If you’re looking for a very short review of Erin Osmon’s Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost, here it is: If Jason Molina has ever been important to you, then you need to read the book, because Osmon did a magnificent job detailing Molina’s life, struggles, music, and demise. So many lingering questions are answered, and questions you’d never considered are answered as well. Read it. Now.
But your lack of familiarity should be no impediment here. Jason Molina was a musician, a Midwesterner, a man who achieved far greater critical than commercial success, and who ultimately died far too young. His life is the stuff of mythology – not a story of gods and monsters, but an even more timeless story of rising and falling, and leaving a tremendous legacy behind him.
The subject matter is clearly deeply personal to Osmon. It is also personal to many people who never themselves knew Molina. Clearly, the book was written with such an audience in mind. But it is also written with an eye toward a broader audience, with the notion that there is something of universal importance to Molina’s story. This creates a tension, which an author might attack by preaching or making a hard sell. But Osmon has been wise to hold back, and let the story and the interviewees speak for themselves. The book’s tension is, ultimately, an honest reflection of its subject matter.
Jason Molina fronted two beloved indie-rock bands, Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., before his death in 2013. But neither “fronted” nor “band” seem like the precise words to describe the confusing and even mysterious nature of Molina’s work. Two of Molina’s strongest and most popular albums, Didn’t It Rain and Magnolia Electric Co., were released in March 2002 and March 2003 respectively, both under the name Songs: Ohia. And yet the personnel on the albums are almost entirely different. The name Songs: Ohia does not actually appear on Magnolia Electric Co. – on the cover, on the spine, anywhere. And a mere month after the release of Magnolia Electric Co., Molina was fronting an entirely different band, whose first release was the live album Trials and Errors, recorded by a band touring as Songs: Ohia, but released under the name Magnolia Electric Co.
If Osmon had simply sorted out the details of that confusion, that alone might have been enough to make the book essential. But this kind of confusion seems to have been an essential aspect of Molina’s mien. The ostensible goal was less obfuscation, more a kind of immediate artistic gratification. Any idea worthy of pursuit was too important to subject to the whims of extended debate or even basic planning. Molina preferred to work out song arrangements while actually in the studio for recording sessions. On multiple occasions, he even invited musicians to the sessions who were totally unknown to anyone else in the room. By all rights, these methods should have been disastrous. Instead, Molina was able to catch lightning in a bottle, multiple times over. Osmon gives much of the credit to the people he worked with; however difficult Molina may have been to work with, he also had a knack for surrounding himself with people who were not only extremely talented and creative in their own rights, but who were also willing to abide by Molina’s eccentricities. (As of the time of recording Magnolia Electric Co., the core band was based in Chicago, as Molina himself was for several years. A fair amount of the overall story takes place in Chicago as well.)
As impressive as the musical quality is given the unorthodox methods, perhaps even more astonishing are the sonic and thematic variety of his career. His early work is often considered a kind of lo-fi folk, with minimal instrumentation beyond his acoustic guitar. The association stuck with him long after his sound had dramatically shifted. 2000’s The Lioness, recorded in Scotland with a band entirely different from any of the aforementioned, is ultimately a love album (a supremely messed up one, to be sure), with a murky keyboard-heavy vibe. Didn’t It Rain is a bleak reflection on a life spent in the Rust Belt Midwest, with previously absent harmonies, gospel overtones, and an overall vibe of depressive submission. Magnolia Electric Co. is essentially a blues-rock album, if somewhat schizophrenically so, with Molina even ceding the singing on the two middle songs of the album. The Magnolia Electric Co. band is very much in a country rock vibe, with Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a clear and even explicit antecedent. And yet, from the initial self-titled Songs: Ohia album all the way through Magnolia Electric Co.’s Josephine, it’s all unmistakably the same brilliant songwriter.
Osmon methodically breaks down the circumstances of the recordings – and in so doing explains the complicated nature of Molina’s many friendships and also lays the groundwork for explaining his descent into the extreme alcoholism which would eventually kill him. Keeping friends, even bandmates, at arm’s length may or may not have been overtly strategic at first. Eventually, though, these tactics would prove handy at hiding his worsening disease. As his friends describe it, for many years Molina was practically a teetotaler. The relative success of Magnolia Electric Co. and the formation of the new band represented not only a critical and commercial peak for Molina, but also apparently precipitated his fall into alcohol.
One of the great strengths of Osmon’s book is that Molina’s widow, Darcie, granted extensive interviews. The couple’s attempts to achieve balance – with her career, with what city they lived in – ultimately seem to have been too much for someone with such transient tendencies as Jason Molina. These transient tendencies could also lead to a broad network of friends, but all of which kept at arm’s length. The sheer number of interviews and email exchanges, with people near and often far, reveal an immense fabric of support available to Molina, but by keeping people distant, it made it difficult for people to intercede if he wasn’t actually reaching out. For an extreme alcoholic who went to elaborate lengths to hide it, and who wouldn’t be in the same place or surrounded by the same people for very long at a time, this left only Darcie at the center of the spiral, and his erratic behavior and alcoholic’s deceit left her incapable of doing more. Osmon works very hard at letting the tragic aspects of the story be told as straight as the intricacies of recordings. Molina’s life was not tightly woven, and it is to Osmon’s credit that she is able to bring the strands together in such a unified manner.
In many respects, Molina’s life parallels that of Phil Ochs. Both grew up in Ohio and attended college there, Ochs at Ohio State and Molina at Oberlin. Ochs remains known as a folk musician, but his later recordings moved well beyond the protest songs he is best remembered for. Ochs’ creative peak in the late ’60s also represented the beginning of a slow demise, which would eventually lead him through drugs and deep paranoia, and which culminated with his suicide in 1976. While the similarities may seem mostly superficial, there are also subtle musical parallels. One of Ochs’ more elegant early songs, “The Hills of West Virginia”, feels like a song Molina might have written about his own childhood, which involved frequent visits to family there. A later Ochs song, “Boy in Ohio”, expresses a sentiment that Osmon repeatedly returns to, of Molina’s abiding love for his home state. And the fragile nature of much of Molina’s work has a clear antecedent in the second half of Ochs’ catalog. For two artists whose work was often not very similar vocally, thematically, or structurally, there is nevertheless something deeper that seems to unite them. Indeed, Ochs’ “Crucifixon” – perhaps his greatest composition – could be applied to Molina’s life in much the same way it could be applied to Ochs’.
There are two standard biographies of Ochs: Marc Eliot’s Death of a Rebel and Michael Schumacher’s There But for Fortune. Schumacher has written multiple biographies and his work is more academic in nature, establishing Ochs in the context of the ’60s protest movements in which he rose to fame. Eliot’s book is more personal and sentimental; as a friend of Ochs’ later in his life, Eliot felt a burning need that Ochs’ story be told. From a technical perspective, Schumacher’s is the better written of the two, but Eliot’s is the better book. He felt Ochs’ story had to be told, and he was driven to do so in a manner befitting his friend.
Erin Osmon exhibits the same burning drive as Marc Eliot. But as deeply personal as Riding with the Ghost obviously is, it is not sentimental. She never appears in her own narrative. Osmon also eschews Schumacher’s tendency to expand the narrative into something broader. Telling Molina’s story requires context – the story of Secretly Canadian, the label which released the vast majority of his work, plus a lot of detail about the Midwestern indie-rock scene of the late ’90s and early aughts. But even though there seems to be a lot of name-checking, the information provided always feels pertinent. It could be fairly argued that Molina’s story rightly deserves both a more sentimental telling and a more scholarly vantage point. But either approach would have sent Osmon off the rails. Molina is important enough to deserve a book like this. Ultimately, Osmon’s triumph in writing this book is in avoiding those other routes, and doggedly seeing Molina’s story out entirely on its own terms.
As the first paragraph says, if Jason Molina has ever been important to you, then you need to read the book. And as the second paragraph says, even if you’re unfamiliar, this a book to pick up anyway. By telling it straight, Erin Osmon actually magnifies the universality of Molina’s life. At its core, Molina’s story is utterly human, and all the more mystical for it.
Purchase Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost here for 35.00 or at your local bookstore. Quimby’s Bookstore will host author Erin Osmon for a reading followed by a Q&A with band members of Songs:Ohia on Saturday, June 17 at 7:00 p.m.