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Porcelain by Moby
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's pretty interesting to listen to life-long New Yorkers talk about how scrubbed-up and relatively unmenacing their city has become in the past two decades. It's still New York City, 2017, of course, replete with its particular thrills and its edge, and while the city can never become a totally crime-free zone, it's miles and miles away from the dark, "Murder City" days of the late 80s and early 90s. Times Square, in particular, has gone from being the seedy epicenter of America to a polished, Disney-friendly tourist mecca. It's become the place that no self-respecting New Yorker would be caught dead in.
What's striking about the way the natives talk about the city's transformation is the unmistakable nostalgia that they hold for the Wild West days of their city's past. They'll admit to a muted appreciation of the relative safety of the city now — it's always easier to negotiate through your day without feeling constantly threatened, after all — but there's also an undeniable sense of loss about what the Big Bad City used to be. Part of this is pure braggadocio, of course — look what I survived, I was there — but a lot of it is true remorse at losing the thrill of those daily battles against the tough city in its darkest hours.
It's the milieu that the musician Moby details with such energy and humor in his memoir Porcelain, which was published last summer. Much of Moby's book takes place in New York City, 1989-1997, when he went from being nearly homeless to an internationally known musician, and you get a pretty good idea what Moby thinks of the bleak Downtown NYC landscape right from the start: "New York City had long been the dark city on the hill for me, shadowy and ominous and perfect. I had been born on 148th Street in Harlem in 1965, and spent years in Connecticut dreaming of returning to New York, like a homing pigeon longing for the degenerate island of its birth. Gang violence and AIDS and drug overdoses weren't just tabloid headlines for us — we all knew people who had died way too young in New York City." (p.29)
And then: "Apparently the murder rate in 1989 was the highest in the city's history. The Post featured an article about teenagers running through Times Square and stabbing tourists with infected syringes. It all seemed normal: the emaciated crack addicts, the daily murders, the vicious, feral teenagers. New York had never been clean or safe, but in 1989 it was dirtier and more dangerous than it had been even two years earlier. And it was my home. And I'd never been happier." (p.36)
Even if you don't happen to care for gritty survival tales from fin de siecle NYC, or if you don't like Moby or his music, Porcelain is still worth your time. There's just no way around it: the guy's a great writer. Not "great for a musician," or "great for this genre." His writing stands alone. The enthusiastic blurbs on the back cover are from guys like Salman Rushdie and David Eggers, real writers, not the usual pop culture figures that clog up reviews for books like this. (Wow, Jimmy Fallon likes this?!) I've always believed a great writer needs a great ear but a great eye as well, and Moby's perception in Porcelain is razor-sharp. You feel confident right from the start in his storytelling; you see what he sees.
The story is told linearly, from '89-97, but it isn't told seamlessly — though each chapter picks up the narrative, the chapters stand alone as peculiar snapshots of the oddball incidents that made up his history. His perspective is unique; he describes what he does, but he doesn't really describe who he is. It's a curious choice for a memoir. He gives you the relevant information — that he's vegan, and Christian, and straight, that he doesn't drink or do drugs, that he's poor (at the start) — but he's not interested in opening up about why. He gives the reader the job of figuring all that stuff out. His style reminds me of the way he looks on the cover of his "18" CD — he's wearing a weird blue astronaut suit and holding a bubble helmet in front of a lunar landscape. He's bald and smiling, and he looks like a cheerful, benign alien. He maintains that same distance throughout Porcelain and it's a beguiling feat. He's pleasant, and decent, but a cipher.
And he's funny. Really really funny. And not afraid to take shots at himself. Here he is describing his attempt to shame some young, country-club Christians at a Bible Study he was to lead: "I wanted to talk about the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. It was almost Jesus' greatest hits: 'love your enemies,' 'judge not lest you be judged,' but also 'woe to you who are rich' and 'woe to you who are well-fed now.' See, I was a Christian, but I was also a dick. I was poor, I lived in an abandoned factory, I spent $10 a week on food. So when I read 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied,' I felt smug and justified and favored in the eyes of God." (p. 23)
The book has attained some notoriety for the crude and graphic details about the artist's libertine excesses--Moby remains a Christian, though an extremely (ahem) open-minded one--but even then, the sexual escapades are more belly-laugh stuff than pure prurience. At one point, a dominatrix friend asks him to help during a particularly specific S&M scenario for a client, and Moby, always game, agrees to play a character called "Master Bobby:" "At seven pm I looked in my closet to see what Master Bobby should wear. He needed to be tough, so I put on a sleeveless T-shirt, mirrored sunglasses, and an old jean jacket with a Def Leppard patch on the back. I looked at myself in the mirror: Master Bobby should have been menacing, but I looked like John Malkovich heading out for scones after a rough night." (p.296)
It's not until the afterword that Moby mentions that he's descended from the American writer Herman Melville (hence the name, obviously.) It seems characteristic that he'd save that for the every end; most other writers would probably drop that on the very first page, but Moby's content to put it off, only mentioning it in passing. Great writers are like that; even when talking about themselves, they remain a mystery.