This week marks the five-year anniversary of the death of Jason Molina, a songwriter and musician who recorded under his own name, and under the guise of bands named Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., beginning in the late 1990s. To celebrate his life and musical legacy, two Freeform Portland DJs, Joshua Justice and DJ Mr. Mom, are holding retrospective shows and sharing their thoughts and memories of the importance of Molina’s music.
I sent those words to a friend via text message five years ago (on March 18, 2013), upon learning of the death of Jason Molina. I was idly checking my smartphone while topping off a rental car at a gas station in Tucson, Arizona. The sunshine and blue skies around me darkened to a degree that was dissonant with the perfect desert afternoon. I was immediately and overwhelmingly disheartened.
My friend and I had been keeping tabs on Molina’s health. We were aware that he had been in and out of treatment for substance abuse for the last few years, and his prolific musical work ethic had slowed down to the occasional droplet of an EP or collaboration. We exchanged thoughts about his convalescence, rumored to be taking place on a farm under the watchful eye of his grandmother. We had hoped he’d pull through, beat his demons, and return to his prodigious talent.
Instead, on that Sonoran afternoon, I reached out to the one person I might share my sadness with by cursing the afflicted man.
I have a very clear memory of the first time one of Jason Molina’s songs really got my attention. It was the spring of 2002, I was standing the the living room of the house where I had lived in college, but it was several months after I moved out. My friends were playing me Didn’t It Rain, and they specifically wanted me to hear “Blue Factory Flame,” so we gathered around the turntable in the living room. My roommates had been friends of mine at our college radio station, and they were really excited about the new Songs: Ohia record. I wasn’t prepared for what came from the speakers; the starkness of the story and dire sound.
When I die
Put my bones in an empty street
To remind me of how it used to be
Don’t write my name on a stone
Bring a Coleman lantern and a radio
Cleveland game and two fishing poles
And watch with me from the shore
Ghostly steel and iron ore
Ships coming home
Where I am
Paralyzed by the emptiness
Paralyzed by the emptiness
Paralyzed by the emptiness
Paralyzed by the emptiness
My return trip to my college town was a mildly sour experience. I had moved out of the house in February, as I was student teaching. I had booked a show at the student union building, so I returned to my college town and stayed in my old house and felt out of place. One of my former roommates was obviously struggling at that point in his life, and I couldn’t help but see how the dark and foreboding record he played me mirrored his emotional state, that he had been turning to Molina’s music for solace.
I would see this friend intermittently over the years, and each time I sensed the black cloud that followed him. After he played me Didn’t It Rain, my love for Molina’s music only grew and expanded, while my relationship with my friend contracted and withered. The last time I spoke to my roommate, we exchanged cross words. Less than a year after Molina’s death, my college friend was killed after a home invasion went awry. His girlfriend, who witnessed the murder, committed suicide a few months later. For the the killer’s sentencing, his family reached out to his old college friends and asked us to contribute impact statements. It helped me to listen to Didn’t It Rain while I wrote mine.
I think of my lost friend when I hear Molina’s music, especially Didn’t It Rain. Even though there is a darkness to the album (his record label referred to it as “agnostic gospel”) and his songs, there is an undercurrent of hope and strength against adversity as well. It brings me some comfort to know that Molina’s music was there for my friend in his times of trouble.
KFFP DJ Joshua Justice first encountered Molina’s music on a message board that was originated as an offshoot of a Jimmy Eat World board. One of his friends had adopted the screen names “Captain Badass,” which led Justice to seek an explanation for the name. It was the title of one of Molina’s songs from Axxess & Ace, which was the first of Molina’s records Justice latched on to. By the end of his teens, Justice was deep into Songs: Ohia.
Justice grew up in Michigan and says that “even though I never worked blue collar jobs in a factory,” he identified with Molina’s persona and musical signifiers. “Molina’s music definitely evokes industrial sounds, like driving through an abandoned neighborhood in Detroit during the day,” and that it “fits the eerie sound in a place like that.” He says that Molina’s famed work ethic “did something for me when I first heard his music” and that Justice felt a kinship and connection. “The people I grew up around, people I still keep in touch with out there, they’re kind of closed-off. You don’t show off your emotional side a lot, that’s sort of beneath the surface.”
Justice has a specific association with “This Time Anything Finite at All” from the Songs: Ohia album Impala. He remembers “driving around Michigan when I was younger, or even just holing up in my apartment, on heavy winter days and putting that album on, just listening to it on repeat. There’s a guitar line that sounds like a sunny day even if it’s a dark song” and that he finds “little bits of hope in (Molina’s) music.” He was in an on-again, off-again relationship over the course of six years in his early twenties, and during one of those periods, listening to that album and feeling that “every song (was saying) you blew it. (It was) a tool to get out of that by just meditating on it through somebody else’s words. I couldn’t listen to that album for awhile after that.”
The title of Joshua Justice’s show on Freeform (“Static + Distance”) is a reference to a lyric in the song “Farewell Transmission” from the final Songs: Ohia album, which bears the confusing name Magnolia Electric Co. Justice had been writing music reviews and interviews for a website in Detroit, and he liked the connection it gave him with far-flung comrades. He started his own music site (http://staticdistance.com) and thought the name was evocative of the nature of communicating about music with distant friends. He later had a radio show at KPSU, Portland State University’s student-operated radio station, and the name was a natural fit.
When asked if he had a favorite record by Molina, Justice responded that “it feels like I rotate.” A few years ago, he reappraised Magnolia Electric Co.’s 2009 album Josephine after initially dismissing it, and he subsequently listened to little else for a stretch. He appreciated the spontaneous, improvisational nature of many of the early albums. Justice says “it seems like (Molina’s) instinct was usually right, those little imperfections in some of the albums, that’s what makes them feel so real. If they had done a bunch of takes and gotten the cleanest one, that wouldn’t really be Jason Molina’s music.”
I asked Justice about his take on Molina’s legacy. His response was:
I’d really like to think that looking back people will have the same reverence they have for Townes Van Zandt or Karen Dalton. Maybe they didn’t get their due when they were making music, but people kind of live on through the things they create. His legacy is the impact that his music has had on individuals. His music more than anyone’s really helped me through dark times, it’s kind of why I’ve clung on to it, like a liferaft. To know there’s someone out there, you’re not the only one who has that feeling.
The process of selecting a name for another living being has always been fraught for me. How does one ascribe something as important as a name to another person or pet? When my wife was pregnant with our first child in the summer of 2012, our process was to brainstorm a big list of acceptable names and whittle down from there. I was hoping to find a name that had meaning attached to a work of art I loved, be it a book/song/film/etc. I would commonly search for a connection through art to the given name, and when it came to Josephine, I wrinkled my nose a little. As mentioned, Magnolia Electric Co. had released an album of the same name in 2009, and I had shared Justice’s opinion of it early on. Still, I checked out songs with name “Josephine” in the title, and I came to the demo of the Magnolia Electric Co. song by that name. It’s just Molina and a guitar with a Fender Rhodes piano, and it is everything I love about his music.
We had discussed the name Josephine, which is a fine name for a girl and the name we eventually settled on. Over the years, I have met other children named for a reference to Molina’s songs, a little girl with the middle name “Magnolia” or a little boy named “John Henry.” I feel an immediate bond with both the parent and child, knowing the source of inspiration.
I’m not much of a singer; my voice is fine, but I can’t stay in tune, carry a melody for long, or remember lyrics well. In spite of these shortcomings, I like to sing for my girls. I usually sing country songs, Willie Nelson’s “Hands on the Wheel” or Arthur Russell’s “Close My Eyes,” but mostly Molina’s. My favorite of his to sing is “Old Black Hen,” a song from the gorgeous Songs: Ohia album Magnolia Electric Company, the point in his catalog when the tide shifted dramatically, marking the end of the Songs: Ohia name and the beginning of Magnolia Electric Co. On the album, Molina gets country singer Lawrence Peters to do the lead vocal, and the only version with his vocals that has been released is a demo that came with the original release of the album.
Since my oldest girl was just a baby in arms, I’ve sung her “Old Black Hen.” At first I felt a little strange, as the lyrics are definitely a bit of a bummer to expose to something so small and fragile, but it was one of the few songs that could console her when she was upset. When she was a little over a year old, she wiped out hard and fell down one day. She burst into tears and ran into my arms. I asked her if there was anything I could do to make her feel better, and she asked me to sing “Old Black Hen.”
Part of the reason that Molina’s death affected me so deeply was the narrative and details that immediately emerged in the wake of his passing. A short eulogy on the music website chunklet.com passed along the tidbit that he died with a phone in his pocket that contained only the number for his grandmother. For years, that idea haunted me, that Molina died alone or that no one was there to reach out to him in the depths of his pain and grief. In her excellent biography Jason Molina: Riding With the Ghost published in May of 2017, writer Erin Osmon helps to explain those circumstances with tact and care. While the end of the story is harrowing, it eased my mind to know that the people who surrounded Molina made every effort to reach out to him and guide him back to the light. Osmon’s book is highly recommended for folks with an interest in Molina’s music.
Jason Molina left a beautiful legacy, hours of recorded music that was somehow both graceful and despondent. Perhaps more importantly, he added significant pages to the American songbook, and his endowment may lie more in the songs he has written than in his specific recordings of them. I hope to continue to hear new interpretations of his music as long as my heart keeps pumping.
Joshua Justice of Static + Distance will be hosting a retrospective of Jason Molina’s music on Tuesday, March 13th from 2pm to 6pm. DJ Mr. Mom will do the same on his program Nobody Wants a Lonely Heart on Wednesday, March 14th from 10pm to midnight.