It is with a very heavy heart that I post this.
One of my very first heroes in life when I was a kid—and one of my dearest and most valued friends as an adult—Peter Bergman of the legendary Firesign Theatre, died this morning of complications from leukemia. He was 72.
The last time I talked to Peter was a few weeks ago. I’d picked up the Albert Ayler Holy Ghost box set, and there, on one of the live discs recorded in Cleveland in 1966, was Peter introducing the band! I called him up that morning and he excitedly told me about that event and we laughed a lot and I told him that he just HAD to write his autobiography.
“Pete, you’re the ‘Zelig’ of the rock era! You’ve been in a film with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Farrah Fawcett. You coined the terms “love-in.” You smoked a joint with Bob Marley and the Wailers when they were your opening act [True, the Wailers opened for Proctor and Bergman in Boston. Pete told me the joint was “arm-sized”!]. You guys gigged with the Buffalo Springfield. You’ve worked with Spike Milligan, and now here you are with Albert Ayler, for god’s sake! I mean, come on! You have to do this!”
Peter seemed to like the idea of writing an autobiography (a lot) and we talked about electronic publishing and Kindles and stuff like that. I had heard just a few days before, from my best friend, Michael Backes, that Peter was sick, but Mike said he played it off very cavalierly, like “Hey, if you’re going to get leukemia, this is the best kind of leukemia to get!” (meaning the most easily treated and managed with medicine).
I waited for the topic to come up on the phone that day. It didn’t, but just as I was about to broach it, Peter got another call and hopped off the line. It was the last time I spoke to him.
This morning I got a call from my wife, Tara, as I was standing in line with 4000 other people waiting to pick up my press credentials for the SXSW Festival. It’s a rainy, shitty day here in Austin, TX and with that call it got a whole lot worse:
“Honey, I’ve got some bad news for you. Some really bad news. Peter died last night. Taylor Jessen just sent you an email, but I didn’t think you’d heard.”
I stood in a room full of 4000 strangers and and quietly cried to myself, wondering how the rest of the Firesign were handling the awful news.
I’d lost a good friend, but they’d lost their brother.
From the Firesign Theater website:
Peter Bergman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the day after Russia invaded Finland and the day before Winston Churchill (Peter’s hero) turned 65. Peter’s comic career began in the sixth grade, writing comic poems with his mother for library class - a penchant that developed into co-authoring the ninth grade humor column “The High Hatters,” and his own creation “Look and See With Peter B.” for his high school newspaper.
Peter’s audio career was launched in high school as an announcer oh the school radio system, from which he was banished after his unauthorized announcement that the Chinese communists had taken over the school and that a “mandatory voluntary assembly was to take place immediately.” Russell Rupp, the school primciple, promptly relieved Peter of his announcing gig. Rupp was the inspiration for the Principle Poop character on “Don’t Crush That Dwarf”.
While attending high school, Peter formed his first recording group called “The Four Candidates,” turning out a comedy cut-up single titled “Attention Convention,” parodying the 1956 democratic convention. Released on Buddy records, it received air play in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
At college, Peter was managing editor of the Yale comedy magazine. He wrote the lyrics for two musical collaborations with Austin Pendleton, both of which starred Phil Proctor. He graduated as a scholar of the house in economics, and played point guard for the liberal basketball league whose members have since lost their dribble but not their politics.
Peter spent two graduate years at Yale as a Carnegie teaching fellow in economics, and as the Eugene O’Neill playwriting fellow at the drama school. After a six-month stint as a grunt in the U.S. Army’s 349th general hospital unit, he went to Berlin on a Ford foundation fellowship where he joined Tom Stoppard, Derek Marlow and Piers Paul Read at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. There he wrote and directed his first film, “Flowers,” and connected with the Living Theatre - a major influence on his art.
Peter worked briefly in London with Spike Milligan and the BBC before returning to America in 1966. Back in the U.S., he secured a nightly radio show on Pacifica’s KPFK in Los Angeles: “Radio Free Oz,” around which the Firesign Theatre coalesced and gestated.
Peter coined the term “Love-In” in 1967, and threw the first such event in April of that same year in Los Angeles. That event ultimately drew a crowd of some 65,000 people, blocking freeways for miles. This so impressed Gary Usher, a Columbia Records staff producer, that he offered the Firesign Theatre their first record contract.
In the 1970’s, Peter diversified his comic career as the president of a film equipment company. He also helped produce a machine for viewing angio cardiograms and measuring the blockage of the arteries of the heart.
In the 80’s Peter turned to film and tape, producing the comic feature “J-Men Forever” with Phil Proctor, as well as producing television shows that featured various members of Firesign.
Starting in 1995, Peter began touring the country as a “high tech comedian”, delivering lectures and keynote speeches to computer oriented companies and conventions. He worked on publishing the web site for one of the candidates for Mayor of Los Angeles.
His latest venture, in association with David Ossman, started in the summer of 2010: the podcast revival of Radio Free OZ.
I called Mike to commiserate and he said something that was true for me, too, and I’lll end with his words: “I don’t think there is ANYTHING that defines who I was in high school more than being that kid listening to Firesign Theatre on headphones stoned out of my gourd. I think the way I think because of the Firesign Theatre. I phrase things the way I do because of the Firesign Theatre. I look at the world the way I do because of them. There might not be anything that had a bigger formative influence on who I am today when I really think about it!”
Losing Peter Bergman is a great personal loss. Farewell, my dear friend, farewell. And to the rest of the Firesign Theatre, know that I am feeling the same things that you are today.
Below, the Firesign Theatre’s anarchic 1969 TV ads for a local Los Angeles car dealer, Jack Poet Volkswagen.