I like to think the first time I heard the Jason Molina song “Farewell Transmission” was the summer of 1998 in the backseat of my father’s pick-up truck. I was eight years old, my parents freshly divorced, for the first time riding at night from my father’s new home to his old home, now simply my mother’s place. For the ride—which in the coming years I would memorize, every house, every street sign, every stoplight and sharp curve of asphalt—my father drove through the back roads of Clifton, a rare stretch of rural, semi-mountain landscape in northern Virginia. Only after getting my driver’s license years later would I discover that this “shortcut,” as my father called it, was unnecessary. I-95 could get you from driveway to driveway in about fifteen minutes less than the Clifton route. But my father never took the interstate. We’d wind through Clifton after dark, over the seldom-used railroad tracks, past the Christmas tree farm on Henderson Road. I’d sit in the backseat resting my head against the cool windowpane, contemplating the pitch black stretches of earth whirring past my eyes.
It’s those dark blurs of countryside that immediately come to mind when Molina sings, The whole place is dark, the unadorned opening lyrics to “Farewell Transmission.” It’s the feeling of brief weightlessness in my stomach caused by the steep hill at the southern edge of Clifton that I associate with the languid, burning descent of the song’s key guitar riff. And it’s my father, pensive and heavyhearted behind the wheel, that I always think of when Molina gets halfway through the first verse to sing, Someone must have set ’em up / Now they’ll be working in the cold grey rock.
Despite the fact that the song wasn’t released until 2003, and that I didn’t first hear it until a few years after that, my brain still retroactively soundtracks “Farewell Transmission” to those post-dusk car rides. A begrudging acceptance of forced transition casts a shadow over both the song and those trips through the dark from one home to another. The instrumentals and lyrics of the track communicate a deep sense of loss, and a brutal understanding of those points in life when one chapter is done, etched conclusively into the past, and that the next chapter is often unknowable and sometimes disappointing. This is the exact kind of loss my father and I came to terms with in his pickup that summer.
In the first half of “Farewell Transmission” Molina sings about a group of small town, salt-of-the-earth workers, how they question their commitment to a higher power, how they feel “set-up,” like they’re constantly striving and working hard, but ultimately getting nowhere. At the song’s midpoint Molina sings: Real truth about it is / There ain’t no end to the desert I’ll cross / I’ve really known it all along. For my father, a blue collar man who spent his entire life working construction, using his hands, staying loyal to his company and to my mother, this sentiment hits close to home. Molina seems to be saying that a man can do a whole lot right in life, and still find himself not even close to crossing the proverbial desert. I think my father taking the long way home on those drives, extending our time together by an extra fifteen minutes, was a similar kind of resignation. Why not make that trip a little bit longer? He was in no rush to be alone.
At the end of “Farewell Transmission” Molina famously sings: Long dark blues / To the static and distance / Long dark blues / A farewell transmission / Long dark blues / Listen. He sings these lines over and over as instrumentation and backup harmonies improvise all around him, fading in and out, until the closing seconds when it’s only voices over stark percussion. His yearning for answers is heartbreaking because the listener knows he’ll get no response to his farewell transmission. He’ll hear nothing but silence, but he listens, the rest of his band listens, and we listen, transfixed by the anticipation, and then lack of resolution.
That image of an unanswered transmission reminds me of a specific stretch of road near the edge of Clifton where the radio in my father’s pick-up would lose reception to the blues station he liked. It was a brief dead zone that only lasted a minute, sometimes less, so he’d keep the radio on while the signal fought through the static, desperate to be heard. Once we cleared a particular ridge and crossed out of Clifton, off two-lane country roads, the signal would return to normal. But in the interval, not once do I remember my father fiddling with the dial. We’d just drive on through the dark, and listen to the static all the same.
Words by Danny Caporaletti
“The Long Way Home” was first published in Perversion Magazine Issue Five
Danny Caporaletti is a writer/filmmaker based in Richmond, Virginia and New Orleans, Louisiana. His short stories have been published in Poictesme, Sink/Swim, and Bluestem. His journalism/creative nonfiction has been published in New Orleans&Me. He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction writing at the University of New Orleans, as well as the assistant editor for UNO’s national literary journal, Bayou Magazine. He also works on film sets and performs stand-up comedy.