“Sitting in my mother’s Chevy Vega, I imagined a gleaming city a lifetime away from the parking lot,” writes techno musician Moby at the beginning of his new memoir. “There was more to life than this cold, defeated shopping mall,” he knows, and he vows that “someday I would leave these dead suburbs.”
The wish is near-universal, the story that follows archetypal: Small-town outsider leaves his banal existence behind and takes his ambitions and talents to the big city. With “Porcelain,” Moby plays an uneven if fascinating variation on the theme that doubles as a love letter to the unruly New York City of the 1980s and 1990s.
The first stop on the road to superstardom for Moby — his moniker stems from a distant family relationship to Herman Melville — was squatting in an abandoned warehouse in Stamford, Conn., making occasional forays into the Manhattan club scene. A skilled reader of subcultural trends and a composer and DJ with a gift for pastiche, Moby, now 50, made a name for himself with the swirling, largely instrumental musical soundscapes known as techno: unearthly-sounding, hopped-up dance music for the drug-addled and alienated youth who found a fractured community in the underground raves and clubs of the era. “The city was dying,” he writes of an early gig at the legendary Sound Factory, “but in here we were creating our own little Day-Glo, consequence-free world.”
A white, vegan, heterosexual, non-drinking Christian in a milieu famously dominated by excess, Moby was nominally an outsider; nonetheless, he managed to build a sustained career in a genre that was explicitly predicated on trends that fragmented with dizzying speed. The book ends with him on the brink of resuscitating his career with the music that would become 1999’s “Play,” a commercial breakthrough album that won him worldwide fame.
Moby’s decision to focus solely on the beginning and middle years of his career, breaking off just before his leap into mainstream popularity, is fresh and canny: It spares us the inevitable tedium of reading about the anticlimactic aftermath of success, the inevitable weakness of many such accounts. And his inversion of the usual narrative arc of squalor and redemption — midway through the book, Moby abandons sobriety and descends into decadence — demonstrates his integrity.
The backdrop to this rake’s progress is a New York City that was a legendary ferment of creative and social energy. Moby’s account of the roiling, subterranean paradise is a near-roll call of long-departed institutions, from clubs such as Palladium and Limelight to bars and restaurants such as Florent, Max Fish, Milady’s and many more. New Yorkers of a certain age will find in “Porcelain” a piercing chronicle of a city that has long since ceased to exist.
The anthropological value of the account, though, cannot in the end overcome distinctly pedestrian prose. Moby’s occasional detour into philosophical speculation (“Descartes and I had decided that the world as we perceived it must be pretty close to how it objectively was”) is high-school-parking-lot philosophizing of a particularly irritating sort. A graver flaw is the strange emptiness at the center of the book; for all its flash and grime, Moby seems unwilling or unable to place his story within the greater context of the times. There’s little or nothing about AIDS, race, police brutality, gentrification, art or any other of the jagged fault lines that made the city of the time feel so apocalyptic. For someone who has a reputation of being a committed activist, Moby seems curiously detached.
Books like “Porcelain” eventually bump against a central, if unmentioned, truth: The skills that make one a world-class musician — or filmmaker, or actor or whatever — are different from those that make for good prose. The odds that any one person will be gifted with a superabundance of talent in both arenas are quite small. A hint of Moby’s range peeks through his surprisingly poetic and vivid descriptions of making music: “I took a bass drum, a low tom, and two crash cymbals,” he writes of composing “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters,” an ethereal track from 1995, “and played them as an orchestral accent at the beginning of each measure. It was bombastic and harsh, so I added reverb to soften the drums.” The process ends with a moment of quiet grace, where he finds “all the life and death and longing and heartbreak and hope” in the music, right where it had been all along.
Michael Lindgren frequently reviews for The Washington Post.
The Penguin Press. 406 pp. $28