Published at the beginning of this year, Mark Oliver Everett’s memoir Things the Grandchildren Should Know is as heartbreaking and idiosyncratic as you would expect from the man behind EELS, a man also simply known as E. While its presence on the cluttered shelves of rock biography is unlikely to cause anything close to a ripple when compared to say, Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One, it is a charming work that will appeal to anyone drawn into Everett’s atypical world through his intensely personal yet accessible musical output.
After two commercially unsuccessful solo efforts under the E moniker, Everett suffered the mixed blessing of that very ’90s phenomenon; the alternative radio smash hit. Or in his case, two, with ‘Novocaine for the Soul’ and ‘Susan’s House’ from 1995’s Beautiful Freak. Both displayed traits that would become a fixture in the EELS modus operandi: the lyrical viewpoint of the awkward, psychologically damaged outsider struggling to fit into modern society, set to infectious lo-fi drum machine beats and toy-town instrumentation. It meant the opportunity to keep recording, an all-consuming compulsion for him at the time, but the machinations of the record industry and advertising culture left him feeling uneasy: “The so called ‘alternative’ culture brought with it an ugly reality: it wasn’t really an alternative at all. It was for sale just like anything else in the mall. It was rebelling against nothing.”
From his difficult adolescence to his career as a musician, what becomes clear about Everett is that he has suffered life’s cruel juxtapositions of pleasure and pain more acutely than most. His relationship with his father, Hugh Everett III, a brilliant but misunderstood and withdrawn quantum physicist was virtually non-existent. At 19, his only memorable moment of physical contact with his father was upon discovering his dead body in the family house. Just as his career began to take off and with the imminent release of Beautiful Freak, his family life was further devastated. His troubled sister Liz had been on a downward spiral of wrong choices since her youth and Everett returned from a show to discover she had killed herself: “She just wasn’t equipped to survive in this world. Between the strain of family madness she inherited and the crazy way we were brought up, she had no sense of self or sanity in her world”. Immediately after Liz’s death, Everett’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, leaving him to help nurse her in her final months, while honouring worldwide tour commitments and his sanity.
So far, so morose, you may be thinking. However, what is so striking about Things the Grandchildren Should Know is Everett’s relentless spirit. He channelled the pain of being the only living member of his immediate family into 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues: “I never considered writing songs about what was going on with my family. On one level, it seemed too personal and too tragic. I didn’t think it was something to serve to the world”. He would later have an epiphany in his mother’s basement: it would be a lie to act as if none of this had happened. The resulting album stands as arguably his finest body of work. Tom Waits, one of Everett’s heroes, once said: “I love beautiful melodies telling me terrible things” and Electro-Shock Blues certainly features many terrible things, but it also features a great deal of hope and optimism. To Everett, it was not an album about death, but about life. The final lyric of the final song, ‘P.S. You Rock My World’ is “maybe it’s time to live”. When you go through life with the paranoia that each day could be your last, you might as well enjoy every one. Despite eschewing radio-friendly singles in favour of consistency, DreamWorks were supportive of the album.
This insuppressible optimism would stay with Everett throughout his career. Periods of depression or difficulties with his record label have been overcome with artistic epiphanies at his lowest moments, urges which propelled him without choice into his next project, such as the EELS with Strings tour, or last year’s double album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Tales of triumph over adversity are common, but rarely are they as compelling as this plainly written and thoughtful memoir.
Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives
November 2007 saw the screening of the BAFTA award winning BBC documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, which chronicled Everett’s attempt to grasp his father’s increasingly accepted theories on the structure of the universe and understand a man he shared a home with for nineteen years but barely knew. It’s an ideal companion to Things the Grandchildren Should Know.