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Yelp vs. Food Critics - The New Yorker

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Recently, Michelin—which <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> describes as “the European tire maker that publishes what could be the world’s most recognized guide for dining out”— released its annual list of New York’s best restaurants. Based on assessments by a group of anonymous expert “inspectors,” the tire maker turned fine-dining arbiter assigns between one and three stars (one for “a very good restaurant in its category”; two for “excellent cuisine, worth a detour”; three for “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”) to any restaurant deemed worthy in a given year. (John Colapinto wrote a story for The New Yorker about the inspection process in 2009.) Think of Michelin stars as the restaurant Oscars: eagerly anticipated, highly influential, and hotly disputed.

After this year’s stars were bestowed (or withdrawn, in the case of some unfortunate establishments), the statistician Nate Silver, whose Web site, FiveThirtyEight, has recently turned its attention to food, decided to compare highbrow and lowbrow food judging. “Michelin reviewers,” he wrote, “are accused of being pretentious and ‘out of touch’ and of enforcing a rigid view of dining that’s biased against certain cuisines.” He compared the stars bestowed by Michelin to the stars awarded by the crowdsourced review site Yelp, which, Silver explains, is often accused of attracting reviewers who are “unsophisticated, cheap, and obsessed with trivial details of the restaurant experience.”

Silver found that, for all their differences, the two rating systems are largely in agreement about which are the best places to eat in New York. Restaurants such as Le Bernardin, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, and Jean-Georges, all of which have three Michelin stars, are also beloved on Yelp, according to Silver’s formula, which takes into account the number of Yelp reviews a restaurant has, as well as its average number of stars. “In most respects, the challenge in evaluating restaurants is the same as when looking at any other statistical distribution,” Silver wrote. “It’s easy to identify the outliers—the extraordinary restaurants and the execrable ones.” But, he went on, “Distinguishing the very good restaurants from the average ones is more challenging. There may be no substitute for eating your way through them.”

I can think of one. In 1997, when I was ten years old, I saw the movie “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” In the film, Julia Roberts plays a woman named Julianne Potter, who realizes that she’s in love with her best friend just as he’s about to marry someone else. I was captivated less by this plot than by Julianne’s job: she’s a New York City food critic. In an early scene, she and her editor (played by Rupert Everett) sit together in a fancy white-tablecloth restaurant, gazing coolly around the place and exchanging knowing glances as a flurry of tuxedoed waiters and toqued chefs lose their minds over her presence. “I will kill your family if you don’t get this right!” the real-life chef Charlie Trotter (in a cameo as a version of himself) says to one of his underlings.

The camera follows a signature dish—a fussy arrangement of what seems to be lamb on a pedestal of polenta and spinach—as it leaves the kitchen and arrives at Julianne’s table. She takes a bite, pauses, then pronounces, “I’m writing it up as . . . inventive. And . . . confident.” The entire restaurant staff, including three chefs with their noses pressed up against the porthole in the kitchen door, breathes a collective sigh of relief.

In retrospect, it’s a pretty ridiculous, unrealistic scene. But, at the time, my mind was blown. It hadn’t occurred to me—a child who loved to eat, especially in restaurants—that this was a profession. I began to read the weekly “Dining In Dining Out” section of the Times, flipping eagerly each Wednesday to the restaurant review, which was, serendipitously, being written by a woman, Ruth Reichl. I drank up her words on restaurants that I knew I’d never set foot in. It didn’t matter; the writing was wonderful in and of itself. She danced circles around Julianne Potter’s “inventive” and “confident,” painting vibrant, nuanced pictures of restaurants and their food and the people who were eating it. The following year, she published her first memoir, “Tender at the Bone”; I declared it my favorite book, and Reichl my idol.

Eighteen years and four critics later, the Times’ restaurant reviews are as sharp as they’ve ever been and still hold a good deal of clout. (Several years ago, I worked at a restaurant that, in time-honored fashion, kept a picture of Sam Sifton tacked to a bulletin board outside the basement prep kitchen.) But, in this age of Yelp and Michelin stars, we run the risk of forgetting what real restaurant reviews are worth.

Both Michelin and Yelp offer words, in addition to stars. Michelin publishes an actual physical guidebook, which contains a brief writeup of each restaurant, and reviewers on Yelp are free to natter on to their hearts’ content. But Michelin inspectors write stuffy, generic things like “The words posh and exclusive come to mind when admiring the spacious tables, corner banquettes, and stunning views.” Yelp reviewers tend to offer unimaginative, useless notes like “The location is great, service is superb, and food is epic.” Why would anyone seek out advice on where to eat from people who can’t come up with anything better than that?

In 1999, Ruth Reichl reviewed a Floyd Cardoz restaurant, since closed, called Tabla. The Times, of course, awards stars, too, and she gave Tabla three. But what she wrote was much more instructive than any number of stars could ever be:

Those who do not like Tabla tend to dislike it with a passion. I know this because each time I dine at the restaurant I encounter at least one person who despises the food. It always takes me by surprise. I sit there, thrilled by the taste of mustard fettuccine tossed with veal; I love the way the crusty chunks of meat are soft as custard when you bite into them. Savoring this mixture of spinach, spice, tomato and flour, I suddenly look up and find my guest staring with disbelief, at a bowl of wild mushroom soup. ‘‘It’s horrible,’’ he says. I take a bite; it is electric with the taste of tamarind. The power of the ginger in the liquid takes my breath away. ‘‘It’s fabulous,’’ I cry, ‘‘you’re insane.’’

While reading Pete Wells’s recent review of Tavern on the Green, I laughed out loud at his spot-on description of the renovated building: “woven into the life of the park more fully than in its last incarnation, a wedding-cake palace as imagined by a 6-year-old princess with a high fever.” Tejal Rao, Bloomberg’s new restaurant critic, piqued my interest in the Brooklyn restaurant Take Root much more than did the restaurant’s inclusion on Michelin’s new list. A dish of cucumbers and macadamias, she wrote, “was finished at the table with a pour of macadamia milk. It was rich with olive oil, thickened with bread leftover from last night’s service, but meticulously strained and emulsified until it was lush as cream. Richer and more refined than an almond-based ajo blanco, the Spanish soup that informed it, it was also one of the loveliest things I’ve eaten this year.”

I don’t always agree with the restaurant critics in the Times or elsewhere, but I trust them—in the way that I trust certain critics of film, television, art, or literature—not to predict what I or anyone else will like (how could they possibly know?) but to entertain me; to provide carefully researched historical and cultural context; to make me think. I trust them to write so thoughtfully and distinctively that I don’t have to wonder if they’re biased; rather, I know that they are, and, over time, can learn their biases and balance my own judgments against them. The relationship between critic and reader is exactly that: a relationship, between two people. You can’t have a relationship with stars.

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1 day ago
YES. This is why we still need good critics (and why it's such a shame that SF's major critic, in addition to being far from anonymous, can't write).
San Francisco, CA
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Molly Crabapple's 15 rules for creative success in the Internet age


I'm a visual artist and writer. What this means is that I have done most things one can do that involve making pictures (as to making words, I'm far newer). I've drawn dicks for Playgirl. I've painted a six foot tall replica of my own face and carefully calligraphed things people have said to me on the Internet, then displayed it in a Tribeca gallery, as a sort of totem. I've live-sketched snipers in Tripoli. I've illustrated self-published kids books for ten dollars a page. I've balanced on jury-rigged scaffolding on a freezing British dawn, painting pigs on the walls of one of the world's poshest nightclubs.

I've made my living as an artist for eight years, almost entirely without galleries, and until relatively recently without agents. It was a death-slog that threw me into periodic breakdowns . I'm pretty successful now. I make a good living, even in New York, have a full time assistant who gets a middle-class salary, and have a book coming out with a major publisher. I feel so lucky, and so grateful, for every bit of this.

My success would not have been possible without the internet. I've used every platform, from Craigslist and Suicide Girls to Livejournal, Myspace, Kickstarter, Tumblr and Twitter. I'm both sick of social media and addicted to it. What nourishes you destroys you, and all that. The internet is getting increasingly corporate and centralized, and I don't know that the future isn't just going back to big money platforms. I hope its not.

Here's what I've learned.

1. The number one thing that would let more independent artists exists in America is a universal basic income. The number one thing that has a possibility of happening is single payer healthcare. This is because artists are humans who need to eat and live and get medical care, and our country punishes anyone who wants to go freelance and pursue their dream by telling them they might get cancer while uninsured, and then not be able to afford to treat it.

2. Companies are not loyal to you. Please never believe a company has your back. They are amoral by design and will discard you at a moment's notice. Negotiate aggressively, ask other freelancers what they're getting paid, and don't buy into the financial negging of some suit.

3. I've cobbled together many different streams of income, so that if the bottom falls out of one industry, I'm not ruined. My mom worked in packaging design. When computers fundamentally changed the field, she lost all her work. I learned from this.

4. Very often people who blow up and become famous fast already have some other sort of income, either parental money, spousal money, money saved from another job, or corporate backing behind the scenes. Other times they've actually been working for 10 years and no one noticed until suddenly they passed some threshold. Either way, its good to take a hard look- you'll learn from studying both types of people, and it will keep you from delusional myth-making.

5. I've never had a big break. I've just had tiny cracks in this wall of indifference until finally the wall wasn't there any more

6. Don't be a dick. Be nice to everyone who is also not a dick, help people who don't have the advantages you do, and never succumb to crabs in the barrel infighting.

7. Remember that most people who try to be artists are kind of lazy. Just by busting your ass, you're probably good enough to put yourself forward, so why not try?

8. Rejection is inevitable. Let it hit you hard for a moment, feel the hurt, and then move on.

9. Never trust some Silicon Valley douchebag who's flush with investors' money, but telling creators to post on their platform for free or for potential crumbs of cash. They're just using you to build their own thing, and they'll discard you when they sell the company a few years later.

10. Be a mercenary towards people with money. Be generous and giving to good people without it.

11. Working for free is only worth it if its with fellow artists or grassroots organizations you believe in, and only if they treat your respectfully and you get creative control.

12. Don't ever submit to contests where you have to do new work. They'll just waste your time, and again, only build the profile of the judges and the sponsoring company. Do not believe their lies about “exposure”. There is so much content online that just having your work posted in some massive image gallery is not exposure at all.

13. Don't work for free for rich people. Seriously. Don't don't don't. Even if you can afford to, you're fucking over the labor market for other creators. Haggling hard for money is actually a beneficial act for other freelancers, because it is a fight against the race to the bottom that's happening online.

14. If people love your work, treat them nice as long as they're nice to you.

15. Be massively idealistic about your art, dream big, open your heart and let the blood pour forth. Be utterly cynical about the business around your art.


The Internet will not save creators.

Social media will not save us. Companies will not save us. Crowd-funding will not save us. Grants will not save us. Patrons will not save us.

Nothing will save us but ourselves and each other.

Now make some beautiful things.

-Molly Crabapple

This article is part of a series of posts occasioned by the publication of Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. Kirkus Reviews called it "a guide to the operation of the Internet that not only makes sense, but is also written for general readers."

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4 days ago
San Francisco, CA
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4 days ago
Good advice.

“Never trust some Silicon Valley douchebag who's flush with investors' money” applies to everyone, even the software developers who are in demand enough not to be exploited quite as blatantly but are still largely bit-players when it comes to the profits
Washington, DC

Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss

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by Chris Huntington

For about 10 years, I worked full time in prisons as a teacher, logging more than 40 hours a week behind those fences, including a long winter at one facility that had been a cereal factory and stood near the highway in downtown Indianapolis. It was a rock of a building with finger-thick grilles on the windows.

During my first week there, an inmate laughed when I asked him to reset the wall clock.

“A few minutes off?” he said. “We need one that goes by months and years. What do we care about five minutes?”

I mention this only because his words summed up the love story that had defined my life. When my wife left me, I was living in Paris, which was not as romantic as it may sound because I was incredibly lonely. My bones ached, especially at the sound of accordions in train stations.

All my plans had come to nothing. I had failed at marriage, failed at work and had no money to speak of. Sometimes I would see my ex-wife on the street and she would turn away with an eagerness that could not be ignored.

One night I came upon two boys robbing an old Vietnamese man, and when I tried to intervene and make them stop, they turned on me. I began to wonder if maybe a part of me wanted to die.

I moved back to the United States and took the job in the prison. I met the inmate who helped me with the clock. I also met an inmate who had salt-and-pepper hair, huge biceps and a pair of ridiculous glasses no one in the free world would ever wear. This inmate’s name was Mike.

Mike showed me a folder of clippings and photocopied certificates from all the educational programs he had completed in prison. He had earned a G.E.D. and a bachelor’s degree, as well as certifications in the usual programs like small engine repair and barbering.

He had kept letters from his counselors, chaplains and teachers. In these letters, supervisor after supervisor claimed to love him, but it all struck me as kind of sad and awkward. I couldn’t read the whole thing.

I had my own problems. I had taken a tiny apartment and spent my evenings trying to write a book and corresponding with women I had met on the Internet. I took all my lost chances personally.

When I first met Mike, he said: “These young guys — they just got locked up and they’ve got five years to do and they hate it. I get that. When you’re 20, five years is a long time, so they act out. I used to be like that. But now I’m two-thirds done, so every day is taking me closer to the door. When I think like that, I can get up in the morning and smile.”

A month later, my supervisor told me Mike had been locked up for more than 16 years and had at least 8 more to go. Arrested when he was a teenager, he wasn’t going to be released until he was in his mid-40s. He had raped the sheriff’s daughter in his hometown. It didn’t matter how fat his folder of supportive letters got.

“I used to be angry,” Mike told me. “I’d pick fights over nothing. I was mad to be in prison and I wanted everyone else to be mad, too. But then I realized: Man, this is my life. Do I want to be that guy? Always mad? I’m not going to get married or have a family. Not today. Maybe never. I’m going to be here. I’m a prisoner. There are some things I’m never going to do. And I can spend my life being mad about that, or I can try something else.”

I asked him what he had decided.

“I decided to be the best prisoner I could be,” he said.

This all relates to the clock on the wall because I fell in love again, and this became my new life. She was from New Hampshire and had never been to France. She left me for two years to write a memoir about her mother, but then she came back. She wrote me letters and I felt I knew her entire apartment because I studied the tiny photos she sent me of her sitting at her desk or standing by her curtains.

We were married, but not before I went to New Hampshire and met her mother. That afternoon, her mother could barely look at me. She was 48 and very sick, just a few months away from being dead.

My wife drove me through her hometown and I saw the lake where she had spent her summers when she was a teenager, not quite 5 feet tall and voluptuous in swimsuits long gone. We ate ice cream and talked quietly in the afternoon. She held my hand. She gave me an expensive watch that I kept wearing even after the crystal was scratched. 

Our son is from Ethiopia, where I once saw a dead horse on the side of the road that resembled an abandoned sofa. I asked a friend if we needed to do something about that, and he said the wild dogs would take care of it.

We took our son far away from all of that five years ago, which may seem like a kindness, except it also hurts. I wish our son could know those dirt roads and the way they looked like chocolate milk in the rain, the way the hillsides were a delicate green, the way our driver would not go into the zoo because he was disgusted by the concrete ugliness of the lion cages.

I wish my son’s birth parents could see him swimming. He’s such a good swimmer. I wish they could hear him reading books aloud. I wish he could know them. I wish our son could speak Oromo, the language of his birth. Our story, so full of love, is also full of loss.

When I was younger, I used to get up early in the morning to write. Now I get up early to make my son breakfast. I rarely stay up late. I like my job, but I have to work after dinner most nights. I can reach my laptop only if I lean over the pile of markers and a tiny Buzz Lightyear on my desk. My wife hasn’t worn a bikini for six years and probably never will again; she says she’s too old, which makes me sad.

She is a beautiful woman with gray in her hair. My parents no longer drive at night and have fewer and fewer hobbies. This summer my mother made a box of cookies just for my son, and I was happy to see them talking quietly in the kitchen.

I’m constantly aware of lost opportunities. I used to think such lost opportunities were beautiful towns flashing by my train windows, but now I imagine they are lanterns from the past, casting light on what’s ahead.

My life is constrained in hundreds of ways and will be for years as my son grows up and my wife and I grow older. I don’t know when I will return to Paris, if ever. I don’t know when or if I will finish my book.

I do know I love eating breakfast with my son. My wife wants us to open only one box of cereal at a time to keep the flakes from going stale, but my son and I get up first, so we eat what we want. We like to change. He gives me a thumbs-up whenever I open a new box.

In our family, we talk about our days and recount our “best part” and “worst part” at dinnertime. Last week, I was reading a bedtime story with my son and was distracted by the laptop and work waiting on my desk, but I turned to him and said, “We forgot ‘best part, worst part.’ What was the best part of your day?”

He pushed his chin into my shoulder and said: “This is, Daddy. This is.”

I felt a complete fool. I had to close my eyes for a moment. And then we agreed that his worst part was when he had cried about eating chickpeas.

When I was a boy, I hated beets. I hope I can protect my son from beets until he’s old enough to hold in the tears. They’re not worth it.

When the battery in my watch died, I still wore it. There was something about the watch that said: It doesn’t matter what time it is. Think in months. Years. Someone loves you. Where are you going? There are some things you will never do. It doesn’t matter. There is no rush. Be the best prisoner you can be.

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Geoffrey Holder's Son Tells One More Story : NPR

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Geoffrey Holder and his son, Leo.

Geoffrey Holder and his son, Leo. Margo Astrachan/Courtesy of Leo Holder hide caption

itoggle caption Margo Astrachan/Courtesy of Leo Holder

Shortly after the death of dancer, choreographer, actor, painter and director Geoffrey Holder, his son, Leo, composed and shared this letter about the end of his father's life.

This Is A True Story

Geoffrey Holder 1930-2014
October 5th

A little more than a week after developing pneumonia, Geoffrey Holder made a decision. He was calling the shots as always. He was done. Two attempts at removing the breathing tube didn't show promising results. In his truest moment of clarity since being rolled into ICU, he said he was good. Mouthing the words "No, I am not afraid" without a trace of negativity, sadness or bitterness, he sincerely was good with it. He had lived the fullest life he could possibly live, a 70+ year career in multiple art forms, and was still creating. Still painting, a bag of gold (of course) fabric and embellishments in his room for a new dress for my mother, sculptures made out of rope, baseball caps and wire hangers. New ideas every second, always restlessly chasing his too-fertile mind.

A week of breathing tubes and restrained hands had forced him to communicate with only cryptic clues which I was fortunate enough to be able to decipher at best 40 percent of the time. The fact that we all struggled to understand him enraged him to the point that he could sometimes pull tantrums taking up to four people to restrain him from pulling out the wires. He was headstrong (understatement), but he was also physically strong. Iron hand grip that no illness could weaken. Nine days of mouthing words that, because of the tubes, produced no sound, forcing him to use his eyes to try to accentuate the point he was trying to make.

But this didn't mean he wasn't still Geoffrey Holder. This didn't mean an end to taking over. Holding court as he always did. Directing and ordering people around. Choreographing. Getting his way. We still understood that part, and the sight of his closest friends and extended family brought out the best in him. Broad smiles in spite of the tubes, nodding approval of anything that met his standard (which was very high), and exuding pride and joy in all those in whom he saw a spark of magic and encouraged to blossom. The week saw a parade of friends from all over the world checking in to see him, hold his hand, rub his head, and give him the latest gossip. But he was still trying to tell me something, and although I was still the best at deciphering what he was saying, I still wasn't getting it.

Saturday night I had a breakthrough. After a good day for him, including a visit by the Rev. Dr. Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church, who offered prayer and described Geoffrey's choreography as prayer itself, which made him beam, I brought in some music. Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra, one of his all-time favorites. He had once choreographed a piece to one of the cuts on the album ... a throwaway ballet to fill out the program, but the music inspired him. From his bed, he started to at first sway with the music, then the arms went up, and Geoffrey started to dance again. In his bed. Purest of spirits. Still Geoffrey Holder. Then he summoned me to take his hands, and this most unique dancer/choreographer pulled himself up from his bed as if to reach the sky. It was then I broke the code: He was telling me he was going to dance his way out. Still a Geoffrey Holder production.

If it had been up to him, this evening's solo would have been it. The higher he pulled himself up, the higher he wanted to fly. I had to let him down. Not yet. There are friends and family coming in from out of town. He resignedly shrugged his shoulders, closed his eyes and went to sleep. I got it. Really. I got it. I walked out of the hospital elated. Ate a full meal for the first time in days, slept like a baby after. The next day would be his last. I was not sad. It wasn't stressful for me to deal with him in this state. It was an honor and a privilege to tend to anything he needed. This impromptu dance was his dress rehearsal.

Next morning, I show up early. Possible second thoughts? Should we wait? What if he changes his mind? Did he understand what we were talking about here? Thoroughly. Mind as clear as crystal. "You still game for our dance tonight?" A nod, a smile, and a wink, with tubes still down his throat. We're still on. But he still wants to do it NOW. NOT later. He's cranky. Sulks a while. Sleeps a while. Eventually snaps out of it.

From noon on, a caravan of friends and family from all over the globe comes through the ICU wing. Ages 1 to 80. Young designers and artists he nurtured and who inspired him. Younger dancers he encouraged to always play to the rear balcony with majesty. The now "elder statesmen" dancers on whom he built some of his signature ballets. His rat pack of buddies. Wayward saints he would offer food, drink, a shoulder to cry on, a couch to sleep it off, and lifetime's worth of deep conversation and thought. Closest and oldest friends. Family.

They know they are here to say goodbye. He knows they are here to say goodbye. He greets them beaming with joy to see them. By this time I'm reading his lips better and am able to translate for him as much as I can. The last of them leave. It's time for his one true love to have her time with him. His muse. Her champion. This is their time. 59 years distilled into 5 minutes of the gentlest looks and words as she caresses his noble brow one last time. She puts a note she wrote to him in is hand. She leaves.

Everyone is gone except me. My moment. I will be with him as he goes.

One more time: "You good?" Nod & faint smile. "You ready?" He is. I have asked the doctors to not start the morphine drip right away, because I want him to have his solo on his own time. Knowing him, he might stop breathing right after his finale. For dramatic effect. He's still Geoffrey Holder.

They remove the tube that has imprisoned him for the past nine days and robbed this great communicator of the ability to speak. I remove the mittens that prevent his hands from moving freely.

I start the music, take his hands and start leading him, swaying them back and forth. And he lets go of me. He's gonna wing it as he was prone to do when he was younger. Breathing on his own for the last time, Geoffrey Holder, eyes closed, performs his last solo to Bill Evans playing Fauré's Pavane. From his deathbed. The arms take flight, his beautiful hands articulate through the air, with grace. I whisper "shoulders" and they go into an undulating shimmy, rolling like waves. His Geoffrey Holder head gently rocks back and forth as he stretches out his right arm to deliver his trademark finger gesture, which once meant "you can't afford this" and now is a subtle manifestation of pure human spirit and infinite wisdom. His musical timing still impeccable, bouncing off the notes, as if playing his own duet with Evan's piano. Come the finale, he doesn't lift himself off the bed as he planned; instead, one last gentle rock of the torso, crosses his arms and turns his head to the side in a pose worthy of Pavlova. All with a faint, gentile smile.

The orchestra finishes when he does. I lose it.

They administer the morphine drip and put an oxygen mask over his face. And I watch him begin taking his last breaths.

I put on some different music. I sit and watch him sleep, and breathe ... 20 minutes later, he's still breathing, albeit with this gurgling sound you can hear through the mask. Another several minutes go by, he's still breathing. Weakly, but still breathing ... then his right hand starts to move. It looks like he's using my mother's note like a pencil, scratching the surface of the bed as if he's drawing. This stops a few minutes later, then the left hand begins tapping. Through the oxygen mask, the gurgling starts creating its own rhythm. Not sure of what I'm hearing, I look up to see his mouth moving. I get closer to listen: " ... two, three ... two, three ... " He's counting! It gets stronger, and at its loudest sounds like the deep purr of a lion, then he says, "Arms, two, three ... Turn, two, three ... Swing, two, three ... Down two, three ... "

I call my mother at home, where she was having a reception in his honor. She picks up. There are friends and family telling Geoffrey stories simultaneously laughing and crying in the background. "Hi, Honey, are you all right?"

"Yes, actually ... he hasn't stopped breathing yet." I tell her about his solo, which brings her to a smile and a lightening of mood. I continue:

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, Honey. What?"

"Who the hell did you marry?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're not gonna believe this. He's got a morphine drip, going on over half an hour, an oxygen mask on, his eyes closed, AND HE'S CHOREOGRAPHING!"

This brings her to her first laugh of the day. She now knows we will be all right.

He continues on like this for quite a while, and a doctor comes in to take some meter readings of the machines. I ask the doctor if this is normal. As she begins to explain to me about the process, his closed eyes burst open, focused straight on us like lasers, and he roars with all his might: "SHUT UUUUUUUUUUUUUP!!! YOU'RE BREAKING MY CONCENTRATION!!!!!!!"

We freeze with our mouths open. He stares us down. Long and hard.

Then he closes his eyes again, "Arms, two, three ... Turn, two, three ... Swing, two, three ... Down, two, three ... "

He continued counting 'til it faded out, leaving only the sound of faint breathing, slowing down to his very last breath at 9:25 p.m.

Still Geoffrey Holder.

The most incredible night of my life.

Thank you for indulging me.

Love & best,


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48 days ago
What an amazing man.
San Francisco, CA
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7 Steps to Living a Bill Murray Life -- Vulture

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TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 06:  Actor Bill Murray attends the "Men, Women & Children" Premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at Ryerson Theatre on September 6, 2014 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

Step one to being more like Bill Murray: Sing. And really be into it. Murray is not his ironic Saturday Night Live lounge singer and he is not his Lost in Translation actor abroad, singing a half-asleep version of “More Than This.” He sings when the mood strikes him, and when it does, he means it. As he walked out onstage on Friday night at the Toronto Film Festival to the sounds of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” Murray grabbed a microphone and sang a few verses of the song. He would repeat the performance (sans mike) at an after-party later that night, where he would also lead a dance party, as he has been known to do in the past.

Friday was “Bill Murray Day” at the festival, and it consisted of screenings of Murray classics Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Day, and the world premiere of his new film, St. Vincent, in which he plays a grumpy old man tasked with watching the child of his neighbor, played by Melissa McCarthy. During the Q&A, moderated by Scrooged screenwriter Mitch Glazer, and featuring Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, Murray dropped so many pieces of life wisdom that it seemed only right to gather it into a Bill Murray Guide to Life. (Copyright: us.)

Step two to being more like Bill Murray: Just be honest. The St. Vincent role came about, said Murray, “because they couldn’t get Jack Nicholson.” After the audience roared in laughter, he continued, “No really. It’s well-documented.”

Step three: Always make time for your friends. On a day when all of Toronto was celebrating him, and he had a full slate of press for St. Vincent, Murray still carved out time to see Welcome To Me, an audaciously wacko comedy about a woman with bipolar disorder (Kristen Wiig), who’s obsessed with Oprah, wins the lottery, and buys herself a talk show on a failing cable network. It’s the first film by Shira Piven, wife of Anchorman director Adam McKay, and Will Ferrell is one of the producers. “It’s one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The bravery to make this movie is pretty impressive. It’s quite a piece of work. I mean, the funny stuff is maybe bolder than anything we’ve seen in a very, very long time. And it’s not just a funny movie. There’s a lot going on. I’m still thinking about what happened.”

Step four: Be spontaneous. Many people are aware of Murray’s penchant for popping in on random karaoke nights, or doing dishes at other people’s house parties, or crashing wedding photo shoots. But this is not a new thing. According to Reitman, Murray has always been that way. Back in the day, before he was ever on SNL, Murray used to go up to people on the streets of New York and yell, “Watch out, there’s a lobster loose, hot butter’s the only way to get it!” in the voice he’d later use in Caddyshack. “He’s going up to strangers in Manhattan and they’re laughing. They don’t know who this guy is, but he’s making them laugh, and he’s totally spontaneous and they just have to go with it.”

Step five: Leave yourself open to magical moments. It’s unclear how long ago this was, but Murray told a tale of being in a cab in Oakland and finding out his cab driver was a saxophone player. The driver, however, never got to practice because he drove 14 hours a day. So when Murray also found out the guy’s sax was in the trunk, he had him pull over, get out his horn, sit in the back, and play while Murray drove. “You know, that’s like two and two. It makes four,” Murray said. “Not only did he play all the way to Sausalito, which is a long ways, but we stopped and got barbecue. He was playing at what people would call a sketchy rib place in Oakland at like 2:15 in the morning. It’s like, ‘Relax, man. You’ve got the fucking horn. We’re cool here.’ He’s blowing the horn and the crowd’s like, ‘What the hell’s that crazy white dude playing that thing?’ And it was great. It made for a beautiful night. I think we’d all do that, if you saw that moment and you’re, as we say, available, you’d make the connection and you’d do it right.”

Step six: Stay relaxed and success will follow. “Someone told me some secrets early on about living. You have to remind yourself that you can do the very best you can when you’re very, very relaxed. No matter what it is, no matter what your job is, the more relaxed you are, the better you are. That’s sort of why I got into acting. I realized that the more fun I had, the better I did it, and I thought, Well, that’s a job I can be proud of. I’d be proud to have that job, if I had to go to work and say, ‘No matter what my condition or what my mood is, no matter how I feel about what’s going on in my life, if I can relax myself and enjoy what I’m doing and have fun with it, then I can do my job really well.’ And it’s changed my life, learning that. And it’s made me better at what I do. I’m not the greatest or anything. But I really enjoy what I do.”

Step seven: Remember that you are you and no one else is. The night’s final question was “What’s it like being you?” Murray responded with a guru-level reminder about the importance of being present, which we’ll reprint in full and embed in audio form below.

I think if I’m gonna answer that question, because it is a hard question, I’d like to suggest that we all answer that question right now, while I’m talking. I’ll continue. Believe me, I won’t shut up. I have a microphone. But let’s all ask ourselves that question right now. What does it feel like to be you? What does it feel like to be you? Yeah. It feels good to be you, doesn’t it? It feels good, because there’s one thing that you are — you’re the only one that’s you, right?. So you’re the only one that’s you, and we get confused sometimes — or I do, I think everyone does — you try to compete. You think, Dammit, someone else is trying to be me. Someone else is trying to be me. But I don’t have to armor myself against those people; I don’t have to armor myself against that idea if I can really just relax and feel content in this way and this regard. If I can just feel, just think now: How much do you weigh? This is a thing I like to do with myself when I get lost and I get feeling funny. How much do you weigh? Think about how much each person here weighs and try to feel that weight in your seat right now, in your bottom right now. Parts in your feet and parts in your bum. Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere. There’s just a wonderful sense of well-being that begins to circulate up and down, from your top to your bottom. Up and down from your top to your spine. And you feel something that makes you almost want to smile, that makes you want to feel good, that makes you want to feel like you could embrace yourself.

So what’s it like to be me? You can ask yourself, What’s it like to be me? You know, the only way we’ll ever know what it’s like to be you is if you work your best at being you as often as you can, and keep reminding yourself: That’s where home is.

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51 days ago
Lessons in living. The last bit is really lovely.
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Jason Molina's long dark blues | Chicago Reader


On the day he died, a chilly Saturday in March 2013, Jason Molina was alone inside his two-story apartment on Indianapolis's Musket Street. A skillet's worth of spinach and garbanzo beans sat on the stove. Guitar-magazine cutouts plastered his empty fridge's door. A half-filled bottle of cheap vodka lay in the freezer. Cigarette butts littered the floor. A friend stopped by and found the door unlocked but chained from the inside.

These were the trappings of a life that came to an abrupt end, but there also were little clues that Molina, at the time of his death, had been hopeful about a new beginning. A receipt later found in the apartment revealed that the 39-year-old Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. front man—who hadn't played a show in three years—had visited a nearby Sam Ash weeks earlier to purchase a new guitar. He'd set up a small recording space in one corner with a few guitars, a propped-up microphone, and a basic tape recorder. Lyrics were jotted down. His penmanship appeared smooth and fluid—an indication of at least a brief period of sobriety.

Molina was legendarily prolific, releasing 19 LPs in 15 years, but he never saw mainstream recognition. While his overall sales failed to reflect his work's importance—he sold an estimated 200,000 albums worldwide—the cult songwriter inspired a broad swath of musicians, some of whom would transcend his accomplishments. He was the first widely recognized artist to sign with bootstrapped Indiana record label Secretly Canadian, and he helped transform the tiny independent upstart into an internationally recognized collective with a distribution group that's been home to Antony and the Johnsons, Bon Iver, Dinosaur Jr., Okkervil River, Phosphorescent, and Sharon Van Etten.

"[Jason] was large and multitudinous: commensurately inspiring and frustrating, goofy and gloomy, spontaneous and studied, generous and self-absorbed, loyal and flaky, wise and naive, trusting and paranoid, outgoing and reserved, honest and totally full of shit, and every blessed and profane thing in between," his former bandmate, Max Winter, wrote after his death. "And it's all there in his music."

Once he learned to control his commanding voice and found his way around the six-string guitar, Molina used his songs to confront the darker side of humanity. And though he struggled with his own fragility—and ultimately couldn't find his way out of the darkness—his music artfully explored the tension between the calm and the chaotic.

"He would crank his electric, but he would barely touch the strings," visual artist Will Schaff recalls. "You'd still hear tone and the chord changes. Then every once in a while he'd strum fully and this noise would come. It was such a beautiful use of dynamics—so much silence and so much crashing thunder."

Molina grew up the oldest of three children in a trailer park on the outskirts of Lorain, Ohio. Many residents of the tired blue-collar town, roughly 30 miles west of Cleveland, relied on the former Ford Motor Company assembly plant and U.S. Steel mill to make ends meet. His father, William, taught science to junior high students and his mom, Karen, was a bookkeeper.

As a child, he split his time between Lake Erie's coast and the coal-mining towns of West Virginia, where he and his two younger siblings, Aaron and Ashley, spent summers with their grandmother. On those trips, Molina and his dad frequently scoured the woods for Civil War artifacts. His mother stayed at home to grapple with her chronic drinking. She remained a functioning alcoholic until Jason's high school graduation day, when she swore it off. But the family's predisposition to addiction remained ingrained in his mind.

"Our family had its ups and downs," Molina's brother, Aaron, says. "He knew what we grew up in. He was the one that was always anti-alcohol. I would've marked him to be the one that didn't drink."

At age 11, Molina commandeered his father's high-end Pioneer turntable and impressive record collection. He gravitated toward hard rock (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin) and classic country (George Jones, Willie Nelson). Patti Smith and Hank Williams were among the earliest artists who inspired him to learn to play music.

Molina played bass in his high school days, most notably with his metal band, Spineriders. - COURTESY MISRA
  • Molina played bass in his high school days, most notably with his metal band, Spineriders.
  • Courtesy Misra

He first took up the trumpet, but soon turned his attention to a six-string guitar that belonged to his mother. He played the top four strings because it only had five functioning ones. Molina eventually scraped together cash for a bass, which he played in his high school metal band, Spineriders.

"He was total metal," Spineriders guitarist Todd Jacops remembers. "He had a jean jacket and was wearing a Metallica or Black Sabbath shirt when I first met him. He had long hair, longer hair than us, so we were really envious of that." The metal group played Lorain house parties, regional battles of the bands, and tiny Cleveland-area gigs.

As far as Molina was concerned, Lorain offered him two career options: work on the assembly line or enlist in the military. He wanted nothing to do with either. He instead enrolled in 1991 at Oberlin College, 12 miles from his hometown, and worked multiple jobs to pay for his tuition.

"The playing was really intriguing and the voice was really intriguing. At the end of it—I think he recorded in the bathroom at one point—he might have taken a leak. In kind of a creepy voice, he said, 'You can write me letters.'"—Will Oldham, describing an unsolicited demo Molina sent him

Geof Comings first met Molina at local coffee shop the Feve, where Molina manned the register. On his breaks, Molina sketched songs in the shop's back hallway. Comings recalls an epiphany Molina later shared with him: "He realized that the ukulele also has four strings, was a hell of a lot smaller, and made a lot more sense than playing a distorted heavy-metal bass for the songs he was writing."

During his college years, Molina earned the nickname "Sparky" for his hyperactive energy. He often seemed on edge to his friends, unable to relax as he darted from one conversation to the next. His friends recall him drawing elaborate art inside the back covers of library books, playing sad Civil War-themed songs on the ukulele at house parties, and attempting to memorize the entire Carter Family songbook. He began to move away from his metal roots into the world of folk, blues, and alt-country.

In 1994, Molina's college housemates grew increasingly fascinated with Palace Brothers' melancholic and mysterious new album, Days in the Wake. At one point, Molina told Jeff Panall, one of his roommates (and, later, a drummer in his band), "You know, my music is a lot like this."

Molina made an unsolicited demo for Palace Brothers' Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy). Tom Colley, one of Molina's housemates at Oberlin, agreed to deliver the demo to the bearded Louisville songsmith since Molina, who wasn't yet 21, couldn't get into Oldham's next Cleveland gig. After the show at the Euclid Tavern in November 1994, Colley handed Oldham's bandmate an envelope that contained a cassette. It also held an introductory note from Molina, who referred to himself as "Sparky."

"The playing was really intriguing and the voice was really intriguing," Oldham recalls. "At the end of it—I think he recorded in the bathroom at one point—he might have taken a leak. In kind of a creepy voice, he said, 'You can write me letters.'"

Not only did Oldham reply, he agreed to put out Molina's first single on his newly launched Palace Records imprint with Drag City. In January 1996, Molina made his official debut with a 1,000 press run of the seven-inch Nor Cease Thou Never Now. The recording project's title—Songs: Ohia—was partially derived from 'Ōhi'a lehua, a type of Hawaiian flower and a nod to Molina's early affinity for the ukulele.

Secretly Canadian cofounder Chris Swanson, then an undergrad at Indiana University, first stumbled upon the vinyl release at Bloomington's oldest independent record store, TD's LPs and CDs. "Anything Oldham-related I would snatch up real quick," Swanson says. "I had this crappy little record player in my dorm room and listened over and over. It felt a little more vulnerable than Palace. Oldham was this gladiator of sad rock, and Molina was this young poet. It was beautiful."

Austin-based songwriter Edith Frost, who first met Molina when they supported Oldham as opening acts on the same bill, introduced Molina to Chris Swanson and his brother, Ben, via e-mail. The brothers inquired about releasing his next album. To do so, Molina replied, they would need to meet him at an in-store performance at record store Adult Crash—in Manhattan.

The Swanson brothers drove more than 750 miles from Bloomington to New York, where they obtained the master recording. "It was this test," Chris Swanson says. "He always loved to give tests."

Secretly Canadian released 1,000 copies of Songs: Ohia's seven-inch single, One Pronunciation of Glory, in September 1996. It quickly sold out. The following spring the label released Song: Ohia's self-titled debut LP, known to listeners as the "Black Album" given its monochrome cover, to modest fanfare. By that time Molina had grown increasingly close to the Swanson brothers. He moved to Bloomington in 1997 and slept on an army cot inside their home, which at the time also housed the label.

In the three years after his 1997 self-titled debut, Molina released six subsequent full-length records, several EPs, and a handful of singles. He approached the business of his music with a large degree of informality. Working with the Swanson brothers, Molina insisted that he would only sign one-record deals with minimal terms. At one point he used a tea-bag label to finalize an agreement, signing the label "I accept. Yours, Jason." When he made the Songs: Ohia record The Magnolia Electric Co. in 2002, he paid his bandmates and collaborators with pizza, a handwritten copy of the lyrics, and an elaborate drawing for their help.

Molina distrusted outsiders making decisions about his career and dismissed the idea of hiring a manager. When he did make money, he often overlooked his personal gain to make sure his touring members were fairly compensated. He worked multiple jobs between tours to pay his rent. One of those was at Roscoe's, a Bloomington coffee shop that sold records, where he met his future wife, Darcie Schoenman.

"He wasn't afraid of doing shitty jobs," Darcie says. "He would get up at 5 AM to play music because he had a job during normal hours. He made time. He didn't have a choice."

Darcie, who lived in the same dorm as the Swanson brothers, first heard about a "songwriter named Jason" living on their couch in late 1997. At Roscoe's, Molina invited her to one of his upcoming shows. Darcie soon found excuses to call the Swanson household in hopes of hearing Molina's earnest and energetic voice on the other end of the line.

"He was very silly and sweet," she says. "He would do anything for me. If I was cold in the middle of the night, he'd get up instantly to get a blanket."

Molina often told Darcie he would die without music. But despite his crushing lyrics about "endless depression" (see Songs: Ohia's "Blue Chicago Moon"), he also accessed a sillier side of himself through his music. He wrote frivolous songs including an unreleased ode to pumpkin pie. And he dreamed up absurd propositions—like his business plan to turn a tiny brick carport across the street from Secretly Canadian's headquarters into a five-cent, home-brewed root beer dispensary called the Frosty Nickel.

Molina also was widely recognized as a habitual liar. The songwriter inserted smaller half-truths about tiny, irrelevant matters into daily conversations. Those tendencies grew over time as he blended fact and fiction. Or as one former bandmate put it: "The truth often got in the way of a storyteller."

"He built mysteries, but even that's not a mystery," says Jason Evans-Groth, Molina's lead guitarist. "We've sat around and told stories we've heard to find out where he's lying, to pull the truth out. That is just as charming as knowing the truth."

Molina emphasized making albums with minimal overdubs and recorded takes. He valued the authenticity that resided in spontaneous moments during live sessions. Scottish singer-songwriter and collaborator Alasdair Roberts remembers Molina creating parts of his vaporous and eclectic Ghost Tropic in the moment, improvising lyrics and arrangements in the middle of the tracking process. "He didn't have a lot of interest in playing a song more than, say, three times," says Ghost Tropic producer and Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis.

Songs: Ohia's fourth album, Axxess and Ace, a heartbreaking collection of lo-fi love songs recorded in the South Loop during a $300 weekend studio session, led to Molina's deep affection for Chicago. In 1999 he moved with Darcie to an Uptown apartment off Montrose. He quickly adopted Chicago as his unofficial hometown and became a familiar face at the Empty Bottle, Lounge Ax, and other local venues.

In his early Chicago years, Molina released The Lioness, Ghost Tropic, and Protection Spells; collaborated on side projects like Amalgamated Sons of Rest, a group composed of Molina, Oldham, and Roberts that released a one-off EP; and split releases with the Frames, My Morning Jacket, Scout Niblett, and Oneida. In 2002, Molina traveled to Philadelphia to create his penultimate Songs: Ohia record, Didn't It Rain, with local musicians Jennie Benford, Mike Brenner, and Jim Krewson—whom he asked to listen to Neil Young's After the Gold Rush beforehand. Molina refused to edit out the recording's sonic imperfections, allowing his collaborators to leave indelible marks on his sparse and melancholic gospel-tinged dirges.

Molina at Electrical Audio, Steve Albini's recording studio, working on his seminal album The Magnolia Electric Co. - COURTESY SECRETLY CANADIAN
  • Molina at Electrical Audio, Steve Albini's recording studio, working on his seminal album The Magnolia Electric Co.
  • Courtesy Secretly Canadian

Molina's collaborators could sense that he was on the cusp of a breakthrough. It arrived in July 2002, when nearly a dozen musicians packed into Electrical Audio, Steve Albini's Avondale recording studio, to make what would be Songs: Ohia's final record, Magnolia Electric Co. Lawrence Peters, the Chicago country singer, recorded lead vocals for the Songs: Ohia track "The Old Black Hen" and was impressed with Molina's intense focus that week. The grizzled, experienced singer felt nervous because Molina pushed him outside his comfort zone. He recorded his part for the countrified ballad in a few takes, stuck around for the remaining part of that day's session, and watched Molina paint his masterpiece.

"It's rare to find a musician of that kind who can get to that depth of experience in a song," Peters says. "He can get down into the basement covered in life's emotions and heartsickness. Then bring it all upstairs into the light. He can touch that darkness and that depth and that sorrow and that tenderness."

Throughout that week, Albini helped the session's players get into their element and worked behind the scenes to bolster Molina's ambitious vision. Panall, Songs: Ohia's drummer, says he believes Molina felt particularly comfortable because his longtime Oberlin friends and past collaborators were surrounding him in his adopted hometown. That environment enabled Molina to take creative risks. The session culminated with the making of "Farewell Transmission," the album's seven-minute opener, which was recorded in a single take following a quick run-through of its chord progression. Molina's collaborators didn't have time to practice and had no idea how to end the song.

"Steve [Albini] did a beautiful job," Molina recalled in a 2011 Faster Times interview. "I noticed that at one point when it was a little too loud or a little too soft he came and opened a door to make it work, because it was just an ambient recording. When you hear that song kick off everybody knows it, and what's so disturbing to me is the way that I ended it is I was dictating to the band and Steve—I go 'Listen. Listen. Listen.'"

Panall immediately grasped the record's significance. On a drive with Molina to one of the record's final mixing sessions, Panall beamed with pride.

"Sparky, I think this recording is the most important thing I have done in my life," Panall said.

"Yeah, me too," Molina replied.

The cover of Songs: Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co., illustrated by Will Schaff
  • The cover of Songs: Ohia's The Magnolia Electric Co., illustrated by Will Schaff

Following Magnolia Electric Co.'s sessions, Molina moved back to Bloomington, married Darcie, and put together a permanent band. He knew musicians Groth, Mark Rice, and Pete Schreiner from his earlier years in the midwestern college town and was familiar with their local punk trio the Coke Dares. But it wasn't until he saw Cinnamon Girls—Groth's and Schreiner's Neil Young cover band—perform Zuma in its entirety that he was convinced of their musicianship.

"He fell in love musically that night," recalls Chris Swanson, who attended the show with Molina. "He looked at me a few songs in—probably around 'Danger Bird' or 'Pardon My Heart'—and said, 'This is my band.'"

The new Songs: Ohia members hastily learned Molina's songbook. Because Molina hated rehearsals, the group's earliest practices lasted for 15-minute intervals, interspersed with longer breaks. So the group worked out the kinks—practicing without their front man—prior to recording its seminal live album, Trials and Errors, at Club Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. They only had nine shows under their belt before that evening.

Groth, Schreiner, and Rice—and later lap steel guitarist Mike Brenner and keyboardist Mikey Kapinus—complemented Molina in a way that few other musicians had before. They clicked from the onset, despite the fact that Molina rarely played the same set list twice, dove into lengthy instrumental passages without warning, changed tunings on the fly, and switched tempos on a moment's notice. Molina even failed to let the band know when he changed the group's name from Songs: Ohia to Magnolia Electric Co. They read about it on Pitchfork.

Magnolia Electric Co. formed just as the burgeoning Americana scene had begun to find a mainstream audience. About a decade ago, the popularity of music festivals exploded as tens of thousands of fans annually descended on Bonnaroo, Coachella, Austin City Limits, SXSW, Lollapalooza, and Pitchfork. The festival circuit often favored bands with transcendent folk and rock performers that could appeal to its growing audiences.

Magnolia Electric Co.'s peers—including the Avett Brothers, the Black Keys, and Wilco—saw their career trajectories soar, in no small part because of the growing popularity of festivals. At one point, Songs: Ohia and My Morning Jacket had reached similar levels of success. They even released a split EP in 2002. Soon after, the Louisville alt-rockers released back-to-back career-defining albums with It Still Moves and Z and fast-tracked toward booking arena tours.

In 2005, Secretly Canadian poured substantial resources into the release of What Comes After the Blues to help Magnolia Electric Co. reach that kind of acclaim. Groth felt like they were on the verge of making that leap. As critics took notice of Molina, he found the new attention simultaneously exciting and frightening. Instead of capitalizing on the momentum, Molina backed out of the spotlight, blowing off music journalists and refusing to sign long-term record contracts. Darcie Molina thought her husband wanted to eventually have a career similar to Tom Waits's—one with few interviews but ample collaborative opportunities—but wouldn't do the kind of work necessary to get to that point.

"It wasn't a fear of failure, but a fear of success," Schreiner says. "He resisted getting a manager. We self-managed to the detriment of getting bigger."

Few of Molina's college friends, bandmates, or early collaborators remember him having more than an occasional beer onstage prior to Songs: Ohia's name change, in 2003. But something changed not long after Magnolia Electric Co.'s lineup solidified. Darcie Molina recalls sporadic drunken episodes at home starting in late 2002. She first noticed a regular pattern a year later, when the couple moved to Indianapolis months after getting married, to shorten her lengthy commute. Molina struggled to make new friends and grew lonely without a sense of community. They bought a house, but that didn't quell his desire to leave Indianapolis.

"He was upset all the time about how he missed Chicago," Darcie says. "I was able to get a job with my company in Chicago. Then I was blamed for the two of us leaving the house behind. He felt like I was dragging him around due to my job. I was trying to get to a place where he was happy."

At Pop Montreal in October 2004, Molina consumed the better part of a bottle of Crown Royal alone as his bandmates went off to eat dinner. During the set, Molina crawled on his knees, toyed around with his monitors, and played songs hunched over between his stage speakers. He complained about the crowd and his alleged depression.

"I dreamt about what the handbills looked like with Magnolia Electric Co. and the Avett Brothers. The fact that I even got to be a part of that, to this day, is mesmerizing, completely flattering, and unbelievable."—Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers

Groth recalls a three-show stretch in the summer 2005 that clued him in to Molina's drinking problem. After a show in Belgrade amid a grueling six-week European tour, a Serbian promoter presented the group with a bottle of homemade slivovitz as they departed for the next stop in Croatia. Although the Zagreb gig went off without a hitch, Brenner noticed Molina covertly swigging from the 140-proof gift he stashed in his bag. By the time they'd driven the five hours to Vienna, Molina couldn't get out of the van without his bandmates' assistance. They were initially puzzled by his condition. But their driver revealed that, in his rearview mirror, he'd seen Jason down three-quarters of the bottle.

"That show became the template for ruined shows," Groth says. "We were on the lookout and knew when to hide liquor. We'd look for it, see the signs of it, and do Operation Hang Out With Jason to make sure he wasn't drinking more."

Later that year, Magnolia Electric Co.'s members tried to enact a no-beer policy before gigs. Although Molina initially joined their pact, he dropped out after a few shows. Schreiner went booze-free for an entire tour to prove his point. At that point, Groth didn't see Molina's behavior as alcoholism. He simply thought his friend was depressed and failed to grasp his drinking limits.

Magnolia Electric Co. in 2006; from left: Jason Evans-Groth, Mark Rice, Pete Schreiner, Michael Kapinus, and Jason Molina - DAN PETERSON
  • Magnolia Electric Co. in 2006; from left: Jason Evans-Groth, Mark Rice, Pete Schreiner, Michael Kapinus, and Jason Molina
  • Dan Peterson

In 2007, Darcie Molina was offered an opportunity to work in London. Molina, who had studied in London one semester during his Oberlin years, initially embraced the opportunity to live abroad.

In his first year overseas, Molina hit the road hard and played more than 130 shows. Due to a scheduling conflict that fall, Bloomington musician Evan Farrell filled in for Schreiner as a bassist in support of Sojourner, a four-album box set and mini documentary. Then, after the tour, two days before Christmas, Farrell died in an apartment fire. Molina stepped away from the road for several months to cope with the loss.

Molina, left to his own devices while Darcie worked long hours, penned lyrics in coffee shops, wrote songs at home, and walked around London to soak up its history and architecture. When bored, he drank.

"It was going to go one of two ways," says Henry Owings, founder of the music magazine Chunklet and a friend of Molina's. "It was either going to be amazing and he was going to tap into this weird London scene or he was sadly going to drink because he didn't have anybody there."

After ten months away from the road, Molina returned to the U.S. for a two-week tour and to record what would be Magnolia Electric Co.'s last album. Molina had failed to send the group new songs prior to the three-week recording session at Electrical Audio. Despite his lack of preparation, Molina remained relatively stable on the string of tour dates. And his spontaneous creative instincts kicked into gear during the recording process. Josephine captured an impressive display of the band's range, including stunning anthems ("O! Grace"), wistful sing-alongs ("Whip-poor-will"), and elegiac ballads ("Shenadoah").

Chris Swanson felt Josephine had the potential to be a career-defining album. With Americana's resurgence in full swing, Molina had his best shot in years to receive some form of long-overdue recognition. But the band suffered during its 2009 tours due to Molina's drinking. He constantly needed assistance. His bandmates had created a rotating schedule to handle babysitting duties.

Nevertheless, the Avett Brothers, who were regularly selling out theaters and playing to 1,000-plus crowds each night, asked Magnolia Electric Co. to open a string of west-coast dates two months before Josephine's release in July 2009.

"It was a huge deal for me to be playing alongside those guys," says Scott Avett, who credits Molina's plainspoken lyrical approach as a major inspiration behind Emotionalism, his band's 2007 breakout record. "I dreamt about what the handbills looked like with Magnolia Electric Co. and the Avett Brothers. The fact that I even got to be a part of that, to this day, is mesmerizing, completely flattering, and unbelievable."

On some nights that tour, Magnolia Electric Co. lived up to their reputation. Groth says the first of two sold-out nights in San Francisco at the Fillmore remains one of the band's greatest performances. The second night, Seth and Scott Avett decided to join Molina onstage for "Hammer Down"—what Scott Avett considers a "masterpiece of a gospel song." Molina could barely strum his guitar, sang erratically, and humiliated his bandmates.

"I was embarrassed for him," Groth remembers. "They were people who looked up to him and were excited to have us there. He was a trashed old man, not being able to sing his song with them."

Drummer Mark Rice grew weary of Molina's drinking and left the group in mid-2009 to attend graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design. "It just breaks your heart." Rice says. "There's no reason why it couldn't have been great. It was only because he couldn't control it."

Molina's nosedive continued on Magnolia Electric Co.'s summer 2009 European tour. He had booked a tour bus instead of the typical passenger van. Groth thinks Molina wanted to ride in a bus to demonstrate the band's success and to devote more time to songwriting on the road. But tensions rose inside the bus's close quarters.

"He loved to be comfortable," Groth says of Molina. "He wanted a place to hide to drink. I don't think he slept for two-and-a-half weeks on that tour. Or he would sleep with a bottle in his hand."

Molina's band members said that during a two-week break between tour legs, he promised to see a doctor. But on the next string of dates, nothing changed. Molina still needed assistance walking and getting out of the van. He developed a cough that would last for 20-minute spells. He chain-smoked and subsisted on a diet of beef jerky, beer, and whiskey.

Former Codeine drummer Chris Brokaw, who opened several shows on that European tour, remembers some drunken episodes, but also recalls spontaneous collaborations inside their van. Molina limited his boozing in front of musicians he respected like Brokaw, John Doe, and the Sadies, with whom Magnolia Electric Co. shared the bill. During the band's final performance of that tour—and, unbeknownst to them, their career together—Groth says Molina's voice sounded the best it had in months, despite his hands fiercely shaking onstage. Once the show, in Turkey, ended, he downed two beers in rapid succession.

"I think I need to take some time off to get my shit together," Molina told Groth later that night.

"The alcohol is killing you," Groth replied. "Take a year and get some help. Go home, be with your wife, figure out what's going on in your relationship, and figure out what you want to do. Call us for help. Call us because we're your friends. We're ready to go on tour when you're ready, but we don't want you to think that you have to do this."

After the two embraced, Molina walked to a corner store and purchased a bottle of whiskey. The next day, while his friends went sightseeing around Istanbul, he drank alone inside his hotel room.

A month later, in late November 2009, Molina and Centro-Matic front man Will Johnson were about to embark on a lengthy tour behind their recently released collaborative record Molina & Johnson. The veteran songwriters had crafted the album outside of Denton, Texas, more than a year and half beforehand—writing, recording, and mixing the record in just nine days. Johnson, a prolific songwriter in his own right, found renewed inspiration in working with Molina.

"He reemphasized the importance of a very simple, powerful melody," Johnson says. "How even peddling on just one string and singing a line, if it's written well enough, can resonate with the listener."

The duo chatted at length about the prospect of touring with members of their respective bands. A second joint record had already been discussed. However, less than two weeks before the tour was scheduled to kick off, members of Magnolia Electric Co. and Centro-Matic received a short e-mail: "Jason's sick. He can't come."

According to his wife, Molina pulled the plug on the tour after spending ten days in a London hospital for flulike symptoms that doctors attributed to withdrawal. Molina scrapped a subsequent string of American shows that were booked for early 2010. But the hospitalization didn't stop his heavy drinking. He frequently returned to the hospital throughout the next year for alcohol-related injuries such as a failed attempt to fix a shower curtain at 3 AM that resulted in a gash to his head.

"He'd wake up, drink, pass out, wake up, drink, pass out—all day, every day," Darcie Molina recalls. "He was not a functioning human. He'd drink, smoke a cigarette, scream about something, pass out. Rinse. Repeat."

In March 2010, Brokaw attempted to salvage a canceled UK tour with collaborator Geoff Farina by rescheduling a few last-minute solo dates and a final show in London. On a whim, he e-mailed Molina and asked him to fill in for one performance. He responded almost immediately: "I'll be there and I'm looking forward to it."

On March 26, at London's now-closed Luminaire, the two songwriters shared the stage for what would be Molina's final ticketed performance. Molina covered Blind Willie McTell's "East St. Louis Blues," and together they performed several songs. Brokaw says the set's drifting, improvisational folk arrangements stick with him to this day.

After the show, Molina responded cryptically when Brokaw asked about his abrupt European tour cancellation. "Sometimes you get to a point in your life where you're working all the time," he told Brokaw. "Then all of a sudden you realize that you really need to pull the brakes."

In January 2013, Molina and I exchanged a few brief e-mails. I wanted to write about his road to recovery and asked if he would discuss his three years away from his music career. In response, he shrugged aside notions of his songwriting influence ("limelite! me? ha ha ha," he wrote).

He claimed he was "doing o.k." but wasn't ready to share his struggles. "[M]entally not ready to do much other than watch John Wayne movies," he replied. "Writing is slow but improved."

By then, Molina had tried to become sober countless times, typically lasting for less than a week. Meanwhile, he told Darcie a litany of transparent lies—he'd contracted AIDS, he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he had engaged in multiple affairs—to avoid conversations about his alcoholism. Gradually, she began clocking longer hours to avoid his increasingly unpredictable behavior at home. She eventually gave him an ultimatum: their relationship would end if he didn't get sober. So in February 2011, while they were still living overseas, Molina reluctantly agreed to attend his first addiction treatment program.

Six weeks later, the songwriter was discharged from the facility right before his wife's birthday. By the time he reached his apartment, he was drunk. Darcie demanded that he live somewhere else.

"He said he was drinking the whole time," Aaron Molina says of his brother. "It was almost like he had a psychiatric episode in the hospital and he never really recovered."

Months earlier, Darcie Molina and Groth started an e-mail exchange (later expanded to other close friends) to keep tabs on Molina and devise a plan to help him get sober. Schreiner flew to London with two return tickets in hand and convinced a stubborn Molina to come to Illinois.

"That was the last time I saw him," Darcie says.

Back in Chicago, Molina slept on a cot at his former bandmate's practice space before being set up with his own apartment. His recovery was hampered by his finances; he'd left behind the United Kingdom's nationalized health care coverage and was now uninsured.

"He was in and out of the hospital and was going to have to pony up for his bills," Aaron Molina says. "That was tough."

He never fully reconnected with friends at places like Electrical Audio or the Empty Bottle, and continued his solo drinking. Molina entered his second rehab facility in Chicago, binged upon discharge, and was quickly readmitted. Once released, he briefly disappeared, checking into a luxurious downtown hotel where he blew most of his latest royalty check. Darcie Molina and his friends followed his movement through his bank-account transactions. They panicked when he purchased a one-way train ticket to New Orleans.

And with good reason: train-station authorities soon found Molina's abandoned luggage and cell phone, and dialed Schreiner, his most recent call, to report his lost belongings.

According to several friends, who pieced together what happened next through subsequent conversations with Molina, the songwriter passed out inside the train station and was taken to a local hospital. Before anyone realized his whereabouts, he purchased another south-bound rail ticket. Molina vomited blood on the way down to Louisiana and eventually arrived at Maison Dupuy, his favorite New Orleans hotel. A worried desk clerk found him puking in the lobby's bathroom and called 911. Paramedics rushed him to a nearby hospital's intensive care unit before he could even check into his room. He spent a few days recovering in the hospital before aimlessly wandering around the French Quarter.

"You assumed he was dead," Secretly Canadian cofounder Jonathan Cargill says. "I think he went there to die, but it didn't work."

Several weeks later, Molina resurfaced on Cargill's doorstep. Groth and other Bloomington friends pleaded with Molina to settle down, devise a sobriety plan, and find a steady job. They felt he could stay clean with the right supervision and a structured daily routine. Molina initially consented. But soon he fell off the wagon again.

"Treatment is good, getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn't want to. I have not given up because you, my friends have not given up on me. . . . I am taking this in much smaller steps than I'm used to. Keep the lamps trimmed and burning!"—From a blog post Molina wrote detailing his "long hospital year"

Early one morning, Cargill and Groth convinced an inebriated Molina to get in a car to pick up a prescription for his fake shellfish allergy—his latest excuse in a long line of fictitious ailments. They drove more than 60 miles northeast to an Indianapolis addiction treatment center. Once he was admitted, the DTs kicked in, and Molina detoxed over several days. He repented from his drinking, thanked his friends for their continued support, praised Cargill for being his protector, and agonized about the uncertain state of his songwriting career.

Molina's hospital bills continued to pile up. When the Indianapolis facility became too expensive, his sister and other family members found an affordable long-term rehab program near his grandmother's home in West Virginia. As part of his treatment, he began living on a farm where he helped raise chickens and goats. To offset costs, the songwriter and his family gave fans his first official public update since he'd canceled the Molina & Johnson tour nearly two years earlier, and organized a medical fund.

"It has been a very trying time for Jason, his friends, and his family," the Molina family wrote. "Although no one can be sure what the future holds, we feel very encouraged by the recent steps Jason has taken on the road towards becoming healthy and productive once again."

The time on the farm initially worked wonders. According to Cargill, Molina regained color and he put on healthy weight. But he objected to the program's religious overtones. Not long after, a serious infection landed him in a nearby hospital. Once released, he relapsed during a temporary stay with his extended family, downing mouthwash in the absence of liquor.

Molina's family sent him back to Indianapolis in April 2012 for his sixth rehab attempt. He gave little notice to his Bloomington friends of his return. In early May he wrote a blog post detailing his "long hospital year," acknowledged fan letters, and alluded to Autumn Bird Songs—a mini LP he had recorded for friend and artist Will Schaff's long-awaited book, which was published that September.

"Treatment is good, getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn't want to," Molina wrote. "I have not given up because you, my friends have not given up on me. I do still need your support however that takes shape, good vibes are worth more than you might think." He ended the message with cautious optimism: "I am taking this in much smaller steps than I'm used to. Keep the lamps trimmed and burning!"

Later that month, Schreiner grabbed coffee with Molina at an Indianapolis Starbucks prior to a few shows he was playing with the Coke Dares. He was hopeful about his friend: Molina sounded better, talked about becoming a mentor to other addicts, and, for the first time, intimated he was an alcoholic. And after visiting with friends in Bloomington, Molina declined to see the Coke Dares to avoid a potential relapse.

Soon after, Molina lost access to his addiction treatment due to his overwhelming medical bills. The once-promising road to recovery retreated. On some days, he remained sober, coherent, and easily reachable. On others, he would binge and grow silent again.

The one silver lining was that Molina had quietly returned to making music. He gave Secretly Canadian an effort he'd coined The Hospital Album. Chris Swanson says Molina recorded a 12-minute a cappella track because he didn't have a guitar in that particular rehab facility—or likely the manual dexterity to play the instrument.

For Magnolia Engine Works, the name of the solo project he was hatching at the time of his death, Molina had created a Facebook page, made business cards, and begun hand-drawing 10,000 album covers for an anticipated casette release. Those final songs were crafted in deteriorating health and reflected his troubled mental state. Some tracks stand among his finest work and others serve as a reminder of his struggles.

During his final months Molina bounced in and out of an Indianapolis emergency room located a short walk from his Musket Street apartment. Swanson had prepared to help the songwriter move back to Bloomington, where he'd be under the care of friends. But hours before Swanson returned from SXSW to begin the process, a man named Michael Pettijohn, a 55-year-old Indianapolis resident unfamiliar to many of Molina's longtime friends, stopped by Molina's apartment and found the door unlocked but chained from the inside. Unable to enter the apartment despite having a key Molina had given him, he called the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department at 7:12 PM on March 16, 2013. Both an officer and medical examiner arrived at the scene and discovered Molina's body. His organs had given out. The songwriter's tremendous promise had finally caved under the burden of his alcoholism.

In the wake of his death, music critics wrote glowing tributes to Molina. "Jason leaves behind him an enviable body of work that will be continually rediscovered because what Jason wrote wasn't fashion," Owings wrote in a Chunklet post. "It was his heart. It was his love. It was his demons." The New York Times called him a "balladeer of heartbreak."

Band of Horses paid tribute with a cover of "I've Been Riding With the Ghost" during a Jimmy Kimmel Live! appearance. Academy Award-winning Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard, formerly of the Frames and the Swell Season, recalled Molina's early impression on his music. "Jason Molina gave me so much," Hansard tweeted. "Hope, a song, protection spells. He put The Frames on course." Strands of Oaks front man Timothy Showalter wrote a song, "JM," as an homage to his primary influence.

Graveface Records released Weary Engine Blues, a 36-song collection that includes covers from former collaborators (Oldham, Roberts, Johnson) and folk contemporaries (Mark Kozelek, Damien Jurado, Jeffrey Lewis). It also featured Schaff's artwork, including an illustrated map based on Molina's lyrical imagery. British rock band the Wave Pictures recorded an entire album of Molina songs that raised money for a memorial gift. Another compilation, Farewell Transmission, features renditions of his songs performed by My Morning Jacket, Catherine Irwin, and Wooden Wand—with a portion of the proceeds donated to MusiCares, an organization that assists musicians battling addiction, depression, and other health issues.

Last January, 150 people packed inside the Hideout to hear a group of Molina's former collaborators perform his works. A cast of Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. bandmates rotated on lead vocals. The concert climaxed when nearly a dozen musicians packed onto the stage for a cathartic and triumphant rendition of "Farewell Transmission."

On Record Store Day 2014, Secretly Canadian released a box set of rare Songs: Ohia's seven-inch singles. The label also plans to keep reissuing Molina's earlier releases. "We're sitting on about 13 master tapes," Chris Swanson says. "They're just gorgeous."

At Secretly Canadian's Bloomington headquarters, the house that Molina helped build, nearly a million Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans records fill the label's main warehouse. When the Swansons, Cargill, and others finally did well enough to construct a second storage facility next door, there was no question whose name would be engraved on the front. Today, a plaque near the entrance reads: "The Frosty Nickel, 2013. In Memory of Jason Molina, 1973-2013."

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52 days ago
RIP, Jason Molina. One of my favorite songwriters.
San Francisco, CA
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2 public comments
58 days ago
Chicago, IL
52 days ago
You know, somehow I never went down this rabbithole... Listening to Magnolia Electric Co. now I cannot figure out why. So, so good.
58 days ago
Fuck the US medical system. This is fucking terrible.
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