It’s been an exciting summer for the musician known simply as E.
He may be 48 and a long-established master of melodic, delightfully odd rock music, most famous for his hit song “Novocaine for the Soul.” But even after releasing nine albums with his band Eels and chronicling the loss of several loved ones on the acclaimed album Electroshock Blues – and then again in his memoir, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know” – there’s still plenty that can humble the man born as Mark Oliver Everett.
Like meeting and performing with boyhood idol Ringo Starr. E told the tale of his first meeting with a former Beatle just after returning from Europe and his first trip to China for a brief North American tour.
“Ringo is such a sweetheart,” he said. “He saw me watching his show in Norway, and he came over and said ‘Would you like to sing with me, it’s this song called ‘With a Little Help From My Friends.’ And he started singing the song to me and I stopped him and said, ‘Yeah, I know it!’“
E realized, to his chagrin, that he had interrupted a private performance by his own hero. Still, he was touched.
“He inspired me to play the drums at 6, so it was a very moving experience for me,” he said.
E also endured the humbling experience of playing guitar before Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page in London.
“It’s a little intimidating,” he said. “I found out he uses the same pick as me, but I think he’s had better results.”
These weren’t E’s first awkward encounters with his heroes. In his memoir, published in 2008, he recounts his collaboration with singer Tom Waits, who sent him a tape of himself crying like a baby that later appeared on the song “Going Fetal.” Waits thrilled E by offering to do yard work for him to make up for accidentally erasing E’s vocals on the tape.
Then there was the first time he met Neil Young. E was horrified to hear himself blurt out, “I like your beard.”
Now, ironically, E probably hears that exact comment from his own fans, after famously growing a very long beard while on tour. He was forced to shave it after drawing scrutiny from airport security officials following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And last year, his long beard drew the attention of London police while he was in Hyde Park.
E normally gets a friendlier reception in Britain, where the Eels have scored several hits. Their first appearance at the famed Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts this summer earned high praise from critics.
Europe can sometimes be more receptive to a musician known for his sound-collage recording style, blunt lyrics and fascination with all manner of instruments. That idiosyncratic approach was apparent on his recent trilogy of concept albums – Hombre Lobo, End Times and Tomorrow Morning – which dealt with desire, breakups and renewal.
“There’s more of an audience for music in Europe than America,” he said. “In Europe, music is still an important part of everyone’s day, unlike in America, where it’s slowly being replaced by video games or whatever.”
E stressed that he appreciates the Eels’ cult following in the U.S., where the band just made its fifth appearance for an enthusiastic David Letterman on his “Late Show.” But it was a British network, the BBC, that decided to make a documentary about E after he published his memoir, which recounted how he channeled the loss of his family – his father to a heart attack, his sister to suicide and his mother to cancer – into his music.
The award-winning documentary, called “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” and broadcast in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting Service program “NOVA,” focuses on E’s attempts to understand his emotionally distant father, the celebrated quantum physicist Hugh Everett, whose lifeless body was found by E when he was only 18. Everett, author of the “many worlds” theory of parallel universes, earned both scorn and a devoted following.
The same could be said for E himself, who has been savaged by some critics who say his music is alternatively too frivolous or too dark. E dismisses the critics and says anyone who comes to an Eels show will find it “undeniably fun.”
“It’s all very misguided,” he said. “All I’m trying to do as an artist is reflect life in all its different shapes and colors, and anyone paying attention knows there are all sorts of ups and downs in a song. It might get pretty dark but it’s always in the name of getting somewhere positive, and our shows are all about positivity.
“The whole goal is about feeling good about life and rejuvenated.”