By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
“With age, I have learned that unless you’re dead, life can always get worse.”
Limo driver Byron Baker was between jobs on September 11, 2008, when he stopped at home for a late-afternoon break. A day later, the TV would be full of stories on the Metroliner rail crash in Chatsworth, but for now, the story that caught his attention was a fatal shooting in a loft downtown, which the reporter labeled “roommate rage.” Remembering that his drinking buddy and friend of 20 years Peter Haskell was staying with friends on North Main, he put in a call.
“Hey, Peter, it’s Byron,” says his message on Haskell’s cell phone. “I just wanted to see if you’re okay. I heard there was some kind of funny business down in some loft by the San Antonio Winery on the news just now. Just checking on you, man. Hope everything’s okay.”
It wasn’t. At the time Baker’s call came in, Haskell had been dead for at least three hours, maybe more, shot once through the heart at point-blank range with a .25 caliber handgun.
That evening, the killer was identified as Bruce Kalberg, 59, then being held on a $1 million bond. Like Haskell, 51, Kalberg was a veteran of the early punk scene. He had been the editor of No Magazine, a scrappy chronicle of L.A.’s teeming punk subculture, which he self-published with then-girlfriend Ewa Wojciak from 1978 to 1984. Though no longer a couple, Kalberg and Wojciak continued to share the loft where the shooting took place.
Haskell, a strapping 6-foot-2 raconteur and bon vivant, was a peripatetic filmmaker, musician, artist and actor, who had dated Exene Cervenka of X in the mid-’80s and directed a number of her videos, and who seemed to have crossed paths with everybody. As charter members of the small, intense scene centering on the Masque in Hollywood, Haskell and Kalberg had known each other for 30 years, haunted the same clubs and parties, even dated the same woman — Heather Haley (of the Zellots), who went out with Kalberg “three or four times” and was later married to Haskell for four years. (After his death, she wrote on her blog: “That means my ex-husband has been murdered by my ex-boyfriend.”) All four — Kalberg, Haskell, Haley and Wojciak — worked at L.A. Weekly soon after its launch, in 1978. And in 2005, under the name of Bruce Caen, Kalberg self-published a thinly veiled roman à clef about the period, called Sub-Hollywood, in which (arguably) all of them appear as characters, and which Haskell was helping to promote in exchange for a place to stay, making him both roommate and employee.
Kalberg told the police that Haskell, having been evicted from the loft, had broken in and attacked him, whereupon Kalberg fired the pistol he had been carrying due to Haskell’s repeated threats. Kalberg was released four days later, when the District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges, in effect ruling the shooting self-defense.
As the story radiated outward, rumors swept through the punk diaspora: Both Haskell and Kalberg were crazy, and had been for decades; a major drug deal was about to go down; Kalberg, an avowed gun enthusiast, had always wanted to kill someone to see if he could; Haskell, down on his luck, had attacked an armed man as a form of suicide. There were tales of incriminating messages on each other’s answering machine, and of a perfect storm of strong drink and prescription meds. There was even a mysterious figure known as the Spanish Guitarist, who could attest to Haskell’s movements and frame of mind leading up to the shooting.
Said one observer, “This is like a David Lynch movie.”
Peter Haskell was born and raised in South Carolina, a scion of the Southern aristocracy: Tidalholm Mansion, the family home of his father, Roger, in Beaufort, South Carolina, where Haskell spent his summers as a child, is featured in The Great Santini and, most prominently, The Big Chill. This destined life of privilege came to an end when Roger was diagnosed with advanced Tourette’s syndrome and eventually institutionalized.
Filmmaker John Waters remembers Haskell from the Baltimore punk scene, where he put in a year at the Baltimore Institute of Art. “I liked Pete,” says Waters, with whom Haskell shared a lifelong correspondence. “I thought he was incredibly handsome when he was younger, and funny and nice and smart. I never saw it, but I could imagine there was a dark side to him. When I first heard about this, I could imagine he was completely innocent of everything he was accused of, and I could imagine that he’d killed eight people. Nothing would surprise me, and I’d probably like him the same either way.”
Driving cross-country in 1978, Haskell showed up on the Hollywood doorstep of X bassist John Doe, another Baltimore renegade. Soon enough, he was a charter member of the intense Hollywood punk microcosm — living with the Controllers and the Mau-Maus at the punk-rock apartment building at 8228 Sunset. Later, studying filmmaking at CalArts in the mid-’80s, he lived with Cervenka for two years and was speculated to have broken up her marriage to Doe. (Cervenka considers the matter personal.) Haskell created the cover painting for X side project the Knitters’ Poor Little Creature on the Road and went on to direct the X videos for “Wild Thing” and “Because I Do,” as well as music videos for Medicine, Barnes & Barnes and others. He worked on his own films, including The King of Nothing, with a painfully young Don Bolles, the drummer for the Germs; and a Super 8 feature called The Lowlife, starring novelist Richard Lange (Dead Boys, This Wicked World), with a cameo by Flea. Haskell’s matinee-idol looks won him acting roles in Modi Frank’s 20-minute Western, Bad Day, scripted by Cervenka and featuring an unknown Kevin Costner; Baltimore filmmaker Michael Gentile’s Gang of 25; and Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch’s notorious Fingered, in which he is stabbed in the thigh and dragged from the bumper of a ’50s-model Cadillac.