Their feathers were ruffled against the autumn wind. There were twenty of them or more. I walked right past them on my way from my office to a lunchtime coffee; they clung to the ground like Mice (Mus spp.), as if weighed down by the skittering clouds. On the bare, pale gravel on the edge of a typically abandoned carpark in Melbourne’s Docklands I almost didn’t see them until I was on top of them; and they barely moved from my path. They must have seen me, though; I still recall a lesson from my university days, studying biology: Sparrows will call each-other to form a flock until there are enough of them to ensure that one is always on the lookout for threats.
Sparrows don’t belong here. They’re a long way from home. When I was very young they were my favourite bird, until I learned to hate introduced species of all kinds, at which time my affections tilted towards the even more petite, spectacularly beautiful, and impeccably Australian Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus). Yet House Sparrows have been in Australia since 1863; in every country town they explore the grilles of parked cars, pecking for stray seeds and the ruined bodies of insects. At what point does an animal being to belong? At what point do we let it belong?
I still cherish the memory of riding down Rae Street, in North Fitzroy, one autumn morning years ago, and passing a young couple deep in a kiss; as they embraced a small flock of Sparrows burst from the gutter like confetti. The Sparrows completed the scene; they turned it from a moment of ardour to a scene of unbridled joy that perhaps nobody noticed but me. A private euphoria.
We see the patterns that we want to see, of course. When I was riding down that street in the mid-morning air with the anticipation of a croissant and a coffee in my head I was predisposed to find a small and unexpected moment of delight. When, today, I left my office to get a coffee over the road – to escape from the confines of the office for just twenty minutes – I was following a set routine rather than anticipating any pleasure. When I saw the Sparrows clinging to the earth as if it might fall away I was in a frame of mind to see such a sight and interpret it in such a way.
Just a few hours earlier, through Twitter, I’d heard the awful news: Jason Molina, singer, songwriter, driving force behind Songs:Ohia and more recently Magnolia Electric Co, had died. He has died. He is dead, at the nondescript but appallingly young age of thirty-nine, reportedly as a consequence of alcoholism. It’s late at night now and I’ve been listening to his music all evening and if I sometimes distract myself from it, let it slip into the background, that’s only because every time I stop to actually listen to him sing his songs in a voice which is – was – an impossibly perfect fit for his yearning, despairing lyrics, I become so heartbroken that I have to shut my eyes tight against the pain of it. Help does not just walk up to you.
Shortly after I heard the news I asked a colleague, a few years younger than me and transferred from the company’s office in Austin, Texas, if he’d ever listened to Jason Molina. We’ve talked about music in the past and we share an appreciation of much of the same music and many of the same bands, but on Molina he drew a blank. “Was he Australian?” he asked. I told him that Jason Molina is dead; even though it doesn’t mean anything to him I had to say it to someone; but we both had work to get back to so I told my colleague wanly that it didn’t matter, and instantly I hated myself a little for it. This one, this man, these songs – they matter, more than the work of any of thousands of other musicians. I didn’t realise until today just how much they matter.
I only discovered Jason Molina and his music a few years ago; five at the most. Perhaps I have the zealotry of the recently converted. Sometimes I’ve tried to come up with an answer as to why I never got into his music when I was younger, even though I’d long been vaguely aware of the name Songs:Ohia: he began releasing music – so much music – at exactly the same time, in the mid-to-late nineties, that I was beginning to discover music. He fit in exactly with the kind of music I loved then and love still. Yet there’s no use in wondering, I guess: I found him when I found him. I’m lucky to have found him at all.
I was going to go out tonight: there were beers I was excited about trying and I was going to make a small night of it. But it seemed wrong to drink on the day that I found out Jason Molina had drunk himself to death. It’s irrational, and of no consequence to anybody, but I wrestled with the decision and when I finally decided to come straight home from work I felt the same way I’ve felt in the past when I’ve decided to go to the funeral of somebody who was only a passing acquaintance. It felt exactly like that, as if Jason Molina had ever been anything more to me than a voice whispering from a pair of speakers. I came home and decided to stay sober, and quietly sorrowful, and write this. I’ve been procrastinating writing anything on this blog for weeks: I have ideas but I’ve always found myself dragged to the TV, or to Twitter, or to Facebook, when I should have been writing instead. Now that I’ve written this, hasty and rough and confused as it is, I feel as though I’ve written it in blood; it feels shameful, somehow, that anything at all could come of such a desolately sad day.
When I went back to work from my coffee break there was one Sparrow that had strayed from the flock. It was dishevelled by the wind; it looked like a waif. I thought at first that the others had abandoned it; but in fact this one Sparrow was the one that had wandered. As I walked towards it along the footpath it opened its wings and flew low and straight along the ground back to the bosom of its kith and kin. They continued pecking at the ground for food, as if they’d done it a thousand times before and would do it a thousand times again and every day would always be the same.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org