Saturday, 26 June 2010

Amazing Adventures (Part 3)

In which someone (me) talks about a period of reading fiction to anyone who’ll listen (you) by talking about a work of non-fiction. This is significant because it’s the fourth book I’ve finished this month, a feat of page turning unseen in my world since I tore through my junior school library’s entire collection of Asterix books in a couple of weeks when I was 9.

I may give the impression that I don’t like books, which is probably a bit misleading. I’ve always been a big reader. It’s just in recent years I’ve devoted a lot of time to magazines, the internet and - when I do buy books - non-fiction, with music biographies in particular my default setting. This isn’t just George Martin syndrome (‘and I remember John turning to Paul and saying “why don’t we stick this tape recorder up your bottom and then play it the tape backwards and “hoop-la, Penny Lane!” ’) it’s just that I like reading about creative people who have ideas and some of them happen to be musicians. It’s also a fact that books like Everything, Simon Price’s passionate and meticulous dissection of all things Manic Street Preachers and Bill Drummond’s 45 are as inspiring, romantic and fantastical as any fiction.

Anyway, so after 650 pages of Kavalier and Clay and having whipped through David Walliams’ entire literary oeuvre I felt like I deserved a quick break from fiction. My palate cleanser of choice then was Things the Grandchildren Should Know by the Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett; better known to his friends as simply E. This is him here, with his dog Bobby Jr.

It should be said from the off that had the tragic events of E’s life been presented by an aspiring author to a publishing house as a work of fiction they’d probably be criticised for being a) highly unlikely and b) bit bleak. “Well, it’s an interesting story, but does everyone in his family have to die?” or “this stuff about an awkward introverted loner is understandable but it’s a bit far fetched to think that he’d become a famous rock star.

However, these are the facts. Yes, everyone (and I mean everyone) in E’s family dies before he hits 40, plus a few friends too. They die tragically, often painfully, sometimes pointlessly and E has to deal with it all. And yes, this troubled soul with a teenage delinquent past, little in the way of an education and an aversion to the trappings of rock superstardom has indeed managed to carve himself a beautiful and unique little niche in the music world. Which, as anyone who has even dabbled in the world of professional musicianship will tell you is all the more remarkable because rocking out on stage, trying to appear friendly yet deep and meaningful in interviews, living on a bus full of musicians, coming up with new marketable material and appearing on television can be challenging at the best of times, never mind when you've just come back from your only sister's funeral or you have to fly home between gigs to help clean shit off your dying mother.

It’s probably fair to say that Things the Grandchildren Should Know (named for one the songs on the 2005 album Blinking Lights and Other Revelations) will never win any literature awards, with E pointedly eschewing flowery language for a straight-ahead four to the floor telling of the facts more in keeping with his constantly failing attempts to lead a down-to-earth approach to life. For fans there are also some odd omissions (no mention at all of MC Honky, E's hip hop alter ego, and no real mention of ideas and inspirations behind his always interesting videos). Still, his tale is told with heart on sleeve frankness and precious little rock star ego which only renders it all the more compelling. This is a distinctly human story and instead of the usual 'I-wish-my-life-was-like-that' after-effect of rock bios, one is left with a distinct feeling of being a little blessed ourselves.

Interestingly E's experiences - good and bad - have taught him a similar lesson; that life has some downs but they usually lead you to some ups and you really don't ever know what's coming next. That might not seem like much in the way of philosophy for a lifetime of fascinating, thrilling joys (E's own personal fandom is never far and his pride at meeting Tom Waits or playing London's Albert Hall after first hearing about it via the Beatles' A Day in the Life is just lovely) and deep personal losses (I even lost count of the amount of friends and neighbours who died in what is a relatively short book) but it's refreshingly honest and thankfully avoids the Jerry Springer's Final Thought summation.

Whether you're a fan of the work of Mark Oliver Everett and his ever-changing band of troubadours or not there is much to gain from reading Things the Grandchildren Should Know. If you're new to him then I'm sure there's enough to pique your interest to explore his wonderful back catalogue (still growing with his 2010 release End Times garnering great reviews). For those already familiar with E's brand of beautiful blues, be assured this is one of those rare bios that will only add to your listening pleasure. All right? Goddam right.

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