In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre

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9781416551201: In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre
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On March 3, 1983, Peter Ivers was found bludgeoned to death in his loft in downtown Los Angeles, ending a short-lived but essential pop cultural moment that has been all but lost to history. For the two years leading up to his murder, Ivers had hosted the underground but increasingly popular LA-based music and sketch-comedy cable show New Wave Theatre.

The late '70s through early '80s was an explosive time for pop culture: Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon were leading a comedy renaissance, while punk rock and new wave were turning the music world on its head. New Wave Theatre brought together for the first time comedians-turned-Hollywood players like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Harold Ramis with West Coast punk rockers Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Fear, and others, thus transforming music and comedy forever. The show was a jubilant, chaotic punk-experimental-comedy cabaret, and Ivers was its charismatic leader and muse. He was, in fact, the only person with the vision, the generosity of spirit, and the myriad of talented friends to bring together these two very different but equally influential worlds, and with his death the improbable and electric union of punk and comedy came to an end.

The magnetic, impishly brilliant Ivers was a respected musician and composer (in addition to several albums, he wrote the music for the centerpiece song of David Lynch's cult classic Eraserhead) whose sublime and bizarre creativity was evident in everything he did. He was surrounded by people who loved him, many of them luminaries: his best friend from his Harvard days was Doug Kenney, founder of National Lampoon; he was also close to Harold Ramis and John Belushi. Upon his death, Ivers was just beginning to get mainstream recognition.

In Heaven Everything Is Fine is the first book to explore both the fertile, gritty scene that began and ended with New Wave Theatre and the life and death of its guiding spirit. Josh Frank, author of Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies, interviewed hundreds of people from Ivers's circle, including Jello Biafra, Stockard Channing, and David Lynch, and we hear in their own words about Ivers and the marvelous world he inhabited. He also spoke with the Los Angeles Police Department about Ivers's still-unsolved murder, and, as a result of his research, the Cold Case Unit has reopened the investigation. In Heaven Everything Is Fine is a riveting account of a gifted artist, his tragic death, and a little-known yet crucial chapter in American pop history.

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About the Author:

Josh Frank is the author (with Caryn Ganz) of Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies and a screenwriter, composer, and director.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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chapter 1

I March Forth!

Brookline, Massachusetts, 1956, 4:15 p.m.

Merle Ivers finished up some household chores and turned to her real work of the day. Peter would be home from school soon; what music should she play for him today? She flipped through her record collection. A classical symphony, a selection of jazz standards, a Broadway show? Peter seemed to love them all as much as she did -- and to appreciate them with an almost uncanny level of sophistication. In addition to music, his interests at this age included soccer and an intense preoccupation with the intricacies and nuances of human relationships. He was a small boy, but naturally active and athletic, charismatic and always well liked. And he liked the girls. It didn't hurt that he had a devastating set of what Merle had always thought of as "bedroom eyes."

Merle was open and encouraging of Peter and her daughter Ricki's interests and quirky turns of mind. She was also disciplined, at times strict, about ensuring that their minds and bodies were consistently stimulated, challenged, and engaged. She believed that children needed structure, but not because she was invested in either of her children conforming to societal norms. In a way, it was just the opposite: from her love of music she knew that structure provided the possibility for creative exploration. She felt that the right musical education would enable her children to learn this, and so she put great care into planning Peter's musical diet, carefully selecting just the right record to feed his mind and soul on any given day.

It was this core set of values, and her close relationships with her children, that had brought Merle's young family relatively unscathed through a set of very difficult years. Her first husband, Jordan Rose, was a doctor who had developed a rare cancer two years after Peter was born. They'd lived in Chicago until 1948, when the disease attacked his lungs and forced the family to relocate to Arizona, where his lungs could benefit from the clean dry air. He died a year later, a few months after Ricki's birth.

Ah, Guys and Dolls, Merle thought, sliding the show tune from the stack. Perfect. She held it, reconsidered, and returned it to its sleeve. Maybe today is a better day for jazz.

A widow at twenty-six with two young children in tow, Merle moved back in with her parents in Chicago. But she was an optimist, and she disciplined herself against despair. Only a few months after Jordan's death, she took a trip to Florida, where she met thirty-one-year-old Paul Isenstein, a former Bostonian who had retired to the bachelor's life after some early success in the textile business. Though perhaps not jazz's biggest fan -- he played the reserved, conservative straight man to Merle's free spirit -- Isenstein was a good man. And, most important, he was instantly and fervently Merle's biggest fan. Paul wanted to marry her immediately. And after getting to know him better, she was crazy for him, too. (The only thing she was not crazy for was his last name, which she found too provincial. She picked "Ivers" out of a phone book, and Paul, in his zealotry to win her over, took it on as his own.)

Nineteen-­fifty -- a good year for jazz, Merle thought, flipping through her records. She still had not decided what to play for Peter today.

Merle and the kids moved to Paul's apartment in Brookline, a suburb of Boston. A few years after they married, he set up his own successful business and soon moved the family into a proper house. Like his new wife, the children's education was always Paul's topmost concern.

Merle could not have been happier. Within this bubble of upper-middle-class safety and comfort, her maternal instincts took flight. She sent eight-year-old Peter and six-year-old Ricki to sleepaway camp in Maine. When Peter lost interest in recreational camping, Merle insisted he find another productive use of his time. He chose a lab-science camp. Later, when he tired of that, Merle insisted he find a job. That summer, at age fourteen, he worked at the zoo.

Paul Ivers, though by nature less demonstrative than Merle and by necessity less involved in the day-to-day parenting, was nonetheless a loving, attentive, and above all dependable father throughout Peter and Ricki's childhood years. No matter what professional responsibilities vied for his attention, he could be counted on to appear in the cheering section of any soccer game or school play.

Or, Merle mused, maybe today is a classical day? Mendelssohn or Mozart? Symphony or sonata?

Usually, choosing Peter's music was an almost meditative time for Merle. But today her mind was not totally at ease. A few weeks ago his fifth-grade teacher had called her in for a private conference. Swearing Merle to secrecy, the teacher pleaded with her to take Peter out of the public school system. If her advice were discovered it could mean losing her job, but she felt it would be the best thing Merle could ever do for her son. "There is no way I'm going to be able to keep him focused," she had said, "there is just not enough here to satisfy his thirst for knowledge."

Roxbury Latin was the oldest continuously running preparatory school in the country, and one of the most prestigious. The teacher felt certain that it was the only kind of environment in which Peter could truly flourish. Its entrance standards were extremely competitive, and for the last several years Harvard University had been administering aptitude tests that played a key role in the admissions process. Merle had brought both Ricki and Peter in for the test, and the results were supposed to arrive in the mail any day. Merle could frankly care less about the test per se, the status and prestige. She just wanted to provide the optimal educational environment for her kids, and she felt confident that she could get them into a good school irrespective of the results of one test.

Paul, on the other hand, saw performance on a test like this as a barometer for all future performance in life. A good score would reflect that Peter had what it took, for example, to inherit the business Paul had grown from nothing, manage it effectively, make it flourish, and provide for his family even better than Paul had been able to provide for his. Though Merle knew Paul's heart was in the right place, his anxiety over the impending test results had recently brought an edge of tension into their home.

Ah, yes, Merle thought. This is the one. Here we go. She drew the day's album gently out of its sleeve and blew on it lightly, clearing the dust. She fixed it in place on the player, set the needle down gently, and waited for the opening chords.

Moments later she heard Peter's footsteps tracking up the walk, through the door. When he entered the room all her worries evaporated, like ghosts exposed to daylight. His little face was so open yet so certain. Eyes voraciously curious, yet seeming to hold some profound hidden understanding. One look at him and she knew everything would be fine.

Then she realized that Peter himself did not seem totally fine, his mind appeared to be chewing on some concerns of its own. He didn't wait for her to ask what was wrong. He was worried, he told her, because he'd heard that the atomic bomb was coming and they were all going to be killed.

Merle wanted to reassure him but did not want to say something false or pat. It went against her nature and everything she believed about being a good parent. (The first and only time she had ever spanked Ricki was when, at age three, she told a lie. Peter had stood outside the house in protest, wailing, far more upset than Ricki herself.) But more important, he would see right through it. At ten, Peter had an unnervingly sharp eye for discerning falseness and authenticity. Platitudes would do nothing to calm him, but she had an idea of what would.

"Peter," Merle said. "What are you worried about? If the atomic bomb comes, we're all going to go. You won't be alone. If you go, I'm going, too. We'll all be together."

Peter focused his eyes and nodded slowly. Finally his mouth opened into a grin.

Later that afternoon, as mother and son chatted about his day to a soundtrack of jazz standards, Paul burst through the front door waving a piece of mail high in the air, his face lit up by a radiant smile.

"He's a genius!" Paul proclaimed. "Harvard says Peter is a genius!"

HEADLINES:

New York City, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, 1969

Mr. Ivers performed to a well-­dressed Lincoln Center audience in what ap-­ peared to be quite a handsome pair of polka-­dot pajamas and bunny-­eared slippers. -- New York Times, 1969

PETER JOHNSON, friend from Harvard
"He would show up and wear his pajamas and play. He was outside the box. He was very short, five-­two maybe, but boy, he was a dynamo. So he would come out on stage looking like a little kid in his pajamas. And he looked like a little kid, too, if you see him in pictures. So he was just working with people's expectations, and showing them life and reality outside those expectations."

MERLE IVERS
"At Lincoln Center he was asked to play the harmonica as an opening act, and it turns out he has the flu, and he's in bed with a temperature, but Stockard was there and held his hand the whole day. She was very pretty. He said, 'Mom, I've got to go, I can't not go, I have to go.' I said, 'Well, I'll make you a deal, Peter. I'll fly you over, but you have to make a deal with me that you'll fly back with me on the last plane out of New York.' He appeared in his pajamas."

BUELL NEIDLINGER, close friend, collaborator, bass player
"All the antics grew once he got to LA, from drawing circles on his nipples to opening for the New York Dolls in Hollywood with Paul Lenart."

Hollywood, The Palladium, 1974

Peter Ivers made his concert debu...

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