RIP Jason Molina

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Jason Molina

Jason Molina is dead. “Organ failure brought on by alcohol,” it seems.

Molina was the animating force behind the brilliant, meditative bleakness of Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs Ohia and a number of solo records, spanning over a dozen years. His voice could hover and float around a tone to unforgettable effect. His body of songs evoke a kind of razor’s edge dividing a difficult world into hemispheres, one of despair and concession, the other of prideful, hopeful struggle against the blackest winds. Here’s one of my favorites:

There are some standard, unresolvable questions that attend a self-destructive musical savant’s death. One, of culpability – did we drive him to this with our fandom? – is the most absurd, insulting, and self-aggrandizing thought that fans sad of Molina’s passing could probably have today. Another, more existential, merits a bit more consideration: how extricable were the habit and the talent, really? I remember ranting once, after listening to Tim Hardin sing “If I Were A Carpenter” a few too many times in one sitting, about how heroin could go fuck itself, and hinting that I’d waste a genie wish on removing heroin from having ever existed, just to be able to know what Hardin would have made over the rest of the life he never had. (And how many more brilliant songs he’d have seen taken and made famous by the likes of Rod Stewart and Bobby Darin.) A friend rightly pointed out that without heroin, who knows what Hardin would’ve written even with the years of life he did have. Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Creative Talent.

I can’t find an age or birth year for Molina, but supposedly he graduated Oberlin College in 1996, putting him somewhere in his late 30s. Too young for anyone. In that time he made a gang of spectacular songs, influenced numerous other musicians from Jason Dodson and Lotte Kestner to the Avett Brothers, and died “on Saturday night in Indianapolis with nothing but a cell phone in his pocket with only his grandmother's number on it.”

A coda: One detail from the handful of personal obits we have so far for Molina, from his friends and colleagues and Secretly Canadian, his label, is particularly disturbing. The same detail showed up in obits for Box Tops and Big Star frontman Alex Chilton in 2010. Neither man had health insurance when he succumbed to his ailments. (Update: Same goes for Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett.) Once, America found cultural output such an important reflection of the rightness of our system, our ideas, our national identity, that the CIA financed artists like Mark Rothko, so that the Cold War world might see the superiority of freedom over oppression reflected even in its art. Today, the richest nation on earth doesn’t just watch some of its most brilliant creators die penniless in gutters – it perverts that same concept of freedom into a condemnation of those young dead for succumbing to addiction and despair.