In Memoriam: Jason Noble


last things last is not enough,
you can’t accept this
Don’t give in just yet
I hope that last things last
past these first charms
these pale charms
I hope that last things last
a hook or a flake
to hold on so you don’t break – J. Noble, “Last Things Last”

How does a music nerd pay tribute to the musician who literally transformed his notion of what music could be?

I have been slowly waking up to the fact over the last few days that the world has lost Jason Noble. My heart is broken for his family and friends. I stumbled across the website Actual Blood on Sunday, apparently Jason’s own work in progress in terms of a depository for his manifold creations. I see from the updates on his Caring Bridge site that he had journeyed to Bethesda in order to participate in a clinical trial, and that he had suddenly taken a turn for the worse on Friday. Not that I know, but my sense is that his death was painfully unexpected.

Again, my thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. I never met Jason personally, but I always got the impression from his work that he was a “larger than life” sort of individual, and a sweet heart nonetheless. So rich and unique was his aesthetic that I look back now and wonder how he didn’t become a world-famous producer on the level of Eno, but I have some sense that he deliberately chose a humbler path, a quiet life of community and locality, of friendship and personal collaboration.

I first came to Jason’s music in early 1995, when I bought Rusty on a whim. I had only become familiar with the local music scene in the previous year, and I was astonished to discover that Tara O’Neil, whose family had lived next door to mine a few years prior, was a member of Rodan, a band that was becoming a big deal locally. I’ll never forget popping that CD into the player in my dad’s car, surprised to find not a huge rock song, but the delicate, considered, drum-less and distortion-less “Bible Silver Corner.” Over the course of the next few years, Rusty became my favorite album, and it remains one of them today, so much so that (would you believe it) I had been actually considering contacting Jason and arranging some interviews to record the history of Rodan, a history heretofore essentially undocumented.

I came to Rodan too late to ever witness their live show, something I had to make up for by seeking out lo-fi bootlegs, but one magical piece of apocrypha that I eventually came upon was their 1994 BBC session with John Peel, which managed to capture the band on the cusp of recording their follow-up to Rusty. Captured in that set is my favorite Rodan tune, “Before the Train”, albeit in essentially instrumental form. However, Jason would later add vocals to it, a fact captured in a bootleg recording of their last ever show at Lounge Axe in Chicago on 9/25/1994. Despite the poor audio quality, it’s a pretty great document of Jason as band leader, visionary, and vocalist. Check it out:

Rodan – Before the Train (live) – September 25, 1994 – Chicago, IL

If there’s any one thing I love about the thing called rock music, it’s the guitar, and Jason was one of my favorite guitar players. No one played guitar like he did. He was my Eddie Van Halen, a self-taught genius who managed to coax heretofore unheard of sounds out of the instrument. Yet unlike Eddie, Jason treated the guitar with subtlety and romance, as a poetic implement rather than a wankerish tool (and really no disrespect to Eddie, but the divergence is clear). From “Bible Silver Corner” to “A True Lover’s Knot” to “Quiet Victories” to “Full On Night” to “Forecasting” to “A French Gallease” to “How to Draw Horses”, Noble’s work on the instrument was distinct and unforgettable.

But Jason’s guitar work was only one aspect of his art, a natural outgrowth of his unique creative vision. What impressed me about the handful of times I saw Rachel’s perform in the 90’s was the elegance of it, and Jason always seemed to be the mastermind of how it all came off. No doubt he was working closely with some incredible musicians, but there was a darkness, a sense of the numinous, that inhabited anything he touched. One need only look at the intricate artwork that accompanied Rachel’s albums to realize that, for Jason, the music was only one aspect of the creation. Every time I pick up my copy of Handwriting, I’m impressed by the beautiful heft of the 165g vinyl. Whenever I revisit The Sea and The Bells, I’m flabbergasted to recall that Noble penned what is essentially an epic poem for the artwork:

I check the night air
lifting the lantern up
I look over to the book on the desk
unfinished
It tells the story
I won’t be able to write the ending in anything but fire
the last page will be written in fire

I’ll also remember him as a brilliant master of ceremonies. Whether it was surprising the crowd with the Kentucky Derby bugler to open a Shellac performance, or his omnipresence on the Simple Machines Working Holiday Live CD, Jason was witty, good natured, and just weird enough to make you realize that he was usually improvising. There’s this altogether appropriate quote on track 16 from the poor guy who had to fill-in for Jason as MC at the Working Holiday show: “Thanks…I’m no Jason…I’m no Jason…”

Again, my heart goes out to those he was close to. I may have lost one of my favorite musicians, but they have lost someone dear to them. I wish them healing, hope, and consolation.

Requiescecat in pace.

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1. “Angel comes to child who has fallen down in the woods” sketch by Jason Noble, obtained from the website Actual Blood.

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One Response to In Memoriam: Jason Noble

  1. Pingback: Tributes to Jason Noble – BluegrassCatastrophe

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