BACK IN THE EARLY 1980s, most people watched “Dallas” on Friday nights.
But for a lot of punk and new wave fans, the only place to tune in Fridays was the USA Network, which broadcast an out-of-bounds music program called “New Wave Theatre.” The show featured a diminutive, wild card host who seemed to delight in showcasing controversial bands like Fear and the Dead Kennedys and then asking the surly musicians his (deceptively) naive trademark question: “What’s the meaning of life?”
The host was Peter Ivers, who was also a recording artist, virtuoso harmonica player, friend to the stars (notably John Belushi), and a Harvard graduate. An intriguing character whose credentials went far beyond his (deliberately) flaky screen persona, Ivers had scored the David Lynch film “Eraserhead,” opened for Fleetwood Mac, and was the longtime boyfriend of film producer Lucy Fisher, who would go on to helm films like “Jerry McGuire” and “Men in Black.”
So a lot of people were shocked when Ivers turned up dead on March 8, 1983, in his Los Angeles apartment. The crime scene was contaminated, the police could find no leads, and the murder was never solved (years later, the police would even lose the “murder book” detailing the case). Ivers’ handful of albums went out of print and he was all but forgotten.
Until Potomac native Josh Frank and co-author Charlie Buckholtz rediscovered him, that is. Frank was a longtime Pixies fan and was intrigued by their cover version of the haunting Ivers song “In Heaven Everything is Fine,” which was featured in “Eraserhead.” While researching his Pixies book, “Fool the World: An Oral History of the Pixies,” Frank became intrigued with Ivers.
So he and fellow Winston Churchill High School alum Buckholtz set to work on a book on Ivers’ life. Four years in the making, their Ivers book “In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre” was released this past August. Frank and Buckholtz’s research prompted the Los Angeles Police Department to reopen Ivers’ cold case. The authors’ own detective work sure helped. After interviewing over 100 people for the book, they came up with some possible suspects and motives.
Express caught up with Frank while he was on the road promoting the book.
» EXPRESS: To the uninitiated, can you describe Peter Ivers?
» FRANK: Peter Ivers was the most unknown of all the “knows” in pop culture history. He was connected pretty much by a second degree to every major pop culture event of the last 30 years — from film, comedy, television. He was the greatest living harmonica player of his time.
» EXPRESS: Why was Ivers important?
» FRANK: He was the centerpiece of the wheel that our pop culture history turned around in the 1970s and 1980s. Even though his output didn’t necessarily stick, in one way or another he helped many of the other artists of his time get their success — like David Lynch. He was a connector — he connected people. Also, he was ahead of the curve when it came to video art and mixing video and music.
» EXPRESS: What inspired you to want to write a book about him?
» FRANK: He deserved one more than anyone else in the fucking world. It amazes me who gets books written about them and who gets articles written about them. I don’t like when people who are heroes of mine get lost in the timeline of history. I personally have a thing about whenever I see an old movie I immediately go and look up everything I can about who was in it, what happened to them. I’m voracious when it comes to collecting the lost histories of anything. But Peter was this important guy who was an artist — he did amazing things. And I think I’ve always had this fear of how easy it is to be lost in time and history and to have your accomplishments just disappear. That happened to Peter in a major way. What’s so scary about that is he was famous and he actually had all the connections you could ever need. So I wanted to learn how that happened.
» EXPRESS: What was the most surprising thing you learned about him researching this book?
» FRANK: One of the main things was that all his best friends were all the people that are my favorite artists. [They’re] all the people that I look up to creatively. I go see their movies; I buy their music. The more I found out about him, the more I was blown away at how he knew all the people I respect most in the world. And when I talked to these people, all they would say was how much they loved him, in a way that I never heard people talk about another person. There was that and (the fact that) a lot of people are good at a lot of things but masters of none, but Peter was really good at a lot of things and masters of all of them. He really could write a screenplay and write a musical and could record albums and conduct musicians.
» EXPRESS: Will the Ivers albums from the late 1970s ever get reissued?
» FRANK: “Night of the Blue Communion,” his first one (from 1969) was re-released. But with “Terminal Love” [from 1974] and “The Peter Ivers Album” [from 1975] … I don’t know. At the moment, the only place you can hear them is on the Peter Ivers Web site, which I got permission from Warner Brothers to do.
» EXPRESS: Do you think his murder will ever be solved?
» FRANK: At a screening of “Eraserhead” that we did in L.A. the cold case detective I worked with when I was writing the book, Clifford Shepard, came up to me and said “Josh, I want you to know you were very thorough. You found a lot of important pieces that were never looked into, and I just want you to know that I promise you it’s not over. I’m gonna keep this open and as soon as I finish my next case, I’m gonna get back to it.” So he has a passion for it, and I feel that it’s not over and, unfortunately, I can’t say it’ll ever be technically solved, because I won’t be able to really know what the chances are until the [police’s] murder book (which documents the case) is found. Peter’s murder book was misplaced in 2002. If he can find that, then of the two or three possible things that I narrowed it down to in the book, maybe one or two of those things can be canceled out — proven wrong. And then that in the end would lead to the only one that’s left. This was not random. That’s one thing I think I came to the conclusion of in my research — that there really wasn’t a chance of this being a random act of violence.
» EXPRESS: Why do you think Ivers used to ask bands “What’s the meaning of life?”
» FRANK: I think he did that because it was the perfect question to ask a nihilist punk rocker. It’s the perfect opposing question to what these kids were trying to present as their hip shield. Peter, I think, did honestly believe the punk/new wave moment was a movement, much like the ’60s movement. And he was into that. He always believed that in every generation there is a movement. So his way of trying to challenge these punk kids to see that was to try and break into their little fake personas of uncaring rockers. I think he was attempting to get something true out of them. I think Peter felt their songs were true, but then when they weren’t performing, they acted like … monsters.
» EXPRESS: So, what is the meaning of life, Josh?
» FRANK: You know, what’s funny is that I’ve heard so many different answers to that from the tapes and from working on the book that you think I would have come up with an answer in case someone asked. But I don’t think I ever thought anyone would.
» Olsson’s, 1307 19th St. NW; Wed., 7 p.m., free; 202-785-1133. (Dupont Circle)
Written by Express contributor Tony Sclafani
Photo by Seabrook Jones