January 22, 2020

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Musician burned bright before fading away

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/6/2017 (942 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Jason Molina finally hit the road in March 2013 with the ghosts he’d navigated his entire life beside — taking off for other realms from an apartment in Indianapolis covered in blood and cigarette butts — his body, ravaged by a ferocious addiction to alcohol, was too damaged to work in this world anymore.

It’s likely the fans of Molina’s music — from Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Co. and beyond — who choose to explore Molina’s life through Erin Osmon’s thoughtfully constructed debut, Jason Molina: Riding With the Ghost, already know his story’s ending.

With that in mind, the only conceivable approach to telling his story is one that imbues it with the meaning it deserves — an especially weighty task in the case of a prolific, myth-making songwriter who bestowed meaning on almost everything that entered his orbit, from bottle caps and chicken bones to antique coins.

And Riding With the Ghost absolutely communicates just what Molina’s life meant to family, friends, collaborators and fans. As the first authorized biographer of the Ohio-born musician, Osmon had access to nearly everyone who had touched and been touched by his life, including his widow, Darcie, whom she thanks in the very first sentence of the book, and rightly so — Molina’s is a difficult story to read, never mind what it must be like to tell.

But a life that ends in tragedy doesn’t equal one consumed by it, and Osmon does an excellent job of painting a nuanced portrait of a complex human being. Early on, she explores Molina’s young life in a "trailer court" on the shores of Lake Erie, searching for historical relics, and later his blossoming creative period at Oberlin College, where he gained the nickname "Sparky" for his boundless energy.

It’s here, too, and shortly after, that some of the origins for the symbolism fans know well from his supernatural, cryptic lyrics — ghosts, moons, wolves, shadows — are revealed.

Her interviews with former band members and those involved with the production process yield a lot of wonderful insight into Molina’s singular and demanding creative process and his prolificacy. His tendency toward spontaneity in the studio — constantly rotating personnel, having players switch instruments, insisting on using first takes — could often lead to frustration.

Guitarist Dan Sullivan recalls walking out after two days working on Molina’s most enduring record, The Magnolia Electric Co., because he was unhappy and felt he’d been humiliated a couple times during the sessions: "It was obviously the end. I loved it so much, and when I couldn’t be a part of it anymore, it just broke my heart."

Osmon is always direct about Molina’s darker and stranger habits, detailing his tendency for telling tall tales and his obsessive nature with his romantic relationships.

But the last chunk of the book, where Molina’s alcoholism and disintegration are laid bare through horrifying anecdotes culled from friends and family, is downright harrowing.

By approaching his struggle and death so clearly and honestly and illustrating its full, heartbreaking impact on those who cared for him, we’re reminded of the complexity and fragility of the people we love, and to approach those relationships with gratitude. It would be inaccurate and irresponsible to deem this story a cautionary tale, and Riding with the Ghost never falls into that trap.

It was already clear from his immense output that there is endless meaning to be gleaned from Jason Molina’s body of work, but Osmon takes the story of his short, bright time on Earth, warts and all — just like a Songs: Ohia record, "no overdubs!" — and puts it in the context of a real human life. And that unveils depths to his music that we’re only now able to explore.

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer living in Toronto for the moment.


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