Have you ever seen Eraserhead? In David Lynch’s first B&W Surrealist mind-hump of a movie, there is scene with a little song the “Lady in the Radiator” sings in which the only lyrics are: “In heaven, everything is fine.” It is a supremely affecting and menacing moment in an art film filled with them.
Josh Frank, co-author of Fool The World, The Oral History of a Band Called The Pixies, was a Twin Peaks fan growing up in suburban Potomac, Maryland when he first saw that perverse pageantry. He would later come to find out the otherworldly, upsetting tune was written by Peter Ivers, an experimental-pop musician and the catalyst-center of an early experiment in cable television’s desire to blend challenging new rock music, insurgent comedy, and arty weirdness into a show called New Wave Theatre.
That show featured bands like the Dead Kennedys and Fear, among many others, and lived up to the strangeness of the movie Ivers wrote the song for, as well as his classically bizarre LPs Knight of the Blue Communion (1969), Terminal Love (1974), and others. Full of stark imagery mixed with improvisational madness, Ivers’ own music was simply another element of this proto-punk Renaissance Man’s adventures in acting, humor, TV scores (for Roger Corman flicks and even Starsky & Hutch), but most of all, his New Wave Theatre, which was a thinly veiled look at the real Los Angeles underground shot out on channels like USA to the heartland of America, rattling the minds of its children. It thrilled John Belushi and Harold Ramis, whose lives would be entwined with Ivers’ own, as driven to excessive creativity as the former but with an ambitious heart to entertain wide-scale too like the latter. As status-quo karmic payback (if you believe in crap like that) Ivers was found gruesomely beaten to death in his art studio-loft-music space on March 3, 1983.
In Heaven Everything Is Fine is an excellent oral history constructed by Frank (also known for The Jonathan Richman Musical) and co-authored by novelist Charlie Buckholt. It has to wade through the morbid realms of the druggies and dangerous thugs who populated Ivers’ private life to try and make sense of his cruelly brutal death, which shows what people who were creating on the margins of society were doing to dream and get by before MTV and the Internet told them what was acceptably “cool.” I remember finding New Wave Theatre pretty annoying, personally, because it pushed a sloppy, weaning humanism at the same time it let me see my favorite first wave hardcore bands. Ivers had a tendency to “challenge” his guests and ask them “probing” questions, but unlike same-period comedians such as Andy Kaufman (who let you guess why he wanted to wrestle women so feverishly), the post-hippie ideology crammed against the liberating musical aesthetics. Still, Ivers’ mysteriously ambivalent social sexuality, commitment to sweeping away apathy, and building community in strangeness, were essential to the cause of alternative culture. If not for the meddling and probably malicious over-control of a creative partner named David Jove, Ivers may have lived longer to antagonize consumer society into the new century. Or would have ended up a casualty like Klaus Nomi or Kaufman himself. Hard to say.
Still, In Heaven Everything Is Fine is an alternately inspiring and toe-curdling tale of one of the sweet, strong, idealistic personalities of someone who brought many people together to do something wild and wonderful in a world of commercial conformism. LA was rocked hard by Ivers, and even those who shared his need to shock and awaken his audience (whoever that may be, bored hipsters and dead-eyed mall kids alike awake at 3 AM vegging out to the demon box) felt the need to spar with him. From history-clearing interviews with Lampoon writer Doug Kenney to shit-stirring rants from members of Angry Samoans, Devo, and others make this an irradiating glimpse into the punched up, often painful beginnings of a world that makes a lot of what you see and hear at venues or in modern alt-weeklies/blogs or in current music at all possible.