New offering from NOVA on a father [Hugh Everett III] and son [Mark Oliver Everett] relationship. Hugh is a theoretical physicist and Mark is a musician. NOVA's past docudrama's have been mediocre [Einstein and Newton] with emphasis on the spectacular and mysterious. Anyway, it will air this Tuesday evening, October 21st.
"For this musician, pain has been the family business"
October 19th, 2008
October 19th, 2008
According to his physicist father's famous "many worlds" theory, there should be a parallel universe in which Mark Oliver Everett's family is happy.
A world where his father talks to him. Where his sister doesn't get swept up in hard drugs and commit suicide. Where his mother doesn't get cancer. Where depression, mental illness, and early death aren't part of the story. But without all that pain, we wouldn't have the music Everett has made with his band, Eels. We wouldn't have his new family memoir to read or the "Nova" documentary he has made about his father, which airs this week.
Not that facing family history came easily for Everett, who is a contradiction in terms: an introverted rock star.
"It's just the way I've always dealt with my personal life; it has always been through whatever art form I happen to be embracing at the time," says Everett, better known simply as "E." "It's probably highly dysfunctional on one hand, but on the other hand, it's highly functional for me, and it's better than not dealing with it at all."
"Things the Grandchildren Should Know," his tragic yet surprisingly funny memoir, comes out on Tuesday from St. Martin's, the same day PBS' "Nova" airs "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives," the documentary about his father. Everett grew up in suburban Virginia as the son of physicist Hugh Everett III, a then-obscure physicist whose work in quantum mechanics led him to the "many worlds" theory, which holds that every time we make a decision, a parallel universe branches off from our everyday reality.
The groundbreaking idea was embraced far more quickly by Hollywood than by the scientific establishment.
As a kid, "I was pretty unaware of it, except occasionally when it would come up on something like 'Twilight Zone' or 'Star Trek,' " Everett says. "I remember things like a neighbor would be reading some sci-fi book laying in his hammock one Saturday afternoon and come running over because my father was mentioned in it. But I didn't really understand it. I mean, it's hard for adults to understand the parallel universe theory, so it's really difficult for little kids to understand it."
Hugh Everett "ranks as one of the most important physicists of the 20th century," says MIT associate professor David Kaiser, a physicist who also writes on the history of science in the Cold War era. "He would certainly make the list of the top 20, which is saying a lot. He was no Einstein, no Heisenberg, but he's in that cohort. By now I think there's no question about that kind of importance of his work."
At home, Hugh Everett was an intensely remote figure, due to professional disappointment, depression, and alcohol. He hardly spoke to his children. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1982, at age 51. Pulling his body from the bed to try CPR was the first time Mark, then 19, recalled touching his father on purpose. By the end of that decade, Mark's sister, Elizabeth, had committed suicide, and his mother, Nancy, had died of cancer after agonizing months during which her son was primary caregiver.
Has Everett come to understand the nature of his family legacy? "I think there are probably multiple things there, certainly some depression, certainly some madness and some genius, but I guess that stuff often goes hand in hand," Everett says. "In my sister's case, certainly she was unlucky enough to inherit some of the nature, but certain-ly the way we were nurtured had a lot to do with her problems too."
Everett dealt with it all by making music. With songs like "Novocaine for the Soul," he became a cult figure, but he was never a huge commercial force. The 1998 album "Electro-Shock Blues" in particular addressed the darker topics on Everett's mind, in songs like "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor."
A couple of years ago, after a grueling tour with a seven-piece band, Everett decided to submit to the urgings of his best friend since second grade, Anthony Cain, and put it all down on paper. "Naively I thought because it would only involve myself, it would be really easy. But it turned out to be the hardest thing I ever did," he says. "There were certain chapters that were just excruciating for me to write."
Soon the BBC proposed to film him on a quest to learn about his father and his work. "Initially it made me uncomfortable . . . but anytime when I feel uncomfortable about something, I think, mmmm, there must be something there I'd better explore," Everett says.
He found hanging with physicists to be strange fun. The most difficult part came when the producers managed to get sound from a series of tapes of his father that Everett had found in the family basement and thought were unplayable.
"I did feel kinda ambushed," he recalls. "The whole time I was shooting that was like just having a camera crew follow you around trying to make you cry. 'How does that make you feel, E?'"
"It turned out to be great," he adds. "It was little bit scary for me, but as soon as I heard my father's voice, I recognized it. It was a weird feeling, it's been 25 years and you can't remember your father's voice, and all of sudden you hear it. But it just immediately came back to me."
The film helps explain the esoteric science to the viewer and notes Hugh Everett's growing reputation. "You can read this as half-empty or half-full," says Kaiser. "The half-full side, the optimistic side, is to say that if even in one's own lifetime one doesn't see one's work turning heads or getting fame, these ideas can outlive us, these ideas have a fighting chance."
Ultimately, all this grappling with the past has led Mark Everett to a better place.
"Writing the book was so difficult, but when I finally finished and they sent me a copy and I was holding it in my hand, I could physically feel, like, this weight off my shoulders," he says. " 'Ah, there's all those years wrapped up in a nice little package and I can move on now.' "
Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives