Audience of One

Tyler Maxin on Becoming Peter Ivers (2019)

Peter Ivers. Photo: Moshe Brakha.

THE MAJOR LABEL SOLO MUSIC CAREER OF PETER IVERS, a figure defined in the popular imagination less by his personal achievements than by his proximities to stardom, has largely been eclipsed by his participation in two prototypical documents of the West Coast underground-gone-chic. The first is his song “In Heaven,” penned in 1974 for then American Film Institute student David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and lip-synched in the film by a disfigured-cheeked Laurel Near; the second, his role as the host of New Wave Theatre, a short-lived cable-access variety show centered around live performances from SoCal bands, including 45 Grave, Fear, and Suburban Lawns.

In 1983, Ivers was found dead by blunt force in his Little Tokyo loft in Los Angeles. The still unsolved murder has only confounded the lore surrounding the man, leaving public understanding of Ivers to posthumous interpretation and amateur detective work. This investigation has thus far resulted in the 1985 LP Nirvana Cube; Josh Frank and Charlie Buckholtz’s serviceable oral history In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre (2009); a recovered “lost” album from Wounded Bird Records in 2009; and a subsequent string of CD reissues. The release of RVNG Intl.’s new compilation Becoming Peter Ivers (2019)—hitherto the most coordinated case for his musical legacy—is propelled by the hope that the studio and four-track living-room demos found in his loft upon his death might finally defog the Ivers mythos. These tracks, recorded during his time as a mid-’70s Warner Bros. act, chart his artistic development alongside a shifting California sensibility: from the “smooth” West Coast singer-songwriter sound of Laurel Canyon to the raucous Anglophile rock coming out of the famous nightclub Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco and ultimately toward the nascent New Wave.

Ivers came to rock music through a cerebral back alley. He took up harmonica while majoring in classics at Harvard, and after a dalliance with Cambridge’s waning folk scene—including stints in Street Choir and the Lyman Family—he recorded a single LP for Epic Records, titled Knights of the Blue Communion (1969). A pillaring fusion record adapted from lieder he wrote for playwright Tim Mayer, it failed to court commercial or critical success, and a second album was buried. Ivers set out west for Los Angeles in 1971, nabbing a job at NBC doing set carpentry for The Tonight Show while hustling his songwriting talents. He played mouth harp on John Cale’s blues score for Caged Heat (1974); scored The Amazing Bow-Wow (1976), a Lacanian spoof about the castration of a hermaphroditic circus dog, for Lynda Benglis and Stanton Kaye; and wrote the title track for Ron Howard’s directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto (1977). Amid his collaborative soundtrack work, Ivers pursued a record deal and, through his acquaintanceship with Van Dyke Parks, was smuggled onto the Warner Bros.’ roster. By then, Ivers had developed a tight backing band that included both fellow Boston transplant Buell Neidlinger, a seasoned session bass player and long-time Cecil Taylor sideman, and Alice de Buhr of the hard-rock distaff group Fanny.

A Zelig-like figure, Ivers had a propensity to background-lurk the zeitgeist—spot him in the credits of Airplane! (1980) and as an extra in Albert Brooks’s Real Life (1979)and a chameleonic pop style, which vacillated between post-hippie, glitter rock, regrettable faux-hepcat Blues Brothers bravado, power pop, disco crossover, and, most endearingly, the Great American Songbook. RVNG Intl. drew the tracks on Becoming Peter Ivers from the sketches and sessions behind the shambolic, throbbing Terminal Love (1974) and the comparatively radio-sleek Peter Ivers (1976), his two Warner Bros. releases. The versions collected here range from studio-intensive full-band cuts to bare-bones piano interludes. Ivers’s music, so contingent on his charisma, is at its most evocative when centering his high, nasal voice and boyish aw-shucks lyrics, simultaneously lascivious and tender. The home-taped rendition of “Even Stephen Foster” is particularly gutting—it is about heartbreak but also Ivers’s pursuit of a music that is “simple but deep,” and is perhaps the acme of his wide-eyed approach to songwriting.

Side one of the Peter Peter Ivers Band's Terminal Love (1974).

As the ’70s came to a close, so too did a bull market of album-oriented rock, and “prestige artists” like Peter Ivers—idiosyncratic but unprofitable performers that Warner Bros. retained to sustain its critical reputation—were first on the label’s chopping block. Failing to hone any of the bicentennial nostalgia craze that bolstered American Graffiti (1973) and Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (1974), and just barely out of step with the culturati rock tastes du jour, he was dropped. His voice, described in the Terminal Love press release as “an androgynous eight-year-old traumatized by Mighty Mouse,” nonetheless echoed through the canyon and beyond, serving as a blueprint for the affectations of the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra and numerous short-lived, all but forgotten power-pop acts from around the country.

In 1979, attempting to pave his own road through the swiftly changing music industry, Ivers penned a spiritual-entrepreneurial missive he called “The Ivers Plan.” Outlining an assembly-line business model to promote “off-Hollywood” art, including the distribution of artist-made short-form videos and a Warner Bros. imprint dedicated to releasing demos, the document reads like a marketing deck for the yet-emergent tape-swapping culture. With mystical declarations like “people thirst for knowledge, entertainment, God and hypnotism,” and a section titled “How to Develop a Scene,” it is a prescient vision of the MTV ’80s, but with a few twists: a bizarro alternate universe where video art, National Lampoon, transgressive performance, punk, and Joe Papp comingled as commerce. Becoming Peter Ivers fulfills his dream of the distributed demo four decades after the fact—about as far from him as he was from Irving Berlin, and just as saccharinely out of fashion.

Becoming Peter Ivers was released by RVNG Intl. on November 11, 2019.