Rave Review

As darkness fell on the KROQ 106.7 Weenie Roast and Blink-182 finished its goof-rock set, I waded through a crowd of 50,000 drunk and disorderly concertgoers toward the dozens of bonfires dotting the lawn area of the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. Plumes of toxic, black smoke scorched my lungs. Passing scores of fistfights, I stepped over piles of trash and passed-out teenagers slumped in the aisles and against the walls of bathrooms and concessions stands. When I reached the fires, I could see why they smelled so badly. In addition to tearing down trees to toss on their vulgar displays of firepower, the moshing hoards were using plastic cups, wrappers and any other petrochemical products they could lay their hands on to fuel the flames.

This pissed me off mightily because a few months earlier, I’d received the following e-mail summarizing the thrust of a new piece of legislation called the RAVE Act (short for Reducing American’s Vulnerability to Ecstasy) from the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund (EMDEF):

“Legislation has been introduced in the Senate that would modify Title 21 U.S. Code Section 856 (aka the ‘crack house law’) so that prosecutors could more readily use the statute against venue owners, managers, promoters, and others…. Senator Biden introduced S.2633 ‘to tailor [the crack house] statute more precisely to the problem at hand’ (i.e., target raves). Biden’s legislation would expand the definition of what is considered a criminal act under 21 U.S.C. 856 and add civil liability damages ($250,000 minimum) to the existing criminal penalties (up to 20 years in prison and/or $500,000 fine). This legislation could have a devastating effect on the electronic dance-music scene.”

While politicians in Washington, D.C., sought to equate the promotion of electronic-music events with drug trafficking, ultraviolent, dangerous, clearly drug-fueled events such as the 106.7 Weenie Roast were able to go off without any extra attention from the DEA, media, Justice Department or grandstanding politicians. Rock music was something that white-haired, gin-blossomed, turkey-necked legislators could relate to. They’d grown up listening to it. Rock, in their minds, was safe. More importantly, its link to corporate America — and corporate America’s deep pockets — was total and, therefore, beyond reproach.

The RAVE Act seemed unfair. It seemed like bullshit. It seemed like a culture war. Reality was mirroring the plot of Footloose.

It seemed that if this bill became law, the mainstream music industry, Madison Avenue and major concert promoters — entities that had hopped on the electronic-music bandwagon and reaped the rewards of its cultural popularity — all stood to lose much more than the average outraged electronic-music fan. Yet while groups including EMDEF, Dance Safe, Dance For Peace, Students For Sensible Drug Policy and others got busy fighting the RAVE Act with grassroots campaigns that swiftly reached people like me — i.e., the choir — the mainstream remoras that glommed on to our subculture watched passively. And given that ecstasy is a drug of choice in both the hip-hop and gay communities, it was surprising that these two powerful groups remained silent as well; while not explicitly targeted in the bill, they seemed prime targets for persecution.

Where was our Kevin Bacon? Where had all the cowboys gone?

To the Weenie Roast, apparently, to smoke weed, get drunk, beat the shit out of each other and start fires — all with the implicit blessings of the federal government, major concert promoters and the biggest, most powerful and influential radio station in Los Angeles and perhaps the nation. When the RAVE Act first went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, it passed by a vote of 19-0 with unanimous consent, or “UC.” When a bill is UC’d, it is generally assured swift passage into law. But the GOP majority spiked the bill to spite its Democratic sponsor, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. Electronic-music fans were spared the passage of the RAVE Act last year, not because of their activism but because of their Republican friends in Congress.

In the meantime, a great deal of misinformation has spread among DJs, promoters, electronic-music fans and activists about what exactly the RAVE Act is, why it died last year, and how it was resuscitated with Republican defibrillating paddles earlier this year as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act.

Take, for example, the following quote often circulated in anti-RAVE Act propaganda:

“The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act will subject to prosecution anyone who ‘knowingly promotes any rave, dance, music, or other entertainment event, that takes place under circumstances where the promoter knows or reasonably ought to know that a controlled substance will be used or distributed.'”

As things turn out, this language is not and never was a part of the RAVE Act. It comes from a bill called the Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, Neutralize and Undermine Production of Methamphetamines Act (the CLEAN UP Act) that was fruitlessly introduced by Representative Doug Ose (R-Calif.) and that Senator Biden never supported.

But less than a year after the specter of the RAVE Act first arose, a slightly modified version of the bill, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, has passed into law in the Amber Alert Bill under a provision called the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act (the PROTECT Act).

So what exactly does this new law mean for the average person who enjoys listening to music, electronic or otherwise, in a concert-venue setting?

“To the average music fan it will mean nothing, no change whatsoever,” says Chip Unruh, Senator Biden’s spokesman. “To the average music promoter, it will also mean nothing because it’s a very narrowly tailored piece of legislation that only targets a few unscrupulous promoters out there who are knowingly profiting from drug use. This is not some brand-new law that gives the federal government sweeping new powers.”

However, the first real-life application of the modified RAVE Act, which preceded Unruh’s upbeat assessment by several weeks, contravened most of what he said, emphasized the interpretive malleability of the law in the hands of the DEA and proved to be far more frightening than anything electronic-music activists or anyone else might have imagined. As Unruh was fully aware, on May 30 a music benefit for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), to take place at the Eagle’s Lodge in Billings, Montana, was shut down using the modified RAVE Act. At about 6 p.m., while the live rock bands on the bill did a sound check, a DEA agent rolled into the venue with a copy of the RAVE Act in hand and took the venue’s manager aside.

The event was shut down, the promoter lost money and the First Amendment rights of SSDP and NORML were effectively quashed. Lawsuits are now in the works. The event’s promoter, Adam Jones, was in jail on a probation violation the day of the event, but John Masterson, state director of NORML in Montana, had this to say:

“Due to the fact that Adam had previously been in trouble with the law, his probation officer was giving him a hard time about his activism and tipped off the DEA. The DEA shows up the day of the event. The federal officer had a copy of the RAVE Act in hand and said that if anyone was found to have drugs in their possession, the promoter would face a $250,000 fine, and that if the proprietor of the property knows that there is illegal drug use on premises and doesn’t inform the authorities, they will be held responsible. This is an absolutely overt attempt to silence political speech. They came in waving legislation that caused great alarm in the venue owners’ minds, and they successfully silenced our political speech. The language is very poor in the law.”

“What happened in Billings was not how Senator Biden meant for this law to apply,” Unruh says. “If you go to the DEA’s Web site, they’ve posted some guidelines to clear up the way that the law should be applied. After [Billings] happened, Senator Biden wrote to the acting head of the DEA and asked for a full accounting.”

In the RAVE Act fact sheet that Unruh forwarded to me, he further clarified the senator’s position:

“Senator Biden fully recognizes that there will always be certain people who will bring drugs into musical or other events and use them without the knowledge or permission of the promoter or club owner. This is not the type of activity that the Biden bill addresses. The purpose of the legislation is not to prosecute legitimate law-abiding managers of stadiums, arenas, performing-arts centers, licensed beverage facilities and other venues because of incidental drug use at their events. In fact, when crafting this legislation, Senator Biden took steps to ensure that it did not capture such cases. The bill would help in the prosecution of unscrupulous, rogue promoters who not only KNOW that there is drug use at their event but also hold the event FOR THE PURPOSE OF illegal drug use or distribution.”

Unfortunately, the RAVE Act is now federal law, and Senator Biden won’t be there to hold every drug agent’s hand as he or she enforces it.

“I’m glad that this happened, because it had the effect of getting a lot of attention for drug-law reform, but I’m not glad it happened to me,” says the 21-year-old Jones, the promoter of the Billings event. “It opened a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that our constitutional rights are being thrown out the window. In the bigger perspective, the DEA here looked foolish in the whole thing. I’m sure DEA agents all over will think twice before they go out and wipe their asses with our constitutional rights. The implications of it were scary. What’s next? Gay pride marches? Green party meetings? Something a particular DEA agent doesn’t like?”

Now that law-enforcement officials are applying the RAVE Act, what impact is it having on the leisure time of the electronic-music fans?

To answer this question, I set out on June 22 to attend the Electric Daisy Carnival, one of the largest massives on the So-Cal rave calendar and just the kind of event that got Senator Biden and his peers so fired up in the first place.

It had been two years since I’d attended my last massive, the 2001 Electric Daisy Carnival. The Electric Daisy Carnival is what the alarmist mainstream media would term a “rave,” nomenclature from which electronic-music promoters, DJs and fans have gone to great lengths to distance themselves.

Massives draw thousands of electronic-music fans of all flavors but are primarily identified with candy ravers, a kiddy-jewelry-and-plush-fabric-clad contingency of 14-21-year-olds known for their shiny, happy attitudes — and blatant, conspicuous and excessive drug use. Many young people are initiated into electronic music through massives and the candy-kid culture before growing up to become junglists, house heads, technophiles or IDM mavens who then hate candy kids and everything they represent. To these people, candy kids are clueless E-tards who draw a disproportionate volume of negative media attention to the electronic-music scene.

In 2001, the Electric Daisy Carnival was held in a grassy park near a lake north of Los Angeles. In spite of the prejudice against such events, the vibe was positive, and young ravers and candy kids danced late into the night without incident.

This year, thanks to the passage of the RAVE Act, things would obviously be different. As I pulled into a parking lot crowded with thousands of cars opposite the Orange Show, a paved venue more than an hour from downtown L.A. with several large halls that were a far cry from open grasslands, the event’s trademark carnival rides were whirring away and I could see hundreds of ravers queued up to get into the event. L.A.-based superstar, trance DJ Christopher Lawrence was set to headline in support of his new mix CD release, and his hometown crowd was out to represent in force. Whatever impact the RAVE Act might have on the remainder of the evening, it clearly hadn’t had an impact on attendance.

After an extremely thorough pat down and bag search — nothing out of the ordinary in our post-9/11 world — I cruised into the venue and made my way through the candy jewelry-clad crowd. I discovered a far more lax and sparse security presence than I’d anticipated, in spite of the warnings printed on the tickets and fliers for the event that pacifiers, dust masks and other gear that federal authorities have zeroed in on as signifiers of drug use would not be allowed or tolerated. Glowstick and photon-twirling candy kids were clad head to toe in fuzz and kiddy jewelry, many of them gurning away on well-worn pacifiers, and the smell of weed wafted freely through the air, much as it does at rock events aimed at teenagers and adults alike.

I ran the gauntlet through the vending area past booths, including those for a number of companies with colorful, drug culture-related names. Among them, two popped out: Chronic Candy simulated pot-flavored candy (slogan: Every lick is like taking a hit!) with its array of translucent suckers, and the 420 Spot booth where handblown glass pipes sat next to raver necklaces, glowsticks and a sign that said “All Raver Gear Must Go!” Hmm. I wondered how tough the RAVE Act had made it to procure drugs at electronic-music events.

The third stranger I approached had joints at $10 a pop.

“I’ve been raving for seven years, man,” he said as he pulled a prerolled spliff out of his pocket and tried to hold it up for my examination in the very public area where we stood. “There are too many kids out here who just want to take drugs and get fucked up, man. They don’t realize that this is about the music, man, the vibe.”

Apparently, he didn’t either.

I moved on and wandered around the venue for the next few hours, chatting with ravers of all stripes about the RAVE Act. In my limited sample, fewer than half had a vague idea that the law existed or that it had any impact on them. Of those who had some notion of its existence, a great deal of confusion existed as to what the law comprised and whom it might affect.

“Is that the one where they can shut them down for no fuckin’ reason and call it a crack house or whatever?” asked Zack, 23, a long-term raver who typified the thrust of the positive responses I received.

“It’s something trying to shut down raves. It has something to do with drug dealing,” said Jaimie, 26, a fan of Aphrodite and all things jungle.

“Yeah, we know what it is. What is it? Antiques?” asked an 18-year-old raver girl and scene vet before she pushed off and zoomed down the school bus-yellow super slide.

As the night got later, fewer and fewer kids at the rave were dancing, and more and more were lying down on the ground seeing light shows in the halls off their sweating pals. A visit to the toilet revealed a stall overflowing with vomit and human waste. At the venue gate between the jungle and hip-hop areas, the cry of a fire engine’s horn prefigured the arrival of it and an ambulance moments later. Firemen and emergency medical personnel wheeled out a gurney, disappeared into the venue and returned with a thankfully standing raver who was so far tweaked that nothing was bringing him back to Earth in the immediate future.

These factors seemed to indicate that drug use was taking place. Whatever optimistic vibe I’d been feeling about this event and about raving in general at the beginning of the night was quickly fading. Perhaps the single swath of grass with the trance sound system near the small artificial lake with decorative fountains at the front of the venue would reinvigorate the night.

It was difficult to find a place to sit down among the piles of discarded fast-food wrappers, fliers and water bottles that seemed to take up every inch of space that was free of ravers massaging one another in giant cuddle piles.

The venue was a Rave Sty, and we were pigs drowning in the shit of our own pleasure. If Senator Biden ever took it upon himself to visit a rave to see what this music was all about and witness how the beats can draw together vastly disparate groups and sometimes create life-changing experiences, I hoped to God he wouldn’t witness what I’d seen this night.

But what, if any, role did the promoter play in what went down at the 2003 EDC? And why should he be subjected to more stringent laws and scrutiny than, say, the promoters of the 106.7 Weenie Roast where even worse behavior went unchecked?

Ideally, an organization such as Dance Safe would have had drug-education booths or literature available at the Electric Daisy Carnival that would really scare kids with science-based facts about what E, G, K, and the rest of the alphabet were doing to their neurochemistry and well-being. But the federal government has made it impossible for this information to reach the people who need it most in the environment where it will be most useful to them. No promoter will run the risk of having a Dance Safe booth at an event these days because, the thinking goes, to do so would send a red flag to the supersleuths in the DEA that drug use was taking place at the event.

“No matter where you go, there are going to be a few people who find it necessary, for whatever reason, to take drugs — that’s at high school, that’s at religious functions,” Christopher Lawrence says. “You can’t control that. It’s not fair to hold event coordinators, promoters, or owners of venues accountable for that.”

Categories: Music