Moby has written a book, Porcelain, and it’s great.
A memoir, it focuses on his New York years from 1989 to 1999, ending just before the release of Play, the album that catapulted him to superstardom. Porcelain is honest, funny, entertaining and impossible to put down. Whether you’re a fan of Moby’s music or not, an aficionado of dance music now or during the era in which the book takes place, even if you’re not into dance and electronic music at all, Porcelain tells a unique, compelling story.
Before starting to write it, however, Moby wasn’t sure his story was going to be of interest to anyone besides himself.
Now, puttering around the airy kitchen of his tidy Los Feliz home, which is tucked into a verdant corner leading into Griffith Park, Moby has the quiet confidence generated by scads of rave reviews for Porcelain from all over the globe — even though he says he hasn’t read anything written about him in years. It's another successful venture for the Renaissance man, who is wearing a loose-fitting T-shirt from another of his many ventures, Silver Lake vegan restaurant Little Pine.
Moby’s face has a permanently earnest look to it, his mostly gray beard somehow not aging him. Glimpses of the young raver he speaks of in Porcelain still peek out. His hands cradle a cup of tea as he describes the preamble to working on Porcelain. “I received two pieces of advice I really like. One, don’t wallow, it’s exhausting. The biggest mistake first-time autobiography/memoir writers make is being too self-deprecating because they’re feeling awkward they’re writing about themselves. Two, show, don’t tell. Paint a scene with words and let the reader have their own reaction to it. If you paint it well enough, they’ll understand.”
These two covenants are faithfully followed in Porcelain, where Moby makes himself the butt of humorously told accounts, but not in a gratuitous way. He draws the reader into a world so underground that, for those who experienced it, it was like living in a parallel universe.
Of the many memoirs Moby read in preparation for Porcelain, he mentions Patti Smith’s multiple memoirs, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One, Duff McKagan’s It’s So Easy: and other lies and The Journals of John Cheever among his favorites. Porcelain has much in common with the latter, as it portrays an image of the author in a way that might be at odds with the general perception of Moby: a staunchly vegan, animal-loving, politically left-wing, quite bright, harmlessly agreeable fellow.
For the first half of Porcelain’s years, Moby is that guy, sort of. He’s excitable and enthusiastic and kind of goofy. He’s very religious, to the point of praying for forgiveness each time he and his then-girlfriend give in to temptation. After drinking away his teenage years, by the time we meet him in Porcelain, he’s a teetotaler. But in the course of a few pivotal minutes, he flips the switch to the opposite extreme. Not only is he drinking uncontrollably, he is seriously obnoxious and a willing participant in depraved sexual behavior.
“At first, I thought it was an interesting experiment,” Moby says of this turnaround. “Broader ethical criteria can only be applied to actions that are imposed upon another sentient being, either directly or indirectly. When I started drinking, it didn’t seem unethical to me because I was only doing it to myself. A few years into it, I realized it wasn’t an anthropological experiment anymore, I was just a debauched drunk, and that was how I was living, which was a depressing thought. But I liked dive bars and sketchy people and feeling sick. There’s an embrace of this muddy darkness and a weird comfort that came with that squalor.”
With increasingly shocking yet matter-of-fact descriptions of his actions, Porcelain has no show-off factor. But there is an underlying need for acceptance and validation, something Moby is the first to admit. “Writing Porcelain forced me to think about aspects of myself I hadn’t before and see patterns,” he says. “Everything is preceded by perceived inadequacy: falling in love with things, people, scenes, cities, movements, all from a place of lack. Feeling like there’s something missing in me and when I find the right thing, the right music scene, the right girlfriend, the right drug, the right anything, that’s going to fix me.”
The driving force, is, of course, the music — which, with Moby’s many other activities, is sometimes overlooked. He has put together a double disc of music to accompany Porcelain. The first half is made up of his own productions, from his international smash “Go” through to his rave anthems “Ah Ah,” “Next Is the E” and “Feeling So Real,” to emotive numbers like “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” and, of course, his breakthrough smash from Play, “Porcelain.” The creation of a handful of these he describes in Porcelain with surprising emotional impact. The second disc contains songs that were the soundtrack of that era and part of his DJ sets: 808 State's “Pacific State,” Joey Beltram's “Energy Flash,” Jungle Brothers' “I’ll House You,” Aly-Us' “Follow Me.”
“There were huge hit records in Lower Manhattan that no one knew about two miles away,” remembers Moby. “When we had hits in our world; they were hits we had created that weren’t accommodating mainstream culture. It wasn’t a rejection of the mainstream but a replacement. We were creating our own culture. There was a homespun quality, a humble smallness to what we were doing that we were OK with. No one expected it to be hugely successful, which is why it was so baffling when people started selling millions of records.
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“I don’t know if anything approaching that would be possible now,” he continues. “We were the last pre-digital generation. A kid in New Zealand can know everything about an underground party in Los Angeles the moment it happens and virtually be there, as opposed to our Ye Old Dance Scene of 25 years ago. It makes me wistful but also grateful that we got to have that experience because it was pretty special.”