Penguin. 416 pp. $28 nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Katie Haegele
nolead ends In case you missed them, the rave and electronic music scenes of the late '80s and early '90s were about happiness and dancing and doing drugs that made you feel happy and want to dance. Eventually, things took a dark turn (that'd be the drugs), but it was essentially a good-natured milieu, a now-closed chapter in pop music history that began in the gay clubs of black and Latin New York but that is better remembered by the suburban kids with glow sticks who loved the same disco and funk records but who gave them their own, ya know, spin.
And in the midst of all this was Moby, the tiny, bald, sober, vegan, devout Christian white boy who is nothing if not good-natured. Porcelain is his first book, and it chronicles a rollicking (if guilt- and anxiety-ridden) 10 years in his history.
Moby first got big in the New York club scene. Willi Ninja once vogued across his dance floor (legendary!), and his DJ booth was blessed by a visit from Run-DMC. Next, he got big in the U.K., where they already loved his brand of dancey, trancey, oversize-pantsy music. And then he put out Play, which sold more than 12 million copies, and he got big everywhere.
Porcelain - named after a dreamy track from Play - ends just before the album comes out, when Moby is still a mess of loneliness and ambition. The book covers a lot of ground, including his devotion to his religious beliefs and his Rimbaudian "I is another" feeling of outsiderness. More than anything, the book is about music, and Moby's belief that it can redeem you - over and over, if needed. We learn how he made music on a shoestring, never happier than when he was paid $50 a month to live in an illegal squat and owned little more than a Casio keyboard, a four-track mixer, and a cheap drum machine. "I was an uptight WASP from Connecticut, but in the rave scene I had been reborn: unashamed and happy," he tells us, and it feels like church.
The book is easy fun, due in large part to his memory for detail, which makes it read like a novel. He must have kept a diary. How else would he remember, in a chapter titled "Brown Floral Bedspread," the pattern on the duvet cover in a Cleveland hotel room where he stayed after a show in 1990?
Evocative and funny, his language swings between chipper and mordant. He calls those oversize raver pants "billowing jeans like cotillion dresses" and describes a bathroom in a dive bar, with its "alphabet of hepatitis in the toilets." Occasionally, his prose is infected by the same precocious doofiness that characterized the ecstasy-fueled dance scene he describes: "Goethe's last words were, 'More light.' Maybe he was a prescient raver." Yeah, maybe, Moby.
But it feels uncharitable to begrudge him this moment of self-indulgence. His writing is too clear-eyed for him really to go astray, and he's so gentle himself, even when describing the drug addict with a knife who tried to rob him - and the music industry professionals who actually did.
Porcelain feels less like a time capsule and more like something about to happen, brimming with energy and full of promise, like a crowd of dancers with their hands in the air.
Check out Katie Haegele's work at www.thelalatheory.com.