published: 28 /
Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' relects on the underrated career of Jason Molina from Songs: Ohia and the Magnolia Electric Co. who died at the age of 39 in March
Recently, I have been listening an awful lot to the music of Jason Molina (mainly in his Songs: Ohia guise. I've not moved on to the Magnolia Electric Company yet). Two months ago I had never knowingly listened to a note.
There will have been a lot of newcomers to his music since March, when Molina's family broke the news that he died. A year earlier, a message on his website said that he was seriously ill, and asked for donations to fund increasingly expensive medical bills. Molina was still without health insurance when he died a year later.
I'd heard about this at the time – one of my favourite bands, the Wave Pictures, planned a compilation album to help cover Molina's bills. I didn't donate – at the time I'd never listened to his music. It wasn't until he died, and when the tributes poured in that I realised both that I should have donated and that I had missed out on a great songwriter.
Unfortunately the Wave Pictures weren't able to release their tribute before Molina's death. After the sad news was announced, they decided to pool their efforts with an American label that was also compiling a similar mix of covers. 36 covers of Molina are available to download now, featuring contributions from American acts like Will Oldham and Mark Kozelek, alongside Londoners Darren Hayman, Allo Darlin’ and Jack Hayter. The Wave Pictures themselves have recorded an entire album of Molina covers, proceeds from which will be donated to Molina's family – still subject to outstanding medical bills.
Alongside the songs, the Wave Pictures' David Tattersall penned a personal tribute to Molina, writing about how his friend Andre Herman Dune introduced him to Songs: Ohia and about a bizarre day spent trying to write a song with a clearly very disturbed Molina. I couldn't describe why Molina's songs are so good any better than Tattersall has:
“Notions of ‘authenticity’ in music are bogus. We all know this; we are all postmodernists now. But I felt when I listened to these records that I was listening to the truth, to the source of something. I felt that I was looking at the image itself rather than a photocopy. The music sounded unaffected to me, and uncontrived. It still does. It still hits me where I live. I think it’s beautiful.”
Molina's albums are compulsive. The guitars hit you first – he is no virtuoso, but Molina plays forcefully. and sounds like he connects how he is feeling precisely to how he is playing. Not many people can do that. His word wouldn't sound good as spoken words – too melodramatic, with overly contrived images. But sung, they cut straight to the bone. Unquestionably, he meant every word.
Molina is not the first musician to fall victim to what must surely be one of the USA's biggest killers – a lack of medical insurance. Jay Bennett, once of Wilco and later an eclectic, adventurous solo artist, died in similarly sad circumstances. He took an overdose of painkillers, accidentally, in a desperate attempt to cope with an illness that would have been easily treated had he been able to afford care. I interviewed Bennett not that long before his death – his music seemed to be the last passion of what sounded like a sad and lonely final few years of his life.
I found myself thinking about Jason Molina and Jay Bennett during April's Record Store Day. As much as I would like community assets – the ones we will all miss when free-market-economics' cold blooded capitalism's fingers finally close around the throat of our towns – survive, I can't help but see Record Store Day as a wasted opportunity – for all the interesting gigs and exceptional customer service, it was slightly depressing to see media coverage focus so much on finding a Rolling Stones rarity, and so little on what we will really miss without record shops – finding brilliant artists who we otherwise would never have known.