Friday, November 17, 2017
Books

Review: Moby's memoir 'Porcelain' an intimate, incomplete look at the rise of a DJ

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If any one trend has shaped pop music this decade, it has been the rise of electronic dance music in America. DJs are all over the pop charts, all over the festival landscape, even all over the Grammys. You might have Skrillex or Diplo on your workout mix as we speak.

So the time feels right for a book on the formative days of American EDM. And it's hard to think of an author more qualified than Moby, the brainiac songwriter-producer and one of this country's first, and most successful, big-name DJs.

But if you're dying to know how the party got started, Moby's new book, Porcelain: A Memoir, falls short of telling you. In fact, for a 400-page autobiography, it feels frustratingly incomplete, leaving you wondering quite a bit about the man, now 50, who wrote it.

Porcelain is an intimate window into about 10 critical years in Moby's life, including his rise from essentially homeless nobody to globe-trotting DJ cavorting with rock stars. Born Richard Melville Hall, he's a one-of-a-kind protagonist, a former punk kid, militant vegan and generally devout Christian who loved nothing more than party music. But the book's relatively short timeline hinders its capacity to tell Moby's story in full.

Porcelain basically begins in the late '80s, with Moby in his early 20s, a monastic aspiring DJ living in an abandoned factory in New York's Meatpacking District — so right away, it's clear we'll mostly be glossing over Moby's childhood and early musical development. (Two fun facts about Moby: He's a descendant of Moby-Dick author Herman Melville, and back in third grade, he was best friends with Robert Downey Jr. Fascinating, right? Well, these two facts go unmentioned UNTIL THE LAST SEVEN PAGES OF THE BOOK.)

Then Porcelain ends (spoiler alert, but hey, it says it right there on the jacket) in 1999, with Moby wondering if his forthcoming album Play might be the end of his career — so you can forget reading about all the multiplatinum records and Grammy nominations that followed.

For the book to end where it does, Moby must assume the reader already knows all about Play, how its inspired mix of ethereal musicality and vintage gospel samples became a commercial licensing phenomenon and spawned crossover pop hits like South Side and Bodyrock. If so, you can read Porcelain as sort of a 10-year buildup to a careermaking artistic statement: "And then, the rest was history ..."

But if you aren't familiar with Play, it's never evident, or even suggested, that greatness is just over the horizon. Only rarely does Moby break down his approach to musicmaking, like how he crafted his breakthrough 1991 single Go after watching a videotaped episode of his favorite show, Twin Peaks, and how it took finding just the right engineer to bring his rock album Animal Rights to life. But he barely mentions his successful film and TV work during the '90s, compiled on the 1997 album I Like to Score. (Did you know Moby remixed the James Bond theme for the film Tomorrow Never Dies? No? Well, sorry, but you won't read about it here, either.)

So what does Moby write about? He spends a lot of time on the New York club scene of the late '80s and early '90s (visceral and fascinating) and European raves from the same era (also interesting, though here, he can't help but write as more of an outsider). He writes openly about failed relationships and road one-night stands (though toward the end, these stories start to feel repetitive and pointless).

And he puts his fascination with philosophy to use, candidly deconstructing his complicated thoughts on spirituality and sobriety — though, again, not always to a satisfying degree. After years of dry living, he resumed drinking in 1995 and, in the book, never seems to regret it, though he apparently got sober again in the mid-2000s — another argument that perhaps Porcelain should've gone on a little longer than it did.

It must be said that Moby writes with rich, tangible detail and beauty, especially about the squalid corners of New York he adored almost to a fault. (He particularly relishes describing the city's smells, everything from "an apartment that smelled like deep-fried cats" to an approaching subway train's gust of "disinfectant, old concrete dust, rat poison and dirty air.") It's probably telling that Porcelain's early blurbers are writers, not musicians — Salman Rushdie, Dave Eggers, Susan Orlean — because much of the book is framed and focused in a way that makes it feel like fiction.

And in the book's early chapters, he does capture the sense of communal euphoria that gave rise to, and still fuels, the modern EDM industry.

"No big companies were doing this for us; we had created all of this — thousands of us, in different cities around the world," he writes. "We had learned how to make electronic music and how to DJ and how to press vinyl and how to start record companies and how to start clothing companies. We were renting clubs and warehouses and putting on events for thousands of ecstatic, dancing people. We were starting magazines and radio stations and inventing new musical forms: joyful, futuristic music that was the soundtrack to this new world we'd created. I wasn't succeeding as a musician playing by rules that some old person had created decades ago: I was succeeding in a musical landscape that my peers had gleefully invented yesterday."

Moby never draws a direct line between those early days of disco and today's raging millennial bacchanals; that, along with the gaps in his own career timeline, makes Porcelain feel like an unfinished document. But maybe he'll dive back in. The book on American EDM will be written someday. And I still think Moby might be the guy to write it.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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