Quaaludes, the aardvark of the drug world. -- Angela Carter
There's a theory that the counterculture of the moment is defined by its drug of choice. Thus as the heady utopian urges of the late '60s gave way to the malaise of the early '70s, decent acid became scarce, the specter of campus riots faded, and a generation's archetypal moment became three teens puking up 'ludes in the parking lot at a Black Sabbath show. There was a similar sense of denouement at the September 18 Chemical Brothers-headlined Zen Fest (one of the largest raves ever held in Miami) as Kulchur waded through the 15,000-strong crowd. Not that drugs were much of an overt factor there, mind you. There are more walking wounded on display on any given weekend in South Beach clubland than at Zen Fest's supposed den of iniquity. Indeed, had more illicit substances been present, they may have helped to liven things up a little; a taste of otherworldliness was precisely what was missing from Zen Fest, a gathering that resembled nothing so much as just another arena-filling pop concert, complete with raging testosterone, topless women carried aloft on their boyfriends' shoulders, sweaty fists pumping the air to predictable crescendos in the music, and a bar selling piña coladas -- because everyone knows that ravers love piña coladas. Except for the shorter haircuts on display, it could've been a Poison concert circa 1988, though those telltale buzz cuts provided their own lesson for social historians. Charging the air with an extra whiff of machismo were packs of freshly shorn, strutting frat boys, wearing the regulation baggy jeans and T-shirts, their squared-off heads the only reminder of their past. Replaying the arc of beatniks, hippies, and punks, this time last year many of these same boys were likely beating up the ravers in their high schools. Now they want to be them.
Gone from the whole affair were the trademarks of rave's early days: the refreshing polymorphous sexuality that reveled in its very ambiguity, the outlaw vibe that cherished the carving out of "temporary autonomous zones," and most of all, the music, sounds shunned by both mainstream radio and the traditional glitz-focused, celebrity chic-oriented clubs. Those soulful deep-house and techno grooves were in short supply at Zen Fest. Instead the DJs spun a steady diet of by-the-numbers breaks and trance -- the same tired rhythms already clogging up Miami.
Much more interesting than the Zen Fest itself has been the Herald's coverage of it. The following Sunday, in the show's immediate aftermath, the paper's reporters filed breathless accounts of the fest with the intense prose usually reserved for Gloria Estefan press conferences or other equally life-changing events. By Monday, however, a freshly overdosed corpse turned up: that of 23-year-old North Miami resident Bjorn Hans Di Maio, who had retired with his friends from Zen Fest to the plush confines of a suite at the nearby Mayfair hotel. In the hotel room (along with several semiconscious pals of Di Maio) was a veritable pharmacy, including cocaine, Ecstasy, heroin, and ketamine. The Herald immediately shifted gears, shunting aside its budding rave-ologists for a different crew of writers pursuing the circulation-boosting agenda of drug hysteria.
Jason Donovan, the 28-year-old promoter behind Zen Fest, was called to task by Gov. Jeb Bush's office for lax security, a charge that was ludicrous to anyone who actually attended said concert. It's hard to imagine what more Donovan could have done to increase the already draconian safety measures that ringed the rave's Coconut Grove Convention Center site. With off-duty police standing by, jittery kids were forced to line up in the rain, slowly passing through no less than three sets of uniformed guards who conducted body searches, waved metal detectors, and confiscated just about anything that wasn't physically attached to these waifs' torsos. As the soggy crowd's glitter began to run, the security procedures took on a ludicrous tone. One could make a plausible case for seizing water bottles in the hopes of barring GHB-spiked agua. But lipstick? Disposable cameras? Umbrellas? The only thing Donovan is guilty of is a shrewd understanding of capitalism and the marketing of pop subcultures: At $35 a head, turning rebellion into money never looked so good.
As teenage ravers and the governor's staff duke it out in the press, stay tuned for ketamine (the newest pharmacological addition to our nation's recreational arsenal) to become the bugaboo of choice for federal drug-policy officials, now playing catch-up with ketamine's massive popularity. Originally intended as an animal anesthetic, the drug's disassociative qualities and ability to create a euphoric zombified state in humans have already been immortalized in song by the Chemical Brothers ("Lost in a K-Hole"), and in full-length memoir (James St. James's Disco Bloodbath, the publishing industry's attempt to diversify after the recent glut of heroin addict tell-alls). Ketamine's appeal, however, carries far beyond local ravers (who first learned of it from the always inventive amateur chemists making a killing at the gay circuit parties). Indeed the West Miami suburb of Fontainebleau Park even has the dubious distinction of being the site of the largest ketamine bust in the United States to date: four million dollars' worth. It's enough to make Kulchur flash back to wistful childhood memories of watching ABC Afterschool Specials in the '70s, when the drug of notoriety was angel dust, and if TV could be trusted, not a day went by in schools across America without some dust-addled sixth-grader scratching off his own skin ("Bugs! Bugs!") or fatally jumping off a rooftop ("Hey, man, I can fly!"). The best perspective on this fresh bout of drug panic is supplied by one Beach figure, a DJ and small-time dealer, who brought his own wisdom to bear on the topic. "There's a lot of stupid people in Miami," he said with a small sigh. "When stupid people take psychedelics, they just get stupider."
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"Holy Rollers," by Ted B. Kissell, September 30