As electronic music behemoth Moby points out in his afterword, rock star memoirs are usually ghostwritten, which is what he originally intended to do with Porcelain. Moby’s real name, however, is Richard Melville Hall – his great-great-great-great uncle happens to be Herman Melville, of Moby-Dick fame. That gave the musician his childhood nickname, and took away any chance he had of wriggling out of writing the memoir himself. As it transpires, he does the family name proud.
Porcelain is a cracking read – funny, revealing and unexpected. Moby was instrumental in birthing the American rave scene in early 1990s New York, a period represented here in all its gritty detail. As
a writer, the inheritor of the Melville mantle has a warm and easy style. He is modest and self-deprecating as he chronicles the decade in his life when he broke into the music industry, rose to fame and then flushed it all down the toilet before writing Play, the seminal album that would cement his legacy.
Pre-Giuliani New York was a cauldron of crime and creativity. As a Christian vegan, Moby’s early DJ gigs cast him as voyeur in the seedy nightclubs and private orgies of the Manhattan meatpacking district, transporting boxes of records on a skateboard through hotspots of stabbings. It is only once he rented space in a Mafia-controlled warehouse (so his equipment wouldn’t be pinched), next door to Iggy Pop, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, that he began to make progress.
The electronic music scene then was exultant and entirely DIY. “No big companies were doing this for us; we had created all of this – thousands of us, in different cities around the world.” As techno and house music began to find its audience in America, the clean-living kid from abject poverty in Connecticut was thrust into the unlikely role of figurehead.
His story goes badly wrong, with a somewhat clichéd descent into the world of prostitutes and alcoholism (though he never cops to drugs), punctuated with celebrity cameos from the likes of Charlie Sheen and Chloë Sevigny. Still, it is never dull or indulgent. Moby seems a genuinely nice guy, a committed champion for animal rights and decent values, despite making some poor decisions in his career and personal life. Porcelain ends satisfyingly in 1999, with gentrification encroaching on New York and the dejected DJ finally steering on a firm course towards success, his own elusive white whale. JD
Faber, 416pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 25, 2016 as "Moby, Porcelain". Subscribe here.