memoirs written by musicians are funny things. there is always the question of motive for presenting such a personal narrative to the world and what agenda is being bolstered or spurred by such an effort. oftentimes it is a rehashing of the salad days of an artist or worse, "correcting" musical history. the better memoirs, and what comes immediately to mind is THE DIRT (review linked HERE) by NEIL STRAUSS / MOTLEY CRUE and LIFE (review linked HERE) by KEITH RICHARDS, often tend to celebrate a bygone era. the movers and shakers of the past contextualize the decisions of the artist and are very much on equal footing structurally and emotionally in the narrative. the artist themselves serves almost as a conduit or representative of a larger whole or particular scene.
i'd put PORCELAIN: A MEMOIR (PENGUIN, 2016) by noted DJ / PRODUCER / MUSICIAN and animal rights activist MOBY in that later category. his memoir is very much a celebration of the downtown MANHATTAN club scene of the late 80s and early 90s from the perspective of an economically-depressed HARDCORE kid from CONNECTICUT who was conflicted with his talent, ambition, self-doubt, social awkwardness and immense intelligence. in that 80s club scene he found a inclusive community that was very much about living in the moment and celebrating and supporting on another, and the upbeat music and drugs of that period reflected such. what i found particularly interesting about this memoir was how MOBY's career tracked with the evolution in ELECTRONIC MUSIC in the early to mid 90s when harder drugs like heroin and ketamine took over and darker down-tempo music became more prevalent. it was as if the carefree atmosphere of the scene had sobered into a walking nightmare.
now i am going to completely out myself here. i am familiar with AMBIENT groups like APHEX TWIN, ORBITAL, THE BLACK DOG, BOARDS OF CANADA, AUTHECHRE and SEEFEEL, ELECTROCLASH groups like LADYTRON, FISCHERSPOONER and LE TIGRE and POST PUNK groups like DEPECHE MODE and NEW ORDER, but for the most part i am a neophyte when it comes to the HOUSE MUSIC that this book gets into. such is why i decided to read this book. i am mostly familiar with MOBY's later more subdued string of records such as PLAY (MUTE, 1999), 18 (MUTE, 2002), HOTEL (MUTE, 2005) and LAST NIGHT (MUTE, 2008) that came out after the time period covered in PORCELAIN. which is basically saying i only knew him after he gained worldwide success with his PLAY album and his genre-crossing hits like "BODYROCK," "NATURAL BLUES," "WHY DOES MY HEART FEEL SO BAD?" and, of course, "PORCELAIN." i say all this because its very interesting to learn at the close of the book that it was this sense of being resigned to failure that led to his biggest success as cliche as that sounds. KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR in one of his memoirs talks about the fact that athletes die twice, once when they pass their athletic peak and the other when they pass on like the rest of us. during the making of PLAY, MOBY has lost his mother to cancer and had begrudgingly come to terms with his own irrelevance in a scene that had moved beyond hm. those songs from that breakthrough record, came from that mindset which to me is endlessly fascinating.
this book covers a lot of other subjects such as MOBY's relationship with FAITH and CHRISTIANITY, as well as SEX and ALCOHOL. seems fitting that those two sets of obsessions are continuous throughout and are never resolved. makes sense to me.
i shouldnt be surprised that a musician so well composed and thoughtful in his interviews would not be capable of writing such a well-considered memoir, but there you have it. i highly recommend this memoir whether or not you are a fan of his music, which is probably the highest complicated i can make. enjoy.
growing up through the mid-90s in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, specifically the then-conservative enclave of ORANGE COUNTY, i was made more than well-aware of BRAND-conscious peers that went past brands like NIKE and sported surf and skate related labels like BILLABONG, O'NEILL, VANS, QUICKSILVER, RUSTY and OCEAN PACIFIC as well as other lifestyle firms like STUSSY, MOSSIMO, CROSS COLOURS, NO FEAR among countless others.
it is one of those interesting things about my upbringing that my family left SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA for NIGERIA in 1996, right when clothes was becoming a thing. a demarcator of identity. living in AFRICA killed that instinct (outside of basketball shoes!) where you were witness to those who had very little. it made this all feel very... small and insignificant.
in reading THIS IS NOT A T-SHIRT: A BRAND, A CULTURE, A COMMUNITY - A LIFE IN STREETWEAR (MCD, 2019) by BOBBY KIM, a.k.a. BOBBY HUNDREDS, of THE HUNDREDS fame, it became apparent that streetwear and fashion for him as a creator was less about exclusivity and more about expression. i didn't realize it beforehand, but all those labels i grew up on were run and started almost exclusively by white men. streetwear from THE HUNDREDS and its competitors was very much about penetrating the fashion and garment industry and gaining marketshare for a more diverse and inclusive set of designers. KIM is a lifelong CALIFORNIAN, HARDCORE PUNK kid, former LAW student and the son of KOREAN immigrants, which makes the rise of the label he co-created that much more interesting as it exemplifies a progression of AMERICAN culture writ large. the segment THE HUNDREDS brand satiates is as diverse as KIM himself.
which is kinda the point.
the label in many ways is an outgrowth of his personality and more specifically his blog. THE HUNDREDS was early to blogging and utilized such to contextualize their collections and transform the product being marketed as a psychic extension of their obsessions, hobbies and COMMUNITY. the blog essentially founded a community and it is that relationship with this COMMUNITY which is at the heart of this memoir.
what is KIM's relationship to his audience? what does he own them? does he allow them, or the idea of them, to lead his decision-making on future collections? or is his task to lead them deeper down an explored and deeply-shared sense of COMMUNITY based on similar obsessions, perspectives and viewpoints.
its an interesting dynamic that ive become interested in since starting my MBA recently, that of how one runs a business while leading an authentic existence. not exploiting either labor or your customers when all incentive and reward structures suggest otherwise. what ive taken from KIM's example is keeping ownership and financial control close and being realistic about potential risks and opportunities and how those will affect the standing of your brand. it may be that KIM has a unique perspective given his label's longstanding brand equity based on the transparency and interplay of his blog and social media with his COMMUNITY. as long as that relationship is intact and relevant to his consumers, it would seem the brand has a shot at continued viability.
but in the end it is not about a t-shirt, a brand or even KIM himself, it is about the COMMUNITY being fostered. and that is pretty cool. i never felt that from wearing a BILLABONG shirt back as a 12 year old. if anything SKATE and SURF culture came of as exclusive rather than inclusive.
very interesting BUSINESS memoir i'll be thinking of for quite some time. well worth checking out.
i read the classic education memoir TEACHER MAN (SCRIBNER, 2005) by FRANK MCCOURT back when i was student teaching at BROOKLYN TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL as part of my masters program at COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY. MCCOURT is of course the renowned PULITZER PRIZE winning author of ANGELA'S ASHES (SCRIBNER, 1996), a memoir of his childhood in IRELAND, but what most people don't know is that he was an educator. he taught for years at STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL in MANHATTAN, a public specialized magnet secondary institution considered by most the crown jewel of the NEW YORK public school system and has a pretty incredible list of NOBEL PRIZE laureates (more than most universities).
enough of all that though. what spoke out to me about TEACHER MAN at the time was that he went into detail about what an abject failure of an educator he started out as. how unprepared he was. how clueless he was about basic procedures and ideas regarding pedagogy.
at COLUMBIA there was just this constant barrage of information being thrown my way of at times competing ideologies regarding how a classroom should be modeled and what an effective assessment consists of. it was only later that i realized that they did this so that we are aware of our options as professionals and to choose such wisely based on our situation and the needs of our students. at the time i was at BROOKLYN TECH this overload of information wasn't helpful, but TEACHER MAN was. it gave me the idea the confidence that i would get better, that this was all part of the process and that i just needed to be open and self-aware of my options as my experience increased. i needed to make mistakes. for me that message was the real gift of this book. it gave me confidence.
i should also mention that MCCOURT was from LIMERICK. my ancestral hometown is in LIMERICK, specifically a nearby village called CAPPAWHITE. like my relatives he is a born storyteller. perfect for an english teacher.
funny enough after BROOKLYN TECH (and a brief tenure at my alma mater in KUWAIT) i found myself teaching at STUYVESANT. even at a hallowed institution like there where experienced teachers are let go having not been able to pass muster, my attitude never shifted. i gave myself permission to fail. in fact that permission followed me to ALBANIA, VENEZUELA, JAPAN and MYANMAR during my career and informed my ability to self-assess in the moment and make changes without fear. i found myself in fluid situations in unfamiliar cultures with shifting institutional parameters and it was always a challenge to find ways of pushing my students and addressing their needs. i attribute that confidence and self-awareness to reading MCCOURT's sober assessments of his own short-fallings as an educator and how he used such to fuel his passion for education. it was incredibly self-empowering.
and to be given the opportunity to work in the same department that MCCOURT once did was a true gift and honor that i still appreciate to this day.
anyway, great book. worth your time.
in VACATIONLAND (PENGUIN, 2017), writer/actor/humorist JOHN HODGMAN presents a bittersweet memoir concerned with the inevitable struggles of growing older while simultaneously surviving summers on vacation at his second home in MAINE. he full admits how at length how WHITE PRIVILEGE that all sounds. and he's right. it is.
HODGMAN, of course, is primarily known for his work as a contributor to THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART as well as his famous stint in APPLE commercials, playing the role of a PC. his humor is dry, eccentric and bitingly clever. but this book in tone veers clear of what i would consider his persona. instead he focuses on what MAINE means to him, which is an extended metaphor for coming to terms with yourself and your own DEFICIENCIES.
you see, HODGMAN is a NEW ENGLANDER and only child from a comfortable suburban town outside BOSTON. after the death of his mother he inherits her house in WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS, which is really his introduction to home ownership and by extension ADULT RESPONSIBILITY. he adroitly mentions that apartment living in BROOKLYN is an extended adolescence free of the headaches of homeownership, as any and all problems are taken care of by the property superintendent. being a home owner by contrast requires some semblance of AUTONOMY, PREPAREDNESS and SELF-RELIANCE.
eventually he and his wife purchase a second home in MAINE. he presents a vision of MAINE as a serene, beautiful and thoroughly harsh place that creates a certain breed of individual. privacy is so widely respected that help is only given upon request. HODGMAN provides examples of help rendered by the local community with little regard for niceties such as etiquette or even extended conversation.
its difficult to read about this mode of existence without thinking that this "LIVE AND LET LIVE" mentality reverberates in HODGMAN's own SELF-IMAGE. growing older means effectively coming to terms with who you are and not what you think you are. its a painful realization that comes with the finality of being near death, as he experienced vicariously through his mother's passing. endings somehow bookend a sense of MEANING or mission in your life.
i remember years ago in NIGERIA attending a wedding for one of our gardeners. there was an elevated stage with the bride and groom, each on their own side. and both were facing the family of the other. before they wed there was a roast of sorts whereby each family member basically stated for all to hear everything that was wrong with them PHYSICALLY, INTELLECTUALLY, EMOTIONALLY, PSYCHOLOGICALLY, etc. i remember hearing someone say that the bride's hips were too narrow, that she'd only be able to birth no more than four children. it was BRUTAL yet in a ABSURD sense very POIGNANT, because what they were doing was publicly accepting them into the family as they actually were. warts and all.
i hear echos of that line of SELF-REALIZATION in this memoir. of realizing that you are not as clever, cool or knowledgable as you thought you were and being fine with that. i'm not gonna lie, i used to live in WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS, so its always interesting for me to read someone's thoughts on the area, especially NORTHAMPTON, GREENFIELD, AMHERST and the like.
this is a unique and eccentric book but ultimately rewarding because of its focus on SELF-ACCEPTANCE and BUILDING COMMUNITY. a compelling read.
i was suggested this book by a history teacher in high school. it was the end of my sophomore year at a NEW ENGLAND boarding school and i had made the decision to join my parents the next year in KUWAIT. i had previously attended middle school in NIGERIA and had some familiarity with PAN-AFRICAN politics but none of that prepared me for THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X: AS TOLD TO ALEX HALEY (GROVE PRESS, 1965).
this was a book that pulled no punches and described an upbringing spent in the midwest under the thumb of segregation and overt racism. MALCOLM X, so self-monikered later in life from his birth-name MALCOLM LITTLE as a means of denying the name imposed on his family by a past slave master, was a man constantly in search of an identity which mirrored that of his following and really, AMERICA writ large. this book describes a leader and intellectual with a singular gift for oration and a sense of well-placed fiery righteous indignation. he is an interesting counterpoint to MARTIN LUTHER KING JR in his pre-HAJJ period in that he called for revolution. with a more than a hint of MARCUS GARVEY, he called for using all available instruments of persuasion and even coercion, a fight fire with fire strategy to ensure political rights. to some he is a patriot and others an insurrectionist. i side with the former.
again, for me the context of reading this book was my move to a MUSLIM country for the first time. whats interesting about MALCOLM X is that he belonged to the NATION OF ISLAM, an ISLAMIC-adjacent religious community that followed the controversial teachings of ELIJAH MUHAMMAD. given his background it makes sense that MALCOLM X would find a home within a community that promoted BLACK NATIONALISM and the political, economic and cultural empowerment of such therein. now the NATION OF ISLAM is well outside of the mainstream of modern ISLAM, and this book gets into that friction which to me was the most interesting aspect of his life's trajectory.
when i arrived in KUWAIT in the late summer of 2000, it was around the same time i got to the part of the book when MALCOLM X goes on his HAJJ to MECCA. for those that are not familiar, a pilgrimage to the holy city of MECCA in SAUDI ARABIA and bearing witness to the KAABA, or "The House of God," is mandatory religious duty of all MUSLIMS that have means and are physically able to do so at least once in a lifetime. for MALCOLM X this journey was a revelation. his religious and political belief system was very much intertwined with perceptions rooted in internal AMERICAN politics, attitudes and deep-seated beliefs regarding RACE. on pilgrimage he was stunned to see MUSLIMS of all ethnicities joining together as one religious community. like i said, this was a revelation and changed the tone of his politics until his death. it also marked his second conversion, this time to SUNNI ISLAM. with that conversion came a more muted political outlook that sought nonviolent means of persuasion in the pursuit of personal and political freedoms which found him more in line with the teachings of KING. this was his evolution.
for me this book was an introduction to the politics with ISLAM, something that provide a point of empathy in the post 9-11 period as well as my later time spent in MUSLIM-majority communities in ALBANIA and KOSOVO as a PEACE CORPS volunteer. this book gave me some sense of how religion cane be a deeply unifying and positive force fo connecting with others, even those that wish you harm. religion cane be a base of empathy. my time visiting SARAJEVO (BOSNIA) as well as KUKES (ALBANIA), PRIZREN and GJAKOVA (KOSOVO) taught me that in spades. this book only becomes more prescient and relevant as AMERICA continues to navigate and negotiate a tension within ourselves and our body politic to come to terms with our RACIST and SEGREGATIONIST past. to me MALCOLM X is a manifestation of that tension and his evolution serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish with a collective sense of moral strength and personal courage to evolve together.
i recommend this book to anyone interested in history that is complicated, counter-intuitive, entangled, passionately debated and highly instructive. could not recommend it any more strongly.