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on the el, May 19

By Liz Armstrong

The first time I ever heard of a rave was in 1993, when I read about it in Sassy--one of the first mainstream magazines to literally send someone out into the field. Though these all-night dance parties were also held in American warehouses and clubs, they were still underground enough that the writer, Christina Kelly, had to go all the way to England to find one. Kelly--who was 32 by then and managed to name-drop Karl Lagerfeld, Linda Evangelista, and Nation of Ulysses in the piece--hated the whole thing. The mud. The incessant beats. The freaky accessories. The little brown bottles of amyl nitrate. The wide-eyed buzz of ecstasy.

The underground had already begun to surface--as Kelly pointed out, Mixmag had recently fingered Prodigy as the band that ruined everything. But for those of us who were just learning about it, even the tail end of the secret scene seemed intimate and exciting. Promoters went to great lengths developing themes, throwing parties in appropriate venues: Twister, named after the game, was held in a school gym. I used to scour flyers for arcane symbolism; one for a rave called Babylon incorporated hieroglyphics. Another flyer promised, "In time we all will be together...gliding to the unknown, for we each have what it takes, not just as a family, but as individual human beings." When you're 16, that sort of thing sounds inspiring. People still decked themselves out in plastics and platforms and glitter and you could dance until 8 AM, when big boxes of oranges might show up for breakfast; after-parties would go past noon. There was a general disdain for alcohol "because it makes people violent," as a friend put it.

Like most public gatherings, raves attracted some fantastic people and some stupid ones. They could be sketchy at times: one party involved calling a succession of hot lines for vague directions to a secluded gravel parking lot in the middle of Wisconsin, then meeting up with a superstoned guide who gave even less clear directions to the final destination. From time to time the police busted the parties before they even started. But the uncertainty was part of the excitement, and the experience rarely seemed as dangerous as the press would later make it out to be.

Now rave is one of those buzzwords that've been sensationalized to the point of no return, conjuring secretive all-night narcoticfests where kids fall into K-holes and emerge with strange rashes or drop E and die from dehydration. Oddly, when promoters began declaring the parties "secure"--stationing off-duty cops inside the venue to monitor the situation--they were more likely to end up as free-for-alls tarnished by date rapes and overdoses. Thanks to all the hype, kids began coming out with the express purpose of scoring some totally wicked drugs. So the more legit a party tried to be, the more illegal it turned out.

These days Chicago promoters won't even utter the word rave--not just because it's dorky and passe, but also because it could cost them a bundle of cash. Last spring City Hall passed what's commonly referred to as the antirave ordinance, which requires the venues for such events to procure an amusement license and liability insurance and to shut down by the relatively early hour of 2 AM. Not that similar restrictions help control the drug use at, say, your average Jimmy Buffett concert, but violators of the antirave ordinance, including the venue's owner and lessee, party promoters, and even the DJs, can be fined up to $10,000 each. And stricter legislation, threatening those parties with up to six weeks of jail time, was passed in March.

Any movement that's ever been grossly misunderstood, misinterpreted, or suppressed by the Man attains a certain romantic status. But any romance built on bitter feelings alone will ultimately crumble. A local not-for-profit organization called Conjugate Projekt exists, according to its Web site, "for the soul purpose of promoting, advocating, and cultivating independent endeavors in contemporary art, music, and media in order to stimulate new ways of thinking about how we produce and consume our creative environment while utilizing the arts to address our social causes." In practice, they've been putting on what you might call educational raves. Last summer they presented two G-rated "afternoons of audial stimulation" in Grant Park, and on July 7 they're putting on an electronic music event with free dance lessons in the Chicago Cultural Center.

Two weeks ago, they threw a party called Motionness aboard a chartered six-car el train, and I went. It started at the Division stop on the Blue Line and traveled the entire length of the Red Line, from Howard to 95th and State. Eighteen local DJs and six video artists donated their time. The $30 cover charge went to train-rental expenses and a $400 donation to the El Hogar del Niño community center in Pilsen. Before dispensing any tickets--handmade one-inch-square clay tiles imprinted with the letter T--the Projekt people individually met each would-be partygoer, attempting to separate the spoilers from the starry-eyed.

When the train pulled into the station, the 300 or so approved participants let out excited whoops. The DJs were already going at it, and even from the outside you could see that each car was decorated thematically. One looked like a plastic moon, with white garbage bags stretched across the ceiling and seats and seared in just the right places to pucker up into craters. Windows on another car, covered in plastic film painted black, were made to look like they were cracked. Waxed paper hanging in long, wide strips served as video screens, onto which were projected cheesy fluorescent fractals and silhouettes of dancing women.

CTA patrons waiting for their regular trains looked around in confusion as we giddily climbed into the cars. Upon stepping into the train, most of us looked around a bit, then politely sat down. Then the train started moving and everyone cracked huge smiles, still seated. After a couple minutes, people got up to dance and scope things out, walking between cars in search of the best DJ. Soon the train felt like any other club, minus the booze and strategic ass humping--full of sweaty energy and short on space. At one point I caught a whiff of weed, but otherwise didn't detect any more drug use than on your average off-peak el ride.

There were no stages for the DJs, just tables made of foam-covered boards laid across the bars near one set of doors in each car. The dance floor (any standing room) was pretty much right on top of the spectator area (the seats). The train swayed so much that physical human contact was unavoidable. Sometimes the train would slow or stop briefly, and the outside world presented itself in cinematic snippets: in one loft guests were just arriving to a fancy, low-lit dinner party; a couple fought somewhere on the south side; in Wrigleyville a man watched TV alone; a woman waiting at some el stop after I lost track of our location turned her back to the train and shook her booty. Once in a while a passenger would shout, "Where am I?" or, "I can't believe I live here!" The city, which so often feels like it was planned according to the needs of men in suits, looked green and unexplored. And the train system itself--considered in recent years to be as much a tool of oppression as a public convenience--suddenly seemed like the greatest invention in the world, an honest attempt to make every corner of Chicago available to everyone.

I would've ruminated like this for the entire ride if the music hadn't snapped me out of my righteous speculations. Most DJs had whole cars hopping, but my personal favorite, Tommie Sunshine, went for theme over thump: He started his set with the languid song from the scene in Risky Business where Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay do it on the train; later came the Gap Band's "Party Train" and Berlin's "Metro." He also mixed in the Stooges and Shannon's "Let the Music Play," pissing off almost everyone. Soon maybe five people tops were dancing, the majority having exited the car in hopes of finding a more orthodox end to the party. Sunshine said he's used to this sort of thing, and in fact is shocked when people actually enjoy his set. "You don't get anywhere by being like everybody else," he said.

The train pulled back into the Division stop around 1 AM, an hour behind schedule. After four hours of dancing and resting, brooding and blissing out, I had lost my land legs, and wobbled a little upon exiting. It would be exaggerating to say the night went off without a hitch; frequent power surges caused the music and visuals in individual cars to temporarily shut off, the records sometimes skipped, and everyone had to learn how to make near falls look like dance moves. Still, no one gasped for water, no kids screwed in a corner, no designer-drug lockjaw revealed itself.

Had the train been a warehouse, the party would've been illegal. Instead, it amounted to a small act of civil disobedience: not only was it a coup for the movement, but the Man himself provided the motion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling.

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