On Road Music, Melville, Moby’s “Porcelain,” and a Wonderful Woman
After approving my 2000 Honda CRV for another two years last month at the Inspection Station, the DMV technician wants to know about my MOBY license plate — is it about the musician or the whale?
I tell him the standard story: that I made the down payment by selling a first edition of Moby Dick, thus the 1ED on the license plate. I say nothing about my car’s supernatural affinity for the music of Herman Melville’s great great great grand nephew. As Melville himself once put it in a letter to a friend on the subject of madness, “In all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire,” to “riot like gods without fear of fate,” as in “the climax of a mad night of revelry when the blood has been transmuted into brandy.”
Let’s face it, the technician might think both the vehicle and its owner require closer inspection should I tell him of the power surge thrilling through my 16-year-old CRV whenever I play the “rave anthem,” Moby’s “I’m Feeling So Real,” which its creator compares to “a hundred buildings falling down and being built at the same time.” As described in his memoir Porcelain (Penguin Press $28), the song is “huge and joyful and full of longing,” a blast he envisions “shaking the ravers out of their ketamine-induced stupors,” reminding them “that techno could be joyful,” that “dance music could be explosive and beautiful, not just background music for teenagers in giant pants passed out on dance floors.”
“Narcissistic Time Travel”
Moby was going to tell his tale to a ghostwriter until his agent reminded him, “You’re descended from Herman Melville. You need to at least try to write the book on your own.” Deciding that not to write his own memoir “would seem like a bit of a hereditary affront,” he opened up his laptop, started writing, and found that “reinhabiting my past and writing about it is like heaven to me. It’s narcissistic time travel.”
Asked his thoughts on the novel that gave him his name, he admits to having tried reading it more than once without ever “quite getting through it.” One thing that Moby clearly shares with Melville is a buoyant style given to humorous insights that offset or flavor otherwise unseemly situations, thus this sentence from an early chapter of Porcelain: “It was a perfect New York autumn evening, the sort of night where people held hands and fell in love while walking in the park and stepping over homeless people.”
Paid to DJ at a sex club in which the Empire State Building can be seen “framed priapically in the windows,” wide-eyed Moby thinks of Holden Caulfield, another youth out of his depth in sin city. As The Catcher in the Rye evokes mid-20th-century New York, Moby’s “dirty Mecca” is the Pagan nightworld of the 1980s club scene in the meat-packing district of Manhattan, not far from where his Great Uncle Herman had been a uniformed customs inspector a hundred years earlier. “Every night people were dying on the streets and New York City was literally setting itself on fire: landlords had learned that it was cheaper to burn down empty tenements than to pay taxes on them. And the collective response of anyone in their 20s living south of 14th Street was to ignore the despair and the fear and to go dancing until five a.m.”
Moby’s city of dreadful night, which he nonetheless loves (“the most perfect city on the planet”), seems in demented harmony with Melville’s words about rioting “without fear of fate” and “mad nights of revelry.” In the New York chapters of Pierre, written in the bleak, embattled wake of Moby Dick, “the thieves’-quarters, and all the brothels, Lock-and-sin hospitals for uncurables, and infirmaries and infernoes of hell seemed to have made one combined sortie, and poured out upon earth through the vile vomitory of some unmentionable cellar.” Such is “the more infamous life of the town” where in June 1851 Herman Melville was writing Moby Dick amidst “the heat and dust of the babylonish brick-kiln of New York.”
“A Wonderful Woman”
Discussing the title of his memoir in an NPR interview, Moby says, “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 being a very un-sober, non-Christian. And when I relapsed, to be graphic, I did a lot of throwing up into porcelain things.”
“Porcelain” is also the title of one of Moby’s best-known and most melodically affecting compositions, about “this really, really wonderful woman” and about “being in love with someone but knowing you shouldn’t be.” What makes the song “stand out,” he tells a Billboard interviewer in July 2000, is its “warm, emotional quality.” The same could be said of the passage in Porcelain about grieving for his mother that follows his description of the conflicted process of composing the song. For this reader, the “wonderful woman” can be found in the book’s opening paragraph “wearing blue jeans and a brown winter jacket that she’d bought at the Salvation Army for five dollars” as she stands at the “cracked linoleum counter” of the Fresh-n-Kleen Laundromat at the Dock Mall in Stratford, Connecticut “smoking a Winston cigarette and folding clothes,” some of them belonging to neighbors who paid her to wash and fold their laundry. Moby is 10; his father died when he was two; his mother has been unemployed for over a year “and her last relationship had ended when her boyfriend tried to stab her to death.” Sometimes he would find her crying while she folded the neighbors’ clothes, “a cigarette lodged in her mouth.” Because watching her “smoke and fold and cry” made their poverty “seem even more vicious,” Moby prefers to sit in the parking lot in his mother’s Chevy Vega, listening to rock on AM radio and imagining a “gleaming city with giant glass windows that looked onto discos and spaceports.”
While there are lots of walk-ons in Porcelain, among them a pit bull named Walnut, various DJs, agents, managers, musicians, friends, ravers and relatives, as well as a slew of girlfriends and lovers, strippers and dominatrixes, including the “perfect punk-rock girl,” the soul of the book is Elizabeth McBride Warner-Hall. In a piece on “family values” for the guardian.com, Moby [née Richard Melville Hall] writes: “All my mother wanted was for me to spend my life being creative. She would have been profoundly disappointed had I become a lawyer or a doctor. From an early age I was just encouraged to make music and take pictures and draw and write.”
In Her Heart of Hearts
Two months after his mother dies, Moby is in a budget hotel in Zurich at 2 a.m. thinking about her life: “All of her ambitions. All of her disappointments. All of her sadness. I remembered how when I was growing up she would stand on our back porch at night, smoking and crying … as she longed for a life she didn’t have.” When Moby, who had been trying to make sense of his “lack of grief,” begins to cry, himself, he realizes “I wasn’t grieving my loss. I was grieving hers …. She had been so smart, so creative, so funny, and had ended up with a life that had disappointed her. She had loving friends and family, but I knew in her heart of hearts she had disappointed herself. She’d wanted to live in a city, paint and make music, and be around other artists … but her shyness prevented her from showing her remarkable paintings to anyone. So she ended up in the suburb where she’d grown up — a place she hated, but a place that was safe and familiar.”
“Play” in the Car
Porcelain ends in 1998, the year his mother died, with Moby driving at night through his Connecticut past listening to a cassette of the music he was working on for his next album, one for which he had guarded expectations (“A dozen people might listen to this”). As he drives from place to place, memory to memory, track to track (one song sounds “okay,” another sounds “surprisingly good late at night”), he passes the gas station in Stratford where he ended up lost when he was nine and the attendant found his mother’s number in the book (“You’ve got a lost little boy here, ma’am”) and she picked him up and drove him home while he sat in the front seat and couldn’t stop crying. As he drives out of New Haven with the chilling, hymn-like “My Weakness” playing, he remembers visiting communes with his hippie mother and the time they were in the car and he was eight and “More Than a Woman” by the Bee Gees came on (“Is this song about a bald-headed woman?”), she started laughing, and then singing along, and he laughed and sang along, too.
The book closes with “The Sky is Broken” playing, a song about a relationship he’d never had (“I wanted to sleep next to someone and feel safe”). The same song is playing on the CRV named Moby as I drive down Brunswick Avenue in Trenton. The voice filling the car is saying, not singing, “Speak to me in the middle of the night.” It’s broad daylight, Sunday afternoon, but we’re in the night of the song listening to Moby “speaking quietly to someone I loved.”
“A dozen people might listen to this?” Moby wonders. Knowing that the songs on Play would be heard all over the world at the dawn of the millenium (12 million copies sold), he must have been smiling when he shared that thought from the night ride through his past. Months before Moby Dick was published to savage, clueless reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, Herman Melville shared this thought with Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” In fact, he died in his home on East 26th Street in New York on the morning of September 28, 1891. The revival of Moby Dick, for many the Great American Novel, began with the 1919 centennial of Melville’s birth.