On Jason Molina

March 18, 2013

The Internet has been engaged in a lot of tributes to Jason Molina today. If you haven’t heard, the talented singer/songwriter passed away Saturday night at the age of 39. The cause of death was described as natural causes on both the Secretly Canadian and Magnolia Electric Co. websites. Henry over at Chunklet was a bit more blunt, writing that Molina “died from a body that had been drowned in alcohol for years on end.” The how or why is not important. The world lost a true musical genius this weekend.

In 2003 Jason and a full 8-piece band played at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. This was the first of many times I’d see the band between then and 2009 when he last (I think) played the Echo here in LA. At that Philadelphia show in the sweltering church basement, Molina asked a kid near the front of the stage if he’d go get water for the crowd, then handed him a crisp $100 to run to the convenience store down the street. The kid came back with handfuls of bottles, which were dispersed throughout the room. Two years later at the Intonation Festival in Chicago, on a 100-degree summer day, Jason and his band performed a blistering set. At the time I described their performance as the end of my day, because all the other bands were boring by comparison. Jason dedicated a song to “The three soldiers Chicago lost on Thursday” (Silkworm’s Michael Dahlquist, and his co-workers and fellow musicians Doug Meis and John Glick). It was an emotional performance, and his moving dedication that did not go unnoticed. He didn’t have to speak any more about it, he didn’t have to drop names so people would know to whom he was referring…he just wanted to express that he too was in mourning.

Those were the first two times I saw Jason live, and each one depicts a selfless, unpretentious artist who genuinely cared about everyone around him, whether they were kids paying $8 to see a rock show or his friends and peers.

I could go on at length about meeting Jason, our first conversation, and my traveling to Chicago to interview him for that book of mine, but it would only further delay my getting to the point of this post. You can read about bumping into him after a show in New York here, and you can read pretty much my full conversation with him here.

What I remember most of Jason from the brief speck of time we spent together was how funny he was. I mean…there’s more than just a little darkness present on his records. He told me that whenever anything goes wrong or right, when he’s happy or in despair, he turns it into music. But I think a lot of listeners would think wrong before right, or despair before happiness. Hope? Yes, you can find it in his songs. Humor? Levity? Not so much. That isn’t a bad thing. I feel incredibly close to his songs because the ones I know and love the most were (and still are) frequently sought during my own times of struggle or sadness. And yet, sitting at the small table in the front of a neighborhood bar, he and I shared a good deal of laughter. Whether it was over-annunciating the “i” sounds in Spine Riders (the name of his band in high school), or rolling our eyes and making flippant remarks about the songs other patrons selected from the jukebox, there was a lot more comedy in Jason that I expected to find. At one point I inquired about new songs he was recording, and his response was, “It’s really similar [to Pyramid Electric Co.], just the instrumentation is a lot different and it’s recorded differently.” That moment when he caught himself making such an blatant contradiction…you’ve never heard such a hearty laugh.

I can’t say much more about Jason because, well, I didn’t know him beyond that interaction and a couple brief interactions through the years. I saw him perform another half-dozen times, and when we spoke he was always kind enough to ask about the progress I was making on trying to get my book published. In total, whatever time I spent getting to know Jason does not add up to more than a few hours. Because of that, I can’t offer any more insight into who he was or why he made the choices he made in life. I know he was a good person. I witnessed it at the aforementioned shows and I witnessed it that afternoon in Chicago. In spite of his demons, in spite of the struggle to control them, he was what his friends and peers say he was. Endearing. A Genius. Generous. Goofy. Brutally smart. Inspiring. Complex. As for me…I know his words and his music have impacted me through the years far more than I can express, and I consider the few hours we spent together one of the most enriching and memorable in my non-career as a non-author. I am so, so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend even a modicum of time in his presence. And I am equally heartbroken by this loss.

Perhaps the best glimpse I had into how Jason’s mind worked was when I asked him how the places he lived in manifested themselves in his music. He answered, “Well, outside of Chicago, there’s the entire industrial coast of the great lakes. That’ll be my last fleeting image from this earth. It’s burned into my eyeballs. Burning smoke stacks, and steal mills, and that acrid sulfur smell of the industry. I mean, that’s what was on my horizon growing up, metaphorically but also literally. That was my future, working at U.S. Steel or working at Ford. It’s one thing to get to tour around the country in a Chevy and it’s another thing to spend my whole life riveting a bolt into the chassis of one. I’d say I wouldn’t avoid that stuff, and I don’t romanticize it either, but it’s real. Of course, the east coast is full of it too, but notice how the highways are routed around the worst of it. The first time you find yourself lost in parts of New Jersey, you realize what really feeds the machine out there. That’s another thing. The highway. Getting on the road and having nowhere to go, and not being worried about it. That’s where some pretty nice creative stuff happens. Getting purposely lost. A lot of my songwriting is basically…imaging purposely going to a country where you don’t know the language and then getting lost, and then refusing to ask for help,” he laughs. “That’s another thing, don’t ask for any help. The physical places in Chicago are too numerous. The whole city is still great for me for getting to see people and be around real people. Anywhere where there’s no tourists, man.”

Songs: Ohia – Just A Spark [MP3]

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