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A man called E
14.09.07 | Mike Haydock
You may not recognise Mark Oliver Everett—even some of his biggest fans would walk straight past him in the street. Also known as "E", the unassuming Eels frontman defines himself as a "poor excuse for a rock star", someone who shuns the limelight in favour of making music that challenges audiences and does not kowtow to the mainstream.
The Eels have therefore often been more of a critical success than a commercial triumph, although they have still had six top 40 albums in the UK over the past decade, two of which (1996's "Beautiful Freak" and "Daisies of the Galaxy" in 2000) peaked in the top 10. But alongside these highs, Everett has also had to cope with crushing lows: at the age of 44, he is the only surviving member of his immediate family.
His father, quantum physicist Hugh Everett III, died of a heart attack at 51. Everett discovered him one morning, spread-eagled on the bed. His sister, Liz, committed suicide in 1996 after several earlier failed attempts, and two years later his mum died of lung cancer. As though that wasn't painful enough, one of his cousins was a flight attendant on the plane which hit the Pentagon on September 11th 2001.
Understandably, Everett has been reluctant to reflect on his past and write down his life story, despite some badgering from friends. But now, with the Eels celebrating 10 years of existence, he felt the time was right, and the most remarkable thing about the resulting book (Things the Grandchildren Should Know, Little, Brown, January) is his optimism and lack of bitterness.
"There have definitely been times when I was angry when I was younger," he says. "I'm really fortunate because I've had a load of amazing experiences to go with all the horrible experiences, and the amazing experiences have been really amazing—I mean, I'm a rock star! That's one of the reasons why I wanted the book to come out. It could be inspiring in the way that it's about this clueless kid from Virginia that has all sorts of weird and wacky and horrible adventures, and somehow ends up making something out of his life."
Nothing to hide behind
Of course, writing his autobiography has been a whole different challenge from that of writing a song, not least because this is his life stripped bare, naked on a page. "There's always something you can hide behind in the music," he says. "Writing a book, there's no safety net. There's nothing you can change in the mix. It's just the ink and the paper and the words, and it's so exacting.
"Having to go back and revisit certain periods of my life was particularly hard. There were some days when I was working on the book that were just excruciating. I just have this mechanism where I like to rise to challenges; I'd try to write a book because it made me feel uncomfortable. And I have to say that now it's done, while I do still feel very uncomfortable about the idea of people actually reading it, it also feels good that I'm done with all that, all those years in a nice little package."
Telling it like it is
In writing his memoir, Mark was inspired by the "candid" tone of Ray Charles' autobiography, Brother Ray, and aimed for a similarly conversational tone. "I tried to imagine some person, not a fan, sitting at the kitchen table across from me and talking to them," he says. "That's how I wanted it. I wanted it to feel like it wasn't written, just said. As unpretentiously as possible."
He deliberately avoided ornate language, peeling away the details of the major episodes in his life to leave only the stark, often painful, facts. "That's how it is in real life," he says with a knowing smile. "When somebody dies or something horrible happens in your life, you're not told the news with flowery language."