Reviewing the brilliant and timeless memoir Beneath the Underdog for The Observer in 1971, Clive James wrote that Charles Mingus had “made a contribution to recent American literature that even his well-wishers could not have anticipated,” and that the legendary jazz bassist had captured “what it feels like to be an artist—actually be it, in a world that is not only trying to stop you being an artist but has tried to stop you being human in the first place.”
The same can be said of Porcelain, the new memoir by the pioneering electronic musician Moby. Avoiding the egotism, solipsism, and insider minutiae that dominate the majority of entries in this genre, the book pulls off the rare feat of rewarding not only fans of the artist who gave us the 12-million-selling Play, but fascinating those who’ve never heard a note of his music.
Focusing on the years 1989 to just before the release of Play a decade later, Porcelain is a funny, heartwarming, and brutally honest bildungsroman: a portrait of the artist as a neurotic, lonely, and constantly seeking young man struggling to invent himself in a crumbling, pre-Disneyfication New York City plagued by crack, crime, and AIDS. Over the course of the book, in a twist on The Picture of Dorian Gray, New York once again becomes a sparkling city on the hill that artists like the one who arrived optimistic and dewy-eyed from Connecticut can no longer remotely afford, while Moby himself becomes a decrepit and neglected wreck, abandoning his earlier straightedge lifestyle and questioning his Christian faith (though still holding fast to his veganism, and never losing the ability to laugh at himself or the absurdities of life).
Moby’s confessions of becoming a sloppy drunk bouncing between one-night stands with dominatrices and strippers aren’t boastful or titillating; they’re heartbreaking. By the end, on the brink of his biggest artistic and commercial success, he’s convinced he’s an artistic has-been and a shell of a human being who can’t even properly grieve the death of his mother. The specifics of the situation aside, most of us can relate to being in a similarly dark hole of soul-crushing doubt at some point. Porcelain leaves you feeling that its author needs a hug, as much as you need one in return.
Beyond his own tale and that of New York in the ’90s, however, Moby charts the invention, rise, and ultimate corruption of an ecstatic sound and scene, as raves shift from organic expressions of youthful exuberance generally free of racism and sexism to darker, more ominous bacchanals (and, ultimately, to the bland corporate simulacrums of fun that they are today). The story is familiar—the same thing happened as the communal innocence of mid-’60s psychedelia moved beneath the dark cloud of violence and commodification, from the summer of love to Altamont, and as the punk era moved from the D.I.Y. community of C.B.G.B. to the corporate hype of New Wave—and it’s a cautionary tale, even if Moby refuses to judge anything or anyone but himself.
The moral is there, however, in the passion with which he writes about his favorite music, perfectly capturing the life-affirming power of the AM radio hits that formed his musical consciousness, the hardcore punk which freed him from suburban conformity and depression, and the techno he helped invent and personified with early hits such as “Go” and “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters.” We may not hear those depths of emotion in most of the music played at today’s big-bucks SFX-sponsored corporate dance parties, but even if he never makes this point specifically, Moby leaves us certain that somewhere in some other sad corner of a forgotten basement, another young misfit is once again crafting the sound of tomorrow.
Listen to Moby talk about Porcelain with Greg Kot and me on an upcoming episode of Sound Opinions.
Porcelain: A Memoir by Moby (Penguin Press, 416 pages)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 4 stars.