Given enough time, all stories become ghost stories. Jason Molina’s started that way, at least according to author Erin Osmon’s new biography, Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost. As a child, the enigmatic singer and songwriter endured night terrors he attributed to meddlesome spirits. He once found an antique coin hidden in the grass after an old man, unseen by the rest of his family, told him where to find it. After a lifetime of making music — beautiful, haunted music in which his voice rings over battleworn guitars like a bell — Molina died in 2013 of complications from alcoholism. He was 39.
Osmon’s book pieces together the impressions Molina left on the people close to him — his siblings, Ashley and Aaron; his wife, Darcie; his former lover, Anne Grady; and the host of friends and collaborators he left behind all over the world but mainly in Bloomington, Indiana, and Chicago, where he lived during his most creatively productive periods. It quotes from his writings and interviews, but Molina feels like a vacancy, a negative space around which the story must trace. Like many biographies of young musicians dead from self-harm, the book adopts certain qualities of a murder mystery. When did the seeds of Molina’s self-destruction begin to germinate, and could they have been halted if anyone knew what was to come?
Though its ending is sadly familiar, Molina’s tragedy has unusual beginnings. He began drinking heavily in his thirties, once his music-making was in full swing, rather than in college or high school like many people with alcoholism. Instead of taking advantage of the music world’s forgiveness of excess, he drank largely in private, and shrouded his habit in shame. He didn’t die because he wouldn’t seek help: Riding with the Ghost’s harrowing final chapters detail his multiple stints in rehab and his multiple returns to alcohol’s gravitational pull. After being discharged from his first in-patient stay, he began drinking on the train before he even made it home.
The biography’s final chapter includes a quote from Henry Owings, a friend of Molina who accidentally broke the news of his passing before the musician’s label, Secretly Canadian, had a chance to issue a statement. On his website, Chunklet, Owings wrote, “Jason leaves behind him an enviable body of work that will be continually rediscovered because what Jason wrote wasn’t fashion. It was his heart. It was his love. It was his demons. And ultimately, it brought his life to an end.” I sympathize with the impulse to map the tragedy of Molina’s life onto the tragedy in his songs, many of which carry in them the kind of bone-hollowing despair that can only come from someone who has thought deeply about death. But I don’t know if it’s his songs that killed him. I think of Leonard Cohen, who stared darkness in the face until his death last year at 82. I think of Lou Reed, who survived all kinds of hell that he thought he wouldn’t. Their demons seemed no less hungry than Molina’s, and yet they spent several more decades with them on earth.
More than the echoes between art and suffering, Riding with the Ghost casts light on the fragility of the common responses to demons like substance abuse and suicidality. The resources we have are better than nothing, but it seems there is no safety net wide enough for all the darknesses that can overpower a life. Besides some early notes on his drinking, Osmon doesn’t let alternate timelines shadow the very real story of Molina’s life. Little time is spent dwelling on how things could have been different; instead, she honors the loss felt by those who loved Molina, and the difficulties and joys he brought to their lives. He appears here not as a doomed troubadour marked for death from the start, nor as an innocent corrupted by the music industry. He is a whole person, despondent and ecstatic, funny as hell and insufferable, marked by flaws and great beauty.
The anecdotal details from Riding with the Ghost are what ring most vividly, exposing a side of Molina that rarely came through in his melancholic music. His first date with Darcie was a trip to the supermarket, and he kept putting a whole turkey in the cart behind her back as a prank. He identified as a witch, cast spells and carried totems, and marked his guitars with the Southern Cross for protection. He talked a lot of bullshit, though he might have thought of it as merely adding color to his stories. He had unhealthily obsessive relationships with women, and was known to stalk a college girlfriend around the Oberlin campus. He didn’t speak a single word until he was 3, when he uttered his first sentence in full, a question: “Don’t you think the trees get tired of standing all the time?”
For those who knew Molina as I did, only through the music he made with the projects Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., the weight of his full ghost bears down heavily. But Riding with the Ghost also enriches his songs, illuminating their characters in their own words and supplying context to the places they were set. I felt haunted by the book on several occasions. I had no idea that Molina’s masterpiece, the 2003 Songs: Ohia album called The Magnolia Electric Co., had been recorded a mile from my last apartment in Chicago, at Steve Albini’s famed Electrical Audio studio. I’d ridden past its birthplace on my bike often. Osmon also notes that when Molina’s body was discovered in his studio apartment in Indianapolis, there was a pot of spinach and chickpeas still on the stove — the same dish I’d made for myself the weekend I read the book.
Maybe these are coincidences, but I prefer to hold them more like magic. Molina no doubt thought of his songs as spells — one of his albums, a tour-only release, was entitled Protection Spells — and their effects reverberated concretely through the world. Toward the end of his life, after he disclosed to his fans that he had been struggling with substance abuse, Molina received hundreds of letters of well-wishing from strangers. Darcie opened one envelope in particular that was especially beautifully decorated. It was from a woman who found The Magnolia Electric Co. in the midst of an abusive relationship. She listened to it over and over, and eventually gathered the strength to leave her partner while pregnant with his child. She survived and gave birth, and she named her daughter Magnolia.