In addition to founding Oneida, journeyman indie rock drummer John Colpitts—a.k.a. Kid Millions—has played with Royal Trux, Spiritualized, Akron/Family, Marnie Stern, and Yo La Tengo, as well as recording on his own as Man Forever. In the late ’90s, Oneida toured with the nascent Songs: Ohia, and the two groups would release a split 7″ together in 1999. Here, on the occasion of the publishing of Riding with the Ghost, Erin Osmon’s striking biography of Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co.’s Jason Molina, Colpitts shares both his impressions of the book and his memories of his friend. [Full disclosure: Osmon is a contributor to this website.]
Erin Osmon’s new biography of Jason Molina, Riding with the Ghost, makes journalism look easy. Molina contained multitudes. To those who knew him, he was generous, goofy, dedicated, and driven. He was also a liar, vain, and kind of an asshole at times. He was annoying and he was great company. I’ve found that the more intimate you are with a subject, the more disappointing a book-length examination can be. But through diligent and patient research over the course of nearly three years, Osmon has created the rare essential biography for anyone curious about Molina’s music and legacy.
Osmon interviewed just about everyone who knew him well and she makes herself transparent in the narrative. She made a concerted effort to allow the story to be driven by the people who knew Jason best, and by doing this she arrived at a complex and nuanced picture of the singer, warts and all. The book is efficient and sensitive, never pandering to the more sordid and self-destructive paths his life took after his final Magnolia Electric Co. album, 2009’s Josephine. Those dark times are there, but they aren’t exploited for thrills. The book opened up his life and work to me in ways I never expected.
We get very detailed portraits on every phase of Jason’s short life, including chapters on his humble upbringing in Lorain, OH, his formative time at Oberlin College, and his peripatetic life that followed.
Jason’s work was emotive and steeped in drama, but Osmon doesn’t make the mistake of trying to match his breathlessness. The prose is plain and strong, and allows the biographical details room to gain significance in the account. Gems like the name of Molina’s first metal band (the awesome “Chronic Insanity”), the gross house where he lived at Oberlin, the early heady days of Secretly Canadian, his romance and marriage to Darcie Molina—each of these episodes are told lucidly and without needless ornament. It makes for a very satisfying and powerful read.
Of course, the book resonated with me deeply because I shared some time with Jason, his various bands, and friends over the years. Strangely, I never felt his loss acutely until I read this book.
The last time I saw Jason Molina was Amsterdam in August 2009 when he visited Oneida backstage after a show. I had heard some rumors that sounded disturbing and incongruous with the person I thought knew. People told me that Jason was a drunk. Jason was blowing shows. Jason was perhaps losing his mind. I was ready for anything.
When he arrived backstage after our set with Darcie, he seemed like the same old Jason we’d all known for years. He was funny and charming as ever.
But within a few minutes, things took a dark turn. He had been sipping some whiskey and went from 100% coherent to a person dangerously out of control. I left the venue profoundly shaken. How could the teetotaler I remembered from the ’90s have become so ruined by drink?
I first met Jason Molina during an auspicious moment in his career that gets covered in wonderful detail in Riding With the Ghost. I was at the 1996 show he played to about twenty-five people at the Adult Crash record store in New York. It was here that Jason handed over the DAT master of what would become his first Secretly Canadian single to Chris and Ben Swanson. Chris and Ben had driven over 800 miles to pick up the recording because Jason demanded it. This dedication was rewarded with Jason’s loyalty. Secretly Canadian went on to become the main label behind Molina’s various guises and projects until he died in 2013.
I ended up at Adult Crash because Jason went to Oberlin with a few of my close friends. It’s funny to think how unmediated those early shows used to be and how open I was to whatever was about to happen. I knew of Sparky (his college nickname) through reputation only. He had a single released by Will Oldham that had quickly sold out. I hadn’t heard his music, but there was still an aura of gravitas around this show. People who had managed to release a record were endowed with a je ne sais quoi. They were no longer walking on the same ground as those of us who hadn’t yet been anointed.
The show struck me as shambolic and odd. One of the guys in his band (Eoin Russell) was wearing leather pants and was limping around with a cane, the rumor being that he had gout. How does a twenty-two-year-old get gout? Jason sat on a chair in front of the band. I was about five feet away from him. As he sang with rapt furor, his eyes rolled far into the back of his head until I could only see the whites quivering in their sockets. It was a move that struck me as the height of affect and made it easier to dismiss what was in hindsight certainly the strangest and most arresting performance I’d seen by a contemporary.
But what was cool about Jason was the fact that he was very uncool. His nickname “Sparky” existed because he was like a puppy dog—hopping around with a big smile, seeking attention. He downplayed the darkness of his music with constant references to his teenage metal years, which gets their own great chapter in Riding with the Ghost. He talked incessantly about Judas Priest in a way that almost felt defensive. But despite this bright, welcoming facade, he was impenetrable as a person.
As I spent more time with Jason, I gathered a sense of his artistic ambitions: His breakneck compulsive drive to generate so much material was compelled by his frank take on his heroes. He would say things like, “Lou Reed only made two or three great records in his life and they all happened when he was young. So I need to pack them all in now before I get shitty.” I didn’t necessarily agree with him, but he never turned down an opportunity to record. He finished so many albums that he drove the guys at Secretly Canadian nuts. They felt like there was no way to give each release enough attention—and they were right—but Jason was always running against the clock. We all wish he were still here, making way too many records.
Despite this bright, welcoming facade, he was impenetrable as a person.
During some of the earliest days I booked an East Coast tour for Songs: Ohia that had Oneida opening up the shows. There probably wasn’t a more perverse pairing of bands touring at the time. Oneida’s main influences then were garage rock, glam, and Suicide. We wore makeup, jumped around a lot, and played to a mostly passive, patient audience of sensitive guys. Through it all, Sparky’s work ethic and productivity were something to aspire to. We had a lot of fun during that trip, and we became life-long friends afterwards. During the entire tour Jason did not drink, which made his dissolution later on in life all the more difficult to come to terms with.
After the tour, we released a split single on Jagjaguwar to memorialize our brotherhood. The Songs: Ohia tune is the great dirge rocker “Journey On” that has been anthologized on the 2014 Collected Singles box set.
We were lucky to have him for a short time. Riding with the Ghost is a great and sad read. I’m thankful that Osmon has given us this great reminder of the human being behind Molina’s singular body of work.
It’s remarkable that Jason emerges from the pages as the silly, wildly talented, and gifted artist that I never truly recognized at the time. When Jason died, he’d been on the rocks for so long that it felt like I’d already written him off. It’s devastating to admit this, but it’s sad and true. Riding with the Ghost completes the picture and let me truly mourn. FL