Monday, November 2, 2009

Mark Oliver Everett - Things the Grandchildren Should Know

Mark Everett is one of those fortunate individuals who is capable of transforming personal tragedy into a grand universal statement. Equal parts Beck Hansen, Wayne Coyne, and Elliott Smith, Everett was one of the key musicians who offered a refuge from the pop miasma of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The very essence of art as therapy, Everett’s music is unflinching in its honesty and unapologetic in its ambition, the perfect antidote to the counterfeit emotion and anemic production that typify much of mainstream music.

Things the Grandchildren Should Know, Everett’s first foray into print, relates the story of his fractured upbringing and his hard-earned success in the music industry. In the vein of such recent memoirs as Running With Scissors and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Everett spins a tale of severe familial dysfunction with the gallows wit of one who has spent a lifetime in the trenches. The son of an emotionally impenetrable quantum mechanic father and an extremely unstable mother, Everett spent his childhood in search of a solid foundation upon which to ground himself, finding instead only the laissez-faire attitude of his parents and his beloved but equally damaged older sister, Liz. His teen years were thus spent in turmoil, as he struggled to define himself against the machinations of the school system and the redneck quagmire of northern Virginia, finding solace only in writing off-kilter pop songs about his experiences. He finally escaped to California in his mid-twenties, but his arrival in Hollywood during the height of hair metal proved to be ill-timed, precipitating years of recording alone in a series of dingy apartments, volleying between menial jobs and the occasional glimpse of label interest, until he finally broke big with his band the Eels in 1996.

It is here that the story hits its stride, and Everett’s life became a relentless barrage of extremes. Just as he was enjoying his long-awaited success with the Eels’ debut album Beautiful Freak, his sister finally succeeded in ending her life, mere months before their mother succumbed to a prolonged and dehumanizing bout with cancer. Almost overnight, Everett found himself the sole surviving member of his family, and was forced to decide between continuing down his chosen path or ending everything. His solution was to channel his personal holocaust into his music, resulting in the Eels’ 1998 masterpiece Electro-shock Blues, one of the most glorious and life-affirming testimonials ever recorded. Having cemented his mission to stay alive in order to create, Everett spent the next ten years learning to appreciate both the highs and the lows, finding solace in the fleeting moments and producing some excellent tunes along the way.

In the same manner as his lyrics, Everett’s prose unloads his emotional baggage in direct but clever language. (A typical single-sentence paragraph: “One day the man with the big Charles Manson beard punched Liz in the face and she moved back in with us.”) He makes it clear from the outset that he has no interest in “flowery shit”, sparing the reader from having to slog through a tale that needs no overselling. This makes for a quick and entertaining read, interspersed with tributes to his crazy ex-girlfriends and an abundance of choice one-liners. Like the music of the Eels, Things the Grandchildren Should Know is highly inspirational without ever being maudlin. Everett closes the book with a glance toward the future he once never allowed himself to contemplate, coming to terms with the knowledge that he has no idea what lies ahead.

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