now aligned with the zeitgeist. When he returned to Harvard that year to give a guest lecture on the essence of new wave, he made his point by stripping down mid-speech from a tweed suit, through several layers, finishing up in silver spandex. He was made an artist in residence at his alma mater shortly thereafter.

Peter Ivers with Devo
Eraserheads ... Ivers with the band Devo. Photograph: Steven Martin

“You could label Peter an early pioneer conceptualist,” says Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. “He helped to popularise ironic humour – a kindred spirit with us in that regard. The previous generation of musicians regarded new technologies and the mixing of mediums as suspect. Peter was definitely part of the next generation.” Ivers was struck with a sense that a new dawn in entertainment was imminent. He began to sketch out The Ivers Plan – a manifesto that could have doubled as a pitch for MTV. “The beat, the outrageous imagery and the collaged sense of reality [will] become the new visual vocabulary,” he wrote in 1978.

It was on New Wave Theatre, as the host and figurehead, that Ivers’ vision came alive. With jerky camera cuts and dissonant racket, disorientation was the goal. Belushi or Lynch would appear occasionally, staring vacantly into the lens during cutaways or sprinkling insight into what it all meant. Bands such as Dead Kennedys, X, Circle Jerks and Black Flag came to perform – and be mocked. Ivers would push the punks’ buttons, pricking their self-seriousness by flapping around foppishly in wigs and tuxedos.

He broke loose from the zonked scripts fed to him by the show’s producer, David Jove, a notorious former acid dealer to the Rolling Stones, and put to use the snappy repartee he honed so well at Harvard. He had a way of being cruel to be kind, says Lynch: “Even when putting down a band, it was fun-loving. He wasn’t purposefully hurting them. But because of his great intelligence, it was like placing a Neanderthal man next to Einstein.” Many of the guests loathed him.

Originally broadcast in the LA region, the programme was picked up by the variety show Night Flight to exploit a period when Saturday Night Live’s writers were on strike. It made Ivers a coast-to-coast cable star, melting the minds of impressionable viewers just as Eraserhead had done a few years before. It also anchored him during a period of upheaval: Fisher, who became a successful executive at Warner Brothers and Sony, was already a high flyer in Hollywood. Staring down different paths in life, the couple peeled apart after 11 inseparable years.

In 1982, Ivers found a loft in downtown LA, “a hellhole where nobody moved [to]”, recalls Lynch. He tried, once more, to hustle his way from the fringe to the centre. He harnessed his inner focus to a manic degree, alarming friends by working without pause. He had regular income, and scored writing credits for Diana Ross and June Pointer of the Pointer Sisters. The man frequently labelled as Peter Pan was finally shifting gears into mid-life maturity.

Lynch was filming in Mexico when he received the news that Ivers had been murdered. Mothersbaugh assumed it was a prank call. Lenart, like many, set to pondering who had been pissed off the most by Ivers. Rank incompetence from an uncaring police force in a beat-up part of town met an outpouring from friends willing it not to be true – by the evening, dozens had gathered, treating an active crime scene as they once had Peter and Lucy’s pad, a place to drop in. The killer has never been found.

‘Disorientation was the goal’ ... a segment from New Wave Theatre.

For all that he achieved, Ivers did not reinvent the wheel. What he gestured towards – an unexplored intersection at the crossroads of performance art, music and video – only became a reality toward an end of a life cut short. It is not hard to imagine a major breakthrough occurring as soon as 1984, as MTV boomed and Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense captivated cinema audiences. “I always say, it’s like Tesla and Marconi getting ideas about radio at the same time in different parts of the world,” says Lynch. “Any time new ideas are bubbling up, someone is out there catching them.”

For Fisher, whose family dog is named Ivers (at her husband’s suggestion), thrusting her old life back into the light is better than speculation over a twice-opened, twice-unsolved case. Even if it is painful to revisit, “I could see RVNG’s intentions were pure. For Peter to have his music heard more widely, which is what he wanted so badly, is a beautiful thing.”

Across Becoming Peter Ivers, there is a sensation of Ivers attempting to crack the code of his art: trying on hats that were variously jazzy, glammy and brittle; pulling at strands, in case they unravelled something greater. Lenart sums it up well: “Peter was searching for a new form of expression. I don’t figure he was quite there, but he was well on his way. And if he’d had just a little more time, I think he would have found what he was pushing toward.”

Becoming Peter Ivers is out now on RVNG Intl


Gabriel Szatan

The GuardianTramp

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