In Off the Record, rave historian Michaelangelo Matos takes a critical look at the culture surrounding dance music—from food to clothes to design and writing. In this first installment, he reviews Moby's new memoir, Porcelain.
In the early-to-mid-nineties, when he was making his way to the forefront of the nascent American rave music scene, Moby's records often drew critical praise for their "human touch."
This meant a couple of things.
One is that he kept vocals and song structure in his music at a time when those things were disappearing from the rave scene: jungle was becoming about knotty breakbeats instead of euphoric pianos, and techno was going from ravey stabs to winding beatscapes.
The other was his music's naïve grandeur—the tenderness at its core even when the beats and mood were frantic. It's there in the way a barely perceptible hesitation at the top of a melody—the rolling piano runs of "Hymn," the first song on 1995's Everything Is Wrong, for example—catches the corner of your ear, then holds.
These days, it's funny to even mention "frantic beats" and Moby in the same sentence. It's been more than two decades since he permanently lowered his BPMs; now, he's as much a singer-songwriter as he is a producer.
That's not surprising: though he still DJs and performs at dance events, Moby had separated from the center of the rave scene proper by the mid-90s, before it even finished growing legs in America—say, when the Prodigy's Fat of the Land hit number one in 1997. But even as he went on to tour with Lollapalooza in 1995, and open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soundgarden in Europe, he'd already made a slew of rave hits, especially "Go," a UK Top 10 hit in 1991. Even before he entered the actual rock arena, he was the closest thing the US rave scene had to genuine rock star in the early nineties—and clearly, those early days remain important to him.
That giddy early period (and not a little rock-star behavior) dominates Moby's new memoir Porcelain, about his life in New York from 1989 to 1999. The book's tone is reliably winsome (just like his all-lowercase online diary, active since October 2000), and he's habitually self-deprecating, as when he presumes an ex and her new man "had been ridiculing me and my receding hairline, and [he] had made her realize that I was the worst sex partner she'd ever had."
This, along with back-cover blurbs by the likes of novelists Jonathan Ames and Dave Eggers, might make the whole thing sound unbearably twee. But Moby, to his immense credit, seldom portrays himself in an especially sympathetic light. He refuses to deflect the blame for his own bad behavior, be it relationships in which he alternated temper tantrums with heavy passive-aggression, or the night he drunkenly, aggressively pursued the girlfriend of the Prodigy's Keith Flint, with whom he was on tour.
"Moby is someone who needs a lot of approval but can't help alienating people," Australian DJ and writer Jim Poe wrote in part two of his entertaining retrospective account of being Moby's onstage "keyboardist," miming his parts to a DAT backing, on the 1993 See the Light tour with Aphex Twin, Orbital, and Vapourspace; that alienating tendency is something Moby cops to again and again in Porcelain.
What's most winning about the memoir is how precisely Moby relates himself to his surroundings. Being a perpetual outsider gives you lots of time to reflect, and Moby's a classic example. He can't stop overthinking everything; he's a poor kid from the suburbs of Darien, Connecticut who makes his way to New York and won't stop putting himself into situations where he ostensibly doesn't belong. Whether he's a twenty-something Christian vegan straightedge in the midst of drugged-out teenage raves, or a rave star who makes a dyspeptic punk record record (1997's Animal Rights) that nobody else likes and plays rock shows nobody attends, his memories and insights are pin-sharp.
"Moby is someone who needs a lot of approval but can't help alienating people."—DJ and Moby collaborator Jim Poe
One of his most vivid stories is of the night in 1989 when he accompanies Jared Hoffman, who runs Moby's first label Instinct, to Zanzibar, Jersey City's version of the Paradise Garage, presided over by the great DJ Tony Humphries. They're only there a short time (Hoffman has to work the next morning), but it's enough time for Moby to hear Humphries juggle two copies of Grey House's "New Beats the House," which makes Moby want to do nothing more than produce a track that Humphries would deign to mix in doubles.
Moby's comfort with his outsider status is especially evident at Zanzibar, where he and Hoffman are the only two white people in the room. One clubber sneers, "Is it Ku Klux Klan night?" at Moby, while another simply spits on him. He takes it in stride: "Whenever I was allowed into hip-hop clubs or house clubs I felt grateful. I didn't want to go to straight white clubs where the people I grew up with drank Rolling Rocks and made cautious and ironic comments about New Yorker articles and Pavement records."
Moby's drive and ambition are clear from the outset, and he's well aware of how lucky many of the breaks he gets are, from accidentally becoming the headliner at the 3,000-capacity Palladium when Snap! (for whom he's scored an opening gig) pulls a no-show in 1991, to landing a cheap Little Italy studio space in a building also occupied by Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, and the Butthole Surfers that same year. If some of these stories seem a little too neat, well, that's the teller's prerogative.
But prerogatives can be dicey. Lots of people might, ipso facto, take the author's many tales of dating and screwing various strippers, dominatrices, and flawless-skinned blondes during the nineties' second half—after Moby started drinking again following seven years of sobriety—as proof of what a dink the guy truly is. It's not hard to understand why one might never want to go near Porcelain for that alone. (He could have called it Porcelaid.)
But while he includes vignettes involving a number of one-night stands, he's not especially salacious. "And then we had sex" is probably the most frequently used sentence in the book, and the one time a blow job goes on for more than a page, the point is to illustrate what a drunken lout the author had become. Compared to Stephen Davis's perpetually bestselling (and much-maligned) Led Zeppelin bio Hammer of the Gods, or ex-Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty's memoir, which I shut in the middle of an extended listing—that's right, listing—of his nineties road conquests and never opened again, Porcelain is positively courtly.
The sober Moby, who stopped drinking the first time in 1988 and again well after his book's early-1999 ending, was, as he asserts repeatedly, self-righteously judgmental (and beating himself up over it). In 1989, after a night in New York spinning "rare groove" (obscure funk and soul, as he finds out after taking the gig despite being completely unfamiliar with the term), he heads to Martha's Vineyard to lead a bible study group including his girlfriend, and grows uncomfortable among New England rich kids. But his criticism is couched in a latent misanthropy. "I just don't like us very much," he spurts. "Us, the people in this van, our species." On New Year's Day 1995, he spends a day with friends and inwardly smirks at their drunkenness—until he calls his ex-girlfriend, and proceeds to get roaring drunk for the first time in eight years after her new lover answers the phone. He will stay that way for the next several years.
That air of superiority, ultimately, would infuriate the PLUR kids of the rave scene that catapulted Moby to fame. From the outside, 1993's See the Light tour seemed like the definitive break. Moby's heavy use of DAT and rock-show staging was met by sneers from newsgroups (email lists that preceded message boards, most notably one called alt.rave), as well as fellow headliners Aphex Twin and Vapourspace, both of whom prided themselves on performing the music fully live. That hard swerve away from the rave world, and an increasing fascination with rock, would culminate with the screaming Animal Rights.
Porcelain dramatizes the same break—not during See the Light (which gets a paragraph), but a few months earlier, when Moby returns home to New York from a DJ gig in Berlin to play a guest set at the NASA party at Shelter, an afterhours club in TriBeCa. The room's dark vibe, reflective of the rave scene's move into darker, more ominous music in the mid-nineties, is a disappointment to him. "Gathering my records earlier in my apartment, I'd felt like a zealous rave evangelist," he writes. "I'd go back to NASA and single-handedly usher in a new era of joyful techno. Now, standing in the DJ booth and looking at the ravers in their K-holes, I felt like a deluded idiot." Not even a drop of "Go" can get the crowd going; DJ Soul Slinger replaces him after 35 minutes and revives the room with dark jungle.
Moby's stubborn optimism is pretty much gone by the end of Porcelain. His musical career falls into the toilet after he insists on making Animal Rights instead of building on the strides of electronic producers like the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy, whose 1997 albums had debuted on the Billboard charts at numbers 14 and 1, respectively. His A&R woman comes to the studio to hear the Animal Rights demos and walks out after one song. He gets off tour and finds out his mother, a lifelong smoker who is battling lung cancer, has gone to the terminal stage. Moby, partying as hard as possible to keep his mind off of absolutely everything, misses her funeral.
In a way, the book's final scene, in which Moby drives around his hometown of Darien, Connecticut, listening to a pre-release tape of Play and filling in childhood memories to close the narrative's circle, is a cheat. He presents the scene as the light shining through the cracks of the long downward spiral of his career, but he and we both know how different things are going to be shortly afterward, when Play sells twelve million copies and makes him ubiquitous. But that's not surprising: charming as Moby is, his long-players always end on a down note.
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