Things the Grandchildren Should Know, By Mark Oliver Everett
Friday 25 January 2008
Rock'n'roll: not exactly quantum mechanics, is it? For Mark Oliver Everett, front man and mastermind of the ever-changing ensemble known as The Eels, this may well not be the case. "E" is the son of the late physicist Hugh Everett, originator of the "many worlds" theory of quantum physics, a reclusive genius who died when E was 19. His death commenced the cycle of deaths which form the staging-posts which, as much as the common markers of albums recorded, tours performed and band members arriving and leaving, create the milestones of the personal history recounted drily and wittily in this somewhat unusual musical autobiography.
Rock autobiogs have been thick on the ground over the past year or two, what with Slash (oceans of vodka, mountains of heroin, bandmates from hell), Ronnie Wood (cheeky-chappie anecdotage, self-deprecating braggadocio), Eric Clapton (if this doesn't give you the blues, nothing will) and The Police's Andy Summers (a thoughtful account of a never-ending musical education). Everett's, however, is in a different class from his fellow guitar-stranglers', partly because he became an indie cult hero rather than a global superstar, and partly because his unique sensibility is as apparent in his prose as in his music.
On the face of it, his story conforms to a standard rockbiz archetype. Introverted teenage misfit catches music bug, moves to Big City (Los Angeles), works series of stultifying jobs for several years while stockpiling demo tapes, claws his way to his first record deal by dint of luck and persistence. Then he bounces from record company to record company, overcoming corporate scepticism, gradually garnering critical acclaim and commercial success while making as few concessions as he can to marketing departments and mass media, eventually welcomed as a peer by such members of rock's awkward squad as Tom Waits, Van Morrison and Neil Young.
So far, so normal. Yet here was a kid whose family was so dysfunctional that when he was 10, his favourite music was John Lennon's scarifying first solo album. The first to discover his father's corpse, he loses everybody close to him: his scatty, alcoholic mother dies as the first Eels album, Beautiful Freak, is about to be released. As time passes, he loses his beloved, troubled sister (as affected by their parental difficulties, but without the artistic outlet into which E channelled his turmoil), the band's trusted road manager and, weirdest of all, an air-stewardess cousin and her similarly-employed husband, both serving on one of the planes hijacked on 9/11.
"Just living another day," he writes, "has always felt like some kind of success to me." He knows that he was not created in God's image "unless God is a hairy ectomorph with bad posture". Even the title of this book – shared with an Eels song – is mordant: E is unmarried and childless. "I'm gonna go straight to grandchildren," he tells an interviewer. "With grandchildren, you just see them on the weekend. Then you get the rest of the week to yourself." This book isn't just for devotees. Even those unfamiliar with, or indifferent to, Everett's work will still vicariously enjoy meeting him, and getting sorted for Eels and wit.
Charles Shaar Murray's books include 'Crosstown Traffic' (Faber)
Little, Brown £14.99 (228pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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