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23 May 2016

How Moby’s Porcelain reinvents the music memoir

Porcelain: a Memoir swerves around the tired tropes of most rock stories in a joyfully honest look at his life in the 1990s.

By Andrew Harrison

The hard-knock upbringing, the excess, the dressing-room high jinks with groupies and wet fish, the inevitable descent into (and redemption from) chemical bewilderment . . . The clichés of the rock autobiography are now so well worn that, even if any touring band could afford to re-enact them in today’s penny-pinching pop environment, no one would need to.

It is a relief, then, to encounter a musician’s memoir that swerves around most of these tired themes and at least reinvents the others. Richard Melville Hall, the dance DJ and electronic producer who was nicknamed Moby in tribute to his distant relative Herman Melville, treats the joy and misery of making and selling music with a dry, distancing irony and an understated style that verges on the Pooterish.

Porcelain features plenty of vomit, stabbings, threesomes, strippers (rather than abusing them for misogynist kicks, the author keeps falling hopelessly in love with them) and a possibly over-egged portrait of the necropolitan New York in the final days of its pre-Giuliani scuzziness. Yet its tone is steadfastly self-effacing and humorous, with the author always the butt of his own jokes. Although the story moves from dismal cold-water apartments to warehouse raves, then to the amoral centre of the New York Club Kids scene of the 1990s (in which heroin led the promoter Michael Alig to kill and dismember his drug dealer), and on to the comic tedium of touring a failing album, Porcelain manages to remain humane, likeable and – in the best sense – light reading.

This is all the more surprising given that life provided Moby with enough painful ingredients for a WHSmith misery memoir. The young Richard grows up in poverty along the Metro-North rail corridor that links suburban Connecticut to glittering, unreachable Manhattan. Alcohol has killed his father and his single mother is living on cigarettes. After a brief teenage boozing phase, Moby falls hard for punk rock, Christianity and veganism.

Adopting a straight-edge, stimulant-free lifestyle, he moves into an abandoned factory of piquant squalor, hosts Bible study classes for well-off kids in the leafy New Canaan and Greenwich, and develops a self-questioning mindset that won’t always serve his music well but produces splendidly deadpan writing. For instance, he admits that there is a narcissism in his Christianity; if he can’t live like the wealthy Wall Street offspring in his Bible classes, at least he can make them feel bad about themselves. “I was a Christian,” he writes, “but I was also a dick.”

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The only white whale in Moby’s world is the beautiful chimera of disco transcendence, a goal that he pursues with haplessly uncoordinated ambition and genuine heart. His early exposure to Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” imprints on him a lifelong love of spiritual-sexual euphoria. The failure to achieve it either in bed or at prayer drives much of the comedy in Porcelain but it is behind the DJ decks and the keyboard that Moby achieves his apotheosis.

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Playing the right record at the right time – and watching a dance floor explode just because you chose, say, Doug Lazy’s “Let It Roll” or Raze’s “Break 4 Love” – can be an utterly thrilling experience and Moby’s evocations of this milestone in a young man’s life are sweet and funny. Accident-prone, he also knocks the needle during an impromptu live guest rap by Darryl from Run-DMC, turning in an instant from the coolest new DJ in New York to the stupid white kid who “stopped joy dead in its tracks”.

Moby is equally good on how it feels to create those records, be they early career-makers such as “Go” (the one with the Twin Peaks theme on it) or a later career-saver such as the blues-techno hybrid “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?”. In its more reflective moments, Porcelain brings the reader into the emotional world of the music-making process, a subject that is often obfuscated by plugs and wires. Even those who are immune to the appeal of Moby’s repetitive beats, hands-in-the-air crescendos, lachrymose melodies and disembodied voices may begin to understand how records that purport to say little can actually say a lot.

The decade chronicled here ended happily: Moby gave up trying to please the crowd and mixed electronic dance music with the folk Americana of Alan Lomax’s ethnographic field recordings. The resulting album, Play, sold 12 million copies and helped to trigger a boom in chill-out music in 1999. In typical self-deprecating style, Moby ends Porcelain just before this unexpected moment of triumph, as if he finds writing about his successes an embarrassment. He is more comfortable and entertaining on his failures. As his forebear Herman Melville wrote, “It is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it.” 

Andrew Harrison is a journalist and presenter of the Bigmouth culture podcast

Porcelain: a Memoir by Moby is published by Faber & Faber (416pp, £14.99)

This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster