IN REMEMBRANCE OF JASON MOLINA AND HIS WORK
is there any room for death even to try
the movement, were it granted,
is only going to go
you are not, as day follows day
to be forgot
you I have not, forgot
(‘Napoleon: How We Have Ranged’ – Songs:Ohia)
8 October 2000. I can’t remember when I heard Songs:Ohia for the first time. Sometime around this date. I actually came to visit the Vera in Groningen (The Netherlands) to see Swearing At Motorists who were touring together with Parker Paul and Songs:Ohia in Europe. I was not a dedicated fan yet, or I would have picked up a copy of the, then tour only, album Protection Spells. During the Songs:Ohia session I recognized Dave Doughman of Swearing At Motorists within talking distance. Whilst chatting about his band and music we expressed our admiration of the distinct voice Jason Molina had.
22 November 2007. An hour before Jason Molina’s solo performance in the W3 in Den Bosch (The Netherlands) me and my friends were looking for a nearby pub to have a beer. I saw a lonesome man wandering about the parking space wearing, on a cold winter night in Holland, a seemingly out-of-place cowboy hat. Is it…? Is it Jason Molina? I shouted out “Jason!”, he quickly responded “Yeah!” while my friend addressed him in a maybe more appropriate way by shouting “Mister Molina!”. We headed to the bar while Jason told me he really liked performing in Holland and was looking forward to be part of the Crossing Border festival again. We talked about the obscure Songs:Ohia material I couldn’t get my hands on, like the nor cease thy never now 7″ etc. Man, this guy was friendly, a gentle soul. We joined him to the W3, he put us on the guest list and gave me a pat on the back. The next day I regretted having forgotten to tell him how much his music meant to me..
This is not a typical eulogy. It’s strange to feel such a strong connection to someone you have only met, more or less by accident, once in your life but the work of Jason Molina has helped me through some really dark hours. Aaron, Jason’s brother, hit the nail on the head in the time after his demise, saying: “Ironically, his life has been committed to making music that helps people in times like this and with two chords and one word he could break your fucking heart and give you hope all at once”.
The work of Jason Molina. His dedication to composing music was unfathomable, he often started writing songs at 4 AM… Next I want to share with you some strong impressions I have experienced over the years listening to his music and studying his artwork.
The crossbow watermark appears prominently on the early work of Songs:Ohia, the 7″s nor cease thou never now…, One pronunciation of glory, the Western Vinyl 7″ and on the CD print of Hecla and Griper. In a Q&A in Summer 2004 Jason responds: “I’ve worked in several art museums in the past and have gotten to handle some great old prints and drawings. I studied watermarks and pewter stamps too. I have no idea why this is so interesting to me. It reminds me of how a ghost would sign their name”. The S:O t-shirt with the crossbow symbol was long out of print, then available (I got one) but now not included in the merch of Secretly Canadian.
In an interview with Everett True, Jason gives some insights in the monikers he used in his career : “I run into magnolia trees a lot while I’m on tour, and even on my street in Chicago…, they’re like mythical objects to me. During Songs:Ohia I was interested in palm trees, and an Ohia is a tree too. So maybe I have a tree fascination, ancient and deep”.
The imagery Jason confers in his music is viscerally very strong. Hearts are either substantiated forms of his own inner feelings exposed to the surface or, like in ‘Captain Badass’, the direct object: “I am setting your heart on fire / So when you leave me / I will burn on in your soul”. ‘Being in Love’ combines these two beautifully:
being in love means you are completely broken
then put back together the one piece that was yours
is beating in your lovers breast
she says the same thing about hers
however I have gotten here I have plans to be with you
and for the first time it is working
and I am proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn
yeah, we are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn
In ‘Lioness’ the protagonist is even self-destructive: “want my heart to break if it must break in your jaws”. It’s not merely a lover who breaks his heart but something bigger, something omnipresent as in ‘Give Something Else Away Every Day’: “I will take to my grave / No heart at all / It’s only the moon that breaks it / Not your heart”.
Our Golden Ratio is one of my most precious albums that Jason has made. It is ominous to hear the spoken words of Jason’s wife Darcie Schoenman in ‘There will be Distance’ retrospectively addressing her late husband: “the thing is still, that you will be gone / and I will have to leave the lights on / so you can see to go”. The second song, ‘There Are No Claims on You’, is like the stark ghost of its actual recording in ‘Champion’ perhaps the most beautiful lo-fi song ever recorded. You hear a lonesome rhythmic tapping and an utterly saddening violin on the verge of feeding back on itself. In the following song, “It’s Your Win Again”, it’s the wonderful vocal delivery next to the reverb on his acoustic guitar which gives me the goosebumps and puts me on the verge of breaking down. This happens in the final song, “When Your Love Has Gone”. A song I used to therapeutically soothe me when my own heart was broken. Jason gives hope in telling you just to “journey on”. It’s hard not to cry when listening to this song.
The moon and the owls reprise the ghost
and I’m even more afraid by its recent move
complete world beside him now
he lays a blue hand across a serious, pale sky
(‘The Dark Wrong Turn’ – Songs:Ohia)
The Ghost is, succinctly described on the Secretly Canadian website, “… a dark affair. As a matter of content, its themes are bleak, on the verge of total blackness. Loneliness, alienation, desperation, and dark, anxious nights. As a matter of atmosphere, the album is even darker. Surface noise has never been so important to a record’s mood and tone. Yes, it sounds like it was recorded on a highway, but this is a dark fucking highway at a lonely, desperate hour and the only set of keys you have are those to the car that won’t take you any closer to home. It’s dead and you’re scared and totally alone”.
The Ghost is a fittingly lo-fi recording. The boom box motor feels like an unwanted but constant presence in Jason’s room. Just like Ghost Tropic this record should be played on a silent hot summer night, awaiting a final release of pressure by thunder and lightning. In the last untitled song on Mi Sei Apparso Come Un Fantasma orYou Came to Me as a Ghost, a live album from 2000, Jason tells the protagonist “came to me as a ghost / Told me the password / Would be the… / Blue of the moon.” This theme is reprised on the first Magnolia Electric Co. album in the song ‘Just Be Simple’: “The night has always known / when it’s time to get going / When it’s really been so long / that it starts showing / It’s always had that ghost / who always almost / Tells me the Secret”.
On Fading Trails (2006) the ghosts are no longer projections or outside entities but Jason’s own possessions. “The road becomes what you leave / And my ghost ain’t waiting” (‘Montgomery Bound’). “I leave the road with the ghost of the road / Spanish moon fall and rise / I leave you now with my ghost in this room” (‘Spanish Moon Fall and Rise’).
will that look be your only reply
you lower your head in reply
you mimic with your eye the moon
here it is white and full like a pale ghost across the sky
and here it is crescent like a dagger from your heart into mine
here it is just a spark to shine
(‘One Harrowing Night’ – Songs:Ohia)
The moon is a pivotal player in Jason’s work. For him the moon is not particularly a source of light and hope but more a manifestation of something dark. Like a dagger or a blade, the “blue chicago moon swings like a blade above the midwest’s heart” (‘Cross the Road, Molina’). In ‘Incantation’ we hear “caution, like the moon, hangs on the tracks”. Whereas the moon and the stars, most prominently the traveller’s navigatory companion North Star, still can give some hope and direction total darkness is its superior, as in ‘Farewell Transmission’ it’s “Mama here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws” and in ‘Darkness that Strong’:
darkness that oblique, darkness that strong
the moon in it’s cradle is casual is distinct
from the stars
they are his father upon the land
and I made an estimate of the secret laid plan
and I make an estimate of the secret that they bare
when they are down here
darkness that oblique, darkness that strong
and that is my report
Harbingers of sorrow
a calling bird
calls our name out loud
a calling bird
knows our fate
his voice is thick and slow
and he’s singing in the rain
a calling bird
spells our name out loud
(‘Calling Bird’ – Songs:Ohia)
The imagery of Jason’s songs is populated with different birds, most notably owls and in his later work, even more alarmingly, wolves and mules. These creatures are often prescient, harbingers of sorrow and final destiny. Like the intimidating dog with his “electric eyes” in ‘Howler’. Are they guiding creatures or are they only out to hunt you down and eliminate you? In ‘Ring the Bell’ Jason ponders: ” I know serpents will cross universes to circle around our necks / I know hounds will cross universes to circle around our feet / I know they’re close / step by step one’s beside me to kill me or to guide me / why wouldn’t I be trying to figure which one out”.
Let me go
Jason Molina suffered from bouts of depression, he was not secretive about it (link). On the poignant album closer ‘Blue Chicago Moon’ of Didn’t It Rain he hits it home really hard. First metaphorically: “Singing birds in sickness / Sing the same blues songs / When they fell out of the emptiness / They must have brought along / space’s loneliness”. Then straight up: “If the blues are you hunter / Then you will come face to face / With that darkness and desolation / And the endless, endless, endless, endless, endless, endless depression”. This song is so goddamn moving ’cause the final lines are spoken by Jason to you and they are so comforting yet so sad: “but you are not helpless / and you are not helpless / try to beat it / and live through space’s loneliness / you are not helpless / I’ll help you to try to beat it”.
On the Chunklet 7″ one may notice that Jason’s lyrics are starting to get really bleak and thus alarming. In ‘No Moon on the Water’ the moon has even fled the scene and wolves and mules make their appearance as final harbingers:
cut out my eyes and fill ‘em with lead
cut off my head and put the black mules there
trade my heart for a fire
fill my bones with the grey wolf
face me to the shore
give me one reason to live
give me one single reason to live
don’t have to be good
The following solo record Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go, recorded in a pitch black garage, extends this feeling of complete hopelessness. It’s downright depressing. The tone is set on the first song ‘It’s Easier Now’: “Behind these eyes / Dead grey mule / Torn apart moon in an empty room”. The moon, formerly ever-present in the dark sky, has not only left its position but has been torn apart. A couple of lines later: “Death comes now”. The owl is still there (‘Alone With The Owl’) but “I stood beside the ocean not a single wave”. And then the bleak message of ‘Don’t It Look Like Rain’. Here it is the wolf, who is even not interested anymore in killing the protagonist:
The wolf outside my door don’t need
Anymore of my blood
Of my blood
She don’t wait for nothing
She’s watching for nothing anymore
Moon above my light
Starts fading out
I live for nothing anymore
I live for nothing
I hope Jason Molina has found his peace in the end. As translator of the human condition in its darkest places and hours, with his beautiful emotionally moving music and accompanying use of strong symbolic imagery he has helped us cope with the struggles of life during and after his temporary stay amidst us. Maybe he foresaw his own demise and found peace with it, as can be heard on one of his songs on the final record Autumn Bird Songs:
ghost in the canyon
if I can open my eyes
this feather and my life will
(‘Heart my Heart” – Jason Molina)
Jason, I will let you go but you, I have not forgot.