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A pained dad, a poetic son

October 19, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

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.

Life-changing experience

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.

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