It was a warm morning, and I rolled off the single, sheetless mattress onto the floor, still sweaty and bleary from the night before. I tried to shove my ass back onto the bed, and my nose into the fragrant armpit of my boy, but the relentless pitch of a ukulele required me to get up and take a piss.
I stumbled upon the recording space, the bathroom, of Jason Molina, who eventually became Songs:Ohia, and, later, Magnolia Electric Company. I sat there on the steps in my T-shirt and underwear, with my ear to the door.
We called him “Sparky,” because we enjoyed poking fun at those of us who were truly gifted. Sparky would silence a room as soon as he sat down to play, night after keg-addled night. He was small and squirmy – certainly no pale, lean rock star, although definitely an asshole.
We bonded because we were both working-class kids on “The Plantation” – the Oberlin College campus, defined thus because we knew only one other first-generation college student. We challenged each other over this skimpy hubris, typically matching shots of cheap whiskey. His merit: a “townie,” born and raised in blue-collar Lorain County, Ohio, grew up in a doublewide. We arm-wrestled over country singers, chanted to Metallica, and mutually disrespected the value of an elite, liberal-arts college education from a smarter-than-thou, poor kid’s perspective, while shamelessly indulging in it. It’s hard to describe a place so far removed from the practical world, and watching so many students pretend to be poor, until they move on, with the diploma, to the parent-paid flat in Dumbo. Now, just tune into Girls to wretch over that bosom of luxurious aimlessness we both lampooned.
I retreated home to Missouri and work as a library clerk, but Sparky was too talented – he could swagger in the music world and write searing, lonesome songs. He sang of the decaying industrial landscape that haunts the shores of Lake Erie where I met him, blue factory flames burning and isolating night shifts. But wildness was always creeping in – wolves howling at the full moon, serpentine women, ghosts and devils conjuring, and a long highway leading south to a more simple, civilized place, West Virginia and the scent of magnolia blossoms.
Sparky died a year ago this March 17, on a frozen street in Bloomington, Indiana, after battling depression and alcoholism. He was found with only one phone number in his cell: that of his grandma. His organs gave out, at age 39.
I got word via text, and drove to Lake Washington to sit at my usual spot under an eagle’s nest, wondering if the smug, stubborn independence of Sparky’s career undermined him. He was self-made. But we all need help most of the time.
For artists, who often are minimally, gainfully employed to allow the space to create, there really is little help. In fact, just five percent of musicians are insured, mostly orchestra lackeys.
Sparky had accumulated large debts, owed to the medical-industrial complex. “It has been a long hospital year,” he wrote in 2012, “getting to deal with a lot of things that even the music didn’t want to.”
But he’s hardly the only one. Others avoided.
Alex Chilton, the singer for Big Star, died four years ago of a heart attack at 59. He was flushed and breathless, but refused to see a doctor due to costs.
That same year, 56-year-old Gary Shider, the guitarist for Funkadelic, died of brain cancer. He couldn’t afford his health insurance premiums, so he ignored a strange cough and pain in his legs.
In 2003, alt-country singer Alejandro Escovedo vomited blood before a gig in Tempe, Arizona, played the show, and then sped to ER. Hepatitis emerged after years of hard living, and he turned to his friends for the financial help of his life. Artists like John Cale, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Jon Langford and Sally Timms rallied to create an Escovedo tribute album, Por Vida, and play benefit shows. It not only got him treatment, but the community raised his spirits to fight. He’s now Hep-C-free.
Perhaps, with Obamacare, the era of killing off artists – those who can heal our souls with beauty, not just service our organs, is over. But it’s too early to tell. In November, the administration introduced a mental health “parity” rule requiring insurance companies to cover mood disorders and addiction just like broken legs and flu shots, but the devil’s hiding in the details.
Josh Homme, the singer for The Queens of the Stone Age, watched two band members sicken, and one of them die, meanwhile helping them pay their bills. In typical fuck-you stance, he explained America to the Guardian: “If you want to live, you better be rich.”
Well, those of us who have counted the casualties don’t typically run for office or pose for TED Talks. We know. You don’t. We grieve amongst ourselves. You preach talking-stat-points and common-sense solutions, parity, and faith in a failed system, hemorrhaging, por vida.
“I can feel his ghost breathing down my back,” Sparky sang in “Farewell Transmission.”
”The real truth about it is no one gets it right. The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try.”