Singer/songwriter Jason Molina died last weekend and I would love to be able to say that I was present and mindful of the space he occupied before passing. Sometimes, if you’re truly lucky, you’ll know the space absence fills a moment before it is vacated. It’s fleeting, often a trick of light (we tell ourselves), but once we notice that absence for real and for good, we know that we are in the presence of a place beyond grief, bordering on grace. In a way I was aware of that place–I had found a pair of Songs:Ohia albums at Horizon Records in Greenville, SC a few years back. I didn’t even know what I truly had until my ten plus hour drive back up north. Molina’s singular voice–a way station of loneliness and hard won highway wisdom–was a perfect road partner. This wasn’t the music of tragedy for tragedy’s sake; this was modern blues in the best sense of the word–there was catharsis and hope left within the wake of Molina’s heartbroken anthems.
I think that this point cannot be stressed enough. It is easy to create an insta-mythology over the passing of Jason Molina; that these songs weren’t just a desperate cry of love in the wilderness of self destruction and excess. The output of Songs:Ohia or Magnolia Electric Co. isn’t one chronicling the downward spiral brought on by hard luck and hard living; these are songs whose mood may echo yours but their purpose and intent isn’t to hold you under or drown beneath the weight and wake of your troubles. The best music wrought from such darkness isn’t there to keep you from the light, instead, it should help lift you out of void–point you in the right direction, pass a steadying hand across your back, and move you out towards the life of day. It’s the difference between leaning hard against music for solace and strength and wallowing in the soundtrack of “sad bastard music” (to quote High Fidelity). Don’t get me wrong, each have their place and import, but real sustaining music elevates and inspires rather than holds you down.
Maybe you’ve been there–bottles deep in the weeds of a bender brought on by life circumstance X,Y,Z… There you are slowly clawing at the earth around you, not sure if you’re climbing out or crawling in deeper. All you’re really are aware of is: (1) the jukebox seems to be kicking your ass and (2) the bartender is not a light touch on the pour. At some point you find yourself surrounded by two types of friends; the difference slight but important. Tonight, they look and sound the same, but tomorrow one buys you breakfast and the other buys you a bottle. It’s why I am anchored by Roy Orbison and Big Star and why I appreciate Nick Drake and Joy Division–again each has a place but if I’m truly deep down in it, I don’t go to Ian Curtis for inspiration and a way out. It doesn’t mean I don’t love Joy Division but I don’t always love where it takes me. And those places are different for each and every one of us; such is the beauty and sustaining power of music.
Jason and Magnolia Electric Co. began to disappear to me a little after the Sojourner box set came out. It’s massive and represents a cross section of who Jason Molina truly is as a singer and songwriter. I was really into the box set for a little while and then seasons changed and his music became diffused into my record collection. So it goes for the music geek–the heavy rotation spins on and on and there’s always another great unheralded musical genius to discover and obsess over.
And then, one day, you read that Jason Molina is dead, and it hits you hard and unexpected.
There are all kinds of details which are immaterial to me and this post. I’m sure if you want to know the hows and whys you’ll track them down yourself. It’s immaterial because that’s not what I’m saddened by–this isn’t a “cautionary tale” to me. This death isn’t a reminder of the fragility of life. I didn’t really know him. I knew him the way you know any artist–from what they create. There’s always a temptation to shoehorn their life into their creations with the hopes we can get at that part of the truth which is autobiographical; somehow this gap provides a slightly open window we can pass through to gain…what exactly? Insight? Into whom? The artist? Ourselves? If we keep asking “What is X trying to tell us?” are we really listening? I am saddened for the most selfish of reasons–that there will be no more new songs to hear, no new music to be inspired by or moved to tears. That feeling defines absence to me and right now I’m not sure how to fill that space.
I spent the better part of Monday digging through my cds and records for the albums I owned and realized that I only have a handful of his output. Immediately, true to form, I felt the compulsion to go out and order his back catalog. Instead, I stopped myself. In time, I’ll probably go out and track down each and every part of his musical legacy but right now isn’t about consuming, it was about really listening to Jason Molina–which I did. I thought about driving home from Greenville listening to these two cd’s (the Black album and Didn’t It Rain) over and over again. These songs have their connective tissue deep in southern highways and nights spent with great strangers and better friends. In the silences between songs, I could feel the gravity of good memories pull me towards a south I don’t call home but can call mine.
I found my copy of The Magnolia Electric Company and have been spinning it repeatedly–side to side and back again. I watched the documentary from the Sojourner box set and just felt a deep reservoir of grief. I sat with his music writing until the glow from the laptop was overtaken by the sun spilling through the blinds. Somewhere in those stray hours of night passing into daybreak, grief passed quietly into grace. I didn’t really know him but I know what these songs mean to me. They are tiny flashes of revelation lighting the way out of some dark and lonesome places. And maybe that’s the point of absence–it’s not how to fill that space, rather it is how we know that space which creates its own hard won sense of wisdom. This insight offers me its delicate magic along the stylus, transmitted in vinyl, and taken to heart as truth.
Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He loves black coffee almost as much as he loves records. Follow him on Twitter: @whoismisterjim.
Check out Jason Molina at http://magnoliaelectricco.com. For a limited time you can also is entire recorded output at live.magnoliaelectricco.com. Better yet, pick up his albums at your local indie record store or via http://www.secretlycanadian.com.