I’ve never had much interest in dance music, possibly because I’m a hopelessly uncoordinated and unmusical white guy from Christchurch. The rave phenomenon of the late 1980s and early 1990s past me right by and, with it, one of its lesser lights, Moby.
I have never consciously listened to any of Moby’s music, but knew he was skinny balding white guy who was, unusually, Christian in an extraordinarily decadent scene. His new autobiography Porcelain (Faber and Faber) was recommended and even though I can’t dance I was curious enough to pick it up and start reading. I am glad I did.
Moby is a poor white boy living in crack-ravaged Connecticut in the late 1980s. After a ramshackle upbringing by his ex hippie mother, this distant descendant of the writer of Moby Dick, Henry Melville, and punk-music-loving kid saves himself from overly enthusiastic drinking by embracing Christianity. It’s a familiar story. Christianity is the new crutch.
Making DIY electronic dance music in a cheap room in a deserted factory, Moby gets a few lucky breaks DJing in the rapidly growing dance scene in nearby New York. Like many aspiring musicians, he signs to new and very small record label and gets lucky with a smash hit in the more advanced rave scene in the UK with Go.
He’s an oddity, a vegan Christian kid in a scene awash with drugs based in and around the old meatpacking district of New York. His career builds, but he remains the only artist signed to his record label and the deal is poor. He finally gets away to sign with Mute in Europe and Elektra in the US, but has fallen off the wagon with the stress of it all and sabotages his career, recording a poorly received and abysmal selling album Animal Rights.
Moby’s book is good on the atmosphere of New York in the late 1980s and 1990s with the cycles of decay and regeneration, the ecstasy of the early rave scene and its slow entropy through harder and darker drugs and the music that soundtracks those changes. He is also good on the triumphs and exasperations of touring, along with the nature of clubs and clubbing itself.
With his career seemingly in tatters, he’s not only drinking again, and with a vengeance, he also has serious doubts about his faith and seems hellbent on random sex in public places and dating strippers. Thankfully, he sticks with the vegan thing. The book ends with him being late for his mother’s funeral.
This is not a usual autobiography ending with the central characters life in near ruins rather in the more familiar position of triumph or redemption. Moby finishes this story before he experiences those with the sensational revival of his career largely built on sampled Lomax field recordings of the blues.
Yes, the book succeeded in getting me to check out the music. What he does is highly musically and technically adept. It is questioning but accessible and always consciously uplifting.
The book title Porcelain, after Moby's song of the same name, is telling. Porcelain is delicate, smooth, pretty and white but is also hard, strong, tough and resistant.
This is a well-written, immensely self-knowing and funny read. I had little to connect with as far as the music was concerned, but like all good writing the subject matter is secondary and merely supports the bigger ideas expressed and story being told. Highly recommended.