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Unreliable narrators

June 14, 2010

As I was transcribing last night, I came across a quote that I think embodies the full essence of my challenge with this project. In my interview with Pete Erchick and Bill Doss a few days ago, we were talking about the Olivia Tremor Control’s last real album, Black Foliage, and what stood out about it, when Erchick said:

“Just the way that record was recorded, on so many different machines in so many different homes, in Denver and in Athens, different groups of people. There’s one song that I know three of us played bass on, and I’m one of them. Can I tell you what I play? I absolutely can’t. … I listen to that record and I know clearly which is Will’s voice and Bill’s voice, and sometimes it’s clearly one person’s guitar, but there’s a lot of parts where I’m like, ‘Am I sane? Did I do that or did I have nothing to do with that?’ “

I don’t mean to single out Erchick here, especially since he actually seems to have one of the more reliable memories. But his quote here highlights something that keeps coming up again and again, in every interview I do: nobody really remembers anything clearly. In some cases, yes, this can probably be attributed to drug use (like everything else, pot is cheap in Athens), but in general, we’re talking about minute details of things that happened 10 and 20 years ago. Being in a band can make life a blur; being in several bands at the same time can make big things almost imperceptible.

The good thing is that I’m not writing about one person in particular. I’m writing about dozens, which means no matter what I want to talk about, there are usually at least six or seven people who experienced it firsthand. While in some cases not any of them can speak on it with full authority, they can all offer their accounts, and then I can cross-reference it a bunch of times to figure out what’s the best explanation. That everyone is so willing to concede their amnesiac shortcomings makes this an easier problem to resolve: I usually know specifically which things to check out more diligently.

Of course, things like who played which bass part on a specific song are, in the grand scheme of things, immaterial. Erchick said as much himself, immediately after the above quote:

I used to think, man, we should have written all this shit down. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

All of this — the quotes and the fact that it takes several people to contribute to one credible idea — plays into one of the big themes of this book: some wholes really are bigger than the sums of their parts. Individual people are, obviously, important, but sometimes there’s something else at play, something that can’t easily be distilled into a couple pithy sentences. I should hope a book gives me ample room to tackle it.

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