Through the Static and Distance — The Songs of Jason Molina
1997, I was 22. Working at the Record Exchange in Blacksburg, VA. Finishing my tour of duty in that tiny town, not that I knew it at the time that I unpacked a black LP screen-printed silver; immediately intrigued. The feel of the paper. The weird tension in the nature-at-night cover image that I found myself strangely reflected in, or perhaps it was the colloquial familiarity of the title of a state that for me was shorthand for familial oppression and the sun-faded blue dugout colors of depression. I remember placing #222 of 500 on the backroom turntable while I unpacked the rest of the shipment. What was waiting was a whole new life for me. One that I still am trying to understand. Still trying to unpack.
Ten seconds clicked by and I was hooked. Rich warmth, presence, a realness of a sound sought for, not the bleak realness of inattention, but a realness of wanting to make something materially beautiful and immediate. Three seconds later that magical world was shaken by the voice of Jason Molina.
I remember glancing to my right as if he was sitting there unpacking the new arrivals with me. A voice so clear, so astute, so real, it, well, it bothered me. And it kept bothering me. I took #222 of 500 home with me to prove in the inherited high-fi of my father that this music couldn't work. Yet it only wormed deeper. Completely unstable and all over the place while honing in on deep dead center. No matter how I rolled off the bass, the deepness remained. A slow motion tornado of familiarity was turing it’s way into my life. Short phrases were becoming clear and anticipated. And in the clarity of a home built around a stereo, the reality of the voice that had startled me into purchase was beginning to undo my own ideas about things. About what a voice was. What was real. And what could be.
I don’t know what it is that made other people start to play music or to write songs, I am sure it so very different for so many; but my own take is that you hear something that you want to emulate, and somehow feel like you could maybe even touch, if only for a beautiful fleeting moment. A feeling of “that could be me”, of “I want that to me”. A challenge to be who you actually are.
Not a few months later, I’d find myself living in the middle of nowhere, cut off from unpacking new records, left to the humidity of a part of Virginia where the forests and highways met reedy tributaries to the salty coast. I had transferred what has become known as the “Black Record” to a black cassette and listened to it in my white '62 Ford Falcon nearly without stop. It’s hard to hear that record now and not hear the ambient wall of night sounds and wind split by rusty side mirrors, or remember how it gave me the courage to record my own first song. I had played my whole life, but everything that I had hoped to emulate to that point was always something unreachable, something not real, a reality I dreamed of, instead of one I could possibly be or perhaps was.
With something that looks like one candle lighting another, I wrote a song, more concerned with wanting to bring it to life than wanting to perfect it. I wanted to make it a real thing, to record it, to hear it play back to me, something that could startle me, shove a mirror to me in a dark room as if I was maybe sitting there next to myself unpacking new arrival LPs in some record store backroom.
I had nothing to record with- no mics, no cables, no gear. But Jason somehow pushed me through that, the reality he revealed told me that I didn’t need anything except me, nothing except the need to do it. So I took two landline phones and made a microphone by hanging one over a ceiling fan and then using an attachment for recording phone interviews into the second, recording the guitar and vocals through a dangling and slowly rotating landline. Who knows what happened to that cassette? God, it must have sucked, but I had been infused with the courage of a peer, so I pressed on. A few months later I’d form a band, and within another year sign to a label.
There were so many records that gave me the itch, that convinced me to bang away on my garage-sale guitar, taught me how to stand, how to dress, how to be, so many that formed me, but there was no other record that so gently and strongly put its arm around my shoulder and said, “Listen Poe, you can do this. Just do it. Don’t look, just, listen, just trust me.”
The best art is that which seems the most effortless. And as real and effortless as Jason made it seem, I can’t say I ever fully got there. I tried, but he just kept raising the bar. Like an older friend, who even though each year you add another year, is still always one ahead of you. And he always was, way ahead. Challenging me, showing the brokeness, the work, the love, the ability to love your own broken work and fold it into something lovable. Even recording his songs for this tribute, there was so much learned, the challenging lessons of his work. As the curator of this tribute, I not only had the privilege of choosing the artists who I knew would fold that work into beautiful new shapes, but also the privilege of hearing the struggle of those artists working through these songs, matching Jason’s unique phrasing, the realness, the intensity of subject, the matchless immediateness of it. The work.
“There is love and work and lover’s work.” A year later, as these LPs go to press, I feel that I couldn’t love Jason’s work anymore than I do now, and yet that I’m somehow no closer to his work now than I was on that humid summer of courage.
There are others on this record and in Jason’s life who are better fit to curate this double LP or write these liner notes than I. True friends, those who recorded with him, toured with him, played with him, knew him as a man; I only met him once. He stood in front of me in the southern parlor of a sweaty old row house in Richmond, VA where he had just played with Drunk, looking up at me with sparkler eyes, and just a few words between us, but now, after a year of laboring through this release, a decade of loving his music, of trying to pay tribute to his work, of trying to understand the loss of his voice, I can somehow only seem to see that man looking up at me, with sparkling knowing eyes, saying, “come on Poe, there’s so much work to be done.”
To Jason, thanks for letting me win.
To all of the people who made this record happen, thank you for giving yourself and your selflessness in giving it. To those who have never heard these song before, I hope our humble tribute makes you want to know why we cared so much, to understand why Captain badass burns on in all of our souls. I hope it gives you the courage to share the work of Jason Molina with others. To share it with the you that you actually are. The courage to do your own work, whatever it is and to love it. There is so very much of it to be done.
- Jesse Poe 2014
Image by Anita Sto