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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Reading Tonight: Josh Frank

Posted by Alison Hallett on Wed, Sep 3, 2008 at 4:33 PM

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Tonight at Powell's, the author of In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers. Peter Ivers was the host of an early '80s TV show called New Wave Theater, and Josh Frank convincingly demonstrates in his book that Ivers was a key figure in the late-'70s/early-'80s punk and comedy scenes. He was murdered in 1983; the murder was never solved, but the case was reopened after Frank began researching Ivers' life. Read my review of the book here; I will post my lackadaisically edited interview with Frank after the jump; go to Frank's reading tonight. He told me he'd be bringing clips from New Wave Theater, which featured performers like Black Flag and Fear as well as appearances from comedian friends of Ivers (Chevy Chase, John Belushi, etc).

Josh Frank, Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, 7:30 pm

Where did this start for you, how did you become interested in this man?

I wrote the Pixie's biography, Fool of the World: The Oral History of the Pixies in '05, so I interviewed Frank Black and all of those other guys for that, and while I was writing that I was looking up all the songs they covered and they covered a couple of Neil Young songs, and they covered the theme to Eraserhead. So it all started with Black Francis and Pixies covering it, and me finding out that David Lynch wrote the lyrics, but this guy Peter Ivers wrote the music and recorded it for Lynch. And so I was like 'who's this guy?' and I looked him up in a couple of obscure things like New Wave Theatre clips, a little bio of him, and I was kind of fascinated by him, and then I found out, the real breakthrough was when I made the connection that he good friends with Doug Kenny, the founder of National Lampoon, he was good friends with John Belushi, friends with Harold Ramis and that's when it was like there is much more to this guy, and from there it was just Pandora's box just opening, and just how entrenched he was in all those people's lives and how he was there at the beginning of our current pop culture. In the book, you can't make that shit up. He really was the center of the wheel, he was actually [responsible] in some ways, in big ways, for David Lynch becoming a major Hollywood guy. Of course it was Lynch's talent, but Peter Ivers introduced Lynch to Stuart Cornfeld, Stuart Cornfeld went to Mel Brooks who was producing the Elephant Man, they all sat down in Coppola's studio and screened the Elephant Man with Lucy Fisher who was Peter's girlfriend, who was working for Coppola, who helped start Zoetrope. He took John Belushi to the punk gigs that lead John Belushi to [invite] Fear to appear on Saturday Night Live. He was this force, there was just not another person in the world like him that has had such a profound effect on so many people. You wonder, if he hadn't died would we still think about him in the same way? When you read the book, when I did the research, you realize he was the fifth Beatle or whatever, like the lost piece of the puzzle to all these people and how they are connected, and I think that we didn't know until now, with the book, that he was the connection to all these people.

I liked the book, I thought it was really interesting.

Oh, I am really glad to hear that. You work two years on a book and the response is not immediate it's always trickles in, so you spend the first month with incredible anxiety.

Have you gotten any big reviews yet?

Well, the funny thing is, I got more pre-reviewed then I have ever gotten for anything, you know, Publisher's Weekly, Library Review, they all did pre-reviews and two and a half of them were good, the Publisher's Weekly, was sort of mixed, sort of a weird review, but they were very good, and all his response from his big Hollywood, heavyweight friends was great. To have David Lynch and Harold Ramis to say you did a good job feels good, and Black Francis, it's like that response is better than the New York Times, of course you would love to have The New York Times, but the weird thing is that because it is such a genre-hopping adventure that it is, I think it is hard to know what it is, as far as like, what to do with it. For instance, I went into six different book stores this last week, and each bookstore had it in a different section.

The true crime section?

Yeah, one was the true crime section, the other was music, the other was biography, the other was film history.

Where would you put it, if you had to?

I would put it in biography. To me, it's a one hundred percent biography. You know, hands down. That is what I was going for, but because so many people, their main interest is in crime, sort of the tabloid aspect, which was abundant in this book, just in the stories I heard, that's why I came up with unsolved life, instead of unsolved death. To me, the mystery, the real fascinating mystery was in his life.

On one hand it showed how prolific he was, but on the other hand it almost showed his Achilles Heel. As I am sure you know, if you don't pick one thing and stick with that at least for awhile, if you spread yourself out, it becomes harder. As artists, we all want to write a book, write a movie, we want to make an album, but if you look at his friends what they all did was said, 'ok, I can make it doing this,' and they did, and they became millionaires, but he had so many things he wanted to do, it seems that he felt that he had so little time to do it all, and so there in lies the tragedy of his life.

It seems as the book was ending, he was starting to pick a path.

Oh yeah, and I think that is exactly what he was doing. I think the pressure, having lost the love of his life, possibly in part to his inability to settle down, not necessarily with his love, but with his life, and also as sort of the mystery murder part of it sort of winds down, you kind of get the feeling that there's the possibility of there being a connection [between his murder and] his decision to focus on the upper echelon of Hollywood, a certain track, moving away from the sort of underground. That it seems a little coincidental that right as he was getting his first movie deal, right as he was getting his first big paycheck, he was sort of closing some of the other doors, that happened.

What do you mean by that, like it was self-sabotage or something like that?

No, not at all. No, what I mean is that it seems a little too much of a coincidence that in the same two months that he was trying to leave some of his underground lifestyle, and sort of hit the books, as you do in college, and try to do a similar path as his Hollywood friends, that he was killed, and so a lot of people's theories were, that somewhere within that choice, someone got mad or somewhere within that choice, he changed his mind on a project, he owed money, there was this shift in his career that coincides with him being brutally murdered one night, out of the blue. It didn't seem out of the blue to me, I guess is what I'm saying. I found a connection there, I don't know what it is exactly, that's why I tried to leave it up to the reader to decide for themselves if the thought his choice to leave New Wave Theatre had something to do with it, or the choice to disconnect from Joe had something to do with it, that's all I'm saying. I don't think it was self-sabotage at all, I think he really was ready to shed his Peter Pan persona to some happy medium. You don't have to make the drama up that was there, which is so amazing, it is really intense, it was the time in his life.

What was the interview process like?

Here is the crazy thing about Peter. I knew that this guy was the most amazing artist human being the world had never heard of, cause when I heard about him, it blew my mind, when I started reading, finding out who he knew, and what he had done in such a short amount of time and so I was convinced that his story should be told, early on, before I started talking with people, but what blew my mind even further was this realization that this guy no one in the world knows about was like the greatest calling card any writer can ever imagine.

You know you think 'oh if I could write a story on Paris Hilton and she agrees, I can talk to anyone' you know what I mean? Like a calling card, but you wouldn't think that some unknown guy has more power than Paris Hilton or Britney Spears, but he does. The second the estate signed off and started giving me phone numbers and saying 'we'll back you,' anyone that had any connection, even someone that he had met for just five minutes I could pick up the phone, dial a phone number and have them one the line either immediately or within twenty four hours and they talked to me like they knew me forever. And they answered anything that I possibly wanted. Yeah, and I don't say that in order to brag about me, I am saying that to brag about Peter. He had this profound effect that he had on these people that you can't get on the phone for anything, but if you are writing a book about Peter Ivers or if you care about Peter Ivers, you are in for a journey. And it was a journey that lead to sitting down in David Lynch's woodshop, you know sitting down with Harold Ramis and watching old home movies, talking to Gerry Harrison of Talking Heads, who didn't know Peter all that well, but he knew Lucy Fisher, his girlfriend, real well, to Gore Vidal, who talks to that guy? It wasn't long, I talked to him for maybe about five minutes, but it was Gore Vidal. I just called him up. He didn't know Peter well, he knew Lucy though, so he told me what he knew, and that whole thing, I wish that I could sort of, the book was about Peter as he lived, it wasn't about sort of the aftermath, but that is the one thing that I really wish I could show the world, cause to me that is just a profound realization, that says so much about him, without even saying anything about him, that says so much about what he must have been like.

So your book was instrumental to having the case reopened, is it still open?

It is, basically when I started researching for the book, I started finding information on his murder, and I called the LAPD and they had no reference to his case, and I wrote a letter to the LAPD, and I got a response that said "we're sorry to report that unfortunately cases that are sometimes over twenty years old, although they are not supposed to be, they get thrown out or misplaced, and we unfortunately don't have any case information on Peter Ivers, and his murder." So I was obviously really upset about that, and I called my father who is a lawyer for the Justice Department and I asked his opinion: if I want to know about a case that is over twenty years old and the police don't have it, what would you suggest, is there anything I'm not thinking about? And so he said, well let me call you back. So he calls me back and he said, go to the coroner's office, cause the coroner's office keeps a whole separate version of a case file, it's slightly different, it doesn't have the evidence, but the evidence might still exist, the file might be gone, the evidence might still be in the archives and so the coroner's office might have clues to that. So, I flew out to LA, I went to the county coroner's office, and I took a big burly friend of mine to stand behind me to look like my back up and I just walked right in and asked for the archived case book of Peter Ivers and I had it in an hour. It was pretty eerie looking at it with my friend, Melvin, and we are looking at this manuscript of his murder case that hadn't been looked at in twenty five years, and it was quite upsetting, it was the first time I realized, this is serious shit, it wasn't fun. So then I called up LAPD's cold case division, and I got Clifford Shepard's, the lead detective, and I said I've have this report, could I send it to him to see if the evidence is still somewhere, and he said yes, and I sent it to him, and as you probably read in the book, he remembered the case, from when he was a beat cop, he always wanted to understand why it wasn't solved at the time, and how convenient now that he is head of the cold case division. He took that information, and found everything he could and unfortunately got held up with this missing murder book which, they keep everything separately now the murder book is the journal of how everything went down that was missing since 2002. And he's still looking for that. But based on my research he pulled out what was still there, and when he came to the book release in LA, he's like 'Look Josh, I know I am kind of held up with this finding the murder book right now, but you wrote this book, and your research was just meticulous, and I promise to finish it.'

Have there been any new developments?

No, just the murder book is missing and he is looking for it. The funny thing is, that any new developments on the case have been from the book. Well, all of the collected stories on what happened, the collected timeframe on his last twenty-four hours. It had never really been so clearly put together of who was where and when, so if anything, a lot of people their alibis have been confirmed through the research, cause they really didn't do a lot of alibi checking on the original case. So through talking to the people I talked to I really narrowed down where most of the people were, at any given time. In fact, there was only one person I couldn't alibi, that was David Jones.

Do you feel any personal stake in that?

Yes, very much. It's not over by any means, in my mind. It's over in that his life has been solved, but I am going to meet up again with Detective Shepard in a couple months and see how things stand.

Did you go to the website for the book? There is some music, there is a lot of New Wave Theatre on YouTube actually. The key to finding the bulk of it is typing in the names of the bands, the Angry Samoans, Circle Jerks along with New Wave Theatre you'll get more hits. Yeah, and X and 45 Grave, and there was, what was the name of that other band, you should try a search for what was the song, a date with JFK, it's on a separate website, but there's stuff out there.

Are you going to bring anything to the reading?

Yes, thanks for reminding me. I have some episodes [of New Wave Theatre] that were given to me, so I have that to show. His other work, you can rent Grand Theft Auto, Ron Howard's directorial debut, or you can get that on NetFlixs, it's out there if you can find it, you just gotta find it.



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