My 1993 rave adventure with Moby
20 years ago in New York City, inthemix writer Jim Poe got to know Moby– one of electronic music’s most indelible figures – just as his career was beginning to accelerate. From there, the author would join Moby’s band and sign up for a landmark ‘rave tour’ across North America and Canada. Here’s how that story began.
Moby was one of the first friends I had in New York. I landed there in July of 1993 (20 years ago this week, in fact), shortly after leaving the University of Southern California. The city was in the middle of a sweltering heat-wave. If you’ve been there in summertime you know there’s nothing like the special misery of the dog days in the concrete jungle of Manhattan. Thanks to the humidity that envelops the island, nights are just as bad as the daytime, or worse; and especially if you don’t have much money, there’s nowhere to go to escape.
It wasn’t just the heat causing me to wilt. I had a terrible time getting on my feet in those first months. The city can be overwhelming for anyone, but I was a small town kid from Oregon, broke, unemployed, recently heartbroken, an aspiring DJ and film-school refugee – the classic starving artist, but probably more naive than most.
I was crashing with a friend who was attending Columbia University. She introduced me to a group of teenagers from Uptown and Brooklyn who were up-and-coming DJs, dancers, promoters and graffiti artists on the booming club and rave scene, and had just formed a collective called Digital Konfusion. I’m sure they thought I was pretty clueless but they became good friends. They taught me survival skills in the clubs and on the mean streets, and booked me for their outlaw parties in handball courts and sketchy warehouses – my first public gigs.
Moby was around because he was interested in dating my room-mate. He wasn’t yet a household name, but he was big on the underground, both in New York and internationally – I had several of his records and had seen him play live with The Prodigy at the Hollywood Palladium. He’d also seen some chart action in the UK and had already appeared on Top of the Pops. His 1991 progressive classic Go is still one of my favourites; its crisp, funky rhythm, French Kiss style keys and gospel-y piano gliding over melancholy strings (sampled from Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score) still sound fresh.
I was intimidated about meeting Moby, but in person he was completely unpretentious and put me at ease right away. (As much went on in the New York scene, it was very small and tight-knit; I learned that if you let yourself be tripped out by meeting a music icon at the club or record store, you’d have a hard time.) I was first introduced to him at his loft apartment on Prince Street in Soho.
His bed, kitchen and music studio were all in the same high-ceiling-ed space. A huge black-and-white photo print dominated the room; in the photo he and some friends were on a boat on a lake somewhere, and he was stark naked, facing the camera unabashedly. (The others were clothed for some reason.) I remember this well because of Moby’s absolutely disarming way of letting a guest enjoy the moment of realisation without acting like it was a big deal. Later that summer my 16-year-old sister accompanied me to Moby’s loft and she, too was caught up in his aura of calm, reasonable, Christian libertinism; although for years afterwards she would giggle when telling friends she’d seen Moby’s dick.
That evening Moby took us to dinner at Angelica Kitchen in the East Village, already a hallowed destination for New York’s vegetarians. Later he took us on a ramble through The Ramble in Central Park, one of his favourite haunts; and one Wednesday night he took me on a man-date to the Sound Factory Bar, where every week Little Louie Vega held court over a small but sweaty club full of New York’s most passionate house-heads.
I’ll never forget the strange sight of Moby soberly writhing to the soulful grooves with his hands in the air, so self-consciously unselfconscious, as if improvising a pastiche of the tension/release inherent in house music’s gospel roots. This odd mixture of genuine ecstasy and charmingly awkward performance could be symbolic I suppose. I’ll also never forget his sincere and pointed advice about my romantic troubles. I couldn’t figure out why I was the recipient of such affection from him, but it was exactly what I needed.
A couple of months passed and my first long hot summer in the city mercifully turned to fall. Moby invited me and my sister, along with other friends from the scene, to appear in the video for Move as dancers in the audience. (You can barely see me thanks to the fog and editing, and this is probably a good thing.) Move was his first single on Mute Records, the storied UK label that had made big stars of Depeche Mode and Nick Cave. This was the opening salvo in a campaign to take Moby’s music (and thus electronic music in general) to MTV and the mainstream.
Phase two of the plan was a 12-city tour of the States and Canada. The See the Light Tour was billed as the first-ever “rave tour” of North America; Moby would headline and Orbital and Aphex Twin, already huge in their own right in the UK (as well as among a minority of American fans and DJs like myself) would provide formidable support. The guys behind NASA, New York’s seminal rave and techno weekly at the Shelter (a gathering place for everyone I knew on the scene), were on board as partners, so there was a personal connection.
Still I was shocked when Moby called one day to ask if I’d like to take part in the tour as a stage performer. Me? A performer? During the phone call I was so taken aback, I could hardly work out what he had in mind, but it had to do with keyboards. When I told him I didn’t play keyboards, and had hardly any experience of the kind, he assured me that didn’t matter. The main idea was that I would be on-stage and looking cool, as he put it. I’d do a bit of roadie work too. The pay was not great but it was a chance to be part of a ground-breaking tour.
I had to think about it after I hung up before the phrase “fake keyboards” really occurred to me. Within a few minutes I was feeling pretty suspicious. Seriously, why me anyway? Mainly because I was available and cheap – I’d just been laid off from my low-paying job at a bookshop and Moby knew it. And, as he frankly pointed out, I was tall. I think that was pretty much it.
Does it sound ridiculous? It sounded pretty weird to me at the time too. Mind you as a kid I was as cynical as I was fiercely idealistic; one of those who saw rave culture not as escapism, but as a conscious revolution against the system, on a continuum with punk and hip hop. I had no use for mainstream culture or the music “business.” Being real, expressing yourself naturally, sharing a genuine connection between artist and audience free of the hierarchies and barriers of traditional entertainment – these were the things about house and electronic music I believed in and was ready to defend. For these reasons and more I was inclined to say no.
But when I talked the offer over with my crew of friends, I was a bit surprised that every one of them told me I’d be crazy to turn it down. Many expressed envy at my good fortune. To them, it was a clear opportunity to gain advantage in the dog-eat-dog music scene. Such a chance might never come again. My arguments about authenticity and truth suddenly seemed fussy. This was not the first time my ideals were confronted with hard-headed New York realism. Anyway, I had no other prospects at the moment, so I agreed. I tried to convince myself that I would benefit from the system but not be part of it.