[Hot Air magazine, 2000]
THEY called him Moby from the moment he was born. A tiny homunculus, small for his age even then - too small, they thought, for the formality of going through life as Richard Hall. So they nicknamed him for his ancestor, Herman Melville. Creator of Moby Dick, the Great White Whale. Maybe that was part of the joke, Moby being so very little. From then on, he was always Moby. Moby to his hippie mother. Moby to his academic father, who died when he was two. Moby to the pre-teen companions who smoked marijuana with him and sank the cocktailed contents of their parents' liquor cabinets. Moby even to the unseen ghosts who called to him by name in his Connecticut bedroom.
Then, much later, he was Moby to the Americans who saw in him an impish, shaven-scalped figurehead for US trance music. Moby to the British dance fans who bought his breakthrough single, Go, in 1991, and who marvelled and clucked to hear him proclaim himself a drug-free, Christian teetotaller. And eventually, Moby to the 2.5 million people around the world who own his latest, acclaimed album, Play.
Now, he's Moby to the punters of Las Vegas. And those who know anything about him, or think they do, would be as surprised to find him playing Las Vegas - the First Naked Temple of Mammon, if ever there was one - as they would to be discover his giant namesake beached in the nearby desert. Not Moby, the austere, God-fearing, clean-living, monkish Moby, the man who appears to have been diligently laundering the same threadbare, shapeless shirt and pants on a daily basis for a decade, the music industry's lone puritan. What's he doing here?
He's here, he tells you, kind of on behalf of the people he travels with, the people he's been touring with since July of last year. The band. The crew. People whose hobbies include drinking too much and taking too many drugs and sleeping with underage women. And in Vegas, they can do all of the above, not to mention gambling and losing tons of money and going to strip clubs - in fact, basically, they've been drunk since the moment they arrived here.
Not, he emphasises, that he thinks there's anything wrong with any of that. When Moby talks, he does so in a way so measured and thoughtful and. . . detached , almost, that any topic, whether it's wild dissipation or the minutiae of his touring schedule, takes on the same curiously dispassionate quality. If I look deep within myself , he may start to say, by way of an answer. And it will sound neither dramatic nor pompous; but simply as if he is, indeed, looking deep within himself, the way you or I might scan the refrigerator for a pint of milk.
Talking on the tour bus, or talking in the venue (The House Of Blues, a kind of midget voodoo theme park lurking in the basement of the mammoth Mandalay Bay Hotel), or talking in the desert on the outskirts of town as the wind whips around his stubbled head and carries away his considered, meticulous words, one thing Moby is always very keen to explain is that he doesn't disapprove of - well, anything, within reason. He wishes he could've been drunk since the moment he arrived here, but his physical constitution doesn't enable it. He tends to stay on the tour bus and read books and play with his computer. If he gets drunk twice in a week, he's a wreck.
He still doesn't feel he's playing Vegas in the true sense of the word. Ricky Martin's coming here soon and he's playing the Mandalay Bay Theatre, which is like, 8,000 people and it's a show . They, Moby and co, are just playing a small club. True, his name is flashed up in lights every few minutes across that big neon noticeboard high up above the strip. But he's not going to be luring too many customers away from, say, Dr Naughty the X-Rated Comedy Hypnotist, tonight's rival act over at the Barbary Coast. Over there, next to the marquee advertising three-dollar and ninety-nine cent steak and egg dinners. The thing about Vegas, Moby feels, is that it has this mythic degenerate quality attached to it. He first came here expecting seediness, this fascinating underbelly of America, and instead it's just fat people lining up for the buffet table and senior citizens gambling away money they should be spending on medication.
So this visit, this gig, is really more to do with his associates and their particular tastes. True, if this was like, 12 years ago. . . he was much more of a moralist then. But in his old age - that being 33 - he thinks he's softened up a bit. At the risk of being immodest, he thinks it makes him nicer to be around. He would much rather hang out with himself now than he would have then. No-one wants to hang out with an uptight moralist. How can you say that there's any sort of universal standard for morality or degeneracy? Apart from the really obvious stuff, like if you're doing something that causes someone physical harm, that's immoral. Unless, of course, that person's paying you to do it.
IT'S SAID that there's no believer more fervent than the convert. Moby has now embraced tolerance with the same rigour with which he embraced all the intolerances of his past. Moby is, at all times, scrupulously, fastidiously, even-handed. A lot of militant vegans get rankled by him. He's as vegan as they are, but declines to be their poster boy, refuses to countenance violent methods of protest. He has no patience for that. He hates the notion that some people feel justified in forcing their will on others. Moby was variously, he'll tell you, a militant straight-edger (the sect of hardcore rock ascetics whose forbearance ranges from purist to priggish to fascistic), a militant Christian, a militant punk rocker, a militant dance fan, militant this, militant that. He was annoying.
Usually, it was about wanting to belong. He had felt out of place as long he could remember, since the age of three. In retrospect, he's thrilled he had the upbringing he had, even if he is moderately dysfunctional when it comes to dealing with other people, and even if he is prone to maudlin, self-indulgent melancholy. But there was a long time when the only thing he wanted was to fit in. Years and years, that was all he wanted. He wanted to have the life he thought everybody else had - that was, stability, comfort, security and ordinariness. And his life was so unordinary, compared to his friends, growing up in Darien, Connecticut. An affluent dormitory town. Commutersville. Everyone he knew, to a T, had a father who commuted into New York and made a lot of money, and a mother who stayed home and drove the kids to soccer practice, and violin practice. He didn't have any of that. Until he was 18 he was the only person he knew of who had a single parent.
There was a level of sophistication there, among the kids, kids who would go on skiing trips to Switzerland and spend the summer in France. By ten, he was taking drugs with them, smoking cannabis supplied by older brothers and sisters, always the case, they're the ones that corrupted everybody, and drinking really sweet mixed drinks, like Jack Daniels with Creme de Menthe. Yes, it was like something out of The Ice Storm, written by his friend Rick Moody, who grew up 15 minutes away; except - that type of hedonism never made it to the parents. None of them had sideburns, none of them would ever do wife-swapping. These were staunch arch-republicans, very conservative people, which made it more striking that their kids were so fucked up. He can't tell you how many bedrooms he went into where it would reek of pot smoke, there'd be the Pink Floyd posters on the wall, and the 16-year-old older brother would be having sex with his 13-year-old girlfriend. It was pretty debauched.
His own mother, of course, was different. She smoked pot, she was a painter, she was a musician, she hung out with homeless people, and she hung out with blue collar workers, and she hung out with artists and musicians. Some of his earliest memories are of going with her and her boyfriend to a country-western bar where the boyfriend was playing pedal steel in the band. None of his friends were doing stuff like that. He remembers being seven or eight and going with his mom to a commune, trying to wake someone up at six-thirty a.m. to get breakfast, and there's this room filled with all these naked people sort of piled on top of each other asleep. His friends didn't experience that. His friends' parents were out playing golf.
For a while he and his mother moved to Stratford, Connecticut, a much more working-class town, to the house where something in his room would whisper his name, which for some reason, although he was a really high-strung, nervous kid, didn't frighten him. This was before he started taking drugs, and while he loved watching monster movies and ghost stories, like any other kid, this was very different to anything he'd ever seen depicted cinematically. Years later, his mother would say she'd heard his name being whispered too. They moved out, but not because of the voices. Whatever was haunting the house seemed to like Moby. No, they moved back to Darien, which his mother relished no more than he did, because the schools were so much better. Then he began his little experiment with drug use.
He never enjoyed doing it. He did it because he wanted to hang out with his cool friends. They weren't really his friends, but they were the cool kids, and he thought if he took drugs they would think he was cool too. Of course, it didn't work. He was little and he was dorky and he was a geek. He has a distinct memory of being, he guesses, thirteen years old, at a party at the beach in Darien with his cool quasi-friends and overhearing someone say about him, “ If he's like this now, what's he going to be like in five years?” He gave up drugs there and then and that's still the main reason he won't take them now.
Next came the Christian youth club parties, although there was no ideological conviction on his part. He just wanted to hang out with - obviously, they weren't the cool kids, but they were people nonetheless. (It sounds like a childhood lonelier than the desert where he's standing right now, a sentiment with which he doesn't disagree.) But the youth club thing only lasted literally a month or two. It was later, when he was 19 or 20, that he made friends with a couple of youth ministers and he fell in love with the teachings of Christ. Up till then he'd been dismissive of Christianity. And he still is. But for five or six years he tried to be a good Christian, tried to toe the party line. And while he still loves the teachings of Christ, still tries to live by them, he's no longer comfortable with organised religion, or the word Christian. He would never apply it to himself.
All the same, the image of Moby the Christian has been fixed in the minds of British dance fans. It's odd they should be have been so surprised, thought it so incongruous - after all, if you get a bunch of people in an ecstatic trance dancing and swaying to music in a big tent off in field somewhere, you're either at a religious revival meeting, or a rave.
The music's not even all that different, he points out, and sure enough, Play proves it, mixing up samples from deeply spiritual gospel, blues and folk songs with Moby's own modern production. It sounds like the most natural, seamless thing in the world, particularly after 1996's odd foray into hardcore rock, Animal Rights, and his subsequent collection of film music, I Like To Score , which he admits included things he did for principally commercial reasons. Play is different. He's proud of it, and he has no problem with exploiting it, even with having every one of its 18 tracks licensed for advertising or movies. He likes success, it's nice, and if he's made a body of work he's proud of and he wants people to hear it, he has to avail himself of those tools. The music that he makes is very precious to him. The way that it lives in the world isn't precious to him, but the way it lives in someone's house, that's precious. He was trying to explain this to a German journalist earlier today, who said that a lot of his underground friends consider Moby a sell-out. And by most people's standards, well. . . he probably is.
MOBY finds it particularly entertaining and apt when at gigs like tonight's the tickets have all gone and a sign reading: “ Moby - Sold Out” is posted at the door. Moby's sample-studded set will probably contain more real blues than The House of Blues has heard in a month of stormy Mondays. It will also feature, as is customary, a shirtless Moby perched bird-like atop his keyboard, to the delight of what appears to be every Nevada alternative lifestyler east of the California state line. Technoheads, tattoo-freaks, trustafarians, goth girls, cyber-sluts, stoners, would-be rebels of every stamp and water have turned out to see Moby and his three-piece backing band - turntables, bass and drums augmenting his own electronics - perform a frenzied, alarmingly loud and fearsomely good show which would probably clear any other room in Vegas in a matter of seconds. Even devotees of the new album, expecting to be lulled by a straightforward repetition of those blissful ad themes, might be more than a little unnerved by it.
Techno gigs generally feature a number of nondescript blokes hiding behind bits of gadgetry and fiddling with the switches to produce some kind of racket. If the show has a star, more often than not it's the lighting. This is not the case with Moby. Moby makes his presence felt. He has a microphone, centre stage. Upon arrival he paces compulsively in a triangle, never breaking stride, always swerving at the same three points, like the embodiment of a disordered mind unable to settle upon a single thought. The music flits equally unnervingly. At moments Moby seems determined to compress his eclectic career into a few seconds' worth of noise. Snatches of punk guitar give way to breakbeats which dissolve into a heavy trance rhythm which in turn is superseded by the intro to Black Sabbath's “ Paranoid”. By the time he gets to the eardrum mangling “ Thousand”, certified by Guinness as the fastest track ever recorded (the title refers to beats per minute), the audience has moshed itself into the kind of sweaty, lurching morass you'd expect at a speed metal triple header. Of course, the music at a speed metal triple-header might be a little calmer.
In the aftermath, the usual gaggles of liggers and groupies skulk near the dressing room door. The girls' chances with Moby are slimmer than he is, and not just because he prefers women nearer his own age, what he would call his sexual peers. Flopped supine on a couch with his legs propped up on a makeshift footstool, Moby explains that one of his hobbies is climbing. Climbing on roofs, hanging outside windows. New York, where he lives, is a good place for that, lots of old windows. The rest of the world, most modern buildings, the windows don't open. He doesn't do that thing where you dangle each other out of windows. He doesn't trust anyone enough to do that. Ooof. Whew . No, that terrifies him.
But off and on, he has been hanging outside tall buildings for years without coming to any kind of harm. Tonight, jumping all of four feet off his keyboard, he seems to have broken his foot. No shenanigans for Moby. Looks like it's back to the clean living after all.
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