Ravaged by the Rave

"I sat in throw-up," declared a sweaty, somewhat disgusted sixteen-year-old girl who preferred not to give her name. Along with a half-dozen similar girls -- thin, wan, and dazed, yet still smiling -- she waited patiently for a stall in the suffocatingly hot bathroom of the Coconut Grove Convention Center. It may have been the Fourth of July, but Independence Day celebrations were long over. It was 3:00 a.m., just about halfway through the rave billed as Circa '98, which had begun five hours earlier. A veteran raver, Miss Throw-Up claimed her parents had filled out the permission slip necessary for someone under eighteen to attend this event, as they had done several times previously. It was probably a wise choice for Miss Throw-Up, who was "rolling," or high on the drug Ecstasy, to conceal her name; it is unlikely she will attend any future raves if her parents know what goes on.

"Oh is this the way they say the future's meant to feel/Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?/And I don't quite understand just what this feeling is/But that's okay 'cuz we're all sorted out for E's and wizz./And tell me when the spaceship lands 'cuz all this has just got to mean something." -- "Sorted for E's and Wizz," Pulp.

Inspired by a rave he attended in 1989, Jarvis Cocker, frontman for the Britpop band Pulp, wrote "Sorted" in tribute to the exhilarating, exhausting, drug-stoked, all-night parties that were all the rage in England during the late Eighties. A British invention, raves are concerts-cum-dance sprees held in empty fields or indoors. They usually last until sunrise. The program, on the surface at least, offers a mind-altering blend of mesmerizing electronic music (sometimes live but more often mixed by turntablists), dazzling light shows, and a sensation of serenity. Look beneath the surface, though, and you'll find a scene teeming with drugs, including mind-altering synthetic substances such as Ecstasy, crystal meth, and ketamine (better known as "Special K").

Raves made it to the United States in the early Nineties, settling first in California and New York City. Over the years the happenings spread throughout the country, and descended on Florida in the middle part of the decade. Orlando first seized the title as the state's rave capital, thanks to its central location. Parties were often held in warehouses or fields, but soon clubs got in on the action and raves quickly acquired a deservedly unsavory reputation. After police grew weary of handling overdoses and making arrests, Orlando officials established a Rave Review Task Force and passed laws decreeing that local clubs close shop at 3:00 a.m., resulting in the demise of the affairs. Tampa is considering passing its own anti-rave law, which will also force clubs to lock up by 3:00 a.m.

Enter Miami. Raves finally arrived near the end of the decade. The lag is not unusual in these parts, always light-years behind the rest of the country when it comes to trends. Savvy promoters of these successful events have apparently treaded carefully, reluctant to antagonize the powers-that-be.

Unlike the rave celebrated in song by Pulp, Circa '98 was not held outdoors and attendance was nowhere near the 20,000. More like 3000. At approximately 10:30 p.m. a cluster of off-duty police officers sat outside the venue on the trunk of a squad car, looking bored as they watched the parade of partiers attired in the typical rave uniform -- Adidas sneakers, T-shirts, and sweatpants with the trademark triple stripe running down the sides of both legs; pants so baggy they could be mistaken for maxi-length skirts; tiny tank tops; hooded pullovers; black-frame sunglasses with colored lenses. Slowly they filed through the front door, then waited to be searched. Backpacks -- the de rigueur rave accessory -- were forbidden, as were all liquid containers. They had forked over $25 in advance or $35 at the door. To control the crowd, re-entry to the building was barred before 3:00 a.m., and after that it cost five dollars. Unbeknownst to the cops, in the adjacent parking lot and on the sidewalk facing Bayshore Drive a few teens were hurriedly forging their parents' signatures on permission slips.

What were they so eager to experience? Basically, a rather expensive sensory assault that was, like a good drug, supposed to lead them to a higher state of consciousness. Patrons (average age twenty) paid for the privilege of spending nearly twelve hours in two dark, cavernous rooms, lit only by several colored lights that swirled and melded into a colossal kaleidoscope. Relentless techno music blared from a gargantuan sound system. The air was clouded by smoke from fog machines and cigarettes, producing a dense haze comparable to the one blotting the sky outside. Only the smell of a brush fire was missing; the dominant scent was sweat.

The first place the kids hit could be called the chill room, a mellow enclave with a lower number of beats per minute. Hundreds of water bottles sat stacked in cases behind a makeshift concession stand consisting of a few tables pushed against the right wall. Three dollars bought a small bottle; five dollars a large. Ravers frown on alcohol, so water -- essential to keep dancers hydrated and to combat the cottonmouth that inevitably arrives with methamphetamine use -- was the only beverage for sale. At the very back of the hangar-size room, the sound system and two turntables were propped on a stage six feet high. Every hour one of ten DJs, including Storm, Subliminal, Johnny Dangerously, and Medicine Man, spun records. The sounds, although not as throttling as the ones thumping next door, roused a few to dance. Others, too high, too tired, or just too bored, plopped on the floor, gave each other massages, or surveyed the action from the sidelines. Break-dancing competitions broke out. (Yep, it's back.) Throngs of ravers stood in a circle and gawked as lithe young men, stimulated by the music and possibly by drugs, flung themselves on the ground, spun on their backs, stood on their heads, and swept the floor with martial arts-style moves.

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