Moby and Patti Smith represent two distinct generations of American music.
Moby is one of the leading creators of popular electronic dance music. His breakthrough album Play became the soundtrack for films, and many adverts. His videos have the vitality of Eminem’s and some of their dark humour about aging and death. Although he has created ambient music, acoustic music, and post-punk, his contribution to New York and world music is through dance in large warehouse clubs in forgotten post-industrial places. This is his second volume of memoirs and follows the highly acclaimed Porcelain. Like it, it flips between Connecticut, his boyhood and teenage worlds, and New York as he makes his way in music.
Patti Smith comes from the rock tradition that spawned the likes of Iggy Pop and MC5. She was married to Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5. She casts herself in the role of seer and poet, a descendant of William Blake, of Rimbaud of “Les Illuminations,” Ginsberg and William Burroughs. It was appropriate that she went to collect the Nobel prize for Bob Dylan because, along with Jimi Hendrix, she is one of the best interpreters of his songs. She can be even harsher in her renditions than Dylan himself. Like Dylan she develops the themes of the troubador, the outsider and transforms the American folk and rock tradition into a declamatory voice that can stretch vowels and howl from the wilderness. This is her third volume of memoirs.
Moby’s memoir puzzles on the surprise of success. The million-selling discs lead to suicidal thoughts, a vertiginous descent into hell, been up so long it feels like down. If the first volume hopped around from poverty to the development of a career, full of intriguing detail about Little Italy, for example, through a multiplicity of chapter headings that Richard Brautigan or Captain Beefheart would have been proud of, such as “Giant Loop of Keys,” “Wet Socks On The Radiator,” and “Bloody Skateboard Wheels,” the second volume covers Moby’s past in Connecticut with the same jump cuts, this time into the world of Natalie Portman and Donald Trump in Moby’s often failing attempts to join the “acceptance world”. An alternative title might be Celebrity Fishing in America. Although some of his recollections are disputed, especially by Natalie Portman, there is much to enjoy here.
Moby is a master of things not happening, of dialogue going nowhere, of strange juxtapositions,and the desires born of poverty. The inevitable disappointments of the material world:
“The week before high school started I hit the motherlode at the Norwalk Salvation Army. I was shopping for clothes with my mom and I found an almost-new Fred Perry shirt. I fingered the small embroidered laurel-wreath logo, making sure it was real… Even though I was a fledgling punk rocker, it was still one of my dreams to own a new Izod shirt, with the proud little alligator taking residence over my heart. I also dreamed of having a new pair of Levi’s and an actual pair of Adidas sneakers. They didn’t have to be new, so long as I could go to school and not be ashamed of my clothes.”
The vignettes in Darien, Connecticut are more economical and precise than the later wanderings in New York. The chapter on vegetarianism from his mother’s explanation of why the gerbil peed on his hand, to the responses of his peers, and his own feelings are finely observed.
On a second reading this is a book to be dipped into, a series of conversations that are left hanging without authorial comment, and a series of self-contained anecdotes that present Moby at different stages of development. He has the knack of summarizing a phase of his life with knowing, self-mocking ease: “My problem wasn’t drinking and drugs, I decided – it was daylight.”
In an interview with “Democracy Now!” Patti Smith explains her view that she is a writer, more than a musician. Her first volume of memoirs focused on the photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, and was written grudgingly at his request. The new third volume of memoirs is a reader’s heaven, although at times it visits the darker, more mysterious places of life, a hospital or a dream hotel that seems to be halfway between life and death. Like the Romantic poets and les poetes maudites Patti Smith dwells in the “terra semi-incognita” of heightened dream states. The sign of a hotel becomes more than a casual signifier of place and is given its own voice that is both prophetic and comical:
“The fringe of dream, an evolving fringe at that! Maybe more of a visitation, like a tremendous swarm of gnats, black clouds obscuring the paths of children reeling on bicycles…What was needed was a bit of geometric thinking to lay it all out. In the back of the desk drawer were a couple of Band-Aids, a faded postcard, a stick of carbon, and a folded sheet of tracing paper, which seems like unbelievable luck. I taped the tracing paper to the wall, attempting to make sense of an impossible scape, but composed nothing more than a fractured diagram containing all the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map.
-Use your head, chided the mirror.
-Use your mind, counselled the sign.”
The dream state has occurred because of the hospitalization of an old friend and she depicts the intensification of reality, so that it merges with fiction. She makes this explicit in her reference to the Cheshire Cat, the feline, vanishing commentator, and to the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. Her mind drifts through associations that are as puzzling as they are precise:
“The sign became absolutely animated, prodding me with insinuations, leading questions, riddling my mind with obsolete phone numbers and demanding to know the sequencing of certain albums, such as the song before White Rabbit, or the song between Queen Jane Approximately and Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
Ghostly presences like Sam Shepard accompany her on her mental travels. His Stetson appears on a random photograph on page 82. It is hard to tell where fiction and fact are in this disorientating meditation. Some of the writing defies comment, entering another, higher world:
“I looked at Sam sitting motionless in his mechanized wheelchair that was parked before the kitchen table. His head had become a massive diamond slowly turning, emitting rays from crusted eyes. There was still hope then as messed up as it was. The room contracted and expanded like a lung or the bellows of a bagpipe.”
This last phase of life, as the medical devices creep in, surges with visionary life: “- I dream of horses, he (Sam Shepard) whispered. I’ve been dreaming of them all my life.”
If this volume of the memoirs faces up to death, it celebrates the imaginative spirit and the writers who Patti Smith belongs with, Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg. Moby has another third of his trilogy to go, with luck there will be more Connecticut memories to mine as he shows us more of his first self, the origins of this creative chameleon that has journeyed through veganism, Christianity, and a multiplicity of musical styles.