I’ve seen The Eels, the vehicle for their front-man Mark Everett, live twice. Once in L.A. with my brother, once in Brooklyn with my then-girlfriend. At the El Rey, their opening act was a British documentary about Mark’s father Hugh Everett the Third formulating the first feasible theory of parallel universes, the Many Worlds Interpretation. At the Music Hall of Williamsburg, their opening act was a contortionist, driving seven-inch nails up his nose and shimmying through unstrung tennis rackets. I give Los Angeles and Brooklyn both this, neither shies away from their respective stereotypes. Both just lean in harder.
The Eels only ever had one music-video hit, back when MTV was still A Thing, in 1996 with the song “Novocaine for the Soul”. Despite developing a cult following over the last three decades as an indie-rocker’s indie-rock, that was it in terms of radio charts or basic cable airplay. Despite that and despite a deep (one hopes lucrative) history of use in teevee and films including the first three Shreks (doubtless the main reason why the fourth Shrek was terrible) if you’re at an Eels concert, much of the crowd is only there for Novocaine.
The really big acts, the ones that can play Madison Square Garden or the Hollywood Bowl, they have the ability to eschew more exhausting hits. If Radiohead tires of “Creep”, casuals still enjoy “Paranoid Android”. If Jagger is sick of “Satisfaction”, they can always stretch “Gimmie Shelter” to fill the set. Mark, however, lives somewhere between those parallel worlds of Obscurity and Superstardom, that nether place where you’re boxed into playing the same song two-hundred times a year until the day you die.
Credit where due, they seem to handle it better than most, neither petulant in denial nor phoning it in when the time comes to play the song folks came to hear. At one of the shows, they rearranged it as a punk song, in the other, Mark went behind the drumkit and let the drummer sing lead. Every tour, a search for a different way to dispense Novocaine, giving the audience what they want without going dead-numb themselves.
Just before the El Rey show, a seven-foot-tall man took a place in the front row seats. I was later told he was the power-forward for the Lakers, Pau Gasol, known as an eccentric intellectual, at least as jocks go, while all of his teammates were watching Jay-Z at The Bowl instead. Or anyway, that’s what I was told at the time.
This was before Hollywood broke my heart completely, before the curse of the Thirty Mile Zone was lifted, before I stopped seeing as childish hope desired and saw things as they are. For all I know, that wasn’t Pau at all, rather an errant sasquatch. Maybe one some worlds one, and on some the other, that just depends how much you believe Hugh Everett.
Last updated May 26, 2021