Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Book Review - In Heaven Everything Is Fine

What do Tommy Lee Jones, Stockard Channing, National Lampoon, John Lithgow, David Lynch, John Belushi, Francis Ford Coppola, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tim Meyers, Punk Rock, Muddy Waters and the USA network all have in common?

The answer is outlined in the sad, but illuminating book In Heaven Everything is Fine, The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the the Lost History of the New Wave Theatre - the subtitle give you a big hint.

The authors, Josh Franz and Charlie Buckholtz, end up surveying the major popular culture waves of the '70s and very early '80s, and they do it through the intimate perspective of this one man's tragically short life. Peter Ivers died in a brutal and needless way, (apparently killed in his bed by a home invader,) at what was believed to be - by just about everybody interviewed - the moment of his own breakthrough into the mainstream of American culture.

This timing results in some difficult detective work for the authors. Ivers had not quite attained enough fame to be extensively documented in the press, so the writers enter the story by talking first hand to people who knew him. This proves to be no problem at all. Mr. Ivers's contacts throughout his life ranged from the Hollywoood elite, to New Wave rockers and fans, and they all seemed eager to talk about his life, his death and his legacy.
Indeed, for a virtual unknown, Peter Ivers must have had a Rolodex that would to be envied by even the most wired Tinsel Town agent. In the books recreation of the morning after the murder, the detectives are looking around Ivers's spare studio apartment, taking in the elaborate wardrobe selections hung around the space. They ask themselves, "Who was this guy?" Almost on cue, VIPs start arriving at the murder scene. Studio big wigs, actors, directors, (Harold Ramis included.) All of them are distraught, devastated, wanting answers. As the BMW's and Mercedes keep pulling up, the cops ask themselves again, "Who WAS this guy?"

Probably the best point of reference for film buffs would be this famous scene from David Lynch's weird film Eraserhead. (Peter plays the music, and that IS his voice singing.)

For alternative music fans, it may be the version of the same song by the band the Pixies:

For the book's author, Josh Frank, this was his start. After being entranced by the Pixie's cover, he tried to find who had written the haunting music that accompanies David Lynch's lyrics. (Apparently, Lynch apologized to Ivers for the banality of the lyrics, but Ivers' brushed that off, seeing immediately how beautiful the simplicity could be.) This opens a window into a generation of creative people that really took control of certain segments of the popular culture, and, sitting at the center, was Peter Ivers. One of the initial interviews with Peter's close friends and collaborators ends with the subject warning the author: "You are going to find out about Peter and it is going to blow your mind."

The story of Peter's artistic life starts at Harvard in in 1965 was surrounded by a cadre of talented people. Imagine, if you will, a production of Everyman starring Tommy Lee Jones and Stockard Channing, directed by Tim Mayer and featuring live music that keeps playing after the curtain call for the enthusiastic audience that includes Doug Kenney, who will go on to create National Lampoon's Animal House and Caddyshack, as well as the famous magazine.

You can read the Harvard Crimson review of this production here. Interesting note in the 1968 review:

"Last night, Iver's tightly-knit band, his stylized compositions and arrangements, and extraordinary singer George Leh, came as close to stealing a show as anybody comes working with Mayer."

The description of this production sounds almost exactly like something one would find on the stage of the Loeb Drama Center over the last say, ten to fifteen years or more. But, remember, this was 1968, and it was a student production that took place long before Robert Brustein established his American Repertory Theatre on the grounds of Harvard University in 1980. The 1960's were a time of Peter Brook's Marat/Sade, The Living Theatre and other theatrical milestones. It was an influence to these student artists over on Brattle Street.

What happened then? They all kind of decamped for Hollywood - some finding great success. Peter Ivers might have been the most artistically inclined. A talented musician, he constantly pushed for new forms. His discipline and drive were intense. For instance, over a summer break at Harvard, he learned to play the harmonica and quickly becomes one of the best players around - sitting in with bands like Muddy Waters. He was signed to a record contract pretty early on, but his albums, while praised as "interesting" in reviews, failed to reach any significant audience or critical mass.

Ivers had an almost uncanny ability to surround himself with super ambitious and talented people - those right on the edge of breaking through - and then connect them with each other. However, as the book makes clear, Ivers always ended up just outside the circle of success, despite being the prime mover.

The authors, along with some of the inteview subjects, muse that Ivers was just not motivated the same way some of his peers were. "He was an artist," one of them says. And it does appear that for a long while Ivers was content with living a modest, artist's life, with the freedom to create and work on his music. However, as the book progresses he does display some behaviour that could only be described as self-defeating. For instance, while opening for Fleetwood Mac, he drops his pants to reveal himself wearing a diaper.

As punk started to come on the scene, Peter seemed to finally find a zone that allowed his ideas for performance to marry his musical sensibilities. The result was the collaboration that was New Wave Theatre, which played on satellite and cable stations.

It was a kind of MTV before MTV, and Peter served as its weird ringmaster. Watching some of the clips today, I must admit, I am a little lost as to its appeal, but it did attract much attention from the networks.

At this time, Saturday Night Live was a monster hit for NBC, and executives everywhere were trying to find something that would interest the younger demographics. SNL's unique combination of music, live audiences and improvisational performance was one of the closest things to theater that television had achieved. In fact, Peter Ivers's edgy New Wave Theatre drew many from the original SNL crew into his orbit - John Belushi became a companion and collaborator.

With offers from studios starting to roll in, Peter seemed to be entering a creative breakthrough - his punk rock opera Vitamin Pink, which was in development, was reportedly poised to be the next Hair. A network pilot was attempted for New Wave Theater, but, sadly, this was filmed after Peter's death - Chevy Chase was the first host, but he got into a fight with the punk rockers and was replaced with Andy Kauffman, who at that point was dying.

Another of the author's intentions for In Heaven Everything is Fine, is to present a re-thinking of the murder case. It is clear that many of the interview subjects seem to think that Peter was murdered for a reason, by somebody who knew him. Most of the suspicion falls on Peter's collaborator on New Wave Theatre, but there is only shaky motive and absolutely no convincing evidence for these charges. As the story progresses, the "cold case" element of the murder investigation tends to distract from, more than drive, the narrative.

Instead, the book really comes to life when following this generation as they stormed Hollywood and basically took over. As the book enters the '70s, a parallel narrative to Ivers' modest career takes shape. Doug Kenney, the mastermind behind National Lampoon, displays increasingly erratic behaviour - disappearing for a while, suddenly showing up at Peter's house and staying for days, while begging Peter and Lucy Fisher, (Hollywood producer and Peter's longtime girlfriend,) not tell anybody, including his wife and family, where he is. While Kenney seems to have attained wealth and material success, it becomes apparent that something is wrong. Kenney commits suicide after making Caddyshack.

It is an eerie harbinger of the early death of Ivers.

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