In 'Porcelain,' Moby Searches For Validation And Finds Unlikely Success The electronic musician's new memoir traces his journey from Connecticut suburbs to New York City raves. It's a tale of dance clubs, DJs and Manhattan in the 1990s full of self-deprecating humor.

In 'Porcelain,' Moby Searches For Validation And Finds Unlikely Success

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The musician Moby was drawn to what he calls the dirty mecca of New York City in the late 1980s. As a DJ and electronic musician, he helped give rise to the rave scene - massive crowds dancing till dawn, probably under the influence of a substance or two, all moving as one to his song.


GREENE: Moby's 1999 album, "Play," was a megahit, selling millions of copies. It was a mashup of techno, samples of old blues songs and, of course, Moby's darkly poetic lyrics.


MOBY: (Singing) In my dreams I'm dying all the time.

GREENE: This song, "Porcelain," was one of the album's most popular. And it's also the name of Moby's new memoir. So why is that word so significant?

MOBY: Porcelain is fragile and white. And I am fragile and white. And also, halfway through the book, I go from being a sober Christian to a very unsober non-Christian. And when I relapsed, to be graphic, I did a lot of throwing up into porcelain things.

GREENE: Now, that willingness to expose himself in unflattering ways is a hallmark of Moby's book. He explores his unlikely success and also how he was searching for validation.

MOBY: Whether it was the early dance scene in New York or the rave scene or Christianity or sobriety or drunkenness, just - looking for something in which I felt I had a sense of stability and belonging.

GREENE: Moby starts his book with a vivid memory of himself at age 10, growing up on food stamps, as he puts it, under a stigma of shame in a wealthy suburb in Connecticut. His single mom was earning money doing laundry for neighbors at a laundromat.

MOBY: Sometimes, I would help her wash and fold. But I'm sitting by myself in our beat-up old Chevy Vega, spinning the radio dial while the rain is falling on the roof. And I find this Diana Ross song.


DIANA ROSS: (Singing) I've got the sweetest hangover I don't want to get over.

MOBY: And so I heard the song "Love Hangover." And there was something futuristic about it - just made me think of this urban environment with confident, urbane people who knew exactly what they were doing. And it stood in such sharp relief to the sad, suburban environment I lived in.

GREENE: You were looking for some kind of escape from being there outside that laundromat - your mom doing someone else's laundry.

MOBY: Yeah. I mean, basically, that was childhood - is like pretending that I could go to school and not be ashamed of the Salvation Army clothes I was wearing - and looking for anything, whether that was books or science fiction or the radio or music.


GREENE: Moby was DJ'ing at small clubs in Connecticut when his path to that world he so craved began to open up.

MOBY: I heard about a nightclub that was opening in Manhattan. And I made a demo tape and snuck in on Metro-North on the train to drop off this demo tape.

GREENE: Hiding in the bathroom sometimes - right? - on that suburban train? I mean...

MOBY: Yeah, I would hide in the bathroom so I wouldn't have to pay $5. So I get to this nightclub, and I didn't know - no one had told me that when you want a job as a DJ, you don't give them a demo tape. So I handed the demo tape to the HR people. And they just started laughing at me.

GREENE: (Laughter). But you went in there, sort of, just like, asking - do you have a DJ application? I mean, you were just ready to apply like it was a job in a restaurant or anywhere else.

MOBY: Yeah. I was standing in line with the busboys and the bartenders trying to get a job. And I just thought there would be a DJ application.

GREENE: (Laughter) That's great.

MOBY: But luckily, I got a job out of it anyway.

GREENE: You would describe life in New York City and living in, sometimes, these apartments without, even, running water and describe these scenes that to many people, I think, who don't know and love New York - would find them completely miserable. And then you would say at the end, life was so perfect.

MOBY: And it may be, potentially, even self-effacing way - is I thought, OK, if someone reads this book - and either they hate me or they don't know who I am or have no interest in me - at least maybe the way New York is depicted in the book and the way the dance scene is depicted will be of interest of people.

GREENE: You are hoping that at least, readers would like that part of the book, even if they didn't like you?

MOBY: Yeah.

GREENE: What does that say about you?

MOBY: (Laughter). Well, I could put you in touch with my therapist.

GREENE: (Laughter).

MOBY: They could probably answer that pretty well. I think it's possibly the legacy of growing up a deeply ashamed poor kid. Even in adulthood, when your circumstances change, the core of who you are and your core assumptions about yourself largely remain.

GREENE: I want to hear a little bit about some of the stories that you tell. There was one night where you were living in fear of being fired. You were at a club with one of the members of the hip-hop group Run-D.M.C.

MOBY: Mmhm. Darryl from Run-D.M.C. came in. And I handed him the microphone. And at this point, he was the biggest rapper on the planet.

GREENE: So this is a huge deal that he's up there with you. I mean, this is no small thing.

MOBY: Huge deal. So there's me, this 24-year-old white kid from the suburbs, playing in a hip-hop club to an almost exclusively African-American audience. And the first five minutes was great. Like, I played some James Brown records and freestyled. And the crowd was going crazy. And then at some point, I played a Run-D.M.C. record. And he got all excited. The crowd got excited.


MOBY: And I bumped the needle. And it went skittering along and created complete dead air and silence. And he threw down the mic and yelled at me and stormed out. And I was just sure that this was the end of my career. But luckily, my boss on this one night didn't care that I had humiliated myself in front of 500 hip-hop fans.

GREENE: So you were able to recover and move on.

MOBY: I was able to recover. I mean, the night ended with an even further sort of debasing moment involving a cockroach. But...

GREENE: (Laughter).

MOBY: I mean, this is New York in 1989. So like, things happened.

GREENE: I - you know, this book - I mean, it covers so many rough patches. I mean, the book even ends before your biggest hit album, "Play," comes out. Does that tell us that you're more comfortable sort of writing about and living in the tough moments and not so comfortable with thinking about your success?

MOBY: Largely, yes. And I think it's, again, a product of upbringing. My mom was an amazing painter who never had any success. And so when I was growing up, I just thought I would spend my entire life teaching community college, making music in my spare time that no one would ever hear.

So even now, it's still surprising to me that I can make something, whether it's a book or a record, and some people are willing to pay attention to it. And so there's something very familiar and almost comforting about a degree of failure and obscurity. When I've had times in my life where I haven't failed or labored in obscurity, it's pleasant. But it seems very unfamiliar.


MOBY: (Singing) See the storm is broken in the middle of the night.

GREENE: That was the musician Moby. His new memoir is called "Porcelain."

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