Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett

Mark Everett’s life has been worse than yours. Mine, too. Oh, I know, you’ve experienced some shattering stuff. Me, too. But compared to the Eels’ Mark Everett, you and I have been cakewalking.

Everett’s father, Hugh Everett III, studied Quantum Mechanics, proposing the Many Worlds Theory, which was dismissively ridiculed in its day. The depressed Everett senior ended up working for Robert MacNamara in the Pentagon. At home he lapsed into a near complete silence, working math calculations while smoking, drinking heavily, and overeating. He had a fatal heart attack at 51: the teenaged Mark, alone in the house, found his father’s body.

Mark’s mother, Nancy, had a family history of mental illness; her mother, Katherine, wrote poetry between hospital stints. Nancy was prone to hysterical crying jags and childlike behavior, leaving the Everett children to raise themselves.

Mark had an older sister, Liz, whom he adored. In their bizarre household, Liz offered a combination of mothering, protection, and companionship. Though six years older, she happily allowed Mark to join her as she smoked, drank, and did coke with her friends. She also shared her love of music, giving Mark records. In later years, as his musical career took off, she was his biggest fan.

Unfortunately, Liz inherited the family tendency toward addiction and mental illness. She began drinking heavily and using heroin. Her boyfriends were invariably drug dealers. She first attempted suicide just before their father died: Mark and Nancy found Liz asleep on the bathroom floor, an emptied bottle of pills nearby. Liz barely survived, spiraling downward into insanity, addiction, and the horrible meanness that often overtakes drug abusers.

Everett was, and remains, an extremely sensitive individual, so much so that I am loathe to give this review a numerical rating, the way I’m supposed to. Dude, please, you’re clearly an intelligent and endearing guy who knows better about reviews, okay?

Everett’s musical ability manifested early. At six, he acquired a child’s drum set. From there his life split in two: the good brother and son, forced into an adult role too soon, and the passionate musician. Like so many highly intelligent musicians, Everett was shy, hated school, and struggled to fit in with his peers. He did make a few close friends — Anthony McCain is mentioned more than once, and Everett seems to have attracted girls fairly easily. But he was mostly unhappy:

“There were so many miserable moments, it’s hard to pick any out of the long blur of misery held in my memory banks.”

By Everett’s own admission, music is the reason he is alive today. Even during his worst moments — and there are many — his drive to make music never abated. Yet it wasn’t until his early 20s that he realized he might pursue music professionally. To this end, he saved some money, drove to Hollywood, and began his career.

The writing has a flat, deadpan quality, as if the only way Everett can relate such awful events is by damping down the prose. He comments on this early in the book, offering amusing examples of “poetic” and “flowery” paragraphs, then saying “Or I could just be straight with you.” Straight is often funny, as in his predilection for crazy women:

“To all the crazy girls I loved before: thank you, but I’m just too tired now.”

He has some cutting words for the George W. Bush campaign, who somehow lighted on Daisies of the Galaxy as an example of Media Garbage Tainting Our Youth, ending the chapter with a well aimed “Fuck you” at Dick Cheney.

Once in Los Angeles, Everett is initially fortunate, finding good management and landing a record deal. He then falls victim to the music industry shake-ups still plaguing the business. He also earns a reputation for being “difficult;” like Kurt Cobain (his sneering “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” comes to mind), Everett refuses to let dollar signs compromise his musical integrity. He rejects both lucrative commercial deals (Volkswagen, anybody?) and pressure to straitjacket his music into a string of dependably redundant hits. His tenacity eventually pays off, but:

“When you’re a kid and you’re watching your favorite band on TV, it just looks fun and exciting. But it turns out that, in reality, to do it, and to try to do it well — really caring about how it works out — is extremely hard work and a very stressful lifestyle. It’s not for anyone who isn’t totally devoted to the mission and willing to give up any kind of real life.”

Indeed. I am related to a professional musician. Everett’s right: the life is a bitch. And nobody deserves (well, maybe a few people) what happened next.

One night after a show, Everett comes home to a phone message from his mother. Liz has once again swallowed a bottle of pills. It falls to Everett to arrange the funeral, herd his mother around, endure the service (where the undertaker’s make-up job is so bad Everett closes the casket) then return to Los Angeles, where he must play a show.

As if this weren’t enough, good friends Parthenon and Janet Huxley learn that Janet, a lovely person who took in a local kid after his mother died and can coax feral cats to eat from her hand, has a brain tumor. Janet’s decline is brutally rapid. Everett, along with Parthenon and Janet’s sister, are going through her possessions when Everett takes a break to buy a meal for the group.

While waiting for his order to come up, he calls his mother from a pay phone. She informs him that her nagging cold is lung cancer — all that secondhand smoke, courtesy of Everett, Sr. Everett spends the next several months alternately touring and running home to care for his mother, whose death leaves with him no next of kin. Mark Everett, successful musician, has nobody to list on medical forms, no “in case of emergency call”, no family guilt-tripping him into Thanksgiving or Christmas.

As the leaves turn and you begin experiencing that unique combination of dread and excitement signaling the holidays, remember Mark Everett.

And yet, amazingly, this man is able to see the good in life. While home caring for his mother:

“… I had an epiphany. While I was thinking about all these tragic circumstances I pictured a blue sky in my head and I suddenly felt greatly inspired … the blue sky told me that there was a way to do this (write music about what happened) that was something different. That it wasn’t all bad, that there was a bright side, even to this … the bright side was knowing that I was going to learn things from this … that I could be inspired and could do something positive with all of it … I could make something from all this.”

Everett’s tremendous inner strength turned my pity into awed respect. He reminds me of Rush drummer Neil Peart, who lost his wife and daughter in less than a year. Peart was absolutely leveled, yet in his memoir Ghost Rider, comments that there was something deep inside, a spark of life he dubs “his little baby soul”. While the term may be bathetic, both men manage to pull themselves through and make music. Peart has remarried; Everett has acquired Bobby, Jr, a dog whose Basset Hound/German Shepherd parentage means he’s a little, as we say in Yiddish, tsebrokhn — broken or a little messed up.

Everett concludes his memoir with a magical show in England’s Albert Hall and some wry observations regarding the limitations of tour bus plumbing. Finally, because he is Mark Everett, he is in not one but two bus accidents (nobody is hurt). He is, he tells us, a nominally happy man whose future, like ours, is utterly unknown.

A final word for Mr. Everett: if you are free for Thanksgiving, I make a mean turkey. Email me. I’ll set a place for you.

RATING 7 / 10