Update: This Saturday, March 15, 2014, Songs: Molina - A Memorial Electric Company plays Los Angeles, at the Church on York. We’re touched that people have responded so positively to something which, at least for me, is a very respectful and uplifting way to remember our brother Jason. At the moment this is our only West coast show.
Jason had an interesting relationship with L.A. There’s a pawn shop close to the Echo that he loved. Once, on a tour in 2006, he surprised me by buying me a white Stratocaster that the pawn shop master said was probably put together from spare parts at the factor across the border in Mexico. He loved that I loved David Gilmour, and thought it was quaint that I loved Stratocasters, too (even though I never played one before that day). Jason had a way of surprising you with thoughtful, generous gifts, and was keenly aware of his surroundings and how they related to his closest friends. I miss that about him. Some photos from a 2005 show at the Echo, which did *not* feature the Strat, are here.
In the several months since my last entry (which, like this one will be, was culled from memory rather than pages of a journal - more on that as these continue), much has gone on in this Magnolia Electric Company world that is now without Jason Molina. On 11/11/13, the record with the title that became the name of the band - Magnolia Electric Company - was reissued, celebrating its tenth anniversary. Jason sang “you can live a long time in such a little while” - a stunning lyric when put into the context of how he just died - but also a fitting description of the way touring feels. It’s been almost a third of my life since this record came out the first time. It made me a true fan of Jason’s songwriting. And the parts created by the amazing players on the record generated a need for Jason that got me an invitation into the band (that is, a loud rock and roll record, including distortion!).
Those of us in the band with this same name understandably have lived in the shadow of that record for that third of our lives. None of us in the band that played those songs live played those songs on the record (except for Mike Brenner, the lap steel player, who was a regular touring member with all of us through 2005). Often it was easier to just nod along when people told me that they “loved my playing” on the record because sometimes, when explaining it, their eyes would glaze over and that giant veil of misunderstanding, often purposefully thrown over them by Molina himself, was made thicker. When I could tell someone would actually listen to me I would go on and on about the players on the record, all friends of ours by that point, and would direct those people to the bands those players were in (see: Arriver, Viza Noir, Palliard, Nad Navillus, etc., etc.). But there was always a strong hint of disappointment in their reactions when I would say it - as if we weren’t the real thing. While all of us are different players than those guys, those songs would have been necessarily different live even with those players, because it was hard for Jason to ever do the same thing twice.
The other big event was the Songs: Molina - A Memorial Electric Co tour that those of us who were in Magnolia Electric Co when it became Magnolia Electric Co (as opposed to Songs: Ohia) went on at the beginning of January. I know it’s confusing. Here is the chronology, again, of the band. The band that was known as Magnolia Electric Co came officially into existence on November 3, 2003, in Buffalo, NY. While the band members on stage on November 3, 2003 were the same as those on stage on October 20, 2003, in Pamplona, Spain when we were still Songs: Ohia, Jason had made a conscious decision for us to be renamed, for reasons that shift but which I think I have begun to understand. Those people on stage on November 3, 2003, were Jason Molina, Pete Schreiner on bass, Mike Brenner on lap steel, Mikey Kapinus on keyboards, Mark Rice on drums, and myself on guitar. We were joined by Jennie Benford on that tour who, I think, all of us hoped would become part of the big touring band, but she was often unable to continue going on the road with us after that - but that’s the core. And those folks (minus Jenny) were the same that hit the road on January 8 in Durham, NC to start four days that ended up in the same place where the Magnolia Electric Co record was made - Chicago, IL - on stage with all of the guys (and none of the women) who originally recorded the album.
Admittedly I was nervous about the January Songs: Molina tour. I knew we were doing it for the right reasons. I knew we were doing it to as a respectful memorial, one which we had promised our Chicago counterparts we would all get together to do again, in Chicago, after our take on it in Bloomington, IN in May of 2013. I knew that all of us trading the singing of songs, and also inviting our good friend and former tour companion MC Taylor (of Hiss Golden Messenger and, formerly, of Court and Spark, the band with whom Magnolia shared the road back in the early 2000s) was a good idea that showed we were, in no way, trying to replace our fallen leader and singer. And I was nervous about how hard it might be, night after night, to play those songs that I was so used to seeing Jason play to my right night after night.
What I didn’t expect was how good it felt to play the songs, how the audiences seemed to get that what we were doing was, indeed, out of respect, and how people responded to it in a positive, almost thankful way. We were thankful that we could do it - it’s begun to feel like a proper goodbye, rather than a tearful, confused one, at least for us - and, I hope, for the people who came to experience it with us. Some told me as much - but the feeling was palpable, even without verbal confirmation. It was an honor, really, and it brought the positive spirit of my friend to life right next to me on stage every night again. And it made the power of the songs even greater to me. They live with or without us, and feeling them live through us was inspiring.
What hurt the most, maybe, and what many of us talked a lot about while we all traveled together again in the same van in which we had traveled on every tour (save that first one, in November of 2003), was the fact the relative ease and joy and celebration that came through those four nights was often nowhere to be found on more nights than I care to remember when Jason was on stage with us. Certainly the highs were high, but the lows were so low - and so sad, especially when we realized just how badly alcohol and Jason mixed - that despair and desperation outweighed the pleasure of making astounding music, written and conceived mostly by the person who was also at the root of making it so difficult.
In 2009 Jason always seemed as if he was on the brink. As evidenced by stories you’ll hear of anyone who ever toured in his band at any point of his career, he could be a handful, but he was also hilarious, generous, efficient (at least when it came to getting the hell out of clubs he didn’t want to be in), awake early, talkative, clever - a smart-ass little brother and big brother rolled into one. Especially by the time we were on the bus, Jason was still all of these things, but if I may use the heavy-handed metaphor of Jason Molina as a beautifully detailed pencil drawing that depicted a complex individual carefully treading the line between absolute light and absolute dark, that pencil drawing had been smudged considerably and had been soaked in alcohol, and all of those delicate lines swirled around into a sometimes incomprehensible shadow of his former self.
By August 28. 2009, when I awoke in a bus and was suddenly struck dumb by the fact that I had to walk through a narrow, moving hallway of other men who had just woken up to use the unlit “bathroom” with the trickling water and the shallow, plastic toilet to take care of the morning bio-necessities - and that I could really only accomplish half of what I really needed to do in that bathroom due to the “No shitting” rule necessitated by the size of the bus - the Jason Molina I had known even six weeks earlier was now miles and miles away, hidden behind a paling, tired, much-older-than-it-should-look-and-getting-more-and-more-bloated face. I asked our tour manager, Jan, when an appropriate, full-on bathroom situation would present itself.
"Twenty minutes, when we get to the club."
It was no more than ten in the morning. I have complained endlessly about the tour on the bus, and I will continue to do so. Only one club out of all the clubs on this significantly long tour of Europe arranged day rooms for us. Why? Because the decision to use the bus had come late, and it came straight from the frontman himself (Jason M, that is). A day room, by the way, is a room that is not attached to wheels, often in a hotel, where the band can shower, relax, and rest, both outside of the bus and the club. As I said before, Jason was woefully unaware of what the bus tour meant, and as he and I sat in one of the bench seats near the front I said “I just have to to take a shit” he said “why don’t you do it on here?” and I looked at him with quiet disbelief and a “you got us into this mess and you didn’t even know what the mess was” furrow of the brow. I should note that Jason had also put our tour manager, driver, and booking agency into this mess, too, because (as I was told) there just wasn’t enough time to arrange such things since the decision was made late. And I believe it. I have never worked with more professional people - or people who loved Jason more.
As a side note, since the last entry people have told me that I sound ungrateful about the bus experience. Don’t get me wrong - a well-planned bus tour is probably awesome. This was mostly well-planned, and certainly was as planned as it could be by our wonderful team I’m Europe (I’m looking at you, Jan and Bas). And those of us who had the capacity to understand the implications of it did, indeed, adapt (however painfully). But the sad irony was that the person who brought it upon us never understood what it meant, never adapted, and I am convinced that the seriously terrible health that he fell into shortly after was not *caused* by the bus, but was certainly exacerbated by it. I cannot explain - but will certainly try over the next entries - just how frightening Jason’s state became as the days went on.
Here’s how the bus worked. You walked in the front entrance (like any bus) and turned left to get to the quarters (like any bus). Immediately there was a common area with tables. Bunks ran down the right side and on the left there were a few, too, with a small kitchenette in the middle, the “bathroom” and the driver’s tomb (I never saw where Bernt slept during the day, I just knew I wasn’t allowed to be on the bus, and the entry to it looked so small it must have been coffin-like). At the back was a lounge area with a fridge, table, a half moon couch, and an entertainment center. I spent such a small amount of time back there it’s ridiculous. I can’t even picture it. But I certainly didn’t venture there on that first full day in the bus. I had the bunk that was second on the right on the bottom (I think? Maybe first?) below Pete. Poor Pete, dealing with a loud, snoring man below him, every night.
I suppose it’s worth noting that I’m a big baby about this because I’m a terrible napper. I’m a great sleeper but naps zap the life out of me. I think one probably needs to be a good napper to deal with the bus. But, also, see above for the day room issue. The bus was *hot* during the day; if we couldn’t plug it in we had no A/C, and we all realized during day one that the A/C wasn’t working well anyway.
My luggage and non-music stuff was above Pete’s bunk (and mine), and I pulled my clothes down and modestly changed into all new stuff behind the curtain of my bunk. I’m 5’11.5”, and I think the bunk was exactly (or felt exactly) 5’11” long… so trying to change your underwear in a bunk where you can’t actually stretch out doesn’t work all that well. I remember feeling like I was suddenly back in the junior high or high school locker room, and while there were no jocks to worry about kicking the shit out of me as there had been in those situations, the irony that I was paying so much more to be this uncomfortable versus a decent hotel in Amsterdam before driving to Berlin just made it worse. So stupid, I kept thinking, to mess with a formula with which we had been so successful so many times. I was also really tired, though, and dirty, and I really, really had to use the bathroom.
The bus slowed… and stopped. I ventured to the front and looked around at the semi-bustling street. I could not wait to get out of this hot, moving man hole and into a disgusting green room at a decent club. Jan got out of the bus. He knocked on the doors of the club, a nice one called Lido. He knocked on more. No one was there. He came back. He told us no one was there. Fifteen minutes later, someone arrived. My heart leaped and we went inside.
Certainly not the grossest place in the world and, by rock club standards, a pretty shining example of a nice place - but showering in a closet where, no doubt, much debauchery had occurred and would occur on nights after we left, right next to a mop, wasn’t really a good way to make me feel better about it. If it was camping I’d have the outside to walk into; if it was a one star hotel I’d have a day on the highway to breathe out. Instead I would clean myself and then walk into a vinegar-smelling, alcohol soaked back room where a table of slowly heating-up meat and cheese was being set for us.
Just writing this makes me feel like the biggest baby in the world. “Whaaa, I got to tour, whaaa, I couldn’t take a shower.” Forgive me. It must be noted that it was the, as mentioned above, terrible irony of this being far more taxing and far less profitable that was eating at me. And, at the front of all of our minds was Jason’s state. Even by the second day of tour (and fourth day together overall) Jason had already broken a guitar and not gotten it fixed, had not stopped talking, and had already been at least half drunk the whole time. The first show was ok, but the *point* of touring is to play good shows; the fun (not supplied by playing) and the money come second. It’s already uncomfortable to wait, all day, to play music. I worried that, considering I already felt more sleep deprived than I ever did on a The Coke Dares tour where we slept on floors littered with cat shit, it would, at worst, get worse and, at best, become familiar enough to deal with. I took some deep breaths, I focused on the exciting idea that I, still, was able to go and play music in places like Germany, that I would have bus stories to tell, and that, at least, the coffee was good.
It is decided that everyone else will go do some walking around, and I take this shining moment to be alone, in the club, away from everyone and with the shower. Instructions for getting in and out of the building are given and received, and I take my reprieve in the mop closet to clean myself up and, hopefully, start to feel more alive and into this whole deal. I start to feel a little bit better about it all, the whiny baby subsiding into urban adventurer rock musician on tour with my best friends in a new and exciting way. I take off all of my clothes and take a seat on the toilet, and just as I do it, the door to the bathroom/shower door opens and Mikey walks in. “Oh my God!” he screams, and slams the door. While this moment of one man unexpectedly seeing another, completely naked man, sitting on a toilet, is funny, both then and in retrospect, after the laughter subsided, after we realized the lock on the door didn’t work, after I looked at the bathroom again, the same old feeling came back - I will have little to no privacy, I will sleep on a truck, I will shower in dirt that is dirtier than the dirt of the woods because it is caked with harsh cleaners, club slurry, vomit, and the urine of drunken club-goers, and that I really need to figure out where to get some shower shoes.
The moment ends, I block the door with said mop (wedge it, really), and take the shower. I also don’t have any soap, or shampoo, or anything, because, well, I didn’t ask if I needed it - and, when you stay in the tiny, quaint hotels of Europe, it’s usually there. I find an almost empty bottle of handsoap and do my best.
While all of this is going on, Jason Molina met up with the They Shoot Music folks for a session that I didn’t see until I was somewhat paralyzed with grief on the morning of March 17, 2013, a few hours after finding out Jason had died, and wondering what would happen when everyone else found out, too. Watching him stumble through this song - one of his favorites but, truly, one of my least favorites to play live (I love the recording of it we did for the Isn’t it Romantic compilation) - in a voice that shows both emotional and physical pain - is hard for me to do, especially now. As mentioned above, this was day two of tour, and he was already pretty haggard. Jason tended to be the one who slept the least and talked the most, so he often looked that way, but the harsh realty of all of the alcohol was rearing its head in a way that we hadn’t really seen until now. And it would just get worse over the next few weeks.
By the time I got out of the shower they had put the bottles of liquor - Jack Daniel’s and two bottles of red wine - near the slowly rotting, wet meat. I grabbed them and stashed them behind my luggage in the bus. I grabbed my laptop and headed to the cafe across the street and worked for the good of history for a good portion of the morning/afternoon. I had my first Bionade, several cappuccinos, and almost drank a bee that was in my water. I was back in the swing of things. I saw a bunch of musicians arrive at Lido and suddenly remembered that this was our first night touring with The Bitter Tears, a band from Chicago made up of great people, including Greg Norman, an engineer at Electrical Audio who had been behind the board along with Steve Albini for Nashville Moon, had mixed the Sun Session EP, and had worked with Jason on solo recordings. We joked about hot meat, cross-dressing, and how hard the trip had already been for them getting to Germany, It felt a bit better.
Soundcheck - yes. For the second night in a row I saw Jason pour about 75% of a bottle of red wine (there were two more out) into a giant beer cup. I decided that, rather than hiding it, I would hide it in plain sight - in my stomach. I’m a big guy, and I figured if I poured most of the wine in several cups that I took onstage with me, I could get away with not drinking it all, and Jason wouldn’t be able to get any more from the bottles. Operation “take one for the team” began. This is also when the tour started getting even worse for me. The truth is, this strategy worked. Jason seemed concerned about how much I was pouring (if not drinking), and so would stick with beer after I would successfully drain the bottles into cups. On this first night I didn’t drink all of the 1.5 bottles I poured, but almost; and that, along with little to no sleep, made after the show a little hazy. I can safely say that for all but one of the shows on this tour I was little more than one-glass-buzzed, and the show where that wasn’t true it acted as the medicine I needed to not fucking freak out. Or at least that’s what I told myself.
The show was good. Good audience. The Bitter Tears were frightening and funny and catchy as all hell. And, like most good European shows, we were ushered off stage quickly so that the dance party could start. We loaded out and Bernt, the driver, gathered us all together and said the following: “I told you one thing, and that was NO SHITTING on the bus. Someone SHIT on the bus and I had to clean it out. NO MORE SHITTING ON THE BUS. Only if it’s an emergency.” Filled once again with joy and only partially curious about who forgot the rule, I got on the bus and it started moving toward Aarhus, a town I’d never been to in a country I hadn’t spent much time in, Denmark. There was some jovial talk in the back lounge, and I dozed for a bit in my bunk, drunkenly avoiding my bandmates and thinking about Bernt’s rule - “NO SHITTING on the bus.” Dozens of minutes passed and I decided I couldn’t sleep. I played some Punch Out on my iPod and, when it sounded like no one was up anymore, I got out of my bunk, pulled down the bottle of Jack (I *hate* Jack) and drank a lot of it, straight out of the bottle. It hit me like a hammer on top of all of the wine and it was all I could do to not fall into the bunk.