A pained dad, a poetic son
In THE eyes of his young son, Hugh Everett III was a silent, inscrutable figure who remained hidden behind his booze, cigarette smoke and scowl. “My father was so uncommunicative,” the son, Mark Everett, once wrote, “that I thought of him the same way I thought of the furniture.” It was only after Hugh Everett died in 1982 that his son began to learn that this stranger had been a man in exile from his own life. Over the last year, the younger Everett has gone back in an intense effort to unravel the mystery of his father and the result is a tale about parents and children, science and art and, most of all, genius and madness.
“I just knew that things in my life didn’t seem to add up, the connections weren’t there, and there was so much trauma in my family,” said Mark Everett, who fled (and that is the appropriate verb) his native Virginia in his early 20s and came to Southern California in search of a music career. Known by the stage name E, he became the singer and songwriter behind Eels, one of L.A.'s most respected bands but one that is perhaps too quirky and stubbornly cerebral to cut through to any sustained mainstream success.
The musician, the last surviving member of his family, has often cataloged much of his family pain in his music -- he sang about his sister’s suicide, for instance, in a wrenching recording titled “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor,” which was on an album with an illustrated cover showing her flying off to heaven -- but in recent months he left the recording studio and turned to other means to explore his childhood pain and the dark gulf that separated him from his father. The compelling results: A memoir that has won some powerful praise (“It’s one of the best books ever written by a contemporary artist” is how Pete Townshend put it) as well as a BBC documentary titled “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” that airs in the U.S. this Tuesday on PBS.
THE memoir, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know,” is nothing like the lurid rock-star confessionals that crowd the bookstore shelves. Instead it is, like the music of Eels, intellectual, wry and unflinching as it conveys complex emotions with simple, graceful language. The companion documentary, meanwhile, records a gentle quest by a poetic son to understand the wounded soul and life’s work of his scientific father. Completing both of these unexpected projects in such short order has led to a fundamental change in the life of the 45-year-old musician.
“This has been an amazing time in my life, really,” Everett said sitting in a hushed room of his Los Feliz home. “It’s weird enough to write a book about your life, but it’s even weirder to then be talking about it. Then to have a movie made. But it does have a value as an artist. You dig into all of this and when you’re done, you’ve cleared the decks. I know I’m a lot more carefree than I ever thought I would be. I have answers to things now. You know, everybody should make a documentary about their father. It’s really good for you.”
Growing up, Everett knew his dad worked for a computer consultant company and had also spent time in the employ of a defense contractor. There were shards of conversation now and then that hinted of another past career as a physicist. Only in his 20s did he really start to piece together the whole story: Hugh Everett III had been a young star in the quantum physics field and in 1955 he put forth a bold idea, the Many Worlds Theory, a startling interpretation of quantum mechanics that (in wildly oversimplified terms) says that every decision we make splits off a new parallel universe from our reality.
In the spring of 1959, the scientist, then only 29, went to Copenhagen to meet with Niels Bohr, the titan of quantum mechanics, but the elder was dismissive of the young man and his wild concepts. Everett was bruised and disappointed and, before his flight home, he already was laying the groundwork for a different career path. In this reality, at least, the young genius was following a path into decline and bitterness.
The theory would not gain traction for decades but, today, it is considered a linchpin of its field. Scientific American describes the late Everett as “one of the most important scientists of the 20th century,” but his son said that in the shuttered and besotted years leading up to his heart attack at age 51, the man was “a genius who was bitter that no one, including his family, perhaps, really believed and understood him in a way he wanted.”
In the aptly titled “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” the younger Everett travels with a BBC crew to assemble the pieces of his father’s life and to ask his old peers to attempt to explain the late scientist and his theory. Watching the middle-aged musician with a bushy beard, Bohemian glasses and a rock-star deadpan talk to aging physicists is both entertaining and, at times, deeply affecting.
At one point, at MIT, an awed scientist says that he considers the leap of insight by the late Everett on par with the work of Einstein and Newton. A fish out of water in the academic rooms, Mark Everett labors to understand the science but also struggles with the physics of family. The tragic trajectory of the elder Everett’s life has made people eager to reach out to his son.
“I find myself getting invited to conferences where I have no idea what anyone is talking about,” the musician said. “It’s fantastic, though. These are big ideas and it’s interesting to delve into them and try to understand them. You learn about yourself.”
The documentary was the idea of BBC Four producers who, coincidentally, came to the musician right after he had finished writing his memoir. That’s one reason Hugh Everett III is a barely there presence in “Things the Grandchildren Should Know,” which makes sense considering his silence in the household. The book presents a candid account of the Everett family pain: A mother dying of lung cancer, a drug-addicted and suicidal sister and E himself, who at times seemed like a tourist wandering through an emotional combat zone. “If it wasn’t for music, this one gift I had and the success it gave me, I don’t know what I would have done.”
The confession mode is a familiar one for Everett, whose work on Eels’ album “Electro-Shock Blues” in 1998 was hailed as a landmark. (Robert Hilburn, reviewing for The Times, wrote: “A brilliant work that combines often conflicting emotions so skillfully that you are reminded at times of the childhood innocence of Brian Wilson, the wicked satire of Randy Newman and the soul-baring intensity of John Lennon.”) That album, the memoir and the documentary have had some unintended consequences.
“Those are for the stalkers,” Everett said, nodding toward a bank of security-camera screens in the kitchen of his home. “It’s nice when something you have written or recorded means so much to people, especially since you never thought about that happening when you’re working on it. But I prefer letters to unannounced visitors.”
There’s another set of security cameras in the guest house out back, which has a rusted-roadhouse look and the writing table where Everett began his memoir with paper and pen instead of a computer. Sitting right next to his desk is a portrait of his late sister as a smiling, cherubic blond girl. The main house has a basement studio where Everett spends long hours recording his music. He has just finished a tour with Eels and even though he said it was “good for me to get out on the road,” it’s clear the somewhat shy artist is most comfortable in his home with its soundproof walls and his lone roommate, his dog, Bob.
“I make an album, I finish it and I start another one. This is what I’ve always been doing. Sometimes I decide, ‘All right, I’ll put this one out.’ But sometimes it’s years before I decide to do that. Sometimes I cannibalize songs from them and make a sort of Frankenstein version combining stuff. I’m enjoying doing it right now. One idea I have is to keep doing this part and never do the other part. I’ll keep recording and catalog them all and let someone else deal with it after I die. It’s just more fun this way. The best part is making them.”
A bit of optimism
THE MUSIC of Eels (which has had rotating membership and is, essentially, an extension of Everett) is not maudlin. Just the opposite, a sort of buoyant and sometimes loopy sensibility has made the songbook popular for soundtracks, with droll Eels songs popping up in “Shrek,” “Scrubs,” “Hot Fuzz” and more than a dozen other shows or movies.
Everett seems to put a pulsing optimism into his work that makes even the most grim material oddly uplifting. At times it’s like a child drawing a picture of a family funeral and adding a smiley-face sun in the blue sky overhead. “That’s the goal,” Everett said. “There is an optimism.”
Another goal is to strip away the “flowery impulses” to overwrite or be too clever. “I’ve gotten simpler as my career has moved forward -- it does distill things. I’ve tried to do the same with the book. It puts an emphasis on what you actually say. It’s harder to be simple sometimes.”
In one room, there are boxes of papers, both personal and professional, that Everett said he shipped in from Virginia after the other three members of his immediate family had died. He had no intention of going through them, really, but now with several researchers working on books about his increasingly famous father, there have been strangers thumbing through the weathered pages and their secrets.
“It is an uncomfortable feeling, but as an artist I’ve found that when I’m uncomfortable that means I’m going to the right place and doing the right things,” Everett said. He gave a quick tour of his house, which has art by R. Crumb and Charles Schulz on the walls, and deep stacks of old vinyl everywhere. One wall has guitars hanging on it like mufflers in an auto parts garage. A clock that once ticked in Sammy Davis Jr.'s house keeps time in the studio and there’s a picture of Styx on one wall. “That,” he said with some urgency, “is a joke, just so you know.” His favorite spot is the sloping backyard, with its trees and silence.
“You would never guess you’re in the city. It’s like you’re going out to the mountains. It’s like Virginia -- only it’s better because it’s not Virginia. That was the hardest part about the BBC thing actually. I get off the plane in Virginia or in Washington, D.C., and just smell dread in the air. The place just smells like death to me. I hate going there.”
In the end, Everett said the year spent as a detective of his own life, on the page and on camera, has delivered an amazing sense of quiet calm and a forgiving feeling about his long-lost father, the man who seemed to walk in a parallel universe all of his own.
“I could never identify with him. Later, I thought part of it was because he was a scientist. But one of the great things that came out of this film was the realization I came to. There are scientists and then there are scientists who are artists. And he was one of the artists. That was one of the things that led me to identify with him.
“It’s funny, I was thinking about the night he died. We had the most human conversation we ever had. And he dropped dead a couple of hours later. That was kind of poetic. It’s weird the way the timing worked out. It makes you wonder if people sense that they are dying. Maybe he knew he was going to another place.”
Everett got up and headed toward the backyard and his dog followed. Passing a picture of himself and his sister as children, he said fans of his music shouldn’t worry that his songbook will become as easy and relaxed as his new life view.
“Oh, no, no. The conventional thinking is that I will go soft and start writing lame mid-tempo anthems. Don’t worry, that’s not on the horizon. I have a lifetime of angst stored up.”