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Just Because: 'Porcelain: A Memoir'

Jaime Espinoza/Aesthetic Magazine
It's funny how families evolve (and devolve) over time. A person who had incalculable positive influence on and in the world can be followed, generations later, by descendants who live in the same insignificant anonymity as most of the rest of us. And then, one day, that same lineage can find itself graced by another fascinating and influential individual. Richard Melville Hall, aka Moby, polymath extraordinaire, is, famously, the great-great-great-grand nephew of Herman Melville (1819-1891), best known for his novel Moby-Dick, the short story Bartleby, the Scrivener, and the unfinished novella Billy Budd. This author, too, was a man of many talents and occupations. His scion, Moby, has added to our current line-up of music memoirs (think Patti Smith's Just Kids, Keith Richards's Life) with Porcelain: A Memoir. Unlike so many of the others, it's about a more recent time, the '90s, but like so many of the others, it tells the story of a talented guy for whom music is an escape from an otherwise dismal life.



All the stores at the Dock mall in Stratford, Connecticut, were closed for the night, except for the Fresh-n-Kleen Laundromat. My mom was inside the Laundromat, wearing blue jeans and a brown winter jacket that she'd bought at the Salvation Army for five dollars. She stood at a cracked linoleum counter underneath flickering fluorescent lights, smoking a Winston cigarette and folding clothes. Some of the clothes were ours, and some belonged to our neighbors, who sometimes would pay us to wash and fold their laundry. On this March night the storefronts were dark; the parking lot was empty except for our silver Chevy Vega and one other car. The cold was wet and heavy, and the piles of snow in the corners of the parking lot had turned gray and were melting in the rain.
   Every two weeks I'd find myself at the Dock, doing laundry with my mom. I would help her, or just sit on the fiberglass shell chairs in the Laundromat and watch the giant dryers spinning in their fast, lopsided way. My mom had been unemployed for over a year, and her last relationship had ended when her boyfriend tried to stab her to death. Sometimes I would find her crying while she folded the
neighbors' clothes. She would be folding furiously, a cigarette lodged in her mouth, tears falling onto the neighbors' T-shirts. I was ten years old.
   After helping her sort laundry I would usually go outside and walk around the empty parking lot. I would wander behind the mall, past the loading docks and the rusting Dumpsters, and walk down to the ruined dock that gave the mall its name. The dock was black and burned; at some point it had a purpose, but now it just sat stoic and resigned in the dark Housatonic River. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I'd see giant river rats scurrying in and out in the mud.
   This night in March 1976 it was too cold and rainy to go exploring, and the Laundromat was choked with cigarette smoke. And sitting next to the washing machines on the cold fiberglass seats, watching my mom smoke and fold and cry, made our poverty seem even more vicious. So I spent the evening in the car, huddled in my wet thrift-store down jacket, playing with the radio. The rain made a steady drumbeat on the roof of the Vega, and I kept spinning the dial back and forth on the AM radio.
   I was indiscriminate when it came to music; if it was played on the radio, I loved it. I assumed that the people playing music on the radio knew exactly what they were doing and wouldn't, under any circumstances, play music that wasn't perfect. Every week I listened to Casey Kasem's American Top 40 countdown and memorized the songs that he played. I didn't have favorites—I loved them all equally and religiously, from the Eagles to ABBA to Bob Seger to Barry White to Paul McCartney and Wings. I just accepted that all music played on the radio was worthy of my complete and undivided worship.
   My damp Wrangler blue jeans were sticking to the vinyl seat of our cold car, but I listened happily to whatever was on the radio. It was the age of disco and rock and country rock and prog rock and yacht rock and ballads. Led Zeppelin coexisted benignly with Donna Summer, and Aerosmith lived peacefully with Elton John. Then I heard something new: "Love Hangover," by Diana Ross. I knew disco music, although I didn't think of it as being particularly different from the other types of music played on AM radio. But "Love Hangover" was different. The opening was languid—otherworldly and seductive—and it scared me.
   Anything related to sex or sensuality terrified me and made me want to go watch Looney Tunes cartoons. Whenever I watched TV with my mom and the characters on Maude or The Love Boat hinted at sex or intimacy I froze and waited silently for the moment to end.
   But "Love Hangover" was different. First of all, it was on the radio, so it had to be good. Second of all, it sounded futuristic. I was obsessed with Star Trek and Space: 1999, and had decided that I loved all things futuristic. The future was clean and interesting, and didn't involve sad parents smoking Winstons in Laundromats.  So even though I knew it was about sex, I listened to "Love Hangover" all the way through. It was a futuristic song on the radio, and neither the radio nor the future had ever betrayed me.

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