The flash-bang-explosion of Electronic Music Festivals in America, from their seedy underworld start to their mainstream juggernaut status, is an expansive tale of futility, excess, love, and death. I started taking detailed notes back in mid 2007. The events of the last three and a half years have filled numerous moleskin notebooks and Word documents. It cannot be summed up succinctly. But here I have stitched together some of the more naked moments to help define MY experience with the era. Names and events at times have been altered out of respect for the dead. The morals have not been changed in any way. If that troubles you, read the body of this post as fiction.
The Good – Generational Unity
Our decades have always been well expressed by their soundtracks. And once it became clear that electronic music wasn’t going anywhere but toward the mainstream, those in the know saw it as a mirror for our not-as-yet-defined generation. If the electronic music genre was the new model of our generation, then its festivals were the trade shows – and everyone came out to play.
The electronic music festival circuit is different than those of rock or rap or grunge or funk for the simple fact that it’s firmly rooted in the drug scene – all drugs, not just one – and that sort of dedication to total perversion hasn’t been seen since the 60s. Fringe elements formed it, and defined it. And with a strong drug anchor, there is something tying it all together no matter the growth/change the genre itself experiences. The architects of contemporary festivals took whatever instructional guide the Hippies left usâ€¦ and rolled it up and smoked it.
We’re filming a re-make of the 60s, but it’s an amphetamine’d Xerox of a blurry-eyed Xerox. The tenants of our parents are vaguely present: empathy, self-expression, counter-culture, love, and drugs. But even though there is no logic or reason to it, and no political cause whatsoever, the defining doctrine of each festival is clear: we are all in this together.
So each electro rave, festival, and carnival is a big family reunion, backrubs and all.
You get to meet that distant third cousin twice removedâ€¦ and she’s a 36 year old woman with a potbelly wearing a Tinkerbell outfit, smacking gum in her mouth, sweat bleeding awful makeup, a disgusting mole on her left cheek you want a lightshow honey?
Now that’s entertainment. There’s a sort of amusement I get from feeling emotionally connected to someone like that you bet your sweet ass I want a light show, and also, afterward, I want to hug you and tell you how beautiful your aura is – do you like peppermint?
When raves became big-ticket events in the US, entry level participants ranging in age from 18 to 24 [this number would expand in both directions over the years], flocked through the security checkpoints and were greeted with open arms and fists full of love pills which provided any empathy that was not already forthcoming.
One look around at the crowd of alarmingly-wide eyes was all it took to see that this was Good, and worth sharing. As the crowd danced to modem-sounds and computer-bleeps, minds were made up long before we determined how far the rabbit hole went.
The Bad – The Rabbit Hole
On Halloween 2007, my friend Chef and I went to a rave in Los Angeles with a group of friends. What once belonged to Europe had now made it across the pond, where capitalism’s finest were waiting to turn up the volume and jack up the prices. Over 50,000 people had amassed to worship speakers and give each other backrubs. Beautiful women danced with us, and asked for no money in return. Smiles were brought back in a retro-fashion. Liberty: everywhere. And drifting along with the current… LSD, mushrooms, marijuana, ecstasy, alcohol, cocaine, DMT, and a whole host of chemical cutting agents were floating around the crowd like a beach ball at a Dave Matthews concert.
Chef and I stepped aside, took our thinking minds and tried to hit pause. Were we dancing with girls, or were we dancing with drug-robots? Does the drug make the scene or does the scene make the drug? Who, exactly, was driving this vehicle? This sort of too-good-to-be-true love needs checkpoints, and no one else seemed concerned.
And then we saw a giant bunny, who most likely had good intentions — he had a giant E painted on his chest — but also had a devilish laugh. And the bunny saw us. The E-bunny moved towards us.
“I don’t want to hurt you!” the E-bunny yelled.
We ran away. The E-bunny found us.
“Everything is okay! Trust what you feel!” the E-bunny yelled.
We ran away again. Our hearts beat faster than the bass.
“I just want to love you!” the E-bunny yelled.
It was a strange parody of the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Or perhaps he was Peppy LaPeu, and we were the feline of his desire. Either way it was Loony Tunes. His only crime was love. But this love was not taking no for an answer. That’s Not Okay. I can still hear Chef’s weeping yelps echoing up to the ceiling and back down to the cooling carpet yard we were laying on: The irony! The irony!
The Weird — The Knife
A massive outdoor festival, Electric Zoo, took place in New York at the end of summer 2010. By this time, organizers had given up hope of controlling the madness. Fittingly, the event took place less than a half mile from a mental institution. No age limit was enacted. Security was non existent. As I arrived with my group, it struck me that perhaps this was the plan all along — lure us in with promises of “A Good Time” and then let us wipe ourselves out with our own indiscretion, and hopefully have us do this close enough to a mental institution where the open arms would be covered in white coats and the fists would hold sedatives instead of party drugs.
It was one of those festivals that starts in the day — when all behavior appears terrifying — and continues into the night, which feels safe.
I had been taking notes, but finding little good news. The crowds were getting younger, the drug use was getting more reckless, and the essential core of the movement — whatever it was — was getting lost in banality and clichÃ©. The average overheard comment, which has always been my favorite note to take, had drifted from epiphany to brain-fried-meme: “We’re all energy, bro!”
Even the shirts in the crowd were making fun of their wearers. Tank Tops everywhere said, in bold neon colors, WAKE THE FUCK UP.
And despite all my research and notes up until that point, there I was, right in the thick of it, no better or worse than my fellow Zoo-creatures.
We never take our own advice.
The sun went down, along with a few beers to ease the pain, and I took my friend John to go see Flying Lotus, a relative of the great Coltrane jazz family. The man is one of the few geniuses left on the circuit, his mathematically-rhythmic mind is capable of ripping apart and deftly reconstructing melodies in a manner that invokes some combination of humor and arrogance – if he’d been born a few centuries earlier, he’d have learned the piano or cello. In his tent (depressingly sponsored by Red Bull), the music was refreshing and the comments were decent, if not gimmicky:
“This song is filthier than a dumpster coathanger abortion!”
“I feel like my whole body is covered in clitorises, and I’m sliding down a tunnel of wet tongues!”
Eloquence — our generation has gobs of it.
And drowning in a sea of flesh, I felt swallowed up, for a moment, by the exact feeling that started this whole mess. There was no separation between anything, anymore. Vibrations sync’d in full — our minds were emptied, then filled with one-thought unification. I was an atom in a smoke cloud, strobe light illuminating our spiral dance. Overtop of the younger patrons heads, I could see the other tents in the distance, tiny explosions of colored light and a bouncing blanket of skin spilling from each one. John was gone, but I was sure he was a part of the atom somewhere. It encompassed many.
I saw a girl collapse as she had a miraculous, bass-infused orgasm. The crowd cheered. And then everything parted in front of me, revealing two gorgeous and young girls with clothes that barely hung off of them.
The two girls curled their fingers at me — I stood still. They moved right up to me sweat and glitter and the hint of fruit smell. “Now,” they said. They kissed each other three dimensional television on demand. “Now,” they said again. Their warm hands pulled on me, clawed at me, but I kept thinking so young, so young. In their eyes, nothing but black. I asked their age, and they moved their mouths as if to laugh but no sound came out. The lights were on, and someone was home – but that someone was on a whole lot of drugs and couldn’t navigate the doorknob.
The girls swayed not in time to the music, but to a cacophony of drugs. I didn’t so much give in as I did nothing. And then something occurred.
Here are the notes in my phone, recorded soon afterward on top of a grassy hill:
“Liquid partner switching. Reckless start and stop. Dance or pass out? Lips and hands and one body with three extensions. Girl One asks if I am God. I do not know. Girl Two takes my RayBans, eats them. Chemicals have stripped the girls to their barest animal selves. I feel myself slip away. Possibility that this is a dream. Phrase repeating: ‘Why not? Why not?’ These two girls are one. ‘Now.’ Suddenly, I’m there. The Shes want all of me, whole. EVIL.”
And here is what happened right before I ran to that grassy hill to shiveringly record the experience:
A man came up behind the girls with a neon shirt wake the fuck up and a visor. He appeared to be the girls’ friend/owner/escort. He nodded his head at me.
“They’re 15,” he said.
I snapped back to reality. He laughed and grinned wide. I stumbled backwards, against a wall of flesh that did not let me pass. The word statutory swam by, only to replaced by drugs and suddenly I didn’t know what to be afraid of. The man solved this problem for me, kind of, when he pulled out an eight inch silver blade, which looked as if it were intended to fillet fish, and then asked me:
“Wanna have some fun?”
I do not know what that question meant. I do know that for a split second, my mind said Sure I mean let’s see where this is going, but then the knife glimmered in the strobe light and the logic center of my brain rebooted. So I ran. I escaped the atom smoke cloud. I trampled at least three people in the process hey man take it easy bro it’s all good. When I arrived on the hill, my shirt torn to shreds, my belt and sunglasses gone, John nowhere in sight, each tent crackling as a different molecule… there was only one thought in my mind:
Where are those girls gonna be in 20 years?
The Ugly (Truth)
I had sworn off all raves and electronic festivals after that, but I was lured back to the scene on New Years Eve, 2010, in San Francisco. The City of Love promised an interesting look at the equation. The area fostered the original Hippies, and now it was hosting their children’s impersonation. I’d hoped it would remove the sour taste the 15 year-olds’ chapstick left in my mouth.
The promoters of this festival were the same as those who put on Burning Man, so authenticity was the name of the game. Everything was much more relaxed. Good space. Responsible people. Older crowd. Sophisticated DJs — mostly. It felt like the way things used to be, or how they could be.
And it was so schematically predictable, it could almost be called boring.
But then sometime right before the midnight countdown, a young man scaled the walls and climbed up into the rafters, some 30 yards in the air. Like one of those skyscraper construction workers, one wrong move on his part would give the game to gravity.
One person looked up at him, and then another. He was the headlining act within minutes.
Sober people yelling — What the hell is wrong with that guy?
The ecstasy babies, real entry-levelers, can barely let out a whisper through the hands cupped over their mouths – Oh my God, be careful!
The veterans coming up on their veteran substances yelling — Right on man!
The cokeheads — Hey, I could do thatâ€¦
Those peaking on psychotropic hallucinogens are unable to speak words out loud, their internal monologue too catastrophically complex to transcribe.
The sick fucks on alcohol — Jump! Jump! Jump!
Those coming off their drugs, those that have been burned with bunk counterfeits, and the few old souls who have been there before now find themselves as the voices of reason — Do something or get down you bastard!
Then, a moment of calm — it’s always like that in the beginning of a complete disaster.
Everyone stopped and turned to look. Even the DJs. I swear I saw a fucking dove flutter through the building. Tiesto’s “Adagio for Strings” hit a particularly grand chord, and he let go.
He looked so graceful. I could see the whites of his teeth, that giggling retard. No one reading this has been as happy as that man was at his absolute dumbest.
In the eerie quiet, I felt I could hear his internal monologue: This is all I’ll ever needâ€¦ thank you, Tomorrow, but you won’t be necessary because Tonight is good enough.
As he fell, I thought to myself, as I’m sure several irresponsible young adults there did, you know, maybe this moron’s got the right idea – but only for a heartbeat until the splat. There’s nothing graceful or romantic about a heap of popped and lumpy flesh oozing blood onto a dance floor covered in sticky alcohol, cigarette butts, Dixie cups, a training bra, and someone’s vomit.
What happened after that was significant only in its insignificance. That dancefloor closed, and then another. Decisions were made over walkie-talkies by sober squares. The 95$ entry-ticket-holding-druggies were left out of it — once again, taxation without representation — and one by one, the music stopped.
It was a sobering walk out of the gates.
And completely, forehead-slapplingly ludicrous.
The smile on that man’s face — do you think he wanted the party to stop on his behalf? Fuck no! He would have wanted us to crowd surf his corpse and then burn it at a stake in some sort of fertility ritual. That kid had the best night of anyone.
And the rest of us patrons were treated to a good old fashioned finger wagging from our municipal grandparents: Maybe that’ll teach you kids a lesson — if only your fried-brain-cells could learn!
Some lesson. Everyone woke up the next morning, and all they had was a hazy recollection of feeling wronged — and the venue (and promoters) paid dearly. Ticket refunds, bad publicity, poor word of mouth.
How was Sea of Dreams?
Someone partied themselves to death.
That’s fucking sweet!
When the promoters heard how much fun that kid had, they shut the whole thing down.
A lot of people won’t be going to the next Sea of Dreams. They’ll be going somewhere else, and doing all of the same things… The drug problem cannot be solved by one lunatic alone — Reagan proved that.
But there was a lesson there in that leap of faith, I saw it printed in blood, flesh, chemicals, cigarettes, vomit, training bras, vomit, glitter, 8 inch platform boots, vomit, knives, and glowsticks:
We want to know the self by knowing others, we want to love and be loved, we want to dance until our bodies overheatâ€¦ and most importantly, we are willing to die for these things. Let us know, love, live, and die as we please.
So the real sadness was in the fact that our point was displayed, and we all turned away in collective horror when we realized it came in the form of a splattered corpse. That’s not what I ordered, is it?
The man loved his drug, his delusion. He loved it with more passion than a televangelist. He broke his addiction to life, and now life-junkies everywhere are up in arms:
He flushed his life-stash down the toilet!
Kid’s tryin’ to go straight — cold turkey.
That greedy motherfucker!
The final score was a grim tally: a lot of sour faces, a lot of wasted drugs, a lot of burned wallets, a few hundred dumber human beings, and one happy but dead individual who even though he left the planet still managed to get badmouthed.
I mean, what more do you want from the guy?
The Answer (In a Question?)
As I left a festival one night, completely sober in both mind and body, I felt I could see the direction the whole thing would take. It was tragic in the romantic kind of way. But I wasn’t sure how to put it.
I was with Mack in a sea of drug-fried lunatics waiting to board the next bus away from the venue. Mack and I overheard a kid who was peaking on a large dose of psycosiblin mushrooms. The kid was going nuts, so Mack decided to play along — and in doing so, they delivered my prognosis in better terms than I ever could.
Here is the conversation, which is adulterated only in that I was transcribing it in my phone as it was going on — and the drugged loonies talk fast — so here’s what I caught:
[Someone screams something about the world being filled with robot computers who work for The Man.]
Kid: We are all magnets, fighting against black holes. We got to grab a hold of as many magnets as we can! We got to stick together! We don’t want to be robot computers!
Mack: I’m not a magnet or a robot computer.
Kid: What are you then?
Mack: I’m an idea. I throw my magnets into black holes on purpose.
Kid: What?! Why?!
Mack: Because it’s fun. I actually ran out of magnets one time.
Kid: Holy shit.
Mack: What if there was a magnet so big, it ate a black hole?
Kid: Holy shit. That barely makes sense.
Mack: Oh, it makes sense. Magnets and black holes are pretty much the same thing. They both pull things in.
Kid: What do we do then?!
Mack: You can do whatever.
Kid: What do you do?
Mack: I surf black holes. I glide over magnets. I lasso a black hole and then throw it away. I collect magnets and then throw them in a black hole. I’m like a skipping stone, man, and I’m not ready to sink.
Kid: Are you God?
Mack: Probably. But that sounds like a black hole to me.
Kid: Or a magnet!
Mack: Now you’re getting it. I just magnetized you.
Kid: Holy shit! Thanks man! I don’t want to be one of those robot computers!
Mack: Can I ask something that might freak you out?
[Kid gives nervous nod]
Mack: What do magnets do to (robot) computers?
As of now, the molasses-paced government is involving itself in the electronic music festival scene. Lawsuits have been filed by the parents of dead-patrons. Moratoriums have been placed on venues. Police are showing up and shutting down sold-out events due to “Fire Codes” that mysteriously have gone unenforced until now. And mainstream pop idols like Kanye West and Beyonce and M.I.A. have hired electronic DJs to produce their top-selling records.
The whole image is taking shape, coming into focus like a Magic Eye picture, and that inevitably means it’s on its way out. The Iron Curtain is closing. Those who stay behind are one of two categories: the brave souls who got in early, and decided this was all they needed… and those sad sacks who signed up for the cult moments before the Kool-Aid was administered. Both archetypes have been seen before, and they found themselves trapped on the badside of the ‘99 tech bubble, the housing crisis, the awful Indie Pop Punk scene, or a lethal vacation in Jonesboro.
They stuck to their guns.
And there’s honor in that. Gobs of it.
But it’s not for me. I enjoyed the ride, but I plan on taking many others, because Tonight was good but Tomorrow may be better – I want to join as many cults as possible, surf black holes, dodging magnets and knives on my way to the Big One that finally swallows me whole.