Mark Everett: 'I'm one of the lucky people'
Dad: heart attack. Mum: cancer. Sister: suicide. What did Mark Everett turn to for consolation? Rock'n'roll, writing and the love of a good dog
Had Mark Everett – singer, songwriter and driving force behind the US rock band Eels – known what would happen in his life when he was growing up, he might not be here today. "I would have driven off that bridge that night when I was 19, no doubt about it," he tells me with characteristic understatement.
The night in question was during the summer of 1982, which Everett – known as "E" to fans and friends – now wryly calls the "Summer of Love". A few weeks earlier he had discovered his father lying dead on his parents' bed, still dressed in shirt and tie. His mother and sister, Liz, were out of town at the time, after Liz had tried to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. As Everett drove his Chevy Nova across a bridge on the outskirts of his Virginia hometown, he came the closest he can remember to ending it all.
Now, more than 25 years later, Everett has decided to draw a line under the past with the release of two albums: the first, Useless Trinkets, is a career-spanning compendium comprising rarities and previously un-released Eels tracks, while the second, Meet the Eels, is a greatest-hits package covering much of the band's 12-year career.
Perhaps more pointedly, this month also sees the publication of Everett's memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, a frank and darkly funny account of his Virginia childhood, his move to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and his subsequent success as a musician."It's been an odd couple of years," he reflects. "I've never liked looking backwards because it's too painful. But, in a way, that's what made me think I should do it. Whenever I'm uncomfortable with something I try to confront it and get to a point where I can be OK with it. Writing the book was painstaking, but when it was done, I had this feeling of a weight being lifted from my shoulders. I guess you'd call it catharsis."
The death of Everett's father from a heart attack was the first of a succession of tragedies that would claim the lives of Everett's family. In 1996, Liz made a successful suicide attempt; the following year his mother died from cancer; then, on 11 September 2001, his cousin Jennifer, a flight attendant, died on the plane that hit the Pentagon. Just that morning she had sent Everett a postcard from Washington Dulles airport with the words "Ain't life grand" splashed across the front.
The idea for the book came from a childhood pal who thought Everett's life would make an interesting read. "For years I never took the idea seriously," he says. "Why would anyone want to read such a catalogue of misery? But then as I started writing I began to see there was a story there, and it wasn't that depressing. I think people are surprised to find out how optimistic I am and how I enjoy life. I'm one of the lucky people who is making a living doing something I would be doing anyway. At the very least, I hope the book might inspire some kid who thinks his life is screwed and can't see a way out."
Everett was a troubled child who suffered from low self-esteem and, he claims, gave himself a pronounced under-bite through extensive sulking. He dreamed of being a musician – his first live performance was a version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" on his toy drum kit at the age of six – though he didn't get started until his mid-twenties.
After a false start as a solo artist, he formed Eels – essentially a one-man show with a revolving cast of back-up musicians – and signed a contract with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks label. He quickly rose to fame with his wittily eccentric 1996 debut Beautiful Freak, which included the top-10 UK hit "Novocaine for the Soul". The album won a Brit award, which Everett now uses as a cymbal stand.
The follow-up album, Electro-Shock Blues, released shortly after his mother's death, was a wholly darker affair. They were songs born of unimaginable sorrow, from the opening epitaph to his sister, "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor", to "Dead of Winter", which chronicled his mother's battle with cancer ("So I know you're going pretty soon/ Radiation sore throat got your tongue").
On hearing it for the first time, Everett's manager warned him not to release it. "He said no one would want to listen to a record about death. He said it was career suicide, but I didn't think in career terms. All the death around me was making me aware of the bigger picture. In the end I fired him, and it was the smartest thing I ever did. That was when I became a man and an artist."
Themes of death and isolation have appeared in his work ever since. On his critically acclaimed 2006 album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, he notes: "Things won't get better until they get much worse/ Is the curse stronger than me or am I stronger than the curse?". Yet he maintains he doesn't need personal trauma to sustain his output: "People forget there are plenty of joyous songs on my albums that are about embracing life," he says. "I have always treated [my albums] as miniature art projects. Everything I do with these projects is intended to serve me and the world. If it doesn't serve the world, I don't bother letting anyone see it."
Everett's father was the first to die in the family but has been the last to figure in his son's work. Last summer, Everett made a BBC documentary, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives (available to view on BBC's iPlayer, www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer, until Tuesday), in which he attempts to understand the work that had consumed his father.
Hugh Everett III was a quantum physicist who had corresponded with Einstein from the age of 13. At 24, while a graduate student at Princeton, he developed the theory of parallel universes. He was dismissed as a kook and retired from academic life to work for the US defence industry. It wasn't until shortly before his death that he was summoned to a physics conference in Austin, Texas, and given the recognition he deserved."When he was alive my father was a mystery to me, which is probably why it's taken me this long to try to understand him," explains Everett. "When I found him dead I didn't know how to feel as we never really knew each other. Obviously, it was shocking but there was this feeling of distance. When I was younger I was angry at him for never really talking to me or my sister, and for dying so young. But then I got to a point where I started to recognise a lot of him in me. We're both ideas men. I understand that you can be so busy sorting out your ideas in your head that there isn't time for much else."
After the deaths of his sister and mother, Everett boxed up the family's belongings and locked them in his basement. The film finds him going through his father's possessions for the first time. Amid the piles of papers are old Dictaphone recordings of a conversation between Everett and Charles Misner, a physics professor at the University of Maryland. The young Mark can be heard drumming in the background.
"The greatest aspect of the experience in terms of understanding my father was seeing his disappointment," says Everett. "I felt propelled by the tragedy of his not getting recognition for what he'd done. He was 24 and he was trying to knock Einstein and Niels Bohr off the Mount Rushmore of physics. I'd like to think that if I had a son who had made that film about me, I would be pleased."
Now, with the book and documentary behind him, Everett has returned to his basement in the LA house that he shares with his hound dog, Bobby Jr, and is putting together tracks for a new album. "The work never stops for me, though I feel life has changed and all the crap is firmly behind me," he reflects. "In 40 years I'm going to write volume two of my autobiography. Hopefully, it'll be the most boring book ever written."
'Things the Grandchildren Should Know' (Little, Brown, £14.99) is out now. 'Useless Trinkets' and 'Meet the Eels: Essential Eels Vol 1, 1996-2006' are out now on Universal
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