Following the Bunny Slippers down the Rabbit Hole with Peter Ivers

In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre by Josh Frank and Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz (New York: The Free Press, 2008)

Every decision you make is the chance to become a hero.
– Peter Ivers

Political correctness notwithstanding, some people are born with a creative pulse and an innate set of skills that set them apart from the rest of us. In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre is the oral history of one of those people – Peter Ivers – and the cultural milieu he helped create. It’s a celebration of the bizarre, a story of love, and a tale of the magic of creative combustion set at Harvard in the early 1970s and in Los Angeles for the duration of the decade and into the early ‘80s. It ends in murder.

Who was Peter Ivers and why should we care? He was the epicenter of some of the most influential American artists in film, theatre, music, and television of his day: David Lynch, Devo, National Lampoon, Harold Ramis, Francis Ford Coppola, Saturday Night Live, as well as perfomers in the burgeoning Los Angeles punk scene. More than just a lynch-pin, Ivers brought a dazzling array of talents and sensibilities to his work: he was a blackbelt in karate, a yoga enthusiast, and a habitual pot smoker. And it was none other than the great Muddy Waters who called that Jew boy “the greatest harp player alive.”

45 Grave performing “Evil” on New Wave Theatre.

Ivers’s accomplishments and collaborations included: writing the theme of Eraserhead (for which this book was named), dating Stockard Channing, working with John Lithgow on college theater, recording five albums of distinctly strange music for unappreciative major labels (Epic and Warner Brothers), performing in diapers and bunny slippers at Lincoln Center, and, as opener, on separate occasions, for the New York Dolls and Fleetwood Mac (whose fans booed him off the stage). Most of all, Ivers is known for championing all things genuinely queer as the puckish host of New Wave Theatre, an early cable access program showcasing the efflorescence of musical talent then found in the Los Angeles underground.

While some people are takers – they take your ideas, they take your time, they take lives – others, like Peter Ivers, the tragic hero of this tale, are BUILDERS. New Wave Theatre began on Los Angeles cable access and was soon picked up by the USA Network as part of its “Nightflight” programming, making Peter Ivers the Johnny Appleseed of American alternative culture. New Wave Theatre simultaneously created a space for people to shine and projected the generated light into the American living room, inspiring a thousand flickers of oddness across the country.

Ivers interviews the Castration Squad on New Wave Theatre. (Photo via Alice Bag, thanks!) L-R: Tiffany Kennedy, Elissa Bello, Dinah Cancer, Shannon Wilhelm, Peter Ivers and Tracy Lea.

Part of what made punk great was that it inspired people to make their own culture. In its wake, there was an explosion of creativity – goth, ska, rockabilly, reggae infusions, new romantic, post-punk, hardcore, etc.  This book is about an artist whose music was NOT punk, but who recognized IN punk the same devilish urge to profane and inspire that motivated his own work. Once, on NWT, Ivers asked David Lynch for a definition of “New Wave” and this was what he got:

Pete, it’s a truck going down the highway at seventy miles an hour. And in the back of the truck there’s a hundred smiling cows. Except one of them has got its head stuck through the floor of the truck and its nose is grinding on the highway. And the smell and the scream – that’s New Wave. (p. 223)

Not exactly Elvis Costello, now is it? Ivers was a distinctly existentialist host – he was notorious for pestering his guests with questions like “what is the meaning of life?” and wearing bizarre outfits that didn’t fit any of the alternative fashions of the moment. This was an existentialism that Sartre would have valued for its humanistic embrace of life as action.

The Lady in the Radiator sings “In Heaven, Everything Is Fine”, composed by Peter Ivers for Eraserhead.

Like any artist not gilded by family or benefactor, Ivers was continually challenged to balance his vision with the demands of the culture industry. Sure, he wanted to be famous, but chose to follow his vision – not the calculated machinations of marketing analysts or the conformism endemic to many self-described “alternative” communities. Consequently, he fought for every interesting note on his albums and was repeatedly dropped by record labels, but nevertheless left a trove of distinctive art.

Ivers was one of those rare people whose sense of artistic adventure is not easily categorized: his music is neither punk nor classical nor blues nor anything else. In a review of one of his early gigs, the Harvard Crimson described him as “a cross between Dennis the Menace and a Marvel superhero.” (p. 55) How cool is that? Ivers’s only wish was to have enough financial security so that he could be perpetually productive without having to worry about paying basic bills.

One of Ivers’ inspired improvisational rants. “New music is get-up-and-die, and death is tomorrow’s beginning. FIND IMMORTALITY IN YOUR CREATIONS.”

Ivers swam in a sea of people whose ships of fame and fortune have come in. While In Heaven gets a bit name droppish, it does demonstrate what Norman Vincent Peale called the “power of positive thinking” – creative people attract their ilk. It also demonstrates how culture is so often created. In LA’s Laurel Canyon of the late 1970s, Ivers was part of a vital scene: “a sense that you were part of a family of artists overflowing with creativity and new ideas, collaborating with and supporting each other, making exciting work.” (p. 156) It takes a village.

Dead Kennedys on New Wave Theatre

By any standard, Ivers lived an unconventional and quite exceptional life, but what sets In Heaven afire is the apparent enthusiasm of its authors, hypertext links between the book and material from Ivers’s corpus at, and a conclusion whose savagery is recounted with a tenderness that transcends the deed. That this story does not end well is a recurring theme, as the narrative is interrupted by trips to the Los Angeles County Morgue, examinations of the “Cold Case” file, and speculative testimony of his contemporaries on the identity of the culprit. These textual trips give the reader a sense of riding around L.A. with detectives in classic film noir style, with the added advantage of a cracked soundtrack to the investigations. In short, the book reads like watching a David Lynch film.

Circle Jerks on NWT.

Ivers’s sudden death seems to have forever prevented him from achieving fame worthy of his accomplishments, though this book may help to set the historical record straight. The book’s subtitle suggests that someone can live an “unsolved life,” although we know much more about Ivers’s life than his perplexing death.

Zoogz Rift performing “Heart Attack” on NWT. (And a bonus UFW clip from Zoogie’s rasslin’ days.)

Peter Ivers was beaten to death while asleep in his loft in L.A.’s troubled “Little Tokyo” – a place where unsolved murders were not uncommon in the early 1980s. Was this the handiwork of some junkie, a random psycho, one of the bands he teased, or of an associate whose obsession with violence may have been more than aesthetic? How could this black belt and yoga-obsessed guy be beaten to death in his own home without visible signs of struggle? By the book’s end, one suspect does seem to emerge despite a paucity of physical evidence. The identity of that suspect I will leave to those of you who demonstrate your interest in the topic by reading the book.

The Subjects appearing with Ivers on New Wave Theater in 1981. Nick Williscent and Brenda Rodriguez: vocals, Gary Ryan: Drums, Stu Gilliam: Bass, Steve Corri: Lead Guitar, Ken Hieob: Rythmn Guitar.

Do you need an excuse to evade the toxic rays of that big, ball of fire hanging overhead? In Heaven Everything is Fine is a fun and affecting diversion from the poisons of modern life. It traces a life lived in the service of a jealous muse with a bank account in the red and a foot on the pedal of life. For a study of L.A. during a period of cultural vitality it can read in fruitful tandem with Lexicon Devil and We Got the Neutron Bomb. It may even ignite a spark in your own arty self. Tally ho!

A very wise and patient Ivers interviews young Sandy Fury (the Clique).

As a historian of sorts, I would be delinquent if I failed to note that New York had a cable access show, T.V. Party, from 1978 to 1983, and this book would have done well to pursue points of cross-fertilization between the two. Having said that, New Wave Theatre is more significant for the development of alternative culture because it was more inclusive (T.V. Party was a glimpse into a private party of scene insiders) and simply due to it’s having had a national audience. Another minor historical glitch is the use of the word “mosh” some five years before it became part of the hardcore lexicon.

10 Responses to “Following the Bunny Slippers down the Rabbit Hole with Peter Ivers”

  1. Nadya Says:

    Wow – thank you for this. I’d heard the name before, but this post filled in a lot of blanks. I read this post with a certain sense of dread – knowing that it does not end well. I put on “In Heaven Everything is Fine” as I read the posts, and at the end it got weird because it’s late at night and I’m only two blocks away from where he was murdered, also in a loft. Kind of silly, but it did send a chill down my spine!

    Loved David Lynch’s definition of New Wave, too. Well-put.

  2. bunny Says:

    I am so glad to see him get coverage here. New Wave Theatre was a huge influence on me as a little kid who never slept and got the USA network on cable.
    I love how utterly unflappable he was, and absolutely in love with the strange and the new.

  3. David Forbes Says:

    This is the second time in a week you’ve revealed much about an amazingly influential figure I knew little or nothing about, and provided plenty of wonderful points for further exploration. Thank you.

  4. gooby Says:

    I remember watching Night Flight on USA, but then was confusing it with Night Tracks on WTBS, which was pretty much the same show ripped off, and then Night Flight became “USA Up All Night” and as soon as Gilbert Godfried and Rhonda Shear joined up, I was out (unless there was a really good flick on that night, that was the first place I saw Forbidden Zone and Nick Danger in The Case of the Missing Yolk).

    I’ve still got so many VHS tapes of New Wave Theatre in my attic, probably still have them memorized if I put them on. All thanks to my older sister who kept me up late and made me lots of mix tapes.

  5. Jerem Morrow Says:

    It’s official, you’re as welcome here as any of the other bloggers! Loved this. Have a few poeple who’ll find this fuel for the fire…sending it their way now.

  6. psycho cat Says:

    Peter Ivers. What a bittersweet memory. NWT was one of those shows I insisted on seeing every week! Being one of “those” types in a small, backward midwestern town, to me Ivers performance as host meant so much. Seeing someone who was intelligent and yet willingly going against the mainstream gave strength and hope to many of us that there was more to the current scene than merely fashion or rebellion for rebellion’s sake.. The memorial episodes were so sad. Thanks for sharing this.

  7. Tequila Says:

    The ending may be cruel but it doesn’t overshadow the life. I enjoy LA’s history of unsolved crimes for the very reason they tend to involve such wildly unique people. Here though it’s hard not to take a pause and feel like you’re reading about more than one person going gone.

    There’s a certain level of dead air that comes after people like Peter Ivers are taken away. A plug is pulled and the world goes dark for those of us without the means or knowledge to be in the center of creative storms. Even those that are lose out on having someone who’d more interested in sharing what they see as opposed to making a quick buck before it all burns out.

    He cast such a wide net though in terms of talent and interest that mainstream fame or not his mark endures. That kind of spirit and idea to build, share, and shine light may be popular now thanks to easy to use tech… but rarely does it come in one person.

    A great introduction, I’ll definitely check out the book.

    @Gooby..I loved the B grade nature of the Godfried and Rhonda Shear era of Up All Night. It was fun stuff and a real shame informercials killed that kinda stuff.

  8. Joe Blow Says:

    the clique sounds so tough, they don’t make it like this anymore. where are ya sandy fury?

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