November 4, 1995
The beat. The beat. The beat.
I can feel it through the concrete and steel from 300 yards away, like the pulse of some adrenalized titan going wild within the walls of the warehouse before me. It's jackhammer fast--at least 125 hits a minute--and as I walk toward it, the stark canvas of the rhythm takes on color: sequenced rainbows of synthesizer; dark, whirring bass lines; and a computer-generated voice that suddenly washes over it all, resonating: "This is our house, and our house music."
A quick frisk, a $15 cover and I'm over the threshold. It's dark behind the door, and the beat now has the force of a small, nearby explosion. Boom, boom, boom, boom-ba, boom, boom, boom. Crimson laser beams slice the air in a restless web that hovers about seven feet off the ground, and random, disembodied hands reach up to caress the light.
As my pupils start to dilate, I thread my way to the heart of the throng, stand still and try to get my bearings. A strobe light kicks on for a few seconds, exposing five or six bodies of indeterminate gender in a pile against a wall on the perimeter of the dance floor. I keep my eyes on the spot and wait for the strobe to flash again. It does, and I see what I thought I saw: hands running over clothing, kisses, nuzzling--a "cuddle puddle," as I'd later learn to call it.
That's fine, no problem here--after all, I'm an open-minded kind of guy. Still, I need some air--bad.
Too fast, I turn and slam into a shirtless guy in a belled jester's cap. His hat pops off and he stumbles back a few steps, setting in motion a domino effect that jostles the three dancers beyond him. He bounds back toward me and I bristle, ready to duck and swing--people fight over less in bars every weekend. But there's no anger in his eyes, and when he reaches out, I don't knock his hand away.
"Whoop, whoop," he yells, then musses my hair and pulls me into a sweaty hug. Embarrassed, I break away and make a more careful beeline for an exit sign on the far side of the cavern.
As I step outside, I accept that I'm a bit freaked out and take a few deep ones. Where the hell are Candy and Julie? Friends from Tempe, they got me into this.
"Ever been to a rave?" they'd asked, their tone so seductive, so sure of the fine time lying in wait. But I was incredulous. "In Phoenix?" They'd just laughed.
I didn't see what was so funny. Rave culture is supposed to be dead and buried. The commercial press wrote its obituary in the latter half of 1993, when the scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York plateaued after three years of exponential growth. Maybe there're remnants in those epicenters of hip, I thought, but Phoenix?
Rave culture was conceived in Chicago, where a supercharged version of disco called acid house evolved in gay clubs that catered to men of color. Acid house jumped over the Atlantic in 1986 when a British deejay named Genesis P-Orridge came across a bin of vinyl marked "Acid" in a Chicago record store and mistook the label as a reference to LSD instead of the corrosive liquid.
He bought the whole bin and took it to his regular gig at Ibiza, a Spanish party island populated primarily by "the orange people," followers of the free-love guru Rajneesh, who extolled the use of the chemical compound methylene dioxymethylamphetamine (MDMA) as an aphrodisiac. (MDMA, or "Ecstacy," was legal at the time.)
The orange people discovered that MDMA and acid-house music complemented one another like peanut butter and chocolate, and happily passed on that knowledge to the boatloads of British clubbers who arrived in Ibiza every weekend via party ferries.
By the summer of 1988--thereafter referred to as rave's "Summer of Love"--crowds of 10,000 regularly congregated in the English country fields, where organizers would erect massive sound systems and multimedia screens, pass out bags of MDMA tablets and throw dance parties that often lasted more than 36 hours. They called these gatherings "raves."
The British government cracked down on the rural gatherings the next year, and the raves moved to London warehouses and airplane hangars. And then, a few months later, to San Francisco, when British expats looking for sunshine and psychedelia arrived in California with milk crates of house music and a missionary zeal.
Rave culture spread quickly from the Bay Area to Los Angeles and New York, and, throughout 1990 and '91, daily newspapers and mainstream magazines were littered with breathless stories about the new fad of all-night dance-orgy drug fests called "raves." In response, American ravers took after their British predecessors and started referring to their subculture as "the underground" and their events as "parties," rather than use a term--rave--co-opted by the media.