E’s had quite enough

Mark Oliver Everett has dealt with his har­row­ing past by writ­ing a mem­oir. Now it’s back to the Eels, he tells Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

MARK Oliver Everett’s ca­reer has been marked by tragedy, mad­ness, un­re­quited love and de­pres­sion. And that’s just in some of his best known songs. The 44- year- old singer known as E, front­man and creative en­gi­neer of Amer­i­can alt- rock band Eels, wears his heart on his record sleeves and with al­bums such as Elec­tro- Shock Blues , Daisies of the Galaxy and Soul­jacker he has re­shaped the rock mould by em­ploy­ing a variety of in­stru­ments, play­ers and gen­res, de­pend­ing on his mood.

What the pub­lic may not know is that some of Everett’s most en­gag­ing ti­tles, such as El­iz­a­beth on the Bath­room Floor, Dead of Win­ter and Baby Ge­nius , are based on frag­ments from his frac­tured past.

The baby ge­nius, for ex­am­ple, was Everett’s fa­ther, Hugh Everett III, a quan­tum physi­cist whose many- worlds the­ory is con­sid­ered in some sci­en­tific quar­ters to be up there with Ein­stein’s the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity.

While Everett has chan­nelled some of his life story into his mu­sic, only now has he taken the much bolder step of chron­i­cling his ex­tra­or­di­nary past in book form. His au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Things the Grand­chil­dren Should Know, is a re­mark­able tale of a child­hood that was ‘‘ ridicu­lous, some­times tragic and al­ways un­steady’’. It was a pe­riod from which Everett some­how es­caped into a mu­sic ca­reer, al­beit one that has also been plagued with set­backs and emo­tional up­heaval. The book is darkly funny, with Everett us­ing a con­ver­sa­tional approach to great ef­fect. His dry hu­mour, even in the bleak­est of cir­cum­stances, adds a con­frontingly hu­man touch.

And there’s bleak aplenty. In 1982, for ex­am­ple, Everett found his 51- year- old fa­ther, a chain- smoker and heavy drinker, dead on the bed­room floor of the fam­ily home in Vir­ginia. They had hardly spo­ken dur­ing the 19 years both had been liv­ing in the same house. The mu­si­cian’s mother, Nancy, died of lung can­cer in 1998, two years af­ter his schiz­o­phrenic sis­ter, El­iz­a­beth, com­mit­ted sui­cide.

‘‘ There were cer­tain chap­ters where I just dreaded go­ing to work,’’ Everett says on con­fronting his past. ‘‘ I’m not a pro­cras­ti­na­tor, but I’d look for any ex­cuse not to work on them. Also, it was just an odd pe­riod of ret­ro­spec­tion. I’m some­one who never looks back.

‘‘ Now that it’s all done I’m re­ally glad that I did it, and it has great value in terms of mov­ing for­ward. It was re­ally cathar­tic. When I hold it in my hand it’s like a nice lit­tle pack­age . . . all that drama, ‘ here it is and it’s all done’. It was a weight off my shoul­ders, like my life was clear and I was ready to live.’’

Be­fore the trau­matic deaths in the fam­ily, Everett grew up a so­cial mis­fit. His fa­ther was too busy; his mother had emo­tional prob­lems. He and his sis­ter ran wild. Al­though he didn’t know it then, mu­sic would be his saviour.

Everett played in sev­eral lo­cal bands in Vir­ginia, ini­tially as a drum­mer, while ex­per­i­ment­ing with song­writ­ing in private and record­ing some of his ear­li­est songs on prim­i­tive equip­ment. It was only af­ter he moved to Los An­ge­les in 1987 that his mu­sic be­gan to at­tract at­ten­tion. He re­leased two al­bums un­der the name E, A Man Called E and Bro­ken Toy Shop , which were crit­i­cally ac­claimed but sold poorly.

The turn­ing point was Elec­tro- Shock Blues , the sec­ond album un­der the Eels ban­ner, a col­lec­tion that was strongly in­flu­enced by the deaths in his fam­ily. It is con­sid­ered by many crit­ics and fans to be the Eels’ best album.

Everett’s abil­ity to laugh at some of the ter­ri­ble events in his life stems, some­what iron­i­cally, from his un­con­ven­tional child­hood.

‘‘ That’s how my fam­ily was,’’ he says. ‘‘ We were a jokey, sar­cas­tic kind of fam­ily. That’s how we com­mu­ni­cated with each other.’’

Hu­mor­ous though it is, Everett says the book was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to write. Other than in his lyrics, he had cho­sen not to look into his past un­til he sat down at the end of a long tour two years ago and be­gan jot­ting down the salient points of his life.

‘‘ I naively thought it was go­ing to be an easy en­deav­our,’’ he says. ‘‘ No­body was ask­ing me to write it. I just did it as an ex­per­i­ment. It’s the hard­est project I’ve ever worked on.’’

The dif­fi­culty, he says, came in try­ing to make the story seem like a mono­logue.

‘‘ That’s how I wanted it to read. I wanted it to be as un­pre­ten­tious as pos­si­ble, to sound spo­ken rather than writ­ten, like a friend of yours sit­ting talk­ing to you at the kitchen ta­ble. But I didn’t re­alise how ex­act­ing writ­ing can be. There’s noth­ing to hide be­hind.

‘‘ It made me re­alise why so many great writ­ers are al­co­holics.’’

Per­haps the sad­dest part of Everett’s rec­ol­lec­tions is ac­knowl­edg­ing that he had a fa­ther who was so wrapped up in his work that he had no time for his chil­dren. At one point he tells how he and his sis­ter were pleas­antly sur­prised when, in a rare mo­ment, their fa­ther spoke to them.

While there is an un­der­cur­rent of bit­ter­ness in this rec­ol­lec­tion, the son has come to un­der­stand Everett Sr a lit­tle bet­ter re­cently.

Last year the singer was asked by the BBC in Scot­land to present a doc­u­men­tary film, Par­al­lel Worlds, Par­al­lel Lives, which in­volved trav­el­ling across the US to talk to lead­ing physi­cists about the im­por­tance of his fa­ther’s work. ‘‘ I was im­me­di­ately drawn to the idea, al­though I felt un­com­fort­able about it,’’ he says. ‘‘ But usu­ally when some­thing makes me feel un­com­fort­able, that tells me it’s prob­a­bly worth pur­su­ing.’’

As part of the process, Everett — who has lit­tle in­ter­est in physics — spent a week with Prince­ton’s top physics pro­fes­sors, who ex­plained to him the com­plex­i­ties of his fa­ther’s work. ‘‘ I came out of it pretty well for some­one who didn’t in­herit his fa­ther’s math­e­mat­i­cal ge­nius,’’ he says.

Nev­er­the­less, he’s glad that he didn’t fol­low in his dad’s foot­steps, ‘‘ oth­er­wise I would be the Ju­lian Len­non of physics’’.

As much as Things the Grand­chil­dren Should Know is an ex­am­i­na­tion of his past, Everett has learned a few things about him­self in the process. He is an artist who be­comes fo­cused on his work to the ex­clu­sion of ev­ery­thing else, for ex­am­ple. And he likes to con­stantly forge new ground in what he does, whether by tour­ing the world, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, with a string ensem­ble, as he did a few years ago, or by strip­ping his mu­sic down to the bare bones.

He’s al­ways look­ing out­side the square, he says, and that can be a bur­den.

‘‘ I think if I have any tal­ent it might be look­ing at the big pic­ture, be it in life or work­ing on a song. I think that’s my best as­set. Whereas some peo­ple might get lost in the minute de­tails, I like keep­ing an eye on what it’s adding up to.’’

Just as Everett is a fairly un­con­ven­tional rock star, his book is not rid­dled with tell- all rev­e­la­tions on the rock ’ n’ roll life­styles of the fa­mous. There are, how­ever, a few star ap­pear­ances. One of them is by cel­e­brated song­writer and per­former Tom Waits, a long- time hero of Everett, who amazed the singer by call­ing him one day to con­grat­u­late him on his work. Everett seized the op­por­tu­nity and asked Waits if he would sing on his new album, Blink­ing Lights and Other Rev­e­la­tions . He sent Waits the tapes to add his voice. Waits ac­ci­den­tally erased Everett’s vo­cals.

‘‘ It’s hard to get up­set when one of your icons erases your vo­cal,’’ Everett says, laugh­ing. ‘‘ I hon­estly was thrilled.

‘‘ At first it was, ‘ Tom Waits erased my vo­cal’, but then it was: ‘ Wow, how come Tom Waits had my vo­cal in the first place?’ ’’

Everett is work­ing on a new Eels album and is likely to tour Aus­tralia again be­fore the end of the year.

He once forced him­self to go for a year with­out writ­ing a song, ‘‘ just to see if I could do it’’, but he has been re­mark­ably pro­lific in the past 20 years. How­ever, now that he has got his past out of his sys­tem, he’s not about to em­bark on an­other book, at least not for a while.

‘‘ I don’t ever want to do it again, but when I’m 80 I’d like to be able to write vol­ume two of this one, and I’d like it to be the most bor­ing book any­one has ever read,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t want there to be any more dra­mas. I’ve had enough of that shit.’’

It was re­ally cathar­tic’: Mark Oliver Everett doesn’t want to write an­other book for a few decades

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