I overlapped with a dead songwriter in a small town in southern Indiana. Living in the same zip code as another person does not provide special insight into their mind. For five years, I lived in Bloomington and crushed on Jason Molina. His music, unique for its particularly working-class valorization of suffering, entered my life when I very much needed a reason to look forward. Certainly the content of Molina’s lyrics (as well as the guitar behind them, something I don’t have the vocabulary for) offered no sun’ll-come-out-tomorrow style inspiration, but its beauty, though grim, was reassuring. The train, the moon, the bottle: the image system remains familiar.
On my 18th birthday, I moved to Bloomington, then four hours from home. It’s a shorter trip now that the speed limits have been raised from 55 to 65. I arrived early for my first semester of college because I had two new jobs; I’d be working in the dining hall of the dorm next to mine and in my own building. Many girls on my floor were working the same system, mopping and making sandwiches in the more expensive dorm, a tower in the shape of an X, and living in this one, Ashton-Johnston, where, in lieu of janitorial staff, in exchange for a break on room and board fees the chores rotated around each floor of our three-story digs. I was on the third floor, which the thirty or so of us fondly referred to as the penthouse.
It was in this environment that I first encountered Songs: Ohia. I heard the words and was surprised by the spelling when I saw them in print—in a Midwestern cadence, it sounds like Song Zahia. This is how southern Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky pronounce “Ohio.” It’s the same accent that cuts vowels from the days of the week: Mondy, Tuesdy, Wensdy, so on. My good friend from high school shared these mp3s with me in my dorm room. We’d become close after a mutual friend died by drowning in Lake Michigan the week before our senior year began. He’d do his chemistry homework on my desktop computer while I fell asleep with a book and I relied on him to bring me new music. My other means were Napster, which I wasn’t good at navigating, and the record stores downtown: TD’s CD’s and LP’s or Tracks, where I bought Velvet Underground tapes for a dollar.
Because of work, a bad relationship and being underage for a long time, I didn’t see Jason Molina with/as Magnolia Electric Co. play until 2005.
In September 2004, I moved out from living with my boyfriend for the second and final time. He introduced himself to my new roommate: “I’m the bad guy.”
We’d moved into a farmhouse on the sparsely-populated west side of Bloomington in April of that year, far enough out that we paid the sewage bill to Ellettsville. Or, rather, I did. Still, I believed something about loyalty and suffering that I thought would carry us through. A field of dairy cows butted up against our mailbox on the opposite side of the street, and their moos would float into our windows some days. But it was doomed. He brought home a copy of Pyramid Electric Co. (2004), Molina’s solo album, and wouldn’t let me play the record or listen to the CD that came in the sleeve. You had to buy the record; they didn’t release the CD separately. He told me it wasn’t any good.
On my birthday that year, the same month the album came out and the month before I moved, his friends came over for a party. I had one friend at this point, a supervisor from my library job, and he brought me a bottle of green Mad Dog 20/20. Two guys from Indianapolis brought half a keg of Bud Lite from a wedding, and I leaned into the sink to drink out of the spout. Each of them cornered me to flirt. I was begging them to notice how bad shit was in our house. I was twenty and never saw either of them again.
Music to die to, according to a critic whose review I cannot find again.
In my new apartment I drank a lot of wine and played a lot of Snood on my computer while listening to Magnolia Electric Co. (2003). The band has two eponymous albums, one for each iteration (even though the personnel did not change), as if to make a name real it must be doubled. In my case, I’d doubled my own disaster, getting sort of thrown out by the same guy twice. And then I leaned on this album and it felt like a secret, though I now know it was loved and needed by many people throughout this past decade. It consoled me to know the songwriter was around, suffering too, proximate sometimes.
I wrote an essay about listening to Magnolia Electric Co. for a non-fiction workshop, and I let my Hungarian language professor read it. The title drew on the line “Almost no one makes it out” from “Almost Was Good Enough.” My professor got hung up on the phrase. “Make it out?” he asked. “Is it a colloquialism? Is it idiomatic?” The essay was also about moving out of the farmhouse and how I’d used a hammer to break apart our used-furniture-store bed to get it down the stairs by myself. Since it was old and used, the box spring puffed out dust that irritated my eyes and nose while I beat the shit out of it. My professor said he liked the essay, but then joked that I’d probably move again soon since I’d moved several times in the year he’d known me. I did not find this comment funny, and as a matter of fact I didn’t move again until I left for New Mexico in 2007. I got a B in the workshop.
I was locked out of the bedroom in the farmhouse and instructed to sleep on the futon in my downstairs office until he left to go live with a woman in Washington DC. I knocked and sobbed, insisting that I be let back to discuss what was happening, which seemed to be obviously bullshit—the one leaving is whose comfort gets disrupted, right? Until he opened the door, grabbed me by the throat and slammed my back to the wall, my heels an inch or two off the floor. He hissed in my face and threatened to call the cops because I was crazy. I stopped knocking. I went downstairs and opened Winamp. “Farewell Transmission” in little green letters.
The air vent connecting the two rooms carried his voice on the phone with her. I couldn’t find anything to kill myself with, so I just listened. A few weeks later he would watch as a friend and I packed my belongings into my car. Sometimes the memory feels too strange, like it happened to a fictional character. But I am describing my life.
Nick Sturm has a poem at The Rumpus called “The Whole Place Is Dark,” after the first line of “Farewell Transmission.” It’s about hearing that Jason was dead and about teaching Frankenstein, which are two things that are also facts of my life. William Boyle and Scott Pinkmountain published tributes on the same site, and we were all a bunch of sad writers who believed in talking about love for a few days. A friend invited me over in the middle of the night, strangely, and I didn’t see the message until the next day. If I’d been awake, I might have gone.
The week of Jason’s death, Secretly Canadian streamed all his music online for free. I played the deepest cuts, songs I’d never heard before, and sat in front of my laptop thinking: “This is a dead person’s voice.” I was dating someone who’d never heard of Songs: Ohia or Magnolia Electric Co. and this fact contributed to my understanding that we could not stay together. Trying to explain how and why I was so sad made me feel very far from home. I cracked a beer and sat there listening while my heart went somewhere alone.
Reading Pinkmountain’s essay, in which he quotes from an interview he conducted with Jason Molina, I wondered how many of the people I know in New York have ever been in a trailer park. I have. I don’t mean an RV campground, not a Florida retirement community made up of prefabricated houses, and not a desert trailer in the Southwest wilderness. In the interview, Jason talks about growing up in one. I feel out of place in my Brooklyn life and it’s the result of all these facts: the trailers, the choking incident, the Bud Light from a stolen keg, working my way through college, making no friends in my classes. But everybody has a secret history. Molina’s lyrics drive this point home. The first friends I made outside of work I met at the bar, which is another matter.
For a fuller picture of Molina, read Magnolia guitarist Jason Groth’s blog, where he is posting/reproducing his tour diary from 2009. Groth is nothing if not fair, and yet his posts are the least flattering reports on Molina’s behavior as his alcoholism took over in recent years. Groth provides a necessary reminder of that addiction, lest his untimely death be romanticized. So much about life is ugly, and we can recognize a true friend by how subtly they hide the whiskey bottle, the pill bottle, whatever our poison might be.
When I finally saw the band play in 2005, it was at a kind of sterile venue. All-ages, upstairs at the John Waldron Arts Center, where the occasional big name literary event took place, a high school girl I waited tables with called out for the band to play “Just Be Simple.” I wondered how someone so young knew the songs that well, and how she was brave enough to shout at the band in what amounted to a reception hall. Whatever my misgivings about the environment, I was happy to be there. I hadn’t yet listened to Magnolia anything but alone, and the room was packed.
And now in the past year I’ve finally heard both Pyramid Electric Co. and Mi Sei Apparso Come un Fantasma (2001) and I love them both. It breaks my heart that I didn’t know these albums when Jason was still living.
Living up to your own hype is a challenge talented people face after reaching a certain level of success. It’s hard. It’s the kind of thing naive people call a “good problem.”
I was supposed to get over all of it, according to the expectations I sensed all around me. At the time I was in Indiana but I’ve felt pressure to disguise my wounds everywhere I’ve lived, including Brooklyn. Heartbreak gets you labeled boy crazy. Trauma is renamed melodrama or narcissism. According to some unseen authority, a right way and a wrong way to grieve publicly for our past selves and for strangers we feel a kinship with: if there is a right way to write this memorial, I hope I have not done it.