Note: Jason Molina was my friend. I spent weeks - months, even - in vans, hotels rooms, restaurants, and gas stations with him, not to mention on stage, always by his side, always making him look smaller than he was because I am bigger than I should be, always watching him for cues. He was a bandmate. He was a songwriter I respected to the utmost. He was a goofball. He was often an ass. Just as often he was one of the most generous people I knew. He was both extremely confident and supremely insecure. He was one of the best guitar players I’ve ever met when he was on, and one of the worst I’ve ever heard when he wasn’t. Jason could be very difficult, and his alcoholism didn’t make that any easier. I can’t speak for the rest of the band, but it was clear to me starting as early as 2003 that he and the bottle had a complicated relationship. It wasn’t until 2009, and really later than that, that the truth about how bad that relationship had gotten really came to light. All of us who were in Magnolia Electric Co were in Songs: Ohia before Jason changed the name (which we found out about on Pitchfork). I think I can safely say that we experienced very high highs and extremely low lows due to Jason’s performance inconsistencies and his difficulty - or perhaps resistance - to communicating with us and others. From night to night we often didn’t know how the show was going to go until the show started. While a measure of this exists in every band I’ve been in, with Jason the extremes were pretty extreme, at least to those of us on stage who did it every night. Much of this was because of Jason’s drinking, some of it because of his stubbornness, and the rest the fact that music is unpredictable. But when the shows were good, they were great. It was all very nerve-racking, and the addition of alcohol made it even more so. I’m going to post these tour diaries, most of which have never been seen, because I miss Jason, and because these help me to deal with both the good and the bad of all of it. Most of it was good. I’ll cherish it forever.
By 2009 the shows had become more consistent, and Jason had been able to keep the drinking - for the most part - to after the shows, although not entirely. Two shows in particular on our American tour in 2009 stand out as two of the most dreadful and embarrassing moments of my life. This first tour diary entry is from August of 2009, as we embarked on the European part of our Josephine tour. We had had a shift in the band - Mark Rice, our drummer, had gone to grad school. Pete Schreiner, who had played bass in Magnolia for years (but who had started out as the drummer when we were still Songs: Ohia back in 2003) moved to drums, and our friend Sal Saligoe had joined us on bass. Years of worrying that shows might be ruined had started to wear on us, and the shift in the band and the need for practice were weighing heavily on me and, I imagine, the rest of the band. Additionally, Jason had arranged this leg of our European tour to be done on a bus. He had not asked any of us if it was something we wanted. While it was a worthwhile experience, it was also expensive, and it was awful for me and, I think, Jason. I look back at it as a great turning point in Jason’s health, or at least a great revealer of problems we knew existed, but not, perhaps, how badly. I’ll expound on that later.
For now, we join Magnolia on the way to Europe. It’s August 24, 2009.
“Due to miscommunication, transportation has not been arranged for you from the airport to the hotel,” said the email we received an hour before we got on the plane to Europe. I had already needed some reassurance about this tour, because it was decided we should do it on a tour bus instead of in a van, as we have classically done. The email came from Jan, our incredible tour manager/sound man, and I knew that he wrote it with concern and that, genuinely, a mistake had been made. We were not just being blown off. We were given instructions about which cab company to take and about how much it would cost.
The plane rides were somewhat uneventful. Indianapolis to Newark featured a layover of 50 minutes and a gate that was literally at the other end of the airport. We had to take a bus to get to that terminal and then walk the entire length to get to the gate. They were, of course, boarding all passengers by the time we arrived. Luckily we had a nice flight staff from Indy to Newark and they were clear that if we had taken a train to the terminal we would have had to go through security again. We rode the bus with some women who presaged the Euro fashions we would see in about eight hours. Leggings. Heels. More leggings. Tights. Uncomfortably tight jeans, sometimes with boots.
My seat on the plane from Newark to Amsterdam was situated as one part of a triangle of two crying babies. The forward part of the triangle also featured a little girl whose mother laughed as she used the handrails of the outermost seats, row after row, as inverted monkey bars. My glaring looks did nothing – she continued to laugh. I was happy that the Continental jet on which we were seated had the new style of international flight entertainment options: Forty-plus movies, interactive games, a large record collection. I decided early that Star Trek was going to be my first option. I would then take a painkiller, wash that down with Jack Daniel’s and ginger-ale, and sleep soundly through the rest of the flight. This would be after the meal, of course, so that my body would be ready to give in to glorious, pre jet-lag sleep. I *did* take two painkillers. I *did* drink two Jack Daniel’s and ginger ale (that shit is not palatable otherwise, Jack Daniel’s. I hate it. And most sour mash whisky, for that matter. I do, however, enjoy the Vintage Kentucky sour mash). I *did* eat. And, despite feeling extremely relaxed, and it being dark outside as we traversed time zones, I could *not*, for the life of me, sleep. After maybe an hour of struggling with the then fleeting idea of rest I gave in and started watching Harry Potter: The Order of the Phoenix. I didn’t make it through the whole thing before we landed.
We de-planed and received our luggage without a hitch. We headed toward the cab company to which we had been recommended. They told us that we would have had to book a van at least a day earlier, and that we should just hop in a black cab out front. We found a minivan that would take us, somehow stuffed two guitars, a full-sized keyboard, six suitcases, and six personal bags into that. Then we paid twice as much as we were told we would and ended up at the beautiful Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam. I believe it was 8 a.m. when we arrived. That’s a pretty early check in time. Luckily, our rooms were ready, and we all paired off and headed towards them.
I was paired with Sal, our new bass player who took Pete’s position, as Pete has moved to drums with the departure of Mark to graduate school. Sal and I found our room on the second floor of the old building. I had read that it was a design hotel, that each of the 100+ rooms were designed individually. Apparently our design was “Insane Asylum” or “Zombie Hospital.”
It was cool, for sure – nice, comfortable beds, big windows that opened all the way, a view of the canal outside, but it also featured jagged, white, tiled walls, concrete floors covered only slightly by rugs under the beds, and, even though you could tell it was clean, it looked like someone had been in the room, in the past, either in a straitjacket or in hiding from the undead outside. The bathroom was huge and nice, with a good shower and hotel shampoo. Not to mention more windows, big ones. This helped with air circulation but I constantly forgot to mind my nudity while taking a shower, as the hotel rooms around the corner could see directly in – not to mention the apartments across the street and everyone below.
There was a critical decision to be made immediately upon arrival – would I fall into the trap of sleeping after only one hour of it in the past thirty or would I soldier through it all, get through rehearsal, and go to bed at a “normal” time to kick jetlag? The shower made the decision for me. I cleaned up and Mikey and I went on an Amsterdam adventure, sort of. Turned out to be two thirty-something American guys sweating a lot and walking aimlessly, mostly. But we did do some things.
We hopped the tram outside of the hotel and headed down to the touristy area near the Paradiso. We wandered the streets looking for breakfast which is somewhat hard to find outside of hotels down there. I am so opposed to tourist traps that all of the pancake houses filled me with rage. We found a tiny little bakery/deli and had some pastries and coffee and decided to see if the Anne Frank house didn’t have a line around the block. It did. We walked into the old church next to it and admired the organs and listened to an organist practice. I was disappointed to find that there were no public toilets in the church, and snuck into a tourist trap bagel house and paid 20 euro cents to pee. If it had been three in the morning the canal would have done just fine. Mikey and I decided to go all out with our tourist trap day and rent a canal bike for an hour. It was hot and the sun baked us as we paddled our way through and around the canals. We docked behind the Paradiso and walked through a little art gallery district where we found a restaurant called Soup En Zo that was fucking great. I had a creamy fish soup with some pumpkin seed bread, Mikey had some sort of lamb soup, and we both had our first Bionades. We hopped back on the tram and headed back to the hotel to wait for Molina’s arrival and the first full on rehearsal with Sal.
The studio where rehearsals had been set, called IJLand, was across the street from the hotel, but not the front or back of the hotel, but rather the side. Everyone kept saying it was right behind the hotel, which was not the case – I sweated my way through strangely shaped office buildings looking for a number that didn’t exist and, presumably, being laughed at. Upon giving up, I noticed the studio in a place I wouldn’t have expected, and returned to the hotel to do some history work for a bit before meeting time.
Molina arrived, brought to us by Jan, our tour manager for the last two years. He came to witness rehearsal so he could get an idea of what he was in for. Even at the first rehearsal he found out he was in for a lot.
The gear arrived and it was what we had requested, except for the drum kit which wasn’t vintage, as we had hoped. Pete worked some magic and got it sounding good. I got my reissued Fender Deluxe Reverb and, unlike the one I’m used to playing (a ’71, I think), it is definitely cleaner and louder – two qualities of which I am not that fond but, with some patience, can be used in one’s favor. Molina got the same amp. As we set up our gear in the studio Molina finally opened up his Les Paul case to tune up. Amidst tuning (using a strobe tuner that no one understands, so I’m not sure it can actually be called “tuning.” I would say it’s actually “guessing”) he discovered that British Airways had, essentially, broken the headstock off of the neck of the guitar. Not severed it, but cracked it, both vertically and horizontally, against the back.
This is the “classic Gibson break.” It could be easily repaired, too, but the first order of business was finding a new guitar. The studio helper had a Telecaster that he ran to get for us. In the meantime, Molina, who talks constantly about the “thousands of guitars” he has, decided to bring an acoustic with him instead of a backup electric. To his credit how could have known that BA would do such a thing to his guitar? Also, he had promo after promo thing to do and the acoustic would come in handy, right? Oh, and we were on a bus where, no doubt, he would have it out writing all the time. Right? The acoustic was fired up and we started practicing. Everything was fine. We worked out kinks, explained unintentionally difficult changes and rhythm shifts to Sal.
Did I mention that this studio is owned by Remko? Remko, who is Pavement’s sound man and has been since 1992? Remko who introduced more than one encore at all of the mid-late 90s Pavment shows I saw? Remko is my favorite band’s soundman? It was kind of a starstriking moment.
The Telecaster arrived. Molina, as he usually does, found everything wrong with it first. Then he started playing it and didn’t really try to get any kind of tone out of it. Then he discovered it was dirty inside and crackling. Again, all of these things could have been remedied with five minutes of work but he refused. The Tele sounded like shit, and no matter how much advice I’d give him about tone (I play a fucking Tele) he would not listen. He also refused to believe that any of the gear was worthwhile. Needless to say, that first day was a son of a bitch. Frustrated as shit we all decided it was time to break and have some beer and dinner.
Above the studio was a café with pretty good food. We all ate and drank together. We all tried to stay awake together. We all finished and happily went to our rooms. I made some phone calls from the amazing library and when I got back to the Zombie Hospital Sal was crashed out and snoring like crazy. It was soon to be my turn.