Moby’s Memoir and Alternative Histories

Porcelain-Book-3D-image-3-800x941I bought tickets to see Sting and Peter Gabriel last winter, and to my surprise, an introductory subscription to Rolling Stone came with them.

Paging through the magazine, I came across an ad for Moby’s memoir, Porcelain. I only knew his music from his popular CD Play, but the advert made me curious, as it discussed his personal struggles leading up to that CD’s release.

I enjoy memoirs from popular musicians that discuss what their lives were like before they made it big. Sting’s Broken Music and the early parts of Sammy Hagar’s Red were page turners. But those artists became huge. Although Moby has had a successful career, he has not attained stratospheric pop star status. As a result, I imagined I could relate to Moby in a way that was far removed from Sting or Sammy.

I downloaded a free preview of the book out of curiosity. One page into the prologue, I was hooked. Moby is only 4 years older than me, had been an awkward and skinny kid, and watched his hair line recede rapidly during his 20s. But the passage that grabbed me described his childhood in 1976 as the son of a financially struggling single mother, riding along with her in her Chevy Vega.

I instantly remembered the fall of 1976 when my single mother, my sisters, and I briefly lived in a small apartment in Harrisonburg. I was a few months shy of my 7th birthday. Mom was working toward a degree at James Madison University that would lead to a better job to support us. And at the time, she drove a forest green and very unreliable… Chevy Vega.

We did not last in Harrisonburg very long. Within a couple of weeks, I casually ventured off with a new friend and his parents for a few hours without telling my mother, which of course, panicked her to no end. A few days later, I let a kid borrow my bicycle, and I never saw him or the bicycle again. Mom, my sisters, and I went back to Richmond a few weeks into the experiment. Mom continued her course work at John Tyler Community College.

A few years ago, on one of my numerous trips along Interstate 81, I diverted into Harrisonburg and found that apartment complex. It was occupied and functional, but not in good condition at all. Eerie.

When I reached my 30s, Mom would occasionally tell me how lucky my sisters and I were to have turned out as well as we did. Perhaps even blessed. The odds had been stacked against us: three kids who had not even reached school age when our mother made the agonizing decision to divorce my father.

Over the past few years, I have thought more about what Mom had said. I sometimes think that if 2 or 3 decisions had been made differently by the adults in my family before I reached my 10th birthday, my life may have gone in a very different direction.

With that backdrop, I began to read Porcelain as a potential alternative history of myself. What could’ve happened?

Moby relives the ’90s in Porcelain. Living in an abandoned factory in Connecticut. The struggle to find work. DJ’ing questionable clubs in New York City. Drug use all around him. His time as an alcohol “enthusiast”, only to go sober and start drinking again. Discordant relationships with high-risk emotionless sex. Deep depression.

I will not profess to be a saint, but his memoir gave me insight into a dark world that I suppose I knew was out there, but I have never had to face. So yes, I have been fortunate. It reminded me that there are people living lives that I simply cannot imagine. They are beyond the scope of my experience. I have occasionally had the opportunity to glimpse into to some of those lives, but I had no true frame of reference to comprehend them.

The constant in the book and with me was the early relationship with his single mother. Moby reminisced about laughing and listening to the Bee Gees on the AM radio with her, recounting some of the brighter moments as she struggled through single parenthood. I remember much the same, telling my mother how cool it was that Cheeseburger in Paradise was sung by a guy named Jimmy Buffett… my 8-year-old brain thinking Buffett and buffet were closely related. Moby summarizes what I think we both felt:

I loved my mom. She was one of the smartest and funniest and most interesting people I’d ever known. But growing up with her had never been normal.

Indeed. Mom had to make tough decisions about educating us. The school year following the failed Harrisonburg experiment found me being bused into inner-city Richmond for 3rd grade. Four months and a head of lice later, I was living with my grandparents to get into the Chesterfield County schools. The homesickness set in within a few days, and I was back at home with Mom. Despite the cost, she enrolled me in a private Christian school for the rest of the school year. A few weeks later, I was nearly expelled for swearing.

But I was lucky. No drugs. No hard alcohol in the house.

Moby alluded to it late in the memoir: how his early childhood struggles still haunted him and many others into early adulthood. It took me years to understand how the things I experienced early in my life color the way I see the world even today.

Perhaps I’ll write something when I’m 50, but I can’t imagine my stories will have quite the impact as what I read in Porcelain. Wow.


About seansublette

Meteorologist at Climate Central. Broadcast meteorologist in Virginia from 1995 to 2015. Born and raised in Richmond, VA. Penn State alumnus. Loves baseball and the rock band Rush. Views are independent of my employer. Past performance does not guarantee future results.
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