Thursday, November 20, 2008

There's Really No Debate On The Eels' Magic Or Their Leader's Major New Projects: It's E Said, E Said

My family and I moved from Southern California to Florida a hair over three years ago, and in some ways, one of the things I miss most is the Eels.

Don't get me wrong. I deeply miss dear friends, former colleagues and family members, and I make a point of seeing them all on occasional trips back to California.

But when I have returned to my old So. Cal. stomping grounds, I have not been able to see the Eels perform--and since I've lived in Florida, none of the L.A. group's concert tours have swung through my adopted homeland. I used to live five minutes from the Galaxy Theater, a venue where the Eels performed warm-up shows before the last few tours.

At this point, I guess I should hasten to point out that the Eels constitutes one of my very favorite bands of the last decade or so, and no small part of that is their well-earned reputation as an ever-changing but always-magical live act.

Indeed, E has long reflected a Dylan-esque drive for the Eels to never repeat themselves live, to continually alter the presentation and reinvent songs in performance.

Moreover, E's impulse to sonically reimagine material for concert stages is so artistically restless that it's not uncommon for songs--and the musicians playing them--to change not just from tour to tour, but from one leg of a tour to the next.

A little over six years ago, for example, my good friend and fellow Eels aficionado Debbie and I had tickets for an Eels concert that was to be among the final shows of a lengthy tour in support of 2001's "Souljacker" album. We had caught a show on an earlier leg of the tour, and loved it, and our Eels addiction was already so serious that we were giddy with anticipation of this forthcoming show.

Meanwhile, another good friend, John, had arrived in town for a visit, so Debbie & I talked up the show, got John a ticket, and we all went. That night, the Eels effectively functioned as a punk band, and much of the material was virtually unrecognizable--so much so that after they delivered a blistering rawk version of "I Like Birds," an otherwise highly-catchy ode to beaked buddies (and something of a signature song), Debbie & I looked at each other, and asked "Was that 'I Like Birds'?"

Download: I Like Birds by the Eels (mp3)(iTunes)(Amazon)

Using that anecdote to help place his always-altering performance proclivity in context, I had an opportunity to ask E about the concert modus operandi in a recent interview that aired Nov. 12 on one of my WMNF radio shows, the Wednesday Sonic Detour. (You can listen to that interview here.)

One facet of his answer involved contrasting his philosophy with that of Gene Simmons--a wonderfully simple, pithy articulation of the difference between art and commerce in the realm of creative endeavors.

The wry, glorious simplicity of that response hardly came as a surprise, especially after reading "Things The Grandchildren Should Know," E's fantastic, highly-praised memoir published in the U.S. in October, on the heels of its UK release several months earlier.

As I've noted elsewhere, the book is not for sissies: it chronicles a deeply dysfunctional family (a vivid, unshakeable detail: when E discovers his father slumped over in what turns out to be his death at 51, he recalled that trying to revive him was their first instance of father-son physical contact; more on that remote father in a moment) and the avalanche of death and dying--the Dad's premature death was followed by his sister's suicide, followed by cancer claiming his Mom--that could have buried E.

But didn't.

Instead, he poured those experiences--all the loss, pain and grief--into the second Eels album, "Electro-Shock Blues," a wrenching masterpiece. There's at least one other full-blown masterpiece in the Eels catalog 2005's "Blinking Lights And Other Revelation," all the more striking a triumph because it's that exceptionally rare double-album that should be a double-album.

Of course, I'm always delighted to listen to the Eel's third release, "Daisies Of The Galaxy," but then I'm happy to listen to anything by the Eels. (Hell, I actually have both of E's pre-Eels records; production may sound dated, but there's some sharp songwriting here.)

But, returning to "Grandchildren," it's also a rich, compelling tale of how an emotionally undernourished boy in a troubled household was literally saved by rock 'n' roll--rather than a depressing read, the book is breezy, deftly-written, often funny and informed by E's remarkable, indomitable spirit.

Pete Townshend, who knows a little something about rock 'n' roll and about writing, raved about "Grandchildren": "This is one of the best books ever written by a contemporary artist. I learned more about my own business and my own methods by reading this book than I did by reading the life of Chuck Berry, Elvis or David Bowie."

There were at least two other reasons at the moment for pursuing a conversation with E.

One, in October, Nova aired "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives," the BBC-produced, award-winning documentary wherein E investigates the pioneering work of his late father, Hugh Everett III, a quantum physicist--at one point, an MIT scientist equates Everett senior with Einstein and Newton.

Two, turns out that "Yes Man," the new film starring Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel not only features Eels songs old and (one) new, but also E co-composed the film's score, a rare undertaking for him.

And, truth be told, I guess there was one other reason for wanting to gab with him: I'm a huge, longtime fan. As I've also noted elsewhere, I've long thought the Eels were a cult band housing a truly major talent, and it's little wonder that some of his other ardent fans include Townshend, Neil Young and Tom Waits.

The guy's great.

Download: Novocaine for the Soul by the Eels (iTunes)(Amazon)

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