I was sad to learn last Monday, that my friend, fellow Ohio Soul and songwriter Jason Molina had passed away at the age of 39. The result of a long battle with alcoholism. Quite despite how his life came to a close, Jason was a fierce spirit who brought all his powers to his art, and those whose lives he touched. If you have ever discovered an album or song that helped you through a difficult time in your life, then it would make sense that I share, discovering Jason’s work when I did, sustained me. A period marked by the death of several loved ones, uprooting from two cities in four years, divorce and its strange ruins, the combined weight of which, left me numb with uncertainty until music and friends, Jason among them, helped me create enough space for reckoning, and eventually, redemption. The story of me and Jason’s time, I have chosen to share as a remembrance from an Ohio son, for an Ohio son, Jason, a man who leaves a mark on Ohio Culture, and the music community at large in a way, you only see—once a generation.
If the truth forgets about us…
On my 31st birthday in 2005, my ex-wife took me to Gem City Records to pick an album. The album I chose, was Magnolia Electric Co.’s (MECO) What Comes After the Blues. From the get go, The Dark Don’t Hide It sent chills up my spine with its wailing slide guitar, it’s unflinching lyrics and dare me swagger which combined, soothed something restless in me, perhaps, a premonition about the blows that were soon to land. A few months later, on the day my grandfather died, I bought Songs: Ohia ‘Didn’t It Rain’ and took it down to the banks of the Great Miami River in Middletown, Ohio. As I listened, watching the sunset as I thought about what my grandfather meant to me, I remember feeling grateful that this guy named Jason Molina from Ohio, who was telling Ohio stories in a way I had never heard. Moving from Dayton to Columbus in the intervening three years, I was always excited to find more work from Jason as no matter what it was, the words he wrote, the atmosphere he crafted and the themes he took up–always seemed to arrive right on time in my life. In those last days in Columbus, when the abjection of divorce began to set in, I’d take out for long drives on the highways that traced the city, singing along full-throated with Hammer Down. When I would return home on those nights, the melodious surrender of In The Human World often filled the voids left by the growing distance between me and my ex-wife, who had started to withdraw into the third floor apartment of our town house for days on end.
Broke my heart to leave the city, I mean it broke what wasn’t broken in there already…
In March of 2009, I set out for Austin with $600, and, what I could fit in my car on the merit of a promise from my adopted sister, that I could sleep on her couch until I got on my feet. June of that year, brought my 35th birthday, a birthday, I insisted on spending alone—it being my first birthday in Austin, and my first birthday since the divorce had began to unfold. In that period of weeks around and after my birthday, I lost touch with many people, including Mark, a dear writer friend from Cincinnati who I had told—should go see Magnolia Electric Co that July at the Historic Southgate House on the banks of the Ohio River across from Cincinnati. A true friend, Mark did not give up on me when I didn’t answer my phone, instead he tried harder. On the night MECO played the Southgate House, Mark called me and held up his phone so I could hear MECO play Leave the City, a song he knew to be one of my favorites, which drew one of the first whole-hearted smiles that I had cracked in some time. Mark wasn’t done.
Tell whatever news you have from home tonight…
When my phone rang later that night and I saw it was Mark, I stepped away from a movie me and my sister were watching to say thanks, and hear how the show went.
“Hey Buddy, could you hear anything?” Mark asked.
” I could hear a little bit of it and thanks you so much! How was the show, what did they play?” I replied.
“It was great man, I’m glad I came, hang on….” As I waited, I tilted my head to hold the phone to my ear so I could light a cigarette.
“Happy Birthday Lance!” I heard a voice say smiling at me through the receiver.
“Thank You” I replied, pausing as I could hear giggling in the background.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“This is Jason.” The voice beamed.
“Jason?” I paused again. “Jason from Magnolia Electric Co.?”
“Yea.” Jason replied.
You are not helpless…
Me and Jason only got to talk for a few moments that night before the call dropped. By the time I was able to get Mark back on the line, Jason was on his way out of town but Mark told me—he and Jason had talked over a few drinks (which Jason insisted on buying) and, that Jason had given Mark his e-mail address with an invite to drop a line anytime. Between then and when MECO was set to play Austin, I had emailed Jason to see if he might wanna do an interview for a blog I was working on, Jason had wrote back, but we had not been able to settle on a time. On the day Magnolia Electric Co came to Austin to play the Mohawk, I dropped by for sound check to say hi to everyone. Jason greeted me immediately with a smile and shared—he would be willing to talk once they wrapped up sound check, which he welcomed me to sit in on. Once MECO finished sound check with Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves of London’, Jason and I headed to the Mohawk’s Lowdown Bar, where we quickly settled into our tête-à-tête—-starting with our mutual appreciation of other luminaries from the Ohio literary tradition—poets like Hart Crane, Rita Dove and James Wright. Turning then, towards Ohio legends—of note, a tale alive and well on on the Ohio/West Virginia border about Hank Williams’ final writings, which various accounts, place in the hands of locals who helped pull his lifeless body from the back seat of a car that was taking him to play a show in Canton, Ohio. As we talked over that first half hour, Jason exuded a warm and infectious countenance—framed by a soulful wit and a graciousness which was to me, unquestionably imprinted on him in Ohio as he talked about his wife, living in London and the new album, Josephine. When we talked about William Blake, he told me of the graveyards he like to walk through. When we talked about London neighborhoods, he regaled me with a story about chance encounter with PJ Harvey in a London Butcher shop. When we came to the topic of touring, Jason, who had been shifting his posture the entire conversation, explained to me how arduous an affair the travel involved could be for him, as he shared, he suffered from Deep Vein Thrombosis. After explaining how walks helped, he asked me, if I would like to join him on one, which, with all how we were enjoying ourselves, I couldn’t refuse.
Cross the Road Molina…
Taking into the street, I was surprised how Jason, shorter than me, double-paced my long legged gate. In the early twilight, I could see the brightness of his facial expressions and noticed, how his strong eyebrows, helped frame his big eyed smile and his soulful laughter as we continued talking. At that time, I had only been in Austin a few months, which Jason knew, and as we made way for O.Henry House, Jason shared with me all the places he had taken in, some of Austin’s history and how much he liked the Owl Motif of the Frost Bank Building. Crossing 6th Street and then making it to O.Henry House, which was undergoing renovations at the time, me and Jason delighted in negotiating whether it would be wise—to jump the fence to get a better look inside the house. A decision, we agreed, might be unwise as it could mean neither one of us—making it to the show that night. From O.Henry House, we headed to the Hatbox Haberdashery on 6th Street where Jason shared some hat tricks and we fathomed whether either one of us—could sport a Fedora or, a Top Hat. Apparently, I am too tall for a Top Hat— nevermind, wool is too hot for Texas don’t you know? From there, Jason wanted to walk by the Driskell Hotel, which he shared was one his favorite places to stay in Austin. A historic site that once featured a Casino and a Brothel, and where, President Johnson proposed to his wife Lady Bird. A place, I lter came to learn on my own to be a uniquely Austin destination where luminaries mingled with locals in the Downstairs Bar and sometimes mingled, with the ghosts said to haunt the hotel. Coming to rest in the back bar of Jackelope a few minutes later, Double Bourbon in each of our hands, Jason and I traded stories with one another about Ohio, his early days recording out of the trunk of his car, me growing up backstage with the Blues bands my Mom managed, writing projects, what it meant to be able to roam without being recognized, the new album and the song—Texas 71. When it was time to go, just as he had done with Mark in Cincinnati, Jason wanted to pay the tab. He was not satisfied by my plea on the grounds of hospitality as he wanted me—to be his guest. After I pointed out to him that on top of all this time we had spent—that he had just showed me around my new town, he finally relented with a smile. After years of listening to Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co, my first and only chance to see them live, did not disappoint. When MECO encored with Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” I couldn’t help but laugh out loud thinking of Jason and I’s discussion about jumping the fence at O.Henry House. After the show, Jason and I met again to chat and trade information, and while we did, took turns steadying my date, who, by the fifth song of MECO’s set that night, had began to regret the word ‘fifth’, altogether. When my date sniped at Jason, ever the Gentleman, he didn’t flinch—and abided her like a big brother would his little sister. When we parted ways, he won her over fully with a quick peck on the cheek, followed by a big smile and a gracious “Thank you for coming out tonight.”
The road becomes what you leave…
Through the next few weeks of the tour, me and Jason stayed in close touch via email and of all things, through, text message haiku battles he challenged me to. Around the time when the band had made it to San Francisco, I got a text message from Jason simply saying ‘Riding low in the saddle today my friend, will catch ya later.” A message I didn’t make sense of until I was able to piece together that MECO collaborator and Secretly Canadian label mate, Evan Farrell, had died there after a house fire just a year before, which Jason had shared with Mark, had been a painful loss for him. In the next few months, MECO would end up cancelling a large swath of tour dates.
I’m leaving with my load of cautious grace, I’m seeing my new cycle, my new way…
Between Fall of 2009 and Spring of 2010, Jason and Texas songwriter Will Johnson released a collaborative album, Molina and Johnson, which was written and recorded in outskirts of Dallas. By this point, I had moved to northeast edge of the Austin, near Pioneer Farm, the metaphor of which, was salient to me on the day I moved my very own bed—into my new home. The new album and the nearby fields I could walk late at night, were both, anodyne. Over this period, me and Jason had stayed in touch through both our changes via e-mail and Facebook. He, convalescing in London and not sharing much about it. Me, having come to peace with the previous five years of my life having, in a single stroke, divested myself of any further concerns about my marriage, so that I could be free to focus on my new life, my friends and my family. With Jason on London time and me on Austin time, we tended to bump into each other late at night via Facebook chat, he sometimes back from his morning walks, me, back from my evening walks. When we did have the chance to talk on the phone, if Jason was sick, you wouldn’t have known it as he always sounded upbeat. There was nothing in our conversations that indicated struggle. We always talked about writing, and often found ourselves, trading curiosities and notes on everything from Civil War History, Occultic Symbology, Folklore and Mythology, and one time, working together to try and figure out a riddle he had found in an old European manuscript. In May of 2010, me and Jason fell out of touch via phone after I had moved and changed numbers. When I finally came to rest, Jason’s number no longer worked. Shortly thereafter, I learned from the band website, that Jason had taken into rehab. Learned—that a Medical Fund had been established by his family to help out with the cost of care, which they were bearing alone (PLEASE DONATE HERE).
I make no small plans…
On the day Jason died, Texas had one of those early spring storms that comes up at you out of the dusk moving 40 miles an hour. Storms that, despite figuring small on a map, are unequivocally ferocious in scope as not only do they whip hailstones through car windows and make Oak trees moan. They also, highlight the frail balance between our need for safe haven, and our urge, to fathom passage through uncertain landscapes. And in white hot flashes of light—bearing witness—to people running for doorways and people running for their cars. In the quiet after the storm as I thought about Jason, I gathered together three sets of hailstones from the yard. The first set, I held loosely in my hand to feel them as they melted. The second set, I used to ascertain how high in the atmosphere these mysterious ‘water stones’ were forged. The final set, I gathered into a freezer bag and safely stowed away for a day I will use them to water a Magnolia Tree in Jason’s honor. As every community has it’s customs to honor the passage into the final refuge of death, so too does the music community. Unique among its ways, how, those who create music and those who sing along, come into harmony over time. A process that starts with a cacophony. Though remembrances, becomes tuned to chords that in the end, frame a chorus we raise together. A testament and forward affirmation to subsequent generations—that it is right and true in every way, that we mark our days by words—and admit ourselves, to the embrace of song. In harmony with those have also offered their accounts, I offer this.
Jason was more than an Ohio Son, but he did capture nuances about the Ohio experience with a clarity that the generations before ours, James Wright and Hart Crane among them, could not fathom. To wit, a passage from the song Blue Factory Flame found on Songs: Ohia’s 2003′s album Didn’t it Rain:
I fly the cross of the blue factory flame / stitched with heavy sulpher thread / they ain’t proud colors / but they’re true colors of my home
The image of the furnace towers and the idiomatic phrasing, familiar, if you’ve come of age beneath the light of a blast furnace flame.
Although I realize many will maintain that Jason wrote ‘roots’ or ‘blues’ music, I hold, that he watered many seeds. A writer’s, writer, Jason studied the classics, was conversant in many poetic forms and could employ innumerable tropes to set the songbook of the soul into motion. Within his repertoire—songs about ghosts, birds, baseball, weather, dancing, magic, history, drinking, harvests, fishing, plants, fatherhood, war, writers, light houses, friendship, trains and bridges. This list by no means, exhaustive. Able to tap into his vulnerabilities in a way few writers can, Jason wrote with the full scansion of his heart when he talked about how it feels to be captured in the gaze of the woman he loves, or, that he wants to be loved by. Poignantly and with unparalleled economy, in the 12 lines that make up the song Tigress, from 2000′s Songs:Ohia release The Lioness
it’s difficult not to worry about what happens next
certain looks sort out confused looks
and certain looks sport confused looks
and I watched us talking in the mirror
and you put on that look
that says this little star wishes she weren’t single
it is the eye that catches me a man protesting his worth
it is the year that catches you putting the shake on your words
you are alert as a tigress at a common table with her fate
you can almost taste it
we’ll be gone be morning or be together by then(x2)
and I believe every woman has made up her mind to win
For my account, it is only after you take the time to recognize the aforementioned, that the full reward of Jason’s work navigating the tropes that define traditional blues and folks come into focus. When he sings “I put my foot to the floor to make up for the miles I’ve been losing…” in Riding with the Ghost on 2003′s Magnolia Electric Company, he leaves and indelible mark on music for our generation. Does so by driving a lovers complaint, eerie back-up singer in his stride—toward self-redemption. Redemption, not pathology, aggrandizement nor, the self-destruction that has become de rigueur.
Leave all the truth in so they know what comes next…
Jason saw the light on Saturday, March 16th nestled the bosom of the Midwest. A place that help frame his extraordinarily gracious spirit, his work ethic and his characteristic soulfulness. In the days since Jason died, I have traced over chat histories, emails and phone calls in denial of the silence that now looms. In sadness and anger, I have sang along again with my friend with renewed urgency. In anxious signatures, I have bargained for reason by writing people who knew Jason—to ask if they know of anything that could be done. As for acceptance, I have found three notes I think I could hit again, which I imagine and hope, will be in harmony with the chorus of people who’s lives, Jason touched. First, Jason and I’s time was short, nevertheless, that time was replete with meaning—as he appeared in my life and abided me when the uncertainty in my spirit and the circumstances of my life, were too much for most others. When he wrote, ‘if the blues are your hunter…I’ll try and help you beat it‘, he meant it, and I am extraordinarily lucky person to know something about just how much he did mean it. Second, in the nights since Jason passed, I have found solace in the eyes of a Spanish Moon when my car broke down, her hospitality—ancient and complete. I have also found myself beneath the warm gaze of a soul named Hope, who, having never heard a single bar of Jason’s songbook, lifted her voice in rapturous harmony with Two Blue Lights, and by doing so, returned me safely to a world—where there are no strangers. His words, music and legacy are profound and profoundly intact. Finally, this. Laboring under the burden of death, it is often difficult to accept or, speak up about those fierce spirits we’ve come to know—who had lived their lives beyond the limits of their own frailties. It’s right when we cannot, and it is right that if we try, it does not come easy. Such souls are rare, tend to be unassuming and have an uncanny ability to bond with us over our restlessness, which is in fact, the real secret that lurks in us all. As is the case with Jason, such people tend to leave us in a way that forces us to reckon, what it really means to live beyond your doubts when death—is the sure thing. To the merit of everything good and true of Jason myself and others have found, in the last years of his life, Jason wrestled fully with his own doubts. A fact we should be careful not to deny or abjure. A fact that illuminates something else about his extraordinary spirit, which is this; despite having found the doorway to his demise, Jason, unlike others from our generation, did not take the easy way out. Jason wrote through his struggles, lived fully despite them and through that process, unseated some extraordinary assumptions about music, writing and life along his way. No small thing in a world that wants its music to be genre, sterile, packaged in patina and without consequences—and it’s troubadours, tragic.
Until my traveling friend, until…
Sing once for everybody who got left behind…
Jason leaves behind his wife Darcie, a redhead that he loved dearly and that he always spoke of with a smile—as well as the Molina family of Lorain County, Ohio. Unlike Austin, where musicians can get medical care for low or no cost, Jason and his family were saddled with paying the full cost of his medical care over the past two years out of pocket. If there is something you would like to do honor him and help them out, please contribute any amount you can to his medical fund by clicking here.
Message from the Molina Family On What You Can Do to Help (From Facebook)
“So many of you have been asking what you can do to help me and I appreciate that so much. Your thoughts and prayers help a lot. If you would like to do something for me in Jason’s honor please do something kind for someone, help someone who is struggling with addiction or their families who struggle along with them. Jason and I were animal lovers so if you wanted to make a donation to Friendship APL that would help the animals….Thank you!”
The donation page for the Lorain County Animal shelter is HERE
WEARY ENGINE BLUES FUNDRAISER: Cover Songs, Original Art by Jason and William Schaff Limited Edition Print
Benefit Album with 100% Of Proceeds Going to Jason’s Medical Fund featuring other Ohio Native Musicians as Well As Friends and Former Collaborators of Jason’s Including:
John Vanderslice, Mark Kozelek, Hospital Ships, Lucas Oswald, Jonathan Meiburg, Damien Jurado, Dreamend, Brown Bird, Haunt the House, TW Walsh, Phil Elverum, Alisdair Roberts, Scout Niblett, Jeffrey Lewis, Will Johnson, The Wave Pictures, Allo Darlin, Darren Hayman, Will Oldham, Herman Dune and many more amazing musicians