RIP Jason Molina

Indianapolis, Indiana smells like hot dogs.

Anyone who has, for any amount of time, heard me talk about Indiana (it happens more than you might think) has heard me say this, but it’s true.

There are a lot of ways to deal with the fact that being a professional musician consists, at a certain point, of two points: down-time and performing, which takes place almost exclusively (except at the very fringes and maybe at the very top) in places that basically exist to serve alcohol. It means, therefore, that there are a lot of opportunities, if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t have a lot of impulse control, to get into some fairly serious trouble.

There’s nothing impressive, of course, about the reality of dying of alcoholism, especially if it happens when you’re in Indianapolis, with only your grandmother’s name plugged into your cell phone. I mean, there’s never anything particularly impressive about bringing about your own death, certainly, but dying of alcoholism-related organ-failure at the age of forty just seems….sad. Nothing interesting, no wondering about the whys and wherefores, just the dull thump of “drank until his body stopped supporting the habit.”

It’s especially unromantic and difficult to watch when it happens in such slow motion that someone with an enormous amount of songwriting and performing talent essentially leeches it all out backwards through a bottle.

For years, Jason Molina had been following whatever remained of his muse down some fairly uninspiring roads, and that was something of a shame.

Jason Molina was born in Lorain, Ohio, which is a place that everyone can agree is fairly depressing to start with. He played in heavy metal bands as a younger person. There’s something about the middle of nowhere in Ohio – or, admittedly, any other place that has a chunk of its surface area devoted more to corn than, say, places to congregate – that makes people want to try to be heard all the way over there where the people are. Eventually he decamped from Cleveland’s metal scene and decided to become a folk musician, and it turned out that, far from being any other would-be metal musician born in the sticks, Jason Molina was actually capable of something pretty magical.

The first half a dozen or so Songs: Ohia records are folk music made by a heavy metal musician who also grew up in country music territory, and decided to let those impulses coexist and pull at each other, rather than sublimating, say, the twang or the clearly-heavy-metal-inspired way of playing guitar (listen to the palm-muting and strumming pattern on “Coxcomb Red” for evidence). It’s worth noting at this point that even I, a pretty die-hard Songs: Ohia fan, can find it difficult to pick through the tangled, thorny discography. I think of it as six albums – from The Black Album through Didn’t It Rain, and Wikipedia even backs me up there, but that includes The Ghost, the best Songs: Ohia record, but also the one that was released as a tour-only CDR back when a Songs: Ohia tour musthave meant going as far afield as, say, Pittsburgh.

He took his reedy, Louvin-style voice (it’s probably fair to also compare him, as so many people have done, to his sometimes-collaborator Will Oldham), and used it, largely, like a foghorn. A beacon that, along with his (at least in the early days) extremely close-miced guitar made those records seem a bit like someone shouting directly into your ear from very far away.

And then he found a band, eventually changing the acts name to The Magnolia Electric Company (the name of the band’s first outing as a Songs: Ohia record) and changed entirely. Rearranging the rock/folk/country impulses that had made his early records so compelling and inventive, he essentially, without actually coming out and saying it, pointed out that he was doing the same thing that, say, The Eagles or Warren Zevon had done, only inverted.

But he didn’t seem to agree that it was the inversion that made it special. He continued to, clearly, make the music he wanted to make, and even though he’d no longer captured the same lioness he’d started out taming. And sure, maybe the hints were always there – the prominent drums on Axxess & Ace, say, the willing alignment with the aforementioned Will Oldham, who was moving in basically the same direction.

And it worked! More people were into the last Magnolia Electric Company record than any Songs: Ohia record. He got to be somewhat-famous, at least among the Pitchfork set. It was even somewhat rewarding. He’d stayed on one record label (Secretly Canadian) all the way from the time that mattered until the time it didn’t, and it seems to be a reward for sticking it out and doing things the right way. And maybe it was.

It’s always tempting to try to guess, when someone dies of substance abuse problems, what parts of their work were affected, and what came from which part. And maybe I’ll even be guilty of it later myself. But it’s actually bullshit. Jason Molina drank all the time. Jason Molina wrote songs all the time. Jason Molina wrote exactly the songs he was going to write exactly when he was going to writethem, and drank exactly what he was going to drink when he was going to drink it. And maybe, as I hinted above, it became easier to make less-challenging music, or maybe it became easier to make music that exposed less. And maybe that was because he drank too much, and maybe it was because it was hard to make in the first place, and maybe it was because as he approached forty he wanted to do something a little less demanding.

Or maybe he just had always wanted to be in a bar band in the first place, and finally found himself able to do so. It’s possible to pin anything on anything.

But Jason Molina died in Indianapolis, of alcohol-induced liver failure, with only a cellphone with his grandmother’s name in it.

And downtown Indianapolis smells like hot dogs.

And I wish he’d done better for himself.