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.

On the dance floor an older fellow who had come south from Orlando bounced inexhaustibly in a St. Vitus's dance. Robbie Tatoul is rail-thin, six feet tall, and has a beard that suggests former surgeon general C. Everett Koop. The 28-year-old chiropractor wore baggy khakis, a sweat-soaked white sleeveless undershirt, and an unbuttoned polyester shirt. Tatoul, who had attended several similar affairs in his hometown before they were effectively banned, declared Circa '98 his favorite rave to date. "This is well worth the drive," he noted. "Orlando would be jealous."

Next door a slightly different scene went on in the main, or "boom," room. A mini bazaar of a few booths lined a side wall. A wooden cart on wheels was loaded with silver jewelry. Another stand hawked T-shirts, cassettes, CDs, pot pipes, a variety of plastic sticks filled with glowing pastel-color liquid (ravers like to hold them in their hands when they dance), lollipops, candy pacifiers, and chewing gum to keep jaws moving instead of tightly clenched (another side effect of this evening's drugs). A popular stop for many was the piercing area manned by a heavily tattooed and prodigiously pierced chap named Kenny. For $35 a raver could buy a ring or a rod, which resembled a tiny barbell, and have it punched in wherever he or she desired. People get pierced "for aesthetic reasons, sexual enhancement, and sometimes a little self-abuse," said Kenny, who has practiced the art of poking holes into body parts for the past nine years. For much of the night he was kept busy jabbing jewelry into nipples, eyebrows, bellybuttons, lips, and tongues.

Being pierced may have hurt, but several revelers had an equally unpleasant experience: vomiting. Most of them held their heads over plastic garbage cans that were scattered about for just such purpose. Across the room a glass door led to the mist tent, where for a mere three dollars overheated ravers could rinse the sweat and cool off. All the while the music boomed ceaselessly and the lights gleamed. A slew of DJs performed 30- to 45-minute sets that blended seamlessly. At 1:30 a.m. electro-funk icon Afrika Bambaataa took the stage. He greeted the crowd, but really, anyone could have been up there spinning: Lights flashed straight in the eyes of the audience, and the stage was obscured by clouds of smoke. By 3:30 hip-hop king Grandmaster Flash, decked out in a red T-shirt and cap that made him visible from far across the room, began his 90-minute set. Interacting more with the crowd than Bambaataa had, Flash roused them to punch their fists in the air, jump up and down, and yell like banshees. Local celeb DJ George Acosta, trumpeted as a headliner on a promo poster, never showed.

Not that anyone seemed to mind. They were feeling just fine. Drugs were not used openly and dealers did not seem to be in hard-core sales mode, but judging from the ravers' ultrafriendly behavior, infinite energy, and general imperturbability (amazingly unlike nightclub dancers, people were respectful; any bumping elicited a quick apology) a good majority of them were clearly high on something. Most were discreet, barely nodding when asked if they were rolling. Others didn't care who knew and sauntered around the rooms sporting surgical masks like junior versions of Michael Jackson. The masks were coated in Vicks VapoRub, which, according to ravers, enhances the effects of Ecstasy. Several times on the dance floor ravers would place the wrong end of a nasal inhaler into their mouths and "blow Vicks" into the eyes, nose, and all over the face of friends to perk them up.

After a while, though, the attempts were futile. The drugs were clearly wearing off by 5:30 a.m., when the band Spacemen landed onstage, looking like Druids from another planet in their alien masks and silver robes. Dancers exhibited less brio than they had hours earlier; the floor was an obstacle course strewn with hundreds of plastic water bottles. The crowd had thinned considerably, and dancers were no longer offering apologies after on-floor collisions. The urge to touch and the massage circles had disappeared.

Watching two teenagers lying flat, sweeping their arms and legs across the filthy, cold floor attempting to make snow angels among the rubble, made one muse: Is this all there is? Why this urge to rave repeatedly -- if at all? Erin Bales, a nineteen-year-old girl from Davie, tried to explain the allure: "It's a calmer, more loving, fun atmosphere. It brings people closer together. You don't have this at a club where people are getting into fights."

As the sunrise became visible through the clerestory windows, Bales seemed to make sense. But considering the Vicks, the snow angels, and the vomit, maybe not.

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