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Peter Ivers
Peter IversPhotograpgy Moshe Brakha

Exploring the cult pop genius of Peter Ivers

Following a career-spanning compilation of his work, friends and collaborators reflect on the storied life and senseless homicide of a polymath who knew everyone from David Lynch and John Belushi to the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag

“In heaven, everything is fine.”

For many, this five-word refrain is where their acquaintance with Peter Ivers begins and ends. Composed for David Lynch’s mind-melting 1977 directorial debut, Eraserhead, “In Heaven” was a curious ode sung by a strange lady in a radiator, void of context every bit as much as Lynch’s haunting, industrial netherworld. But while it surely remains his most famous moment, “In Heaven” almost feels like a footnote in Peter Ivers’ storied life.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Ivers was a pop cultural anomaly and beloved common denominator between some of Hollywood’s brightest names. Counting John Belushi and Harold Ramis among his close friends, he was an Illinois-born Harvard graduate turned avant-pop maverick who forged a remarkably prolific path, a master Yogi and virtuoso harmonica player once hailed by blues legend Muddy Waters as “the greatest harp player alive”, and a black belt in karate, who, when he wasn’t writing songs for the likes of Diana Ross and Pointer Sisters, hosted cult pre-MTV cable show New Wave Theatre. To call Ivers’ life ‘colourful’ would be an injustice. It was positively polychromatic. 

On March 3, 1983, Peter Ivers’ restless quest and untold creative potential was cut short when he was brutally and mysteriously murdered in his loft in Downtown Los Angeles. He was just 36 years old. The crime scene was contaminated, the police established no leads, and, to this day, the murder remains an unsolved case. Though he earned negligible mainstream recognition in his own lifetime – and the handful of albums that he released have since gone out-of-print – the world has ever so slowly been playing catch-up with his legacy over the last four decades.

A new 25-track compilation, Becoming Peter Ivers, offers a new vantage point from which to take it all in. Five years in the making, it’s a carefully-curated trove of mostly unheard studio sessions and intimate, nigh on voyeuristic home demos recorded in his home in the mountainous neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. Blurring the lines between offbeat pop, wonky post-punk, and homespun jazz and blues, songs like “Take Your Chances With Me” and “Eighteen and Dreaming” serve as perfect points of entry for discovering one of the most idiosyncratic and criminally unsung songwriters of his generation.

Curiously, the origins of Ivers’ singular creative evolution stems back to the hallowed halls of Harvard in the late 1960s. It was there where he and Tim Hunter struck up a close friendship. “Peter did a lot of work at the Harvard theatre,” says Hunter, who counts episodes of Twin PeaksBreaking Bad, and Mad Men among his directorial oeuvre. “He was a technical director, and he built sets and designed lighting. I was on the fringe of that theatre scene, making student films. Peter was extremely good-looking. He was very charismatic and popular with the girls. And he was very funny. He had a sarcastic, dry sense of humour, which was never abrasive, because there was such a good nature and such a lively spirit behind it. Peter just seemed to show up to Harvard and give off a lot of life.”

After majoring in classics, Ivers took that lively spirit with him to LA, where he relocated to in 1971 in order to score Hunter’s film Devil’s Bargain. It was a move that kickstarted a fortuitous series of events that paved the trajectory of his life and career in the 1970s. Taking up residence in the Tropicana, a low-rent hotel in West Hollywood that had appealed to struggling musicians like Tom Waits in the past, he carried with him a card that read “Peter Ivers: Music For Cash”. And how. In no time at all, Van Dyke Parks and music mogul Lenny Waronker swooped in and signed Ivers to Warner Bros for $100,000 to work on his debut album. Things were moving very fast.

It was during this period, circa the release of Ivers’ inspired, yet largely overlooked 1974 debut Terminal Lovethat he became something of a musician-in-residence at the American Film Institute. Serving a fellowship at the time was David Lynch, who was plotting his surrealist masterstroke, Eraserhead. Having heard Terminal Love (the press release for which described Ivers voice as being akin to “an androgynous eight-year-old traumatised by Mighty Mouse”), Lynch had a Eureka moment: he would colloborate with Ivers and co-write “In Heaven”, the uncanny musical centrepiece performed by Laurel Near, AKA the Lady in the Radiator, in his debut film. Released in 1977, Eraserhead introduced Lynch and, to an even more cryptic extent, Peter Ivers to the wider world.

When it premiered as a Friday night midnight-movie at Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard, the projectionist on duty was none other than Ivers’ close friend, Steve M. Martin. More than 40 years on, Martin, along with RVNG and Ivers’ long-term girlfriend, Lucy Fisher, are behind the compilation and presentation of Becoming Peter Ivers. “From Eraserhead, right up until his final days, he tended to bring out the best in his collaborators,” the actor and director reflects. “That’s a big deal. We’ve all been in bands where there’s one person who’s a dick. Pete was always the leader of his band, but he wasn’t the dictator of the band. The idea was to get a group and really collaborate. The demos showed where you could go with them.”

“Peter had such a high adorability quotient. He was like a pixie or an imp. He was mischievous, fun-loving and brilliant, with a great sense of humour, openness and, importantly, his brilliant musicality and original ideas” – Asha Puthli, collaborator

Then, as now, it was Ivers’ voice that first grabbed you. Whether you look to the snaking “Alpha Centauri” on Terminal Love or “I’m Sorry Alice”, the opener from his eponymous 1976 album, Ivers’ nasal, high-pitched vocals protrude high above slinking pop rhythms and motifs. Sure enough, they fared divisive; charming and singular to some, a shrill distraction to others. But maybe that was the point. 

“Peter really wanted to be successful,” says Tim Hunter. “The issue that was on the table in that phase of his career was whether he himself had a good enough voice himself to sing the stuff himself. He had a fairly thin voice, although very stylised. He sang very much like he talked – the nuances of the way he phrased stuff was very much true to him singing. That was the issue. We all loved the music, which was quite catchy. The issue that concerned us wasn’t whether the music could be a hit, but whether or not he would be the performer that would make the music a hit.”

As well as the likes of Jello Biafra of seminal San Francisco hardcore punk band Dead Kennedys, Deerhunter main man Bradford Cox comfortably falls into the “singular and charming” camp. Indeed, stick on “Take Your Chances With Me”, the opening track on Becoming Peter Ivers, and a certain parallel between Ivers and Cox’s vocals quickly becomes clear. 

“I read all the longread articles about the mystery surrounding his death back in the day,” Cox says via email. “I first heard of him, of course, when I was quite young, because of the Eraserhead soundtrack. But I never really knew who he was until years later, when I became fascinated with Su Tissue and I was watching Suburban Lawns' New Wave Theatre footage.”

Of Ivers’ many mileposts, New Wave Theatre ranks up there as the most radical. A cable access show that placed new comedic talent like close friend John Belushi and Chevy Chase on stage with punk rock bands like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Fear, its loose, often surrealist M.O. prefigured the Zeitgeist-defining thrust of MTV. 

“Pete agreed to host it,” Steve M. Martin says. “He was optimistic and thought it would be cool. Most people wouldn’t do it because they weren’t getting paid, but he agreed to do it and he did it very well. He became the start of the show. At first it was the bands, then Peter became the star. Suddenly, everyone was watching this show. His visibility went up. He was getting more response for being on this television show than his music has, which was weird. He pushed it and got more theatrical for it. He was actually foreseeing MTV years ahead of time.”

Coming to a sudden end with Ivers’ murder in March 1983, the sheer watchability of New Wave Theatre centred on its oddball host’s perfectly outlandish, yet reliably warm personality. Those are traits that Indian disco and jazz icon Asha Puthli, who collaborated with Ivers on several tracks including “Ain’t That Peculiar”, fondly recalls. “Peter had such a high adorability quotient,” Puthli says. “He was like a pixie or an imp. He was mischievous, fun-loving and brilliant, with a great sense of humour, openness and, importantly, his brilliant musicality and original ideas. There has been no one like him ever. He was a joy to work with and I cherish those memories.”

From Harvard and New Wave Theatre, to his 1978 musical Nirvana Cuba, the theatrical seemed to underpin most of Ivers’ creative endeavours. Both live and in the studio, it’s something that took centre-stage throughout his own musical career. “My first impression of him was that of a man possessed with great energy and enthusiasm,” says Warren Klein, who played guitar on various Ivers’ recordings including “Happy on the Grill” and “Miraculous Weekend”. “He was certainly quite a character. I played a free-jazz concert with him set up by Buell Neidlinger, previously Cecil Taylor’s bass player, at CalArts, and he performed in a diaper and nothing else except a harmonica holder around his waist.”

“When you were with Peter you actually became the best and highest version of yourself” – Roderick Falconer, collaborator

To claim Peter Ivers liked to surround himself with creative people would be a towering understatement. Having said at his funeral, “When you were with Peter you actually became the best and highest version of yourself,” friend and collaborator Rod Taylor AKA Roderick Falconer has much the same opinion today. “Peter was such an interesting collector of people,” he says. “He was disarmingly quizzical, sweet, and funny. He spoke and read Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. He was a black belt in karate and a great yogi. When Talking Heads came along, and David Byrne had picked up on certain conceptual artists in New York to mould his own persona, Peter was already doing that. For all of us that loved him, it was such a tragic, strange, and arbitrary act of fate that befell him. Obviously it was a murder, but when I say fate, I really mean fate for all of us.”

With Ivers himself having once said, “Demos are often better than records. More energy, more soul, more guts,” RVNG’s new compilation is, without question, one of the year’s most essential releases. Veering between cryptic and darkly, to vulnerable and obsessive and back again, it’s a genre-spanning revelation. Even on songs like ballad “Happy on the Grill”, a highlight that ostensibly draws parallels between barbequing and troubled romance, the pathos and pure heart of Ivers’ craft is laid bare.

Despite his well-worn outlier appeal, the temptation to enshrine Ivers as some sort of quintessential outsider neglects just obviously involved and invested he was as an artist and collaborator. If anything, Peter Ivers was an insider. And yet the music tells its own story. “The lyrics, the content, the structure of the songs, the phrasing of the lines, the humour – everything was unique,” says Asha Puthli, “There was no music like that in the rock or blues scene then for a youthful fun-loving restless generation full of energy. His music had it all. He was an original.”

“I feel that recognition for Peter is overdue,” says Tim Hunter. “He wrote excellent songs and the musicianship behind them were often extraordinary. There’s always been periodic interest in his murder, especially as it’s an unsolved murder case. At the point that that happened, of course, he was doing New Wave Theatre and it was fairly clear that he wasn’t going to become a rock star. I don’t know if he knew exactly where he would go, at the point that he was killed, but certainly, he was still writing music full-time. So I would love to see it getting the audience it deserves.”

“Peter wasn’t finished,” Steven Martin adds. “He had his first act, and I think he was in the middle of his second act. Some musicians have one record in them. Pete was thinking much broader and the bigger picture. I always thought that he should have been more celebrated when he was around, so seeing him recognised and celebrated, not as an archival piece but as a contemporary composer and musician is exciting to me, and weird too, because I thought he was great then. What I really hope doesn’t happen is that people look at this and thinking, ‘Oh what an interesting old document.’ No, this is contemporary and it’s ever-lasting. Let’s get into this now.”