The following is an excerpt from Then It Fell Apart by Moby, a chronicle of the American musician’s life as told by the man himself. In this selection, Moby details his relationship with actress Natalie Portman. Read on below. Then It Fell Apart publishes May 7 and is available for pre-order.
Chapter 6 — AUSTIN, TEXAS (1999)
“Natalie Portman is where?”
“She’s at the backstage door.”
We had just finished a show in Austin, playing to four hundred and fifty people at a venue that held five hundred. I walked to the backstage door, sure that this was a misunderstanding or a joke, but there was Natalie Portman, patiently waiting. She gazed up at me with black eyes and said, “Hi.”
“Hi,” I said. As if this were normal, as if we knew each other, as if movie stars randomly showed up after my shows.
I escorted Natalie backstage and got her a bottle of water. I drank a beer, while my band and crew stood around the dressing room, quiet and uncomfortable. We’d never had a movie star backstage before, and none of us knew what to say or do.
“So, did you enjoy the show?” I asked Natalie.
“I loved it!” she said. She was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt; her dark-brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. “The songs from Play were so great.” Natalie sat on the black leather couch and smiled at me. My heart stuttered.
I was nervous, so I made small talk. “We’re going to New York in a few days,” I said. “For the VMAs.”
She smiled again and looked straight into my eyes. “I’ll be in New York too. Can we meet up?”
This was confusing. I was a bald binge drinker who lived in an apartment that smelled like mildew and old bricks, and Natalie Portman was a beautiful movie star. But here she was in my dressing room, flirting with me.
“Yeah, let’s meet up in New York,” I said, trying to emanate a degree of confidence that I had never in my entire life actually felt.
“Well, I should go,” she said. “Can you walk me to my car?”
A week later I was standing on a mezzanine at Lincoln Center, playing records during the commercial breaks at the MTV Video Music Awards. There were a few thousand people inside the theater, watching Britney Spears and Eminem and Backstreet Boys perform and win awards. But I was by myself in the cavernous lobby, with two turntables and a few records I’d brought from home.
That afternoon a publicist from my record company had asked me if I had any clothes that would stand out on camera. The best I could come up with was a gold lamé Elvis suit I’d bought at the Salvation Army a few years earlier. It was five sizes too big and had never been washed, but when I wore it I shone like a radioactive clown.
After the show Natalie appeared on the balcony where my turn-tables were set up. She was wearing a perfectly fitted beige dress and looked disconcertingly like Audrey Hepburn. “What do you think of my suit?” I asked, smiling nervously.
“It’s interesting,” she said. “What are you doing now?”
“I’m playing a late-night show for Donatella Versace,” I said. “Do you want to go?”
“No, playing live.”
“Okay,” she said, putting her arm on my frayed gold lamé sleeve and confidently leading me out of Lincoln Center. I was thirty-three and she was twenty, but this was her world. I was comfortable in dive bars and strip clubs and vegan restaurants, but I knew nothing about award shows and red carpets.
Natalie had a limo and a driver and a security guard waiting for her, and before going to the Versace event we headed over to the VMA after-show party at the Hudson hotel. In the limo we awkwardly discussed our favorite vegetarian restaurants, while her six-foot-five security guard tried to make himself inconspicuous. When we arrived at the party we stepped out of her limo – and into a phalanx of flashes and yelling photographers.
“Natalie! Over here! Natalie!”
“Natalie and Moby! Over here!”
The paparazzi knew my name. I’d never been photographed by paparazzi. No one had ever yelled my name before, unless they were mad at me. I wanted to stand there and soak up the flashes, but Natalie took my hand and led me into the hotel.
I walked to the bar and ordered two vodka and sodas, one for each of us. “Oh, I don’t drink,” she said, scanning the room – which, in turn, was scanning us.
“Do you mind if I drink?”
A few feet away I saw Joe Perry and Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, both with perfectly styled long hair and bespoke leather rock-star clothes. Joe Perry made eye contact with me. “Hey, are you Moby?” he asked humbly.
“I am, and you’re Joe Perry.”
“Man, I just want to tell you how much I love your album.”
“You do?” Enough people had told me this lately that it no longer surprised me, but it still confused me.
I tried to endear myself to Steven Tyler and told him the story of the first time I kissed someone, when I was eleven years old. For all of seventh grade I’d had a crush on Lizzie Gordon, and at the end of the school year I’d somehow convinced her to listen to records in my bedroom. I wanted to appear sophisticated, so I made us gin and tonics out of my grandparents’ liquor cabinet, even though we were just eleven. I owned only three records, so I put on the first Aerosmith album. When “Dream On” began I leaned over and kissed her. Unfortunately I had never kissed anyone romantically and didn’t know how it was supposed to be done. I kept my mouth closed and kissed her the way people kissed family members at Christmas. The next day she started dating my best friend, Mark Droughtman, because he was cuter than me and knew how to kiss.
I thought that Steven Tyler would find my story charming, but he stared at me blankly and asked, “Are you with Natalie Portman?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“She’s so hot,” he said, and walked away.
I finished my drink and Natalie’s too. We headed out for the Versace party, where I was supposed to perform at midnight. As we left, the paparazzi started screaming again: “Natalie!” “Moby!” “Natalie!”
“They’re so annoying,” Natalie said as we got into her limo.
“Oh, I know,” I said, lying. I loved the paparazzi – they knew my name.
We arrived at Donatella Versace’s party, where there were even more paparazzi than at the official VMA after-party. This time they yelled my name as often as Natalie’s. I’d only had two drinks, but I felt like I’d swallowed a distillery full of joy. I was hand in hand with Natalie Portman; I’d chatted with Aerosmith; paparazzi were shouting for me.
Growing up as a left-wing punk-rocker I had always decried celebrity culture. I’d revered people like Ian MacKaye, of Minor Threat and Fugazi, who had deliberately eschewed fame. Now I found that my own burgeoning fame was like warm amber, encasing me with a sense of worth I’d never felt before. I knew that cool celebrities were supposed to be confident and unaffected by fame, but every drop of attention I received felt like water on a desiccated sponge. My normal existence was flat and filled with doubt, while this new life was magical. And it all sprang from Play, a weird little album that I thought was going to be a failure.
I found my band in an office that had been turned into a dressing room, changed into jeans and a T-shirt, and walked onstage in front of Donatella Versace and fifteen hundred of her best friends.
A few songs into the set, as we were playing “Honey,” I looked at the side of the stage. Natalie was there, dancing with Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. In unison they raised their hands and smiled and cheered. For me.
I wanted to stop the show and patiently explain to the movie stars and the beautiful people that they’d made a mistake. They were celebrating me, but I was a nothing. I was a kid from Connecticut who wore secondhand clothes in the front seat of his mom’s car while she cried and tried to figure out where she could borrow money to buy groceries. I was a depressed teenager whose first band had played a show in a suburban backyard to an audience of zero people and one dog. My brief moment of rave fame had come and gone in the early 1990s. Now it was 1999 and I was an insecure has-been, a wilting house plant of a human being. But we kept playing, and the celebrities kept dancing and cheering.
Somehow a door had opened into this glowing, golden world, and Natalie and Gwyneth and Madonna and David Letterman and Elton John were holding it open, smiling and telling me they loved me.
If nineteen-year-old me – the punk-rock philosophy major – could have seen what was going on, he would have been disgusted by my obsequious running-dog pursuit of fame. “Really?” he would have asked. “You’re buying into this celebrity bullshit? Don’t you know it’s all a facile celebration of commerce and mediocrity?”
And I would have said, “But look, there’s Natalie Portman, and she’s being nice to me.”
Excerpted from THEN IT FELL APART by Moby. Used with permission from Faber & Faber. Copyright © 2019 by Moby.