Mud, Drugs, and Speaker Hugs | Feature | Chicago Reader

Mud, Drugs, and Speaker Hugs 

Staying up late with David Prince at the country's biggest annual rave.

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Day two dawns with cold rain. Even in the early morning, the music persists--it gets mysteriously louder, in fact, when you close your eyes. The campsite looks like a place where a plane's gone down. There's soggy party wreckage everywhere: soggy paper plates, soggy hot dog buns, soggy shoes and socks, and soggy fazed-out kids. At least 50 still dance, while hundreds more mill about in the mud. One guy sits in the ashes of a bonfire, head between his hands. One girl crouches with a flashlight, utterly transfixed by the tiny spot she's casting on the earth. Disorientation prevails. You hear a lot of folks struggling with the math of how long they've been up.

Over at the trampoline, the crowd has thinned and the rules have changed. They're charging a dollar now for a session of bouncing. Which makes sense when you consider that a festival ticket, purchased at the gate, costs $25, and ecstasy, an absolute rave staple, goes for $20 to $30 a hit. Add the price of travel and the fact that most of these kids have yet to finish school, be it high school or college, and you begin to get a sense of the sort of financial backing it takes to rave on. Never mind the expense of trendy clothes. Or what it takes to finagle a roadworthy car. Whatever else these kids may be, they are not from the wrong side of the tracks.

Just before 7 AM, I find Dave in his trailer still asleep. I have no idea when he got to bed, and so I don't intend to wake him. But then the music stops abruptly, the PA shrieks with feedback, and Dave lifts his head. Woody McBride (aka DJ ESP) is on the mike and he sounds pissed.

"OK, OK people, I hope everyone can hear me. We have a serious parking situation. The shuttle can't get through. If you're parked on the gravel road, you must move your car. This is serious. Any car not moved by 8:30 will be towed. You must be completely in the ditch, off all gravel. No emergency vehicles can reach us, no breakfast, no equipment, no supplies. . . . We are completely TRAPPED! The facility is really unhappy about it. And they're going to start towing. And they're towing to CHICAGO! And then to MEXICO! Please pass this on to all parts of our lovely village. . . . This pertains to all people who are parked in an asinine position. And I think you know who you are. For example, some people are parked IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUCKING ROAD! Can you believe it, that because of a few DICKHEADS and STUPID GIRLS, it's come to this? I'm sorry for swearing, everyone, but this is REALLY FRUSTRATING. All right now, we've got quiet time now until at least 1 PM."

In the silence that follows, the atmosphere inside the trailer becomes queerly uneasy. It's a sort of system shock to lose the cover of the sound. Dave notes the rain and makes a face. "This sucks," he says, and then, recalling the music, "That sleep was just not good." I concur and suggest we hit the nearest big town, Richland Center, for some earplugs. It is at this point that I earn my second cool stare in two days. For a moment Dave just freezes as if waiting for a punch line. And then, smirking, he says, "You are so, so old. How old are you? Do I know you? Did we go to school together? Fuck earplugs. I'm really disappointed to hear you say those words."

We strike a bargain: If I take Dave to town for cigarettes and coffee, he'll let this little earplug incident slide. It's 8 AM when we hit the road.

The wipers flash. Dave rests his head against the door frame. In this, our first bit of quality time, I get inquisitive: What's the typical raver here for? Dave rubs his face. "You mean besides the music?" he says. "Besides the drugs?"

What have you borrowed from Timothy Leary to help you explain what you're doing now?

Dave yawns and shakes his head and makes a game effort to appear alert. "You know," he says, "I've just incorporated so much of Tim's lifestyle into mine, I just don't see how I couldn't carry some of that on."

Breakfast is eggs and toast. It feels good to eat, and also to remember that there's another, quieter, drier world outside that sloppy bowl pocked with tents. Dave downs four cups of coffee, two sugars each, and smokes. He talks, briefly, about his possible move to LA, his Chicago girlfriend, Kara Kane (who should be at the party by the time we return), and the $36,000 investment that he and his Even Furthur partners figure they've already recouped. Mostly, though, he talks about rave culture, a subject on which, I quickly learn, his opinions skitter all over the map. "It's about challenging authority," he says at first, fully caffeinated and warming to the topic. "It's about finding a community and, and being empowered. It's about, I mean these kids are going to grow up to be the leaders of this country. These kids are the top and hopefully they're going to grow up to be more humanistic, more accepting, more instilled with a sense of beauty and imagination." He pauses here and then continues, but on a slightly different tack. "I mean, really, it's all just for fun." And then, reconsidering again, he says, "Actually, we should go soon, and we need to stop at Wal-Mart, and anyway, I think I'm too wrapped up in this right now to have much perspective."

According to our gray-haired, blue-vested Wal-Mart greeter, there hasn't exactly been a run on rain gear, though she does recall seeing a few young folks with "dye-colored hair."

"So where," Dave asks, "do you keep that shit?" The jacket Dave selects is blue and way too big. "Perfect," he says. But then, as we cruise the store, he starts to glance left and right, as if crossing some invisible street. "You know," he says, "I really don't want to pay for this coat. I really don't. I really should just wear this coat out." And then, as we make for the place where they keep the gloves, Dave's right hand brushes upward, and the price tag dangling from his left collar disappears.

Moments later, we collect ourselves up front, and Dave hands our cashier a pair of gloves. "Is that it?" she asks. Dave nods and bites his lip. The jacket is a $12 item, max. But on this day, it doesn't cost Dave a cent, and on the way back, when I ask Dave why he stole it, all he'll say is, "I don't know, practice?"

The day is a blur of small rave scenes. I see a girl waiting outside the Porta Pottis clutching a Ziploc bag that contains toilet paper and Windex. I talk to a concessionaire who says he wants to be a cop. I make several trips to the main gate to observe the constant arrival of new cars. And when Dave and I next meet up, it's nearing midnight and he's got Kara in tow. She is blond and compact and dressed like we are, which is to say, her pants more or less fit and her face appears largely free of hardware.

As a threesome, we hit the big tent where the pounding is loud and the controlled substances are plentiful. It's here, and now, that Dave makes known his approach to drugs: "You should take enough to really get off," he tells me, "not just enough to make you want more."

So we party. A little white pill finds its way into my hands, and then we dance, but the experience is unlike any other dancing I've done. For one, there are no couples. People move entirely on their own, yet communally, cosmically, together. For two, everyone in the tent faces front, toward the DJ, like at a concert rather than a club. For three, there seems to be almost no sexual energy about this dancing, no flirtatious come-ons, nothing that might be termed bump 'n' grind. There is, however, a bit of speaker hugging going on, which would appear to be one of the more self-destructive things a body could do. Kids are literally embracing the sound--like cuddling up to a train wreck--and they are wrapping their arms around the bass cabinets and all but stuffing their heads inside. In California, I have been told, the practice of speaker hugging has gotten so bad that rave organizers now fence in their speaker stacks to keep the kids at bay.

When the pills kick in, it makes more sense--the music, the writhing bodies, everything. As Dave says, quoting Leary, it takes the proper "set and setting" to understand. I will not bore you with the details of how it feels, except to say, it feels warm. These warm feelings, of course, aren't a simple matter. When rave culture is criticized, as it often is, the knocks go something like this: rave's peace-love vibe doesn't last once the drugs wear off and the last record spins down; rave's culture of acceptance is but an easy by-product of its homogeneity. As far as I can tell, both points are valid and true. And yet the facts remain: the kids at Even Furthur are so damn nice. Eye contact invariably draws a smile or a hello, and with some 4,000 sets of unsupervised hormones on hand, it's staggering to consider that none of these hormonal sets, my wonderful new friends, appear to be rubbing each other the wrong way.

It's much later now and we--Dave, Kara, and I--lie outside on our backs on the hood of a car. It's finally stopped raining. Above us, a giant green bird flaps in the sky, and friendly green worms--have you seen James and the Giant Peach?--wriggle in the trees. These are the effects of a Milwaukee outfit called Laserforce, two guys in a truck with a bunch of machines. Supposedly you can see their shows from the air 70 miles off, so every performance requires an FAA permit.

Now Dave and Kara speak quietly and it is decided that we will all go and call Tim--Dave's friend Timothy Leary, that is--out in Hollywood. On the long and dark climb to the camp pay phone, we lean on each other and giggle. It is explained to me that Tim wanted to be here, but he got too sick. So now we're going to phone in a party report.

That Dave has the opportunity to make this call at all, that he and Tim ever became friends, dates back to an impressively direct bit of outreach. Dave went to one of Tim's readings and afterward simply invited Tim to dinner and Tim said yes. They talked about Reactor, among other things, and Tim was supportive and impressed. By the time dinner ended, Dave had a standing invitation to visit Tim in California, anytime. After many such visits, Tim's cancer was diagnosed. And after his cancer had progressed, and he no longer had the energy to complete Design for Dying, the book project fell into Dave's lap.

We stand back while Dave dials the phone. We can't hear everything, but we do pick up "So he's totally totally slipped?" Dave's shoulders sag. His eyes close. "Well, should I get on a plane tomorrow?"

When Dave hangs up his hands shake, and Kara helps him light a cigarette. From where we stand--maybe a quarter mile above the valley--rave central seems like a distant planet, and the throbbing bass, so impossibly mind blowing in the tent, sounds tiny as it filters up through these huge old trees.

Tim, Dave informs us, is too far gone to come to the phone. His house is full of friends and family. "They're all doing X out there," Dave says, "in honor of us."

In the morning, after a few hours of fitful sleep, I leave. To party anymore seems monotonous and needlessly exhausting. On my way out, I come across the family that owns the campground lingering around the gate. Apparently the grounds have filled to capacity and they've had to guard the entrance all night to keep out late arrivals. "It's not supposed to be our job," complains a middle-aged woman. "Those kids, Dave and them, are supposed to be here working. You know, when you say something is going to happen, you have a responsibility. You have to show up."

I don't disagree.

"So you say you've seen Dave?" I nod. "So do you know where Dave's at right now?" I shake my head.

Just beyond her, I can see a line of cars pulled off to the shoulder, cars driven in from as far as South Carolina and Tennessee. The drivers and their passengers, most of whom appear to be in their teens, sit on their hoods or on the grass, searching each adult face before them, looking for someone who can help, someone who can explain what is going on.

The woman purses her lips in my direction. She wants Dave. He's the one who's needed. The only problem is he's probably still asleep. And just now there are a lot of people waiting around who wouldn't mind it at all if he suddenly woke up and came striding down the hill.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of David Prince by Jon Hardman, photo of DJ Silent Angel, and others by Marty Perez, photo by Karen A. Peters.

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