A Heartbreaking Work of Death and Embarrassment
A man in his 30s sits down to write his autobiography. He knows that doing so is a rather silly proposition. After all, what does a man in his 30s know? What has he lived through worth retelling? What experiences can he recount, what knowledge can he impart, that others will find meaningful or useful? So he sits there for a while, ponders the blank sheet before him, and begins furiously scribbling all the reasons no one will care about his life story. He then decides to include these 30 or so pages at the beginning of his autobiography -- not so much to apologize for thinking he's cool or interesting enough to merit being the subject of his own book, but to create enough ironic distance from the subject to let people know that he knows that what he's doing is, well, rather silly. See, it's a joke ... and it's not. (See the section about "the knowingness about the book's self-conscious aspect," page xxvi.)
You must understand that this man, being in his 30s and well-educated and media-wise, knows there is nothing more pathetic in this world than an "artist" who wastes other people's time by recounting his tales of woe and misery. But still, he has convinced himself -- despite the taunting of friends who find him "narcissistic" -- that, yeah, the world does need one more story about dead mothers and absent fathers and tragic-twisted-abandoned-dead siblings. And if the world doesn't, then the author does, which is the whole damned point. (See the section about "memoir as act of self-destruction," page xxx.)
It pays to be young, tragic, and talented in the '00s. A couple of years ago, perhaps, our generation frowned upon the lay-me-bare memoir or the confessional song. The mere mention of such things conjured horrible images of James Taylor turning his heroin addiction into nursery rhymes. The notion of someone telling all held all the allure of a stranger sitting down next to you at a bar, spilling his guts as the bartender yelled, "Last call!" Now, look around you: They won't shut up. Suddenly, our tightlipped generation, weaned on irony and between-the-quotation-marks detachment, can't stop talking about our agony, our heartbreak, our mommies and daddies. Who needs therapy when there's a computer or a microphone or a camera waiting to document your every word and whimper? An analyst? Dude, try an audience.
Look no further than your TV set: There's Christopher Titus, the 30ish Los Angeles-based standup whose new self-titled Fox series chronicles "the heartbreakingly hilarious world of his dysfunctional family," which consists of an alcoholic dad and a mentally ill mother confined to the "wacko basket." Or take Dave Eggers, author of the much-lauded A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The former Might magazine founder and McSweeney's editor's autobiography recounts his family's tragedies (Eggers lost both his parents within five months to cancer), how he was forced to raise his 8-year-old brother pretty much by himself, and how he went on to hang with the leading postmodern (i.e., footnote-fetishistic) authors of his me-so-smart generation. The book, which does indeed feature introductory sections with such titles as "The telling the world of suffering as means of flushing or at least diluting of pain aspect," comes complete with a thematic diagram that begins with "THE DEATHS." It then allows you to choose two separate paths, one of which deals with "Much thinking about the triumph of the human spirit," while the other offers "Much thinking about the inevitability of decay, and early and random death and the short life of anything real or beautiful." (Laughter and tears! Bring on the movie!)
Beneath that, perhaps, should be a picture of Mark Oliver Everett, a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter whose last album, 1998's electro-shock blues, and new album, Daisies of the Galaxy, chronicle how he has spent the last handful of years dealing with his mother's death (again, from cancer) and his sister's mental illness and suicide, and how he, at the tender age of 36, is the sole surviving member of his family. You do not need to struggle to decipher Everett's albums -- all recorded under the name E and released under the name the eels -- because the man hides nothing. His language is so plain, Raymond Carver's novels read like binary code in comparison; the music, which ranges from a lone distorted guitar to an emotive string section, also doesn't conceal a single feeling. Then there are the song titles from electro-shock blues: "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor," "Going to Your Funeral Part I," and "Hospital Food."
Sometimes, Everett will slip into character: He is Elizabeth, singing about how "waking up is harder when you wanna die." More often, he is just the observer, the last man standing: "Going to your funeral now and feeling I could scream/Everything goes away." Parts of it are morbid; others, almost funny. More often, it's a little bit of both: "Grandpa's happy watching video porn with the closed caption on/Father knows best about suicide and smack." Everett even now can't understand why people like to describe electro-shock blues as "depressing." He insists it's an upbeat record about how when there's nothing left to lose, the only thing left is hope.
"I'm proud of what I did with electro-shock blues, proud that it deals with what it deals with," Everett says over the phone from Germany, where the eels began their European tour this month. "I actually think it's the most positive record I'll ever make. I think it's mistakenly thought of as a depressing thing, but to me it's not. Also, people mistakenly will refer to it by saying I deal with the topics with a certain detachment, which I think is absolutely wrong. To me, it's the opposite of detachment. It's complete immersion in the subject, because it was my life, and if that's your life, it just seems normal to you. You're human, so you laugh, you cry, you eat, you sleep, you do all the things you do every day, and those things are going on during all of that, so you apply all of that to those subjects. If you're around someone who's dying -- and I've been around a lot of dying people and a lot of ill people -- they're just people, and you talk to them like regular people. You joke and you have fun and you even joke about dying. I don't know why it's such a strange thing for other people."
Everett can't stop talking about himself, his family, and his pitiable life. Every time someone switches on a tape recorder, he talks endlessly about his sister's suicide, his father's genius, his mother's drinking problem and her illness -- and how all three of his family members are now dead. In 1996, he told one journalist that Beautiful Freak, the eels' debut album, was borne of his being from a "fucked-up family": His father, who died of a heart attack when Everett was in his teens, was a brilliant physicist. His sister suffered from mental illness. His mother fought cancer. As a result, Everett liked to say, he had to wrestle with "a lot of demons."
"Now, they're a fucked-up dead family," Everett says four years later. "Little did I know where it was heading."
He continues. "The thing is, I get inspired by certain things in my life or whatever. Like in the case of electro-shock blues, I get inspired by these things, and some of the songs directly deal with those things in plain language, where it's all out there." He pauses for a moment. "But if I want to write a tribute to someone, I write it in their voice, rather than have it be about them. I write in the first person, because I think that's the best way to pay tribute to someone -- to try and really understand them and what it's like to be them. There's a song on the new record, 'I Like Birds,' which for me is a tribute to my mother, but no one would ever know that if I didn't tell you that. It's much more meaningful that it's something she would say, rather than me singing a song, 'Oh, my dead mama, I miss you,' or whatever. We don't need any more of that.
"The new record came really natural to me, because of what was going on in my life. I'd felt like I hadn't been to a funeral for a while" -- he laughs -- "and I moved into a different house, and I felt like, 'Okay, it's a new beginning, and it's time to put all that behind me for now.' It felt like today was the first day of the rest of my life, and that was reflected in the songs I was writing."
Everett, in trying to pitch his new record, can't stop talking about his last one. But there is a good reason: Daisies of the Galaxy is a sequel to electro-shock blues; it's the album on which Everett is, well, born again, picking up where its predecessor left off. electro-shock blues ended with Everett moaning, "I don't know where we're going/I don't know what we'll do," before he finally exhaled his last gasp: "And maybe it's time to live."
Daisies begins with the fading echoes of a funeral: The opening strains of "Grace Kelly Blues" sound not too unlike the introduction to Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," horns moaning and drums rat-a-tat-tatting -- a wake (at last). From there, Everett goes on to sing of how he needs "a broom to sweep up all the troubles you and I have seen"; how he hopes to "never [make] another sound of fear"; how a handful of daisies can cheer you up; and how "it's a motherfucker being here without you" (that song is an homage to Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today"). He writes songs to his mother as his mother; and he writes of how, when he grows up, "I'll be an angry little whore/I'll give you all the finger/I'll sell you all what for."
He then concludes by insisting that "Something Is Sacred." (The final song on the disc is actually a hidden track, "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues," which is being released as the album's single; Everett didn't think it fit with the rest of the disc, though DreamWorks insisted it remain somewhere on Daisies.) Everett points to "Sacred" as perhaps the album's most meaningful song. After all, a young man who has survived his parents might be tempted to think nothing is sacred, that everything around him is "shit and piss" (to quote from electro-shock blues). But the survivor knows better.
"[DreamWorks boss] Lenny Waronker calls Daisies 'a wonderful walk in the park where you're occasionally stung by a bee and bitten by a snake,' which I think sums it up pretty well," Everett says, laughing slightly. "To me, it's just about life. It's the sequel to electro-shock blues, but it's about the living, where electro-shock blues was about the dying part of living. If there's one thing in there that might be the point -- and I might be wrong about this -- but there's a song on there toward the end called 'Something Is Sacred' that's basically about the times we live in and how nobody cares about anything. It's saying you have to believe in something. We live in the nothing-is-sacred society, and I'm the king of it; nothing is sacred as far as my sense of humor goes. But deep down, you've got to care about some things and hold some things sacred. Once everything truly is not sacred, then we're fucked."
In his 1975 book Mystery Train, critic Greil Marcus, when describing the work of Everett's role model Randy Newman, wrote of how rock 'n' roll was in the midst of a confessional crisis; 25 years later, his words still resonate. "Truth telling is beginning to settle into a slough where it is nothing more than a pedestrian autobiography set to placid music framed by a sad smile on an album cover," Marcus wrote. "This is about as liberating as thinking typecast movie stars are 'really like' the roles they play." Everett could well have fallen victim to this type of thinking: It's not necessary to know his story to appreciate his work -- indeed, loss is the most universal of subjects -- but it certainly helps.
Everett once thought of keeping the personal stuff very private. He, like Dave Eggers, is media-literate enough to know that confessions very often ring hollow and phony and desperate. But he can't stop himself, so he keeps on writing about life and death and life after death. For himself, yeah -- and for anyone interested in hopping a ride to the cemetery.
"When I was actually working on electro-shock blues, I was very happy," Everett says. "I was very excited artistically about it. Like most people, I never thought about writing about those things. It never occurred to me to be inspired by so-called tragic events, and they were so personal that I thought, 'Aw, I'm not going to use that as fodder for my music.' And then this light bulb went off over my head one night, and I realized, 'Oh, I can try to make something beautiful out of all this misery, and even better, I can explore it and see what it means on a bigger scale.' And I got very excited from an artistic point of view, and I'm so lucky that I had that, ya know? But the thing is, if going to therapy and getting better and having a happy ending to my life was at the expense of writing songs and making music, that's fine with me. I truly want a happy ending. I'm really trying to have a good life."
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