Unlike White House tell-alls where D.C. power brokers thumb through the index for references to themselves, then sharpen their knives in retaliation, most people read celebrity memoirs for the salacious tidbits about other celebrities. This goes doubly so for rock ’n’ roll — in its most expansive sense — with a degree of sex, drugs, and partying far beyond anything that emerged from, say, the Carter or George H.W. Bush administrations.
Having already written a Porcelain: A Memoir in 2016, electronic musician Moby follows up with Then It All Fell Apart, a chronicle of his rise to stardom and subsequent bottoming-out in the face of substance abuse issues. It’s packed with more celebrity encounters than you may expect, including — let’s just get this out of the way right here — the time he played a game of “knob-touching” and whipped his penis out only to brush it against an unaware Donald Trump.
“The publisher of the book — and I thought this was really sweet — said that really concerned him,” Moby tells SF Weekly. “He said, ‘We live in this area of #MeToo…’ and I started laughing, “So you’re concerned that Donald Trump is a victim?’ If that’s the case, then God bless.
“I hope that Donald Trump tries to post something about me with the hashtag #MeToo,” he adds.
He’s only half-serious, and backtracks a little bit about the individual he refers to in the book as a “has-been reality star,” what with the army of gun-toting trolls the president can summon via tweet.
Among the book’s references to Russell Crowe speaking brusquely in a men’s room while clad only in a towel, or being shepherded around Vice President Dick Cheney during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, or teaching New Order how to play Joy Division songs, Moby is most unsparing with himself. He has no axes to grind, but he’s brutal when characterizing his narcissistic-rocker phase, which culminates in an embarrassing do-you-know-who-I-am moment at a New York bar after he barges into the office at the end of the night, looking for a place to snort drugs and finding only unimpressed clerks counting money.
Although he’s known to be a pretty erudite guy, the book’s tone is not self-consciously literary. His wit is sharp but light, and the memoir isn’t stuffed with references to obscure things no one’s ever heard of. A vegan for many years, Moby is almost surprisingly caustic about his own spiritual development, recalling his glib dismissal of a groupie who’s a stan for pop-spirituality fare like The Celestine Prophecies without neglecting his own spiritual vapidity. Like many philosophy majors who think that routinely and compulsively downing 15 drinks and three pills of ecstasy in a night constitutes a choice — or a commitment to a renegade lifestyle — the Moby of 2002-03 seems to applaud himself for staring into the void for longer than anyone and without flinching. At one point, he refers to himself as becoming an obscure Jeopardy! question.
At times, the more graphic and depressing passages about sex and drug use feel like they’re threading a very particular needle. Moby isn’t glorifying drug use in any way, and thumbing a ride back to a hotel with some teens at an Iowa rave is pretty surreal, but it’s hard not to see a bit of prurience to the project.
“There’s a double-edged utility to prurience,” he admits. “On the one hand, it’s scatological stuff, so it’s entertaining but … what I found, especially when I started going to A.A. 10 years ago, how people shared the things that I had always been ashamed to talk about. It was really emancipating. I suddenly realized the things that I’d been keeping to myself that these people were sharing relatively freely meant that Iwas more comfortable having those thoughts and experiences but also sharing them.
“Even if people haven’t woken up covered in poop on a tour bus in a Manchester parking lot, they probably have their version of that that they’re deeply ashamed of, and hopefully by hearing other people’s experiences of that makes them maybe a little more comfortable with it and they’ll maybe attach a little less shame to that.”
Then It All Fell Apart is divided into short chapters, each marked with a place and a year, which tell parallel stories of his youth and adulthood in a roughly linear fashion. Born to a hippie mother and reared mostly as the least-affluent kid in tony precincts of Connecticut, Moby never really had it easy growing up. But the reader, increasingly certain of the dark place he’ll end up, almost wants to shake him: How could such a wryly intelligent person follow this cliched trajectory?
“Everyone works under this kind of assumption that the right kind of fame and materialism will fix all of their problems, even though the right combination of fame and materialism you end up like Robin Williams or Kanye West: either miserable or dead,” he says. “And so I wanted to write firsthand my experience of trying to fix childhood problems with fame and materialism and how clearly it did not work.”
Perhaps the two loveliest segments of the book center on David Bowie: saving up tips from his summer job as a golf-course caddy in order to buy Lodger and “Heroes” then meeting the glam-rock god later in life as something close to a peer. Although Bowie invited Moby into his personal bedroom to show him a tiny synthesizer, Moby never shared the story of how he got into his hero’s “Heroes.”
“It’s odd that in the course of my life I’ve met a lot of my heroes, and I’ve never ever talked about their work with them,” he says. “I feel like that’s too uncomfortable and as a result my engagement with most of my creative heroes is completely disingenuous because I’m pretending to be their peer when really I’m just an obsessive fan.”
Moby appears at the Bay Area Book Festival this Saturday, May 4, to discuss Then It Fell Apart with the Chronicle’s pop-culture critic, Peter Hartlaub. Rumor has it, the reading and Q&A might turn into an impromptu performance.
“I’ll bring a guitar,” Moby says. “I’ll play some songs and so it’ll be a middle-aged guy with a guitar on stage maybe playing a couple songs. I’ll play one song, and if it’s bad I won’t play any others.”
This might be one of your last chances to see him live, too.
“I’m still making lots of music and releasing it sporadically, but in a way I don’t see music as being a job anymore,” he says. “It’s something I love doing and I love the process of making it and releasing, it but I almost categorically refuse to go on tour. I hate concert touring, but I love playing music and considering the first tour I did as a solo artist was 29 years ago, the world does not need another middle-aged musicians going out and playing his greatest hits from 10 or 20 years ago. So I love making music and having absolutely no commercial expectations for the music I make at all. It’s so liberating to never expect anyone to pay you for your music.”
Then It Fell Apart: An Interview with Moby, Saturday, May 4, 4:30-5:45 p.m., at the Bay Area Book Festival, Downtown Berkeley. Free, info here.