Sometimes, for whatever reason, great art slips past audiences and remains woefully underappreciated. Which is why we’ve created an essay series called Fossil Records, devoted to helping people discover work that never got its due.
A frequent point of similarity with lost albums and artists is being a little too forward thinking, but few artists have been as tragically ahead of their time as Peter Ivers. If you’ve heard of Ivers at all, it’s likely due to his status as the host of New Wave Theatre, an LA-based cable access show that merged the National Lampoon comedy world Ivers came up in with the then new world of punk. NWT is still fondly remembered today for the early spotlight it gave West Coast punk legends like Dead Kennedys, Fear and Bad Religion and the gonzo approach Ivers and NWT creator David Jove took to the proceedings, which had an obvious influence on MTV. But even NWT barely scratched the surface of Ivers’ talents and knack for bringing together geniuses from various worlds—after all, Ivers’ legend may have grown out of his hosting a rock and roll circus, but he was also the man responsible for Eraserhead’s “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” and arguably the reason why National Lampoon became such a dominant force in tv and film comedy. Before all that, though, he was the Nikola Tesla of weirdo rock, a blues harpist once described by Muddy Waters as the greatest living player of that instrument who basically left that world behind in order to make a series of albums that continue to seem prophetic long after the cruel murder of Ivers himself.
To my mind, Ivers’ greatest achievement isn’t NWT or even “In Heaven,” it’s his now 40 year old LP Terminal Love, a masterpiece that has Ivers’ unique voice and genius wordplay backed up by an impressive group of musicians and backing vocalists. Ivers’ own background was in Harvard theatre, where he worked with director Timothy Mayer to create original music for plays featuring the likes of Stockard Channing, John Lithgow and Tommie Lee Jones, so unsurprisingly there’s a heavy theatrical undercurrent to most of Ivers’ work. Ivers was also an obsessive student of the blues, though, and his early musical career struggled to find the proper balance between those two worlds. Terminal Love stands out as Ivers’ most focused accomplishment because it embraces the conflict of those two ends of the Ivers spectrum rather than forcing them together into some kind of awkward harmony; the experimental theatre vibe of his debut Knight of the Blue Communion is still present, but the operatic headiness is replaced by the swagger and thrust of dirty blues, creating a tension between Ivers’ cerebral air and his weirdo sexual potency.
To make that abundantly clear, Terminal Love begins with a sonic catcall from an eerie guitar line that predicts the style of future Tom Waits guitarist Marc Ribot a decade early. The catcall is in service of “Alpha Centauri,” a forlorn ode to interplanetary love, lamenting the fact that “since you been out of town/the machines all broke down” and things just haven’t been the same since. Ivers’ blues harp is present throughout but it sounds alien and unreal, a freak satellite transmission weaving in and out of the zero g shuffle of the backing instruments. The album’s title track uses a similar technique, with Ivers’ declaration that “Every time you attack your heart/Your heart will attack you” occupying a twisty, hooking melody as the guitar and harmonica break through in staccato bursts, like a precursor to the similarly fatalist jazz punk vibe of Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation.” The difference here is that it isn’t society doing the destruction, it’s romance, Ivers noting that “When love builds up for its final thrust/It will break down your resistance.”
Outside the punk connection, it’s not hard to connect the dots between Ivers and other musical mavericks operating outside the timestream, from mutant disco savior Arthur Russell to cyborg opera figure Klaus Nomi, both of whom were initially ostracized for their inherent weirdness and unmarketable voices. Ivers’ androgynous, nasal vocal tone got him connected with David Lynch, but it was always held up as the biggest obstacle to his musical success, which is a pity because Terminal Love offers plenty of proof that Ivers had an innate understanding of how to use that strange voice to his advantage and I don’t mean that in a Tiny Tim sense. On “Modern Times,” that reedy timbre is matched perfectly with a note-for-note guitar replication of the melody, the fragility of Ivers’ vocal providing the song a tragic quality on the verses before it disappears for the violent disruption of the atonal chorus, only to reappear later as a ghostly presence coming out of the fog of a backing choir chanting the song title. The sax driven, proto-No Wave track “Deborah” uses that same fragility, but here it’s to juxtapose that innocence with the double entendre of the lyrics as Ivers sheepishly describe the titular Deborah and the way “The shape of her hips/And the curve of her lips/Were inviting me to/Come.” That sexual paradox mirrors Ivers’ real life personality, as he was known to be an athletic, highly sexual figure desired by many who also happened to possess a childlike wonder at the world.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends on twitter: @Nick_Hanover