I grew up right on the B&O (rail line). I’ve done nothing but move my whole life and the crossroad becomes a whole world to me. I’m not romanticizing these things. When I think about how wonderful things or darkest dread could be in any direction I conjure up these types of things and they become the spark of a song. I also grew up on Lake Erie. I mean I lived right on the shore. Looking out at the lonesome ore ships and hearing the fog horn and watching for the lighthouse during those raging storms and watching as the waterspouts would hit the shore and become tornadoes and seeing the seasons change on the water and walking out into the unknown on the ice during a blizzard…it’s all in these songs. At certain times you could find a large perfectly smooth stretch in the ice. The wind would sweep the snow away and on perfectly dark nights you could put your ear to the ice and hear the abyss and sometimes an eerie blue/green light would seem to be wandering around beneath me. As far as these images coming directly from American folk music, it isn’t really the case for me. I look around and this is my world…
It is difficult to write about Jason Molina because I am not intellectually bound to his music. I do feel I’m exerting parts of my brain otherwise dormant, inaccessible. I become more myself than I’m aware of. But my cognizance stops there, amid the music. What’s more important than one’s ability is, perhaps, capacity. Therefore, I choose blindness over deafness. Listening to his music I am in love. I could not bear seeing never having been in love. Writing about Jason Molina only spoils. Even continuing a conversation. Frustrated, I have nothing worth saying. This, too, is part of being capacious: arriving at no good thoughts.
Instead I make lists. What, from the music, comprises Molina’s Midwest? Work, debts, watching your own back, golden light, fiery eye, light of truth, whatever else there is, to quit, light of goodness burning down the track, blinding rain, swaying wires, struggle, wail of the choir, a good man and a bad man, the Midwest’s heart, path, all night, help, friend, bridge, wiper blades, drum, dark, roofs, sulfury shine, trying to figure it out, big city, radio towers, big diesel rigs, eclipse, Hammond, altar, white, bell…
Looks like I’m not trying / I don’t care what it looks like
‘cuz I stood at the altar / and everything turned white
all I heard was the sound of the world / coming down around me (Ring The Bell)
The Midwest wasn’t. Not until I stopped to pee. This was well into Ohio. Until then, Pennsylvania. Fog. Numerous signs for Flight 93. Death tourism. I should know. Heading to Indianapolis to visit the ghost of Jason Molina, lead singer of—among others—Magnolia Electric Co., formerly Songs: Ohia. I’d hang out in his neighborhood, observe the death metal of daily living in the Midwest.
Then, realizing we crossed a thin section of West Virginia. Molina raised near the mines before moving to Ohio, where whatever got mined in West Virginia was loaded up and pushed into the middle of Lake Erie. Sold elsewhere. Past wrongs subject to past modes of justice. His address off the Internet. It’s worth believing. I’m not in this world for its facts.
In Columbus last night I bought three early Molina albums—Songs: Ohia, Impala, and Axxess and Ace—in a used bookstore. His voice is young and unseasoned. Cotton removed. Tin teeth. His esophagus pinched. He’s using a lot of words. Forgoing all contractions. The whole sentence comes out, and it’s earnest. There’s a message. A sort of pun. I imagine he’s singing with eyes wide open. Thin cheeks. The air he breathes is cold, lacks oxygen. I think about the graves of Paris. Sartre, de Beauvoir, Beckett, whom I visited in March—buried in Montparnasse. Molina died the day before, and I cry on Rue de Fleurus in the rain. Brandon is quiet in the middle of the street, looking like he’s staring out across a field. Josh cried, alone, in his hotel room. Someone asks, Did you know him? To which I mutter, No, you idiot. Don’t you understand how this works?
I’m in the Midwest because Jason Molina’s heart is here. He said so in an interview with a blogger. The bloggers are all male. Posts about Molina follow a similar arc: they are wounded by something like a divorce, then encounter for the first time a song by Molina; they listen to everything, which heals them, and realize they’re a bit of an expert now, so they contact him; Molina meets them for an interview in some bar. The post is followed by an update on “news” of Molina’s death, recounting the last time they heard from him.
I can’t name a city that I wouldn’t have moved to. You could have put me to Ypsilanti
and I probably would have taken the chance at the change. But still my heart is really in the Midwest.
Being from Missouri, I might know it’s not necessarily a good heart nor a good Midwest, nor a good union of both non-good entities feeling at home with one another. He sings from this landscape, which is different than singing about it. He’s all over the map. The Midwest, I mean. Loraine, Peoria, Bloomington, Indy, etc. And Chicago, Broke my heart to leave the city (which I assume he’s singing about here). The Midwest gets mentioned repeatedly in his lyrics, as if it’s naturally a poetic word. Or in the band’s name, Songs: Ohia, the -o changed to an -a. Country neologisms. Rural folks. As in, I’m from Missour-a.
Brandon and I wake up in Columbus. Our car has a coat of snow. The closer we get to Indianapolis the slower we drive. Have to. Seeing the big rigs piling up. In the median. On the shoulder. Overturned onto a Ford. One stretched on its side across three lanes. God damn the snow. As if Indianapolis is this pastoral painting I come to view at some museum and it depends entirely on lighting. And yet, outside, Molina’s Midwest is actually assembling—into one extraordinary storm. It’s either a monster truck rally or war zone. Molina’s only options at some point: “…work on an assembly line or the military.” This big rig is thirty feet into a wheat field. That big rig that caught fire is now covered in ice. Hell freezing over and the world up in flames.
We’re already on the fringes of Indianapolis, but in a blizzard it feels like we’re way out in the country. Roads without sidewalks. Men in Carhartts walking alongside traffic, half in a ditch. We pass a stream. A small farm. A couple horses. Spotty businesses. Liquor stores. Wide turns. We drive past small houses with big yards on a wide street. The sycamore struck by lightning in front of Molina’s house. Someone mounted an American flag to it. Molina saying, “If lightning hits me, it won’t be to inspire me to write a great song—it will be to wipe me off the earth.” There’s a covered front porch, blue-grey siding, an upstairs where one is always hunched over. “Private Property.” “Beware of Dog.” Out back is a detached garage and shed. Driving towards the city this neighborhood suddenly includes abandoned brick buildings boarded-up, Hispanic grocers, a tech college behind prison fence.
A Bronco fishtails. Cars in ditches. You can tell how long ago the accident occurred based on how much snow has covered the windshield of an abandoned car. Some seem like last season’s. What’s the point of digging something out year after year? It seems one accident was silly—in which the human, twirling across four lanes survives walking the rest of the way to work. Every intersection has five streets. A star whose center one blindly radiates out from. We stop to ask for directions at a gas station. The attendant, without looking at us, says, “Never heard of it.” As we’re driving off a customer runs up to our car window, “This way.” Molina, living in London at the time, runs into PJ Harvey, whom he had never met before, at the neighborhood butcher. Who recognized whom first? No place seems that far from the Midwest. But only because one expects everywhere else to be on another planet.
I feel I’m in a low-ceilinged room. Perhaps it’s the air pressure. I push down on the top of my skull. The skull doesn’t budge. But something else lower down gets pinched. To understand where I am requires a sort of absence amidst confinement. At this point, we’d been listening to Molina in the car for 17 hours. I call my mother. “We’re marooned in Indy. Roads are a mess.” She tells me no one’s been so cold, not since the blizzard of ’82, the year I was born. I’m not used to seeing the Midwest under so much snow, but I have to remember this is the northern Midwest. Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan—they’re Nordic. We barely wave to one another. Snow falling arrow first.
Molina’s Midwest: AM radio in the 70s, railroad tracks, walks due to deep vein thrombosis, graveyards, baseball season, shortwave radios, Navajo blankets, Calton guitar cases, farms where old workhorses, mules, and donkeys, are able to live out their days in peace, mill steam, concrete, sun, ghost, crossroad, home, constellations, heaven, jaws, paws, devil, night, thunder, lightning, rain, whistles, sirens, work, shadow, secrets, the moon…
In Molina’s Midwest, there are only three colors: light, dark, and blue. Which often work with and not against the other. Some liminal stage. Dusk, when night descends, but just only. The darkness is new at the point when one realizes they are surrounded. And when night is blackest one sees the stars. Or else, pre-dawn. Making it through another night. I played “Farewell Transmission” on Tucson’s local radio station. During college I had the 4—5am spot. The station was across the street. I’d run over in my pajamas. The only time I ever got a call this song was playing. A man on the line said, simply, “I really like this song.” I thought, my boss playing a joke on me, because I played it every show and who would be up at this hour making calls? I said okay and hung up. And now, at the mercy of this blizzard, which is what else but more blackness, the eclipse of day?
the whole place is dark / every light on this side of the town (Farewell Transmission)
the constellations and Comiskey’s lights / two old friends in the night (Peoria Lunch Box Blues)
you might be holding the last light I see / before the dark finally gets a hold of me (Hold On Magnolia)
to hide from what was shining / and has finally burned us out (Almost Was Good Enough)
I read Midwest at Noon by Graham Hutton. He claims the region is “culturally north but emotionally southern.” Molina sings the blues, finding the blues of the Midwest. “I am trying to sing blues the way I find them,” he writes. And what about that state of feeling blue, from one’s emotional center, the middle. Whereas the surrounding landscape, all objects, everything, takes part and takes on that hue.
Two blue lights / One’s the blue light of the late night bus / One’s the blue light of the moon over us.
(Two Blue Lights)
I think the Midwest for Molina was a true collaborator. The material world, a collective consciousness. An exterior state matching his interior state, that desire to see what one is feeling. Is self-actualization. The blues are a chorus between living and non-living but as conducted by a single person giving their emotional life primacy, i.e. emotion worship. One must physically remain where one’s emotions reign. Molina’s heart is where the work is. Blue Chicago moon swings like a blade above the Midwest’s heart / Swing like a blade / Swing that blade (Cross the Road, Molina). Singing not to others but to the order of things. At the core of the blues might be sadness, but it is also love for…a realm of improper reconciliation where one is kept sad by what one actively loves, where one feels they belong and want to be useful.
If the blues are your hunger you will come face to face / with that darkness and desolation
the endless endless endless endless endless endless endless depression
but you are not helpless (Blue Chicago Moon)
The blogs. I read them all. I read only one. I’m no more grateful for information though I recount some of it here. (“You see fucked up shit happening on a lot of levels, maybe just people in your life, or neighborhood or city. And then you see that projected bigger into the world. And it’s trying to figure out your relationship to it. Just how do you fit into this stuff that everyone thinks about,” says Molina.) But mostly, it’s a communal man diary. Testimonies. And why not? All of the help Molina’s offering in his songs, “I’m gonna help you how I can” and “I’ll help you try to beat it.” But lyrics are tricky. To confuse Molina and his music for your own self. I’m not sure the best answer is to look “head on.” When someone approaches him after a show to give praise, “It’s gross,” Molina says. As an artist there’s only one way all this can go—and it’s out. We cannot accept back something we gave away forever. It’s gross. Hence the true MW work ethic: “If I get really depressed I just try to work harder, because if I stop working then I’m useless, I can’t do anything.” So he assists us in going out. One world to the next. If we leave, sometimes we come back. But one of those times we will not. Regardless, we can’t not leave ever.
When I die / put my bones in an empty stream/t / to remind me of what used to be
don’t write my name in the stone / bring a coleman lantern and the radio
Cleveland game on two fishing poles / and watch with me from the shore
ghostly steal and iron oil / ships coming home (Blue Factory Flame)
All that is, is impending dead. His music, igniting the way, is something to return to. “I think it is a whole lot of loneliness or the need to wander when in fact I need to be at home. I think of the moon as a home.” Molina is familiar and I don’t understand why. He offers a supreme solitude within the entire governing body of all that is fluid and on it’s way out, but only after the rigorous sieves of some delta … all that is us heads toward open ocean, but for the time being, what gathers momentum, that solitude before the great communing, the great get-together, the one big body, the “great stand apart” is what his music is made of. Momentum. The industrial-grit complex. And loneliness gets sung about because it is our most natural state of being—if we can handle it.
I fly the cross of the blue factory flame / stitched with heavy sulfur thread
they ain’t proud colors / but they’re true colors of my home
where I am paralyzed by emptiness (Blue factory Flame)
The only pure American artists today are Midwesterners. That’s not to say there aren’t other artists from the US, or that only Midwestern artists are good artists. I’m saying the Midwestern experience is a purely American one—other influences are all beyond our reach. So engrained in life and landscape, we are not global or worldly or cultured. We are the only Americans. And that is lonely. We can’t pretend we’re anywhere else but inside the guts of the US. The disadvantage of being pure in form. Whereas, in the US, all of us are Midwestern, but at various distances from the epicenter; whereas actual Midwesterners are not also East or West Coasters. On the coasts you have diversity—and I don’t just mean the coasts are composed of different races—although this doesn’t seem untrue—but a diversity of experience, diversity of time and history, that collective memory, i.e. there is a diversity of problems. In the Midwest our problems are uniquely American. Our states are not the oldest and are not the newest. We grew out of a time when America asserted itself perhaps most fully and has yet to back down in those assertions. Again, this is not to say that what goes on in other parts of the country aren’t American problems. But the Midwest is like what the theory of democracy is to our actual democracy; we are still enacting America on a purely theoretical level, by the book. The book is fascinating. And is outdated, in regards to preparation for our future better selves. The Midwest is important because of its foundationalism. A Midwestern artist cannot help but be a foundationalist! That point in time occurring on the continuum, but combusting, appears with such energy as to have begun everything anew, but now caught, spins ever more wildly, deepening the ruts. Sparks fly. It’s worthy of a song. Molina inviting you to the very beginning of it all: creation’s myth. Almost no one makes it out. At least for Molina, a Midwestern musician, the problem was not abstract and thus moved through more swiftly.
Promise, dark, friends, hide it, 6½ hours, good time, trail, door, fail, tracks, things, be, every one of them things, end, owl, moon, John Henry, engine, band, come again, 30 years too late, hear it come’n, tomorrow, waves, Magnolia, let you down, live long enough, whispering, the dark, leaning in, them eyes, winter, end of the line, ocean, upstairs, in time, regret, snake, long night, hammer, contest, mistakes, second chance, 66 highway, you, first time, L.A., pick-up, hard, doing anything, trying, keep working, remember when, lonely, new season, begin, pain, tall shadow, secrets, use, pay, my friend over there, believe, Gwendolyn, fix up, calling, brand new, trouble, love me, mind, brass bed, weekend, lonely boys, streets, human doubt, shining, Gwen, put me out, good enough, name, blue, choose, just a kid, hell, learn, say, get away, skyline, constellations, meet, hey…
See its sulfury shine. See the big city move. Between the radio towers / between the big diesel rigs
in the Midwest witching hour / I watch the whole town eclipse (Steve Albini’s Blues)
—Dot Devota, February 1, 2014
(Acknowledgements: Excerpts and quotes from Scott Pinkmountain at The Rumpus, Adam McKibbin at The Red Alert, Justin Taylor at The Faster Times, We Can Only Be The Future, and Brian Palmer. Thank you...)