A Meeting of the Strange Minds: Peter Ivers, David Lynch and Devo
On Tuesday, the American Cinematheque presents a memorial tribute to the Los Angeles poet, performance artist and musician Peter Ivers, featuring a newly restored 35mm print of David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead. In the new book In Heaven Everything Is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre, Josh Frank (with Charlie Buckholtz) explores the life, work and cold-case murder of Ivers, who was the host of the underground cable show New Wave Theatre and composer of Eraserhead’s “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song).” This excerpt from the story recalls the moment Eraserhead first caught on with L.A. audiences at the Nuart Theatre and captured the imagination of a band called Devo.
Santa Monica, Nuart Theatre, Circa 1977-78, Midnight
Doug Martin’s friends were tired, but worse than that they were bored.
What had started out as a gag and a favor for a friend — coming to the theater every Friday at midnight, chanting the name of the movie as soon as the lead actor appeared onscreen until the rest of the crowd chanted along — was starting to feel like a job. A job that didn’t pay.
“Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead ...”
Well, for Doug Martin, it was a job. He worked in marketing for the company that owned the art theater where his identical-twin brother, Steve, worked as a projectionist. The theater had picked up Eraserhead — the dark, surreal first film by a young David Lynch — for a Friday midnight slot. With the manic popularity of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the midnight-movie trend had blossomed into a full-fledged craze. In the year since it had reinvented itself as an art house, the Nuart Theatre had held down the Saturday midnight slot with Pink Flamingos, John Waters’ cult raunchfest — including scenes of public urination, mother-son fellatio, consumption of dog feces, and the infamous “chicken fuck” — whose success was measured by how many people threw up in the aisles of a given showing, and which, based on that measure, had been a consistent, raving success. Eraserhead,with its dark themes and obscure plot line, lacked the ready hooks of those films and was going to be a gamble for the theater. Lynch’s travails in getting his AFI thesis made were well known in the underground film scene. He had spent the lion’s share of the ’70s making the film in chunks, stopping when the money ran out and hustling to raise enough for the next scene. His dogged long-term commitment in the face of such a grueling stop-start process had earned him the respect of his peers.
Doug’s first marketing decision was to write off the possibility of any woman ever coming to see it. He aimed the advertising at college men, with the message that the film was so unsettling that they should not, under any circumstances, bring their ladies. This generated some buzz among the fraternity crowds, and all the macho disclaimers — you don’t want to see this, baby, it’s way too gross — piqued their girlfriends’ interest. Looking around the theater he had already noticed young women trickling in to see what all the fuss was about. It had also been Doug’s idea to capitalize on the audience-participation angle of the midnight movie trend to build a base of devoted fans who would tell their friends. Lacking the flamboyance that characterized most other successful midnight films, Eraserhead did not make it easy. Every Friday, Doug would show up with a couple friends, and the moment the main character with the title hairdo appeared on the screen, they would quietly start the chant. “Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead . . .”
One of the first nights Steve projected it, only 16 people showed up. One of them was Stuart Cornfeld, a budding producer who had recently assisted Mel Brooks on his Hitchcock parody High Anxiety. When the film ended 89 minutes later, Cornfeld felt he was a different person — as if he had experienced a kind of cinematic rebirth.
When Doug Martin saw the film that night, he had a strange feeling of recognition. A few years prior, he had done some graphic design work for AFI, and one day, hanging out on the campus, he had stumbled upon an outdoor patio that gave him a creepy feeling he could not quite place. It took him a moment to realize the patio was a film set. It took him another moment to realize that whoever created the set was making a very weird film. Which, in the vocabulary of unconventional film and music people at the time, was one of the highest compliments an artist could receive. That night at the Nuart, he realized that this was the same film from several years before. He realized also that his initial intuition had been correct: This was indeed a very weird, and very great, film.
Steve, who had watched the movie through the projector window up in his booth, was hit perhaps hardest of all. The movie haunted him. Its strange musical set piece was particularly evocative: A character known only as “The Lady in the Radiator” — a platinum blonde in a shiny ’50s-era dress, with strange, mufflery protrusions emanating from her cheeks — sings a song consisting mainly of five words repeated slowly and sweetly, to beautiful and incredibly unsettling effect.
In Heaven, everything is fine
In Heaven, everything is fine
In Heaven, everything is fine
You’ve got your good things, and
I’ve got mine.
In Heaven, everything is fine
Steve watched the film every Friday night for months, and once the general, pervasive creepiness of the Lady in the Radiator began to pass, he realized that something else about the song was nagging at him. The voice sounded so familiar, and it didn’t belong to the actress with the shiny dress and fuzzy cheeks. Scanning the credits, he saw Peter Ivers’ name, and it finally clicked into place. Doug had been given Ivers’ album Terminal Love as a present a couple of years back, and when the brothers listened to it together their reaction was similar to Doug’s walking onto the Eraserhead patio at AFI: Wow, this is very weird. It was quirky, smart, literate and funny.
Steve had been sure to buy Peter’s self-titled follow-up album as soon as it came out. He was one of only a handful of people to make that purchase. Despite a guest appearance by Carly Simon and critical support (“Ivers’s irony,” quoth Rolling Stone, “bitter and unpredictable, is vicious but worth watching”), the album died on the table. Warner Bros. dropped Peter from the label. Had WB’s marketing department figured out a way to reach the few thousand others who shared the Martin brothers’ taste for independent-sounding music, Peter may have had a chance at achieving with his record what Lynch did with his film. Lynch himself, after all, believed enough in their shared sensibility to charge Peter with writing and singing the number that would become the film’s centerpiece.
In 1977, though, America had spent much of the preceding decade in an explosive renaissance of artistic filmmaking and was far more primed to accept something strange and offbeat emanating from movie projectors than from their record players or eight-track cassettes. Still, unlike Pink Flamingos and many of the other midnight films, Eraserhead was not an instant smash. Nor was it a flop; each week, a few more curious souls filled the seats. But for the Martin brothers, for whom the film had become something equivalent to a new religion, the buildup was painstakingly slow. Cornfeld drummed up buzz with a convert’s zeal, dragging as many of his Hollywood exec comrades as he could to make the midnight pilgrimage. And Doug corralled his friends, week in, week out, to be ringers and start up the chant he hoped and prayed would catch on. But now, a little over a month into the film’s run, his friends had found other things to do.
Tonight he was going to have to start a chant of one, a demoralizing task. At five minutes to midnight, Doug sat in the theater, anxiously brainstorming other ways to get the word out.
Out on the sidewalk in front of the theater, Steve paced and waited for last-minute patrons. He checked his watch one more time, then turned and walked back into the lobby. He was anxious to get the night moving and not particularly looking forward to another 2:30 a.m. closing time.
Then, through the glass doors, he noticed some guys hanging out in front of the theater, wearing what looked like matching homemade T-shirts. Handstitched into each shirt was the word “DEVO” — not like a fan shirt, Steve observed. Like a costume. He stuck his head out the door and asked the obvious question. “Are you in Devo?”
“I am Devo,” was the answer he received.
Steve knew about Devo, and the guys outside the Nuart were just strange enough to be telling the truth. They were also intelligent, unpretentious and friendly in a Midwestern kind of way, definitely not from L.A. They had seen Eraserhead and walked over thinking maybe they would come see it again. Steve invited them in.
The screen lit up, the projector started cranking the reel. Henry, the antihero played by the actor Jack Nance, made his entrance onscreen. Doug took a deep breath. But before he could utter a sound, he was overwhelmed by a collective rumble. Unprompted by him, the rest of the audience had begun to chant.
“Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead... ” He looked around and began to recognize some of the faces, people who had been there for previous showings. They knew the chant, and they knew the cue. Lynch’s AFI art film had officially become a midnight movie.
“Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead, Eraserhead...”
All Doug had to do was join in.
L.A., Bob’s Big Boy, 1977, Noon
The meeting would be at Bob’s Big Boy — that was the only nonnegotiable term. Among the qualities that Peter Ivers and David Lynch shared, both were extreme creatures of habit. Peter had Duke’s, then Schwab’s; for Lynch,f there was only Bob’s Big Boy, his daily chocolate shake (a.k.a the “Silver Goblet”), and a cup of coffee. Devo had expressed interest in playing “In Heaven” in concert, so Steve Martin had set up a meeting between Lynch and the band.
The person who had answered “I am Devo” that night at the Nuart was Jerry Casale, who had formed the group with fellow Akronite and Kent State art student Mark Mothersbaugh in 1974.
A year before meeting Steve Martin, Devo had had its big break. Its short film, The Truth About De-Evolution, won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, bringing it to the attention of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Their support led to a recording contract with Warner Bros. The band’s first album, produced by Brian Eno, was slated to come out the following year.
The nexus of Devo, the Martin brothers, David Lynch and Peter Ivers was nothing short of a match made — it had to be said — in heaven. The band worshiped Lynch and his film, which shared elements of associative visual collage they were using in their own video work. They felt a special kinship with Peter’s song, which struck them almost as a variation on the kind of eerie falsetto they were writing for Mothersbaugh’s Booji Boy character, a stunted overgrown boy in an orange nuclear suit. The Martins started hanging out with Casale and going to Devo shows. Someone had the idea for the band to play “In Heaven” in concert. Doug Martin seized on it as a potential marketing campaign. Steve said he would run the idea by Lynch and gave him a call.
“Hey, Devo wants to meet you,” he said.
Lynch, who was living reclusively on some property near AFI, responded, “Who’s that?”
Initially, the meeting was just going to involve the Martin brothers, Devo and Lynch. But Stuart Cornfeld showed up unexpectedly, announcing that this was a meeting he was not going to miss. Lynch arrived with a friend no one recognized, dressed unassumingly in a T-shirt, cargo pants and canvas army boots. From their easy rapport, they seemed to Steve like old college buddies. Lynch introduced his friend as Peter Ivers, and Steve lit up, telling Peter how much he loved Terminal Love. Peter seemed a little surprised. “Did you set this up?” he asked. Steve confirmed that he had. “Okay,” Peter said, letting it hang there awkwardly.
Peter was feeling confident, maybe even a little cocky. Eraserhead was getting people’s attention, and he had just done a whole new score for cult mogul Roger Corman. Grand Theft Auto was an extended car chase, a love story, a light comedy and beloved child actor Ron Howard’s directorial debut. His bandmates described the Grand Theft sessions as “Classic Peter Ivers”: 15 to 20 musicians in the studio playing live, exotic instruments, Van Dyke Parks on keys, limited rehearsals and no cues, everything just being created spontaneously and hanging together almost miraculously by an intricate web of invisible threads. The editor, Joe Dante, had been impressed with how well it turned out, much better than the music that typically appeared in low-budget films. He was one of many who saw that Peter easily could have made a nice, lucrative career out of scoring films.
Devo arrived at Bob’s Big Boy, and with everyone assembled, synapses began to fire. Peter and Lynch were clearly excited (and more than a little surprised) at the groundswell of interest Eraserhead had begun to generate in L.A. In Devo they recognized fellow travelers and were flattered by the band’s request. The band, for their part, were thrilled to meet Lynch and Peter and giddy about the prospect of playing “In Heaven” on tour. The question of permission was a no-brainer, granted by the song’s writers without hesitation. There was little talk of business.
Like Devo, Peter was always testing people, always playing, performing his one-man guerrilla theatre for whomever happened to be there. Had they met in Akron, Peter undoubtedly would have been part of Devo. Lucky for Peter, Casale thought, he wasn’t in Akron. But he would be with them, at least, in spirit, from now on: Devo would bring Peter’s song with them on tour, making it a staple of their live act. Whenever possible, Peter would come to the shows and cheer them on.
As lunch wound down, Casale asked Peter to transcribe the song. Among his friends, Peter was known for his crisp, meticulous handwriting, especially when writing out music. He would crouch over the page, with the concentration of a second grader taking his first handwriting test. Peter grabbed a napkin from the booth at Bob’s Big Boy, and, temporarily shutting out everything else in the room, wrote out the chords and the words to “In Heaven.” He handed the napkin to Jerry as Lynch polished off his coffee and drew a last, long slurpy sip of his Silver Goblet.
Eraserhead screens Tuesday, Aug. 12, 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 466-3456. Discussion with author Josh Frank and special guests will follow the film.
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.