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October 2, 2023 27 mins

After his first album flops, Peter Ivers moves to LA for a fresh start. As his friends excel in film, TV, and music, Peter starts to fall behind. 


This episode features information and audio from the following sources:

Decline of Western Civilization Part I

Animal House


Grand Theft Auto

In Heaven Everything is Fine by Josh Frank

New Wave Theater

Over the edge: The incredible life and mysterious death of Peter Ivers

'An Einstein among Neanderthals': the tragic prince of LA counterculture

Peter Ivers: A Death of Innocence

Rediscovering Peter Ivers, a punk-rock Zelig with a glittering résumé and mysterious demiseUnraveling the Mystery of Peter Ivers

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
Hey, just so you know, this episode has some explicit content.
If anything offends you write it down on a piece
of paper and then throw it in the trash because
I don't want to hear about it. Listen to discretion
as advised.

Speaker 2 (00:22):
It's nineteen seventy six at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles.
Thousands of people are there to see one of that
year's hottest bands, Fleetwood Mac. But first their opening act
comes on stage.

Speaker 3 (00:37):
Obviously, if you have a chance to open for Fleetwood Mac,
you would like it to lead to more commercial success,
and what happened was just the opposite.

Speaker 2 (00:45):
That's Tim Hunter, a TV and film director. He's in
the audience watching the opening band plays a set of
trippy rock songs punctuated by harmonica riffs. Their frontman is
a little guy, and he's butt naked except for a diaper.
The crowd booze they ain't digging it. He launches into

a song about a love sick alien who wishes his
baby would come back because outer space is cold without her.

Speaker 3 (01:16):
Who was just the world's most unpopular opening act.

Speaker 2 (01:19):
The world's most unpopular opening act, Peter Ivers. Peter confused
that audience, like why was he up there wailing on
the harmonica in his pampers? Who was this guy? Today?
We're going to answer that question by bringing you the

story of Peter ivers early years. So let's go back
to nineteen sixty eight, when Peter was an undergraduate student
speaking classical Greek at Harvard. Yeah. Yeah, it's easy to
put those Ivy League twerps down, but as always, Peter
invited you to love him. I'm Penelope Spheris, and this

is Peter and the Acid King. In nineteen sixty eight,
John Leone is an undergrad at Harvard hustling through these

underground tunnels on campus.

Speaker 4 (02:29):
And I heard this amazing blues harmonica player echoing through
the hallway and I followed and there was Peter sitting
on top of them a pig noose amplifier, playing blues fire.
Most of the people I knew in the music business

were virtuoso is of one kind or another, pianist or
guitar player. But I never met somebody who just played harmonic,
and that was interesting in itself.

Speaker 2 (03:03):
Peter could play the harmonica like no one else.

Speaker 5 (03:07):
His fucking ability to play harmonica just fucking insanely grace.

Speaker 6 (03:11):
He was a wizard with his harmonicas he would come
through the door and would announce his arrival by doing
a harmonica riff.

Speaker 1 (03:21):
He's one of the best harmonica players out there.

Speaker 2 (03:29):
Peter started playing the harmonica his freshman year of college,
but it wasn't enough for Peter to learn the instrument.
He had to master it. The summer between his freshman
and sophomore year, Peter took a trip to Chicago, where
Muddy Waters made his claim to fame. During that trip,
he met Little Walter, Muddy Water's harmonica player. At that time,

Little Walter was considered the best harmonica player alive.

Speaker 7 (03:58):
You know, here's this kid, as undergogd graduate at Harvard's,
you know, going out to Chicago and playing literally playing
with some you know, Muddy Waters and etc.

Speaker 2 (04:08):
That's Stockard Channing, Peter's college girlfriend and an actor known
for playing rizzo in Greece. Little Walter invites Peter into
the Muddy Waters crowd, and before long, Peter is organizing
shows for the Blues legend. In exchange, Little Walter gives
Peter harp lessons.

Speaker 7 (04:29):
I mean, anybody who goes to play the blues with
Muddy Waters as an undergraduate at Harvard. That's an extraordinary cat.
But in nineteen sixty eight, sadly little Walter dies at
a show. Shortly after that, Muddy Waters introduces Peter as

the greatest living heart player. It's a passing of the torch.
Peter's harmonica playing eventually lands him in the office of Larry,
an executive at Epic Records.

Speaker 2 (05:02):
Here's Larry.

Speaker 8 (05:03):
We hit it off, and I think either Peter or
some one of the group guys told me that Peter
was a musician, you know, played harmonica math art. And
my first thought was not much to mend for this
kind of thing, but I'm certainly willing to listen. You
know who knows. I figured, well, here I'm going to

get another blues hard player. But he was great. He
was so advanced harmonically, I mean, and he did things
that were really, really interesting.

Speaker 2 (05:32):
Larry signs Peter to a two album deal. Peter's first
record is Night of the Blue Communion, which is a
very late nineteen sixties piece. It was sort of a
psychedelic jazz album with lots of brushes on drums and
horn squawks and not my bag but someone's.

Speaker 8 (05:55):
Critically, it did very well because you know, people who understood,
they could see that he was doing something new, he
was exploring. But for the average record bier, it's not
a chance.

Speaker 2 (06:08):
Which is another way to say it flops.

Speaker 8 (06:15):
Then I did another album with him. Everybody said, well,
you know, it's a typical salespeople. They don't know shit
from They know much about music as I know about
brain surgery and out of Space, and they didn't want
to waste their time. So I put Peter in the
studio again and I said, do whatever you do. And
it never came out, and they dropped Peter.

Speaker 2 (06:36):
After Epic drops him, Peter gets a call from his
Harvard buddy Tim Hunter. Tim scoring his first movie at
the American Film Institute and he needs a composer.

Speaker 3 (06:47):
I encouraged Peter to come out. He wanted to come
there anyway, but he basically the catalyst was that he
came out to score Devil's Bargain, the film that I
made it AFI.

Speaker 2 (07:01):
So Peter packs up his harmonica and heads west to Hollywood,
Land of Dreams. Sheah Right, Peter's new girlfriend, moves to
La two. Her name is Lucy Fisher, and Lucy is
the love of Peter's life. Peter and Lucy met in

nineteen sixty nine. The same way Peter devoured the harmonica,
Lucy devoured plays, poetry and art, and people flocked to
Lucy just like they did to Peter. The pair came
together easily.

Speaker 3 (07:37):
And they set themselves up in the Laurel Canyon house,
and that's when he started writing writing songs seriously.

Speaker 2 (07:47):
While Peter's diving into songwriting, Lucy gets a gig reading
scripts for movie studios.

Speaker 3 (07:52):
We used to hang out there and just spend a
lot of time in Peter's small studio watching him write,
and you know, and listen to the demos.

Speaker 2 (08:01):
Laurel Canyon back then was home to a vibrant music
and art scene, and Lucy and Peter's home quickly became
a hangout.

Speaker 3 (08:10):
You know, he took to the scene. You could tell
that he'd enjoyed it and felt it home there.

Speaker 6 (08:15):
You know.

Speaker 3 (08:15):
He always had a great sense of humor and a
kind of an enjoyment of life that was fairly infectious.

Speaker 2 (08:21):
My favorite memory of Peter and Lucy is from this time. Lucy,
Peter and I would drive around Laurel Canyon and try
to find parties. I had a convertible Mustang at the time,
and I wish I would have kept that car. Lucy
would ride Shotgun and Peter would be in the back
seat and he would have his head right here between us,

and we'd be laughing our asses off, having a great time.
Filmmaker Malcolm Leo also remembers cruising for parties with Peter.
He'd pick Malcolm up in his shitty car and they'd
just start driving.

Speaker 6 (08:56):
He had the most ragtag sports car in the world
that the top would never go up, there's perpetually down.
And we'd be driving around La freezing our ass off
at night and going to these events that only he
seemed to know.

Speaker 2 (09:14):
No matter where Peter went, it seemed like he knew everyone.
It was like there were no strangers. Peter just invited
everyone to be his friend.

Speaker 6 (09:24):
The crowd would separate and up would walk Peter, and
he wore his holstered harmonica and he'd just go on
stage and blow a few tunes and then leave.

Speaker 2 (09:35):
Eventually, all of Peter's networking pays off and he lands
his first big movie score, well sort of.

Speaker 9 (09:49):
I'm Ron Howard. This is Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft
Auto is a love story.

Speaker 1 (09:57):
With cars.

Speaker 2 (09:58):
The film is called Grand Theft Auto and it's the
directorial debut from a former child star named Ron Howard.

Speaker 9 (10:08):
We were on this accelerated post production pace, Joe Dante's
editing and going very quickly, and John Davison came to
me and said, I have an idea for who should
score the movie. I said, I haven't thought about it
at all, John. Who would that be? Peter Rivers?

Speaker 2 (10:27):
This project is a low budget car chase movie. So
Ron's like, yep, sure, Harmonica guy.

Speaker 9 (10:35):
I just didn't know one thing about Peter Rivers. I
just said, okay, you know, let's meet him. So John
Davison brought Peter and we were going to talk about
the movie and sort of spot it.

Speaker 2 (10:49):
Spotting is when the director and composer decide where the
music cues in a film will go.

Speaker 9 (10:55):
I mean, our spotting session would normally take place over
or course of a couple of days, maybe in a
screening room where you could stop the movie and discuss
it and go back. Our spotting session took about an
hour and a half. It didn't take much more than
just the running time.

Speaker 2 (11:14):
It's just John Davidson, Peter Rivers, and Ron Howard in
the room watching the movie. Peter has his harmonica with him.

Speaker 9 (11:22):
It was just John Davison operating the movieola Peter River's there.
Really nice guy, didn't have a hell of a lot
to say, had a harmonica, and every once in a
while he'd stop, you know, and point it to something
and he just do like a couple little riffs on
the harmonica.

Speaker 10 (11:41):
I mean, I was a little thrown.

Speaker 9 (11:43):
By this because I didn't see this as a harmonica score,
and I think I said, you know, I don't imagine
a lot of harmonica, and John said, well, it's kind
of his thing. He kind of writes on the harmonica.
But no, I mean, harmonica might be in there, but
he'll he's a producer, he's a record producer. It's gonna

sound great. And then he went away, and like literally
a week later, he had the song. It was a
title song for Grand Theft Auto, so it was a
Grand Theft you know, you stole my heart. We were
in your car, we were on the run, having fun,

but it was also professional and kind of cool.

Speaker 2 (12:32):
And of course, because it's Peter, there's a harmonica riff
about halfway through the song.

Speaker 9 (12:42):
And I was pretty happy with the whole thing.

Speaker 2 (12:45):
The film isn't any kind of a hit, but it
helped establish Ron as a director and gave Peter the
scoring credit he needed to. Around this same time, Peter
meets another aspiring director, David Lynch, who's working on his
first film, eraser Head.

Speaker 11 (13:04):
I thought I heard a stranger. We've got chickens tonight strangers.
Damn things demand made.

Speaker 2 (13:10):
Describing something in a David Lynch movie is like describing
a bad acid trip. So I'm going to leave it
to Kayla Janice. She's a film critic who studied Peter's
life and writes brilliantly about David Lynch.

Speaker 12 (13:25):
So in eraser Head, Jack Nance plays a character named
Henry who is sort of living in this industrial hellscape.

Speaker 8 (13:35):
Hello, I'm Henry.

Speaker 11 (13:37):
Henry's at Lapel's factory. Well, print's your business, hut plum,
it's mine. Thirty years I've seen this neighborhood change from
pastures to the hell home it is now.

Speaker 12 (13:47):
He lives in this very claustrophobic environment in sort of
a single room, and at one point he's you know,
he's been sort of saddled with this deformed baby, and
so Henry is left alone, and he has incredible anxiety
in general, which is then compounded by being left alone
with this baby.

Speaker 2 (14:07):
So, while Henry is stressing out, the camera pans to
the other side of the room. Then it zooms in
on the inside of a radiator.

Speaker 12 (14:17):
He sees this woman. She has a very abnormal physical appearance,
but her face itself is heavily caked to make her
face seem very large, very cratered, and she has extremely
pronounced cheeks. And she starts to sing this song called
in Heaven Everything is Fine, and the lyrics of the

song are very simple.

Speaker 2 (14:41):
Here's a clip from that song.

Speaker 10 (14:43):
Yeah, everything is fast, everything is fine.

Speaker 12 (14:56):
But it's not actually her voice that's being used for
the song. Voice that is singing that song is the
voice of Peter Ivers.

Speaker 2 (15:03):
His voice is really high pitched, a little eerie.

Speaker 12 (15:24):
The song itself was a huge part of why the
movie Eraserhead became such a big cult hit. There was
a lot of a lot of interest in that song,
Like the band Divo ended up covering it on their
nineteen seventy nine tour.

Speaker 5 (15:49):
We used to end all of our shows with this character.
Boogie Boy would come out.

Speaker 2 (15:54):
That's Mark Mothersbaugh lead singer and keyboardist of Divo. He's
also an Oscar nominee, did film composer.

Speaker 5 (16:01):
He'd sing the final song of the night sitting in
a playpen usually, and so he would sing in Heaven
every now and then.

Speaker 2 (16:25):
In Heaven it's probably Peter's most successful song. Here's a
clip from the early eighties where Peter's talking to an
interviewer at a club on the Sunset Strip. Without the
interviewer even prompting him, Peter brings up the song.

Speaker 13 (16:40):
You know, the most famous song I wrote is called
in Heaven, dian No, Are you serious? The song in
Eraserhead is called in Heaven? Whoa in Heaven everything is
fine and Heaven everything is fine and Heaven You got
your good things and I've got mine Gone Gone, Gone Gone.

Speaker 2 (17:04):
And have his music in eraser Head and Grand Theft
Auto helps Peter get another record deal, this time with
Warner Brothers. In nineteen seventy four, he releases his second album,
Terminal Love. Here's Jello Biafra Yeah the Dead Kennedy's guy.

Speaker 14 (17:23):
I first heard Peter Ivers when I was still in
high school and there was a used record store a
couple of blocks from the school. I went to every
day called Tredeo Tape and Records. I not only emptied
the free box every single day, but I also try
to keep up with every single record that came into
the store. And in came Terminal Love, and I put

it on and thought it was just about the worst
record I had ever heard in my life. But sometimes
have you ever had one of these things where the
one of the worst things turns around and becomes one
of the best things you ever heard of your life instead?

Speaker 2 (18:01):
Jello may have been one of the few people who
liked the songs, though the album flops, and part of
the issue is Peter's voice. Here's Kayla again.

Speaker 12 (18:13):
He has such an unearthly voice in a way. It's,
you know, what you might call a nasally voice or
a brady voice, but it's a very androgynous voice, you know.
It is not a distinctly masculine voice.

Speaker 2 (18:28):
Peter's own press release for Terminal Love reads it sounds
like howling Wolf if he inhaled helium.

Speaker 12 (18:36):
So his albums could never really be as commercial as
he wanted them to be because his voice was a
stumbling block for a lot of people, because it was
so unusual. It just didn't fit with anything.

Speaker 2 (18:48):
You know.

Speaker 12 (18:49):
It is still a very unusual voice, unlike anything else
out there.

Speaker 2 (18:55):
The album's failure could not have felt good for Peter,
and it came into time when the people around him
were starting to soar. His girlfriend, Lucy was on her
way to becoming one of the most powerful people in Hollywood.

Speaker 12 (19:10):
She got a job originally as a script reader at
United Artists and then quickly sort of rose through the
ranks as a film executive. She moved over to MGM
and then eventually was hired by Francis Forcoppola to head
up his new Zoetrope Studios.

Speaker 2 (19:25):
Meanwhile, Peter's best friend from college, Doug Kenny, has created
The National Lampoon. It was just a magazine at first,
but soon the Lampoon morphs into a stage and radio show.
It would launch the careers of Gilda Radnir, John Belushi,
and Chevy Chase, all of whom would go on to

star in the first season of Saturday Night Live. As
a side note, I produced film shorts for Saturday Night
Live back then. I remember one day Chevy Chase knocked
on my door looking for film work. After about fifteen
minutes of talking Chevy whose real name is Cornelius Crane.

Chase escorted my roommate Jeanette into her bedroom and they
had some yeah, rump and sex. That's what I recall anyway.
So back to Peter, He's torn between the world where
Lucy Fisher and Doug Kenny operate, the overground, as Peter
called it, and the underground where the artists, eccentrics and

punks thrive. Here's Malcolm Leo again.

Speaker 6 (20:34):
I mean, he was out in the rock and roll world,
but his girlfriend at the time was an executive in
one of the film companies, And so you would one
evening he might be with Nancy Reagan and the next
evening he'd be with Darby Flash or Darby Crash. Same shit.

Speaker 2 (20:53):
Darby might argue, it's not the same shit, but okay.
As Lucy's career skyrockets, Peter's still trying to figure out
what's next. What takes place between the two of them, Well,
that's their business. But the point is Peter and Lucy
start to drift apart. Meanwhile, a tragedy is looming on

the horizon, a tragedy that would stun all of Hollywood.
The death of Peter's friend Doug Kenny. Following the success
of the National Lampoon radio show, Doug had set his
sights on the movie business, and in nineteen seventy eight
he released his first film, Animal House.

Speaker 3 (21:41):
How did it Feel to be an independent show in Stein?

Speaker 4 (21:44):
How does it Feel to be an asshole in Nito Meyer.

Speaker 2 (21:47):
The film was about class warfare, the preppies versus the slackers.
In a funny way, it mirrored the experience that had
brought Peter and Doug together in the first place. Neither
of them had fit in with the snooty elite at Harvard,
but Animal House was a box office smash, and all
of a sudden, Doug was no longer an outsider.

Speaker 4 (22:11):
Doug and Peter were very close friends and kind of
engaged the world as a satire.

Speaker 2 (22:18):
That's John Leone again.

Speaker 4 (22:20):
Doug sort of became the opposite from Peter. He came
there and had a massive success right away Animal House,
and became very rich.

Speaker 2 (22:34):
By nineteen eighty Doug's a multi millionaire. He's made two
huge movies, Animal House and Caddyshack, and he's becoming the
town's king of comedy. Stars like Chevy Chase and John
Belushi partied at his house.

Speaker 4 (22:50):
There was a period of time when everybody was doing
choke for about a year and a half or two years.

Speaker 2 (22:57):
There was this sense that things might be going a
little too far.

Speaker 4 (23:02):
You could just see it was ruining everybody. Flocks, people
would stumble around and getting car crashes. Dog often crashed
its car. There were times of Doug Gates Christ you know,
he would answer the door without his pants on. I
mean it was it wasn't hard to see that there
was a disaster lating happen.

Speaker 2 (23:29):
At the height of his success, Doug takes a vacation
to Hawaii. One day on his trip, Doug goes for
a drive. He gets out of the car and walks
along the top of a cliff, and somehow he slips
and falls to his death.

Speaker 4 (23:47):
That was the end of the long party Doug's death.
Once Doug died, I stopped doing any cocadol.

Speaker 2 (23:55):
The National Lampoon published a tribute to its co creator.
It was a cartoon picture of a cliff with a
sign that said Doug Kenny slipped here.

Speaker 4 (24:08):
I think that that loss harmed Peter as it did
me any other Tugshens.

Speaker 2 (24:15):
By the end of nineteen eighty one of Peter's best
and most successful college friends, has died. Peter's career has stalled,
and his year's long relationship with Lucy Fisher is on
the rocks. Not too long after they separate. There's some
ambiguity about whether they actually broke up, but again that's

their business. The important thing is that when they do
part ways, it's a real low point for Peter. Peter's

life has started to unravel thread by thread. So when
a project comes along that combines his love of music,
performance and LA's underground, it feels like maybe he can
stitch it all back together, But Peter has no idea
just what and who he's dealing with.

Speaker 4 (25:23):
Peter is not a rejector of things, and I think
had he been a little more careful who he trusted,
he'd be alive today.

Speaker 2 (25:33):
That's next time on Peter and the Acid King. Audios, Amigos,
bye bye, and all that shit. See you on the
other side. Peter and the Acid King is based on
interviews recorded and researched by Alan Sachs. It's produced by

Imagine Audio, Alan Sachs Productions and Awfully Nice for iHeartMedia.
I'm your host, Penelope Speerris. The series is written by
Caitlin Fontana Peter and the Acid King is produced by
Amber von Schassen. The senior producer is Caitlin Fontana and

the supervising producer is John Assanti. Our project manager is
Katie Hodges. Our executive producers are Ron Howard, Brian Grazerkara Welker,
Nathan Kloke, Alan Sachs, Jesse Burton and Katie Hodges. The
associate producers are Laura Schwartz, Dylan Cainrich and Chris Statue.

Co producer on behalf of Shout Studios Bob Emmer. Sound
design and mix by Evan Arnette, fact checking by Katherine Barner.
Original music composed by Alloy Tracks, Music clearances by bar
Rahal voiceover recording by Voicetracks. West Show artwork by Michael Dare.

Special thanks to Annette van Juren. Thank you for listening.
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