Vol. LXIII, No. 46
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
It all began in the fall of 1999 when our aging car gave up the ghost. In order to make the down payment on a new one I sold my 1851 American first edition of The Whale, better known as Moby Dick. If the book had been in decent shape (the spine was threadbare: you could see only the shadow of the title), I’d have had enough to buy the car outright and maybe fly roundtrip to Fiji or Katmandu. In 2009 a copy roughly comparable to mine but in better condition is going for $85,000; the cheapest of the four copies for sale online is $25,000.
So for almost a decade now I’ve been driving a vehicle with a literary pedigree and a MOBY license plate. No more a mere 2000 CRV, my car has a surname. Whenever I spoke with the much-missed Sandy at Honda, she’d tell me, “Moby’s had his oil check” or “Moby’s ready. You can pick him up at 6.” My wife and I have never called him anything else. Time for the car wash? “Moby needs a bath.” Most people rightly assume the Melville connection, which pleases me, Moby Dick being one of the ten books I’d take to a desert island.
The Other Moby
As soon as I became aware that there was a recording artist called Moby, I figured I’d better give him a listen in case he turned out to be some militant rapper with a heavy message that might expose my humble, harmless CD player-on-wheels and myself to attacks or abuse. So I went to the library and checked out a Moby CD, slid it in the slot, and started driving.
Much as I loved my four-wheeled Moby, his only flaw was a sometimes lackluster pick-up. One hill, in particular, had been a challenge.
The first track on the CD was “Feeling So Real.”
If you don’t know this song, sample it on YouTube and check out the reaction of the masses at Glastonbury and Ibiza. This is ecstasy set to music.
As soon as Moby mainlined the first fuel injection shot of “Feeling So Real,” which goes from zero to sixty in a micro second, he took off. I could barely keep him on the ground. Like it or not, we were headed for the unmet challenge, the hill of his shame. I did my best to rein him in, but with that high-octane rave-up blasting forth from the speakers there was no holding back. When the third or fourth heart-stopping hold-your-breath-and-go-crazy break came along (“Take it away! take it away! take it away!”), the tiger in my tank was all over that hill. In a flash we’d topped it. Oh, we devoured it, we destroyed it, we had it all.
While there were occasional glimmers of pre-”Feeling So Real” unpredictability, all I had to do to set my Moby soaring was put on something by his namesake, whose music had meanwhile become an international phenomenon. Whether stateside or in London, the songs from his 1999 album Play could be heard, it seemed, in every shop, every mall, every pub, every public nook and cranny. If anyone could be said to have composed the background music for the dawn of the new millennium, it was Moby.
Call Him Ishmael
Even before I found out that Richard Melville Hall was the great great great great grand nephew of the author of Moby Dick, I’d sensed a Melvillian component in his music, particularly in his more symphonic pieces, where you could hear the “sweet mystery” and “gently awful stirrings” of the sea that “seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.” Like his Great Uncle Herman, Moby is at once buoyant and dark, spirited and somber. And should you chance to think the symphonics merely blindly beautiful, the lyrics will set you straight. Songs like “Into the Blue,” “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die,” and “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” are haunted by Melville’s melancholic oceanic muse. Listen to the hymns for post-9/11 New York (“At least we were together holding hands/flying through the sky”) on the 2002 album 18, which were actually composed before the attack, and then read a poem like Melville’s “The House-Top (A Night Piece)” composed during the draft riots of 1863 (“Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads/Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by./Yet fitfully from afar breaks a mixed surf/Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot”). Or listen to “Harbor” on 18, beautifully sung by Sinéad O’Connor: “So lead me to the harbor/float me on the waves/sink me in the ocean/to sleep in a sailor’s grave.”
Flying Continental Airlines Newark to Bristol, England, you have hundreds of record albums at your fingertips, just you and the sounds of choice wrapped in the steady roar of a ship freighted with music moving through a sonic ocean, you with it, eyes closed — who cares that you’ve got no leg room? who cares if the waves get choppy now and again? — you and the music are one, whether it’s Muddy Waters or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Wait for Me, a new Moby album. I’d heard nothing since 18. Now here was all this solemn, gorgeous, high-altitude music created, says the composer, on “a bunch of equipment in a small bedroom” on the Lower East Side.
At 33,000 feet above the earth you don’t listen to this album, you move through it, dream-like, and it moves through you, the tracks run together, the titles don’t matter; when you’re above the clouds the big unceasing flow overwhelms such trivial specifics. You’re tuned to the spirit DNA, the emotional template, the heartbeat, the underlying structure of the whole: it’s all one song, one statement, one complex quietly relentless rhapsody. Too tranced to bother with titles, you make do with certain phrases, “put me on the train … all my family died … the battle will be over … that day we shall lay down our arms and study war no more … walk with me ….”
The point of consummate interaction between the music and the unreality of the stratospheric setting came with a movement of choral orchestral splendor so majestic and lushly immense it hurt to hear it. I didn’t know what it was called, even with the title staring me in the face on the seatback screen — again, who needs titles up there when dawn’s breaking outside the window and you’re flying into it?
As soon as I got back to reality and Princeton I bought the album at the Record Exchange, put the disc in Moby’s slot, and searched through it until I found the piece of music that had come with the transatlantic dawn; it was called “A Seated Night” and it was playing as I drove into the Spring Street garage. I parked the car, gathered up some library books, and found a woman waiting for me by the entrance. “Excuse me,” she said. She was smiling; she looked radiant. “What was the music you had on? That was so beautiful.” I’d had the window down, of course, but she could only have caught maybe 15 seconds of “A Seated Night” as the gate lifted and we passed through. I told her the name of the album. The woman who had been waiting for me wrote down Wait for Me. It was quite a moment. Most people who love music are DJs at heart, out to spread the wealth, but how often does something like that simply happen?
If you google “Moby Wait for Me YouTube,” you can see David Lynch’s gritty graphic video for “Shot in the Back of the Head,” a grinding tour de force from the dark side of planet Moby. Or you can check out the animated video for “Pale Horses,” directed by Elenna Allen with a vocal by Amelia Zirin Brown, wherein the little character on the cover of Wait for Me dips his finger in a pool of water and creates an alter ego who dissolves in the rain (“all my family died”) into which he dips his finger again and draws a train (“put me on the train”), which travels over bridges to the sliver of yellow moon (also on the cover), where he sketches a whole legion of moon-dancing alter egos who melt away, leaving him alone on the edge of the moon, like Ishmael after the Pequod sinks, at sea in the universe, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
You can get a glimpse of Moby’s spectacular live shows in Switzerland and Hungary by googling “A Seated Night and Extreme Ways on YouTube.” Moby and David Lynch discuss the new album on Lynch’s online channel, David Lynch Foundation Television Beta. A three-disk deluxe edition of Wait for Me will be available soon on Moby’s label, Mute.
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