Book Review: Jason Molina: Riding With The Ghost
On a cold October afternoon, I was in the parking lot of a Caribou Coffee, crying in my car, listening to Pyramid Electric Co., specifically the heavy, slow moving “Red Comet Dust,” as rain fell from a grey sky.
In the fall of 2012, I was not in a good place; I hadn’t been for most of that year. My best friend died in April, and throughout the rest of the year, I was slowly slipping into a deeper and darker anxiety driven depression.
I had a desk job at this point in my life—one that paid me more than it should have for the work I was doing, and for the most part, people just kind of left me alone to do my tasks for the day. I was allowed to listen to music while I worked, and after exhausting a lot of other genres and artists, something drew me into listening to the music of Jason Molina—both his final band, The Magnolia Electric Company, as well as his infamous and auspicious beginnings in Songs: Ohia.
I was struck by the starkness of his first “solo” album, Pyramid Electric Co., and it’s the first one I ordered. At this point, Molina was still alive (just barely, though) and a bulk of his canon was still in print. The LP for Pyramid came with a CD version, and so I would play that in the car, in an apparent effort to feel terrible as I was driving somewhere.
I usually took a mid-afternoon coffee break at work, and before fetching my drink from Caribou, I just kind of lost it.
Jason Molina wasn’t even 40 when he died in March of 2013, and he had spent roughly the last nine years of his life slowly killing himself and destroying his body through alcoholism. Once a promising and prolific young songwriter from the Midwest, with a penchant for telling tall tales and having an odd sense of humor, Molina’s downward spiral came on suddenly and was unrelenting until the very end, where he died alone in a rundown apartment.
Beginning shortly after his death, and working up until just last year, writer Erin Osmon has painstakingly chronicled his upbringing, formative years, successes, failures, and downfall in her book Jason Molina: Riding With The Ghost, the first authorized Molina biography.
Osmon was granted unprecedented access to the Molina archive of material housed at his former label, Secretly Canadian—including unreleased material he was recording in the months leading up to his death, as well as letters and emails he sent throughout his life. Through all of that, along with in depth interviews conducted with Molina’s estranged wife Darcie, his college girlfriend Anne, the rotating cast of band members in both Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric, additional friends and family, and the founders of Secretly Canadian, Osmon paints a very vivid picture of Molina—the kind of individual who lived through a persona, and rarely let anyone get too close.
A rather slim 208 pages, Osmon really wastes no time, and Riding With The Ghost clips along quickly, briefly covering Molina’s childhood in Ohio, before focusing on his high school days as a heavy metal bass player, before moving into his college years at Oberlin, where he began to shape the esoteric and idiosyncratic folk music that he would make under the Songs: Ohia moniker.
Even before the alcohol took a hold of his life in the early 2000s, Molina was always a bit of a volatile individual, and Osmon covers that as well—his slightly contentious relationship with Secretly Canadian, his unhealthy and obsessive nature with his first serious girlfriend Anne Grady, as well as his wife Darcie, his ability to stretch the truth, and his secretive nature when it came to making music, often working with a core group of musicians then suddenly recording an album with an entirely different group, causing what is referred to in the book as “sour grapes” between Molina and his collaborators.
Riding also covers Molina’s efforts to escape Will Oldham comparisons throughout his career, as well as the prolific pace with which he wrote and recorded, and his constant need to shift styles and turn his back on his older or popular material that audiences wanted to hear when he performed live.
It’s mentioned throughout the first half of the book that Molina rarely, if at all, drank throughout the 1990s. Somewhere near the start of the 2000s, in between moves from Chicago, Bloomington, Indiana, and Indianapolis, Molina started to slide into a depression brought on by what he deemed an isolation, and it was then that he picked up the bottle, and for the next nine years, never really put it down.
Osmon’s recounting of Molina’s slow descent into alcoholism is unflinchingly graphic—making the last half of the book incredibly difficult to read. Molina let alcohol completely overtake his life—making it so he couldn’t hold a guitar or perform live, destroying his marriage and friendships, and financially ruining him.
The depiction of Molina’s self-destructive behavior and demise is harrowing, and brought to mind how difficult it was reading the final chapters of Every Love Story is A Ghost Story. Hearing about Molina being so far gone that he was rolling around on a floor, pissing himself, or being cut a break and allowed to process returns at Secretly Canadian, only to be fired (from the fucking label he was signed to) for drinking on the job, are mortifying to read in print.
One of the themes that resonate throughout a bulk of Molina’s work is that of “trying,” and there are countless tries in Riding With The Ghost. His wife, band mates, and label brass made a number of attempts to get Molina sober through various treatment programs all over the United States, and even one while he was living abroad in London. Some of them were slightly more successful than others, but in the end, he always found his way back to the bottle again. In the end, Molina was basically broke, living alone in Indianapolis, when his body finally gave out and he died in March of 2013.
Osmon does a commendable job crafting Molina as a character—at first likeable, if just a little odd, then it all falls apart in slow motion. You want him to get better, and to remain someone you are rooting for, however, you know how this story ends before you have even started reading the first page. The thing that Riding With The Ghost lets you in on is the horrific details of what basically amounts to a wasted life.
Informative, if not overwhelming in its detail at times, Osmon does allow parts of the story to get bogged down by the construct of time. There are portions of the book—specifically around the time surrounding the release of The Magnolia Electric Company album, in the first few years of the 2000s, which is slightly difficult to follow just when, and where, things are happening. There’s just a little too much jumping ahead, and then jumping back, and it makes for a slightly confusing read.
Also, in detailing the rise of Secretly Canadian as and independent label and empire, for what it’s worth, the year Bon Iver released For Emma, Forever Ago with the label is incorrect. Maybe it’s a dick move on my part to bring it up, but it is something that stood out for me on the page.
Riding With The Ghost is a book written for a specific audience—for longtime fans of Jason Molina. I don’t even know if I consider myself one of those, seeing as how I barely discovered him on my own prior to his demise, but for anyone who has ever been touched by his music, this book is for you. It’s a difficult read that paints a tragic portrait of what can only be described as, unfortunately, as a life wasted.
It doesn’t exactly change how I view Molina’s music—despite the claims Osmon quotes in the book that Molina always thought his music was “hopeful” and was weary of people talking about how depressing it was—I’ve always felt that it was incredibly dark, with very small glimmers of light, and it has something that has been there for me during some of my very low points. However, after reading Riding With The Ghost, there will always be an added weight now when I play a Molina record, knowing what I now know about just how awful his ending was.
Riding With The Ghost is available as a hardback, via Rowman and Littlefield; it's now in its second printing.