As part of a series called “Remembering Jason Molina,” I’m collecting stories about Jason and his impact on songwriters, musicians, and music writers. These are all individual tributes, on how Jason has affected their music, their perception of music, or just anecdotes on meeting him or seeing him live. Each story is being posted to promote the new album Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina, which not only celebrates Jason’s music, but will also help the Molina family and MusiCares with its proceeds.
Today would have been Jason’s 41st birthday, and what better way to celebrate than with a lovely tribute from his close friend and bandmate, Jason Evans Groth. Be sure to listen to Jason and Memorial Electric Co. perform “Trouble In Mind (Fade To Blue)”, which was one of JM’s favorite songs to perform live, but never recorded on an album until Farewell Transmission.
And, Jason, I’m sorry for not sharing your words sooner.
I met Jason Molina in the fall of 1998 at a store called Roadworthy Guitar and Amp in Bloomington, IN. It was on the corner of Kirkwood and Washington, right next door to Ladyman’s café, a mid-century diner that, I swear, never had any staff turnover during the entire time it was open. I had talked to Jason before this meeting – at the CD Exchange (a record store where he worked in Bloomington), at a solo Songs: Ohia show at the student radio station, WIUS; and after a set he played opening for Trans Am at Second Story in Bloomington, the night after my 21st birthday. But we had never really talked before.
As I entered the store I realized I was the only one there. Jason immediately approached me and said something along the lines of “you’re the guitar player in Cadmium Orange” (the name of my band at the time). I said yes – flattered because, to me, Jason was famous. I had played his records on my college radio show, I knew he was signed to the local label that all of us wanted to be on, and I had heard tell that he also toured a lot. I had first seen the band name Songs: Ohia in a copy of CMJ and also in Multiball, a zine that combined indie music and pinball with which I was obsessed at the time. That moment was huge for me. I can’t say I had been a huge fan of Songs: Ohia. I did like the 7”s I had heard but they were also frightening, way too mature for the kind of Kinks meets Misfits stuff I was into at the time. His voice was out of my comfort zone, his simple chord structures on oddly tuned instruments were not the Guided by Voices lo-fi I was used to.
But here he was, just another dude in my small town, talking my ear off about music. I don’t remember saying much but “wow” or “that sounds great” in our conversation. I did manage to ask him what touring was like, and he told me about getting ripped off in New York, staying in some horrible hotel somewhere, and then mentioned recording with Arab Strap. This subtle name drop of a band that the singer of my band idolized (and I idolized him) changed it even more – I was on step away from this kind of life, maybe, if people like Jason both knew my band and knew Arab Strap.
We walked from the counter to the guitar room and I saw it – a 1981 Gibson Explorer special edition with gold hardware and a walnut body. I told Jason how much I wanted the guitar and he told me all about the Spineriders, his high school metal band, and his love for Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. How he really was a bass player, but that he felt like he could sing better with a guitar tuned up like a bass. He told me he had just finished an album of love songs, too (Axxess and Ace).
We shook hands, agreed to hang out sometime and talk about music more, agreed to come to one another’s shows, and that was that. I walked next door to Ladyman’s for lunch. I sat in the smoking section. Later that week I found out my grandfather had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I remember thinking that the best tribute to my grandfather would be to buy that Gibson Explorer and name it after him. I actually told my grandfather that the last time I saw him (and he told me the piercing in my face was only a phase – he was right). I bought that guitar on credit (a credit card I just paid off last year) in January of 1999, right after my grandfather died. Jason sold it to me. I told him I was going to name it “Harvey” and Jason, who was a believer in things like luck and certainly tradition, just patted me on the back.
It’s 2014 and Roadworthy, Ladyman’s, and Jason are gone. Roadworthy and Ladyman’s got pushed out due to the constant hand-wringing of politicians who are convinced that there are issues with parking in small downtown areas, but who are more likely just looking for new revenue streams to pay for other bad ideas. Jason was the kind of guy who believed that anything too good could never last. He would complain endlessly about his favorite pens or pencils – for which he cared greatly – were hard to find and would often stop being made just as he settled into them. He worried that his favorite places on the road would not be there the next time we went back. He would buy an extra hamburger that he would never eat just to make sure that he didn’t get hungry if we were to find ourselves in a spot without food.
When Jason invited me to be a part of Songs: Ohia four years after our first real meeting his music had changed. I had heard Magnolia Electric Company and I was floored. It hit all the right notes for me. I was obsessed with Neil Young at the time and had begun feeling less threatened by vulnerability in songwriting. The band on the record (which wasn’t those of us called Magnolia Electric Company; we joined immediately after the record was recorded and before it was released) was such a powerhouse that perfectly complimented Jason’s songs and singing. I said out loud, to more than one person, that it was the best record anyone I had known had ever made.
On the tour for that record, I remember driving Pete Schreiner’s (Songs: Ohia drummer and Magnolia Electric Company bassist) van to my first South by Southwest, where Songs: Ohia would play two shows (one with Lucero at Tower Records and the other with a mess of Secretly Canadian bands including my other, The Impossible Shapes) and him telling me, out of nowhere, “you’ll always have a place in this band.” I responded “I’m excited that we’re getting to be better friends” to which Jason responded promptly “friends leave you, but band members never really break up.” I’m proud to say that, during his life, he never left me. Sometimes the alcohol took a version of him away from me, but I know his heart was always with me and the other guys. And we never left him, either.
We knew Jason had a drinking problem as far back as 2005, but I don’t think any of us knew what that meant. We were and are all drinkers, but we are also all in control of it – we thought Jason just didn’t know what his limits were, or DID know and refused to follow them. Eleven years after meeting Jason for real in Roadworthy he told me, on the steps of our Istanbul hotel immediately after our final show together as Magnolia Electric Company, he told me he needed to take a break to get his life together. He never said “alcoholic” (which was, frankly, one of the problems) but he seemed sincere, and since that night – and even now – I believed there would be a time when he would be ready – with our love and support – to try being a band again. It just didn’t seem possible that it would end, because we were a family that would always be together.
In his death I am reminded that, yes, we are still together, thanks to him. Jason had the uncanny ability to bring seemingly disparate people together and making them realize the incredible bond that was waiting for them all along. He was the ultimate friend networker, whether he would ever admit that or not. Listening to “Soul,” from his “Nor Cease Thou Never Now” 7”, I am shocked that such mature, dark, utterly shattered, but completely hopeful lyrics could have ever come out of a 20 year old. Jason often seemed like the oldest person I knew, while somehow being the least mature, too. Jason was my older brother who I looked up to endlessly, trying to impress him by living up to what I thought he wanted while trying to teach him new things, too. I was always so excited when he liked my jokes, when he mentioned how good a guitar solo I just played was, or when he invited me along to a show or a game of bowling. He was often a handful, too, even before the alcohol started completely running his life. He was opinionated without evidence, a dorky party killer, a very loud screamer when he felt he wasn’t getting the attention in the van he deserved. All of those things, however, were a very small price to pay for what we got with Jason.
Jason was my friend, my brother, the little guy to the right of me onstage who had the voice and personality of ten people. I miss him every day and will for the rest of my life. I am so proud to have counted him as a close friend, the kind of guy who could say “I’m sorry for the loss of your grandfather” with a longer-than-usual bit of eye contact and a simple couple of gentle pats on the back and mean it with such gravity that you never, ever, forget that look. I am lucky that his voice is captured in so many places, and even luckier that, in many of those places, my guitar is, too. The world is better for having had Jason in it.
— Jason Evans Groth