At the time I’m writing this, it’s been roughly a week since Jason Molina died. In that time, I’ve been doing what most Molina fans have been doing: driving around with a stack of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. CDs beside me, keeping me company on drives that are last a take a little longer, go a little farther than they need to, reading interviews, watching YouTube videos of live shows, listening to an online stream of everything Molina ever recorded, or watching things like this fantastic documentary about the making of the Josephine album.
As far as writing about his death, that wasn’t something I relished doing. For one, it takes you away from immersing yourself in his work. Granted, listening to Molina’s records reminds you that he’s gone, but it at least does so by wrapping you in the beauty of his songs. To turn the music off, though, to leave the comfort of those songs and attempt to actually describe the ineffable quality that made his songs so special? That’s like trying to catch one of the will-o-the-wisps he liked to sing about.
So far, I think NPR’s Stephen Thompson has done it best, primarily because he doesn’t try to separate the emotion, his fan’s sense of loss, from the act of writing a post-mortem appreciation for Molina. “It hurts like hell that he’s gone”, writes Thompson. If you’re a fan of Molina, you know exactly what he means. You can’t separate the emotion from the artist or the music, because if you were a fan of Molina, it’s probably because his way with words, and his way of singing them, connected on a very personal level.
Unless you were lucky enough to run into Molina in his early days of selling home-made cassettes, your awareness of him probably began with either Songs: Ohia or Magnolia Electric Co. Songs: Ohia ran from roughly 1996-2003 until he transitioned (without really telling anyone until long after the fact) to Magnolia Electric Co., which remained a vibrant collaborative effort until Molina’s death.
Molina was incredibly prolific, seeming to combine the discipline of a workaholic with a true artist’s need to get the songs out of his system. As a result, if his own testimony was to be believed, Molina had annual “cleanings” where he would throw away or burn anything he didn’t feel was worthy of recording or keeping. The songs that we did get, from his first lo-fi cassette days to the Crazy Horse-evoking grandeur of his MEC material, showed us a songwriter with an uncanny knack for mixing pain, regret, and confusion together and getting beauty in return.
He loved grouping his songs together into albums that had themes, even if those themes were hard to pin down or ultimately up to the listner’s interpretation. So many of his lyrics were clear as day (“So all of you folks in heaven not too a busy ringing the bells / Some of us down here aren’t doing very well” or “I nailed my guilt to the back of my eyes so I see it now before the sun”), while others relied on his own personal mythology that only he fully understood.
Molina’s language of symbolism was heavy with ghosts, falling stars, highways, birds, flowers, maps, and broken hearts. His tendency to mine the same imagery throughout his career always made it seem like the perfect Molina song was just a matter of the right symbols landing together at the right time. Arguably, he never came closer than 2003’s Magnolia Electric Co. album, which found Molina making the shift from his Songs: Ohia incarnation to the MEC framework that would serve his songs so well. “Farewell Transmission”, “Riding with the Ghost”, “Just Be Simple”, “Almost Was Good Enough” — that’s an album-opening murderers’ row that stands up against any four songs by just about anyone.
When I got the news that Molina was dead at the age of 39, I cursed. Then I thought to myself, “This must be what it felt like to folks when Townes Van Zandt died.” That’s not to compare the two in terms of talent. I’m not about to stand up on Steve Earle’s coffee table and preach that one was better than the other. In fact, I’m not sure how much that comparison holds water, anyway.
True, the circumstances of their deaths — their bodies, ravaged by alcoholism, finally gave out — link the two in a long chain of singer-songwriters whose addictions brought them down. However, I think they approached sadness in different ways. They could both break your heart, but they seemed to striving for different goals. Van Zandt was fully capable of applying beauty to tales of dying prostitutes, life on the road, or sickness, but he was also prone to following that sadness to the back of whatever cave it lived in, not bothering to light a lamp so he could find his way back out. What’s always been surprising about Van Zandt were his claims that he wrote plenty of songs that he called his “3 a.m. blues,” which were too sad or dark to ever be recorded or released.
With Molina, the sadness was linked to the struggle of getting through the day, getting to the next day, living up to the belief that you saw in your partner’s eyes. Molina’s songs could be dark — for God’s sake, “Farewell Transmission” boasts the line “Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws” — but that darkness wasn’t the destination. It was a place from which you wanted to escape, and a reference point for what was to come if you got out. It was the pain and baggage and regret that made the quiet and hope and love emerge that much more strongly.
Unlike other songwriters struggling with alcohol, though, the bottle never seemed to pop up in his songs. You never listened to a Molina record and thought, “We’ll be reading this guy’s obituary soon.” So it came as a surprise to me, and to a lot of other fans, when the announcement came that Molina had checked himself into some sort of rehab farm to get clean.
I’d met Molina a couple of times, always in the company of people who knew him much better, and he never gave off any sense of struggle. He always came across as engaged, aware, and together. There were no rumors floating around the fanbase about any problems. When I saw him at the 40 Watt Club debuting songs that would later form the core of Josephine, he was visibly fighting emotion, but I’d been told that many of the songs were inspired by the death of bassist, pedal steel player, and friend Evan Farrell in 2007. Farrell’s death in an apartment fire had apparently been devastating for Molina. Even then, though, Molina was talking of moving to London so that he could get medical care that he couldn’t afford in the States. Little did we realize that he was talking about rehab facilities.
In 2009, Molina was scheduled to tour with Will Johnson in support of 2009’s Molina and Johnson record, but he dropped out due to unspecified health reasons. The year 2011 saw a statement on magnoliaelectricco.com titled “Where is Jason Molina?” that revealed “Over the last two years Jason has been in and out of rehab facilities and hospitals in England, Chicago, Indianapolis, and New Orleans”. In May of 2012, Molina released a statement that said his recovery was going slowly but that it was moving forward, and that he had recorded a batch of songs to accompany a Will Schaff book (that was later available via Kickstarter). Fans took it at face value and as a positive sign.
When the Autumn Bird Songs EP was released, it was hard not to view many of its songs as minor Molina works, as sketches for greater things to come. But they were new Molina songs (despite the fact that they were written while Molina was still living in London), and it was easy to feel optimistic. It was cause for hope.
We now know that things were worse than we thought. To the outside world, Molina always exhibited control. His excesses, whatever they were, weren’t the stuff of legend, and it was easy to believe that, rather than being a prolonged illness, that Molina’s alcoholism was the product of unimaginable stress from things like Farrell’s death. It’s still a little unclear exactly what happened, but how much knowledge do we really need past the fact that Molina tried to get better and his body just couldn’t hold up any longer?
Thompson’s right. It does hurt like hell. It hurts to know that your favorite songwriter won’t write any more songs framing the world in that way that was so special and unique. That Molina had demons that took him down, despite his best attempts to get clean, and that any human being went through that, and that every day, people will continue to fight — and lose — the same battle.
Already, a tribute album has been announced featuring the likes of Will Oldham, Damien Jurado, Mark Kozelek, Will Johnson, and others. It’s possible that Molina left some songs behind that will see posthumous release. Maybe not. As fans, we want these things, but in the end, it’s not about us. Whatever the case, anything we get from here on out will bear the weight of Molina’s absence, like all those Songs: Ohia and MEC records suddenly do. Any “new” songs will be much like the ghosts that populated Molina’s songs, anchoring us to the past even as they make us feel like taking flight.
It’s interesting, though. I would have expected to listen to Molina’s music after his death and hear some kind of previously unheard puzzle reveal itself, as if Molina was planting clues in his songs all along. But I don’t. I hear the same songs where, despite his fondness for symbolism, Molina was never anything but honest about his trials and errors, his long dark blues, and his farewell transmissions.