This is part of my 1997 project, which resurrects material from a manuscript I’d written in my MFA program from 2006-07.

All material below is original and unedited, with the exception of a few first names, which have been changed. Anything new is in a footnote. The footnote experience isn’t as smooth as I’d like — you might lose your place as you go back and forth, so remember the number of the footnote you’re on as you read! I’d love to display in-line comments in the margins, but I’m not sure that’s possible.

This is a fragment from Chapter VII, which is set in the fall of 1997 when I moved onto campus for my first semester of college in Los Angeles. This is the first “installment” of 1997, and while I could have thought long and hard about what to present first, I didn’t want to think too much, as the whole point of this is to let go and dive in. But I picked this excerpt because it reveals an eager, curious seventeen-year-old, and the beginnings of a descent into a nocturnal world that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. You’ll find brief comments in the footnotes, but I’ll likely follow up with more thoughts next time.

For an introduction to the project, read 1997.

* * *

This Hito promo mix from Fabric popped up in my Soundcloud feed this week — there are lapses that I love that remind me of good times.

* * *

I used the rubber doorstop to keep my door wide open so I could try to meet some of my neighbors. I started to unpack a box, and I pulled out my royal blue Adidas jacket — recently bought and ready to wear — and hung it on a hanger. I took my favorite pair of black steel-toed Doc Marten boots, which reached to my knees, but I hadn’t worn them as much as I used to. Instead, I wore my black Puma sneakers every day, which I had on.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure glide down the hallway. I froze. I ran to my doorway and peeked down the hall and saw a guy with spiky bleached hair in a white Adidas visor, a bright yellow jacket, and huge denim pants. I wanted to find ravers on campus, and he definitely was one. He disappeared up the staircase at the end of the wing.

One night later that week, I lingered outside McKay, my dorm, and smoked Menthols with my new friend Leah, a skinny blonde girl from Hawaii who lived down the hall on my floor. Bing, an outgoing girl I met on my first night on campus, smoked with us in the courtyard. Bing was from the Philippines, which I thought was cool, and I’d mentioned the towns where my mother and father grew up. She lived in one of the all-female dorms on the other side of campus. I looked in that direction, and all of a sudden I saw flashing rainbow dots floating toward us. Tiny colored lights were attached to a hat on someone’s head.

After a few moments, I realized the guy I’d seen walking past my door earlier that week now strolled toward us. I grew excited as he walked up the steps and saw us smoking on the bench.

“Cool lights,” Bing said.

“Thanks,” the guy with the bleached hair said. He smoked as well, and he walked to our bench. He had headphones on, and I could hear the thump of his music.

Techno. 1

“What are you guys up to tonight?” he asked. He glanced at all three of us. I pretended to look apathetic, but I was dying to know where he was from and what he’d say.

“Just hanging out. What about you?” Bing asked.

“I don’t know. Some people are drinking in their rooms. But I might go to a party off-campus,” he said.

“What’s your name?” Bing asked.

“Mike,” he said. They shook hands. Leah introduced herself. Then I did.

“Where’s the party?” Bing asked. I looked at her contently. She wasn’t reserved and shy like I usually was.

“I’m not sure yet. But the line-up’s fucking sick,” he said. My eyes widened. Bing didn’t respond. It didn’t look like she went to raves, so she didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Who’s spinning?” I asked.

He lifted one of his headphones. We heard the music he blasted into his ears. “This guy, Thomas Michael,” he said. “And some others.”

“Cool,” I replied. Mike flicked his cigarette onto the ground. He gave us a gentle nod and sauntered off.

After bumping into Mike numerous times over the first months of the semester, he invited me to Oz, my first party in Southern California. It was being thrown in a multi-level Victorian hotel in eerie downtown Los Angeles. He said we were going with another guy, a freshman like us, whom he met in his dorm. That was the night I met Greg, who donned wide-legged jeans and a shaved head.

At the venue, the legendary Alexandria Hotel,2 we ascended a wide and ornate staircase to reach the rooms above. The interior was old and beautiful — a historical, seemingly haunted site resuscitated from the beat of the music. One room, which looked like it used to be an elegant ballroom, had gorgeous walls and a ceiling adorned with chandeliers. The vibe of the party was different from the ones I’d been to, perhaps because I didn’t recognize any faces and noticed more evidence of “candy” — rainbow-colored beaded jewelry — on partiers. I felt as if I were submerged in an odd, warped fairy tale, where some kids dressed up in playful costumes. I realized the atmosphere fabricated at any party was dependent on the personalities of my fellow ravers. Oz lived up to its name.

That inaugural night in the Los Angeles rave scene made me really miss home. Luckily, I flew back to the Bay Area a few days later for Thanksgiving. I was excited about Big Floor, the party Sara, Dan, and I planned for the Saturday night following my family’s feast. I now estimated the success and vibe of a party based on the size and design of a flyer.3 Though the flyer I had for Big Floor was a tiny square sheet of paper, the line-up sounded fantastic: DJ Dan, Donald Glaude, Thomas Michael, and others. I recognized Thomas Michael’s name because of Mike, and I’d finally watched DJ Dan spin at a small, intimate club called Big Heart City 4 near the intersection of Fourth and Mission in downtown San Francisco, after I’d heard some of Dan’s friends and older ravers talk about him. I didn’t know much about Donald Glaude,5 a DJ from Seattle, but I noticed his name on many flyers. Recognizing the names on the lineup produced a whirlwind of pleasure inside me. I’d even begun to ascribe the overall effect of the E I dropped to the names of these DJs, primarily males, on flyers. The more familiar names on a lineup, the better the party, and the better the E effect. I expected Big Floor to be amazing.

Big Floor was indeed thrown at Home Base,6 which is what we anticipated. Home Base did feel like “home” because I knew its dark rooms and corners; returning to the venue was like revisiting the dark womb where my nighttime persona was born.

Early in the morning, as I peaked on the dance floor of the main room, a dancer threw his glow stick in the air, and I watched it rise — in slow motion — and recalled the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This guy was like a caveman, and his glow stick was the fragmented piece of bone that the man-ape in Stanley Kubrick’s film flung into the sky that spun and transformed into a satellite in orbit.

As I danced, my eyes drifted into the air like the glow stick. I sensed the presence of thousands of others below, organized in rows on the dance floor. But when I lowered my head, I watched my feet as they hit the ground, and I started to step in a manner I’d dreamt about — in the way that experienced ravers, like Todd or my new friend Mike, had perfected. I lifted my Shell-Toes with one beat, and pressed them on the floor on the following beat. I was still far from Todd’s level of command, but I was delighted.7

I raised my head and saw the entire room from an omnipotent position. Flickers of this view were superimposed onto continuous shots of my feet, like two film reels, placed atop each other, rotated together on a projector. I seemed to be part of this militia of dancers, yet still felt solitary as I recorded the moves of my sneakers. I noticed that others twisted and turned up and down and left and right in unison with me.

Within this matrix of dancers, some faced each other, while others revolved around so they faced every direction, but remained in the same slot in the grid. Some, however, deviated to create circles and faced their centers like they sacrificed themselves at bonfires. Several dancers raised their arms toward ominous black speakers like they worshipped a pair of mystical obelisks. The sound was the most peculiar element of the room — the beat had transformed into a decelerated, hypnotic noise.

I don’t know how long I’d been dancing — the lack of awareness of time was a sensation of the trance — but after a while, I saw one of Dan’s friends, Anthony, whom I’d met several times. I saw him approach me as I danced. Excited, I watched him tap me on the shoulder. My vision blurred, and my eyes were yanked back into my head like they were attached to it with a taut yo-yo string. A few seconds later, I saw Anthony’s masked face in front of me. My eyes were in line with his. My sight was back to normal. He had a sailor’s hat on, and the brim above his forehead drooped to disguise him as he roved the warehouse. He leaned in to give me a kiss on the cheek.

“Have you seen Sara or Dan?” I asked. He nodded and lifted up his white facemask to reveal his cute face. A whiff of menthol drifted into my nose. He had slathered Vick’s Vapo Rub into his mask. As his face was close to mine, I inhaled the vapors, which transformed the stench of perspiration in the room into freshness.

“We’re all over here,” he said as he grabbed my hand. He squeezed my sweaty palm, and I responded back with a pump. We weaved through the crowd to a doorway at the far end of the room, dodging dancers with flapping limbs like they were hazards in a dense, neon-green forest. He squeezed my hand again, twice this time, and I smiled and copied him.8 At the opening, I felt a blast of cool air on my slick face. I’d forgotten about this outside world. He led me through a labyrinth of people. In the distance, I saw a large crew, and Sara and Dan chatted over a smoke. I couldn’t wait to share my discovery on the dance floor with them.

I had heard the term trance before, but I didn’t know what it meant until I experienced it that night at Home Base, six months into my journey into the scene. Looking for a way to understand what had happened, I turned to books like Ecstasy: Dance, Trance, and Transformation, which discussed the drug’s history, criminalization, and physical and psychological effects. I was most intrigued when the author, Nicholas Saunders, described his and others’ enlightening experiences with the drug, as well as the effects of it while dancing and listening to music.9

At Big Floor, my consciousness rose to a plane where the minds of other dancers wandered, too. In other books like Dreamtime and Innerspace: The World of the Shaman by Holger Kalweit, tribal shamans are said to shuffle to and within metaphysical terrain to reach a cosmic unity, and attain a trance-like harmony with the rhythm of music through a combination of psychedelic drugs, ceaseless dancing, chanting, and even fasting. Over my first year of raves, I’d adopted a ritual before each party. I listened and meditated to mixes of the DJs I was going to see, and prepared for sessions of all-night dancing by taking Echinacea and Vitamin C, hydrating with water throughout the day, and not eating after breakfast. I’d learned, from past trips, that an empty stomach usually meant a stronger hour of disorientation, and thus a more powerful “roll” that followed.

I came to believe I’d fallen into my own variation of a trance at Big Floor, synchronizing my motions with the gyrations of a mysterious machine — the source of the warehouse that ordered, or encouraged, our army to dance. After a long lapse, I sensed, in my body and mind, the regression of the mass of which I was part to a future-primitive tribe that moved with the beat of the machine, which felt and sounded like our collective heartbeat.10 That mental and physical sensation fusing carnal and mechanical — still inexplicable after all these years — grew stronger as I ventured more to the warehouse.

At Big Floor, I felt alone, curious as to where Sara and Dan were, but also felt part of an upgraded version of a tribe. When I danced, I contributed to a larger purpose. I knew I’d fallen into an unfamiliar state, expressing myself through dancing in ways I never had, yet I let myself go. I felt safe in the darkness, and accepted and loved, even though I didn’t know the dancers around me. I’d never experienced such a powerful sense of belonging to a community.11

The flailing movements of our mass — our implied form of communication — shared what we discovered in our state, yet, at the end of the night, we failed to come to a conclusion of what we experienced. After Anthony pulled me out and I rejoined my friends, I wanted to figure out why I danced so long, and why I understood the strangers next to me even when we didn’t speak.

  1. In general, I’ll always refer to dance music as simply techno, even though I may not be referring specifically to Detroit techno, or Richie Hawtin, or something like that. Then, it became somewhat of a blanket term to refer to all electronic dance music, from house to trance to breaks or even jungle, although this will be met with disagreement by some.  (And no, I don’t call it EDM these days, and I never will.) 
  2. I went to a few parties at the Alexandria during these years. I barely remember its interior — and this particular night — so I’m grateful that I wrote this when I did. And I’d totally forgotten how and through whom I met Greg, who actually became one of my closest friends. 
  3. I once wrote a post about discovering parties through flyers, and hearing about something through the grapevine in the pre-internet and smartphone era. Flyers were a kind of currency. 
  4. Big Heart City used to be near the corner of Fourth and Mission, which now houses Target and the Metreon. I think the Denny’s there has taken its place. It was the first time I saw DJ Dan — he was right there, at arm’s length, in a tiny nightclub. I don’t remember if this was a Funky Tekno Tribe party, but in any case, I was a wee little raver, waving a glowstick. 
  5. Twenty years later, Donald Glaude has remained a favorite. When I was deep in it, I was a slave to cybertrance, and I’d set aside house/funky house for a long time. Today, house remains the most accessible, and the one sound I can keep up with for hours without any “help.” I’ve made it out to see Donald Glaude a few times in recent years — the Tribal Funk 20-Year Family Reunion at Mighty was fun. 
  6. Home Base, the empty warehouse space that was behind the home improvement store on Hegenberger Road in Oakland, is a major setting in the book — and was a primary venue for parties in the mid-to-late nineties. More to come on this spot, I’m sure. 
  7. Writing about dancing to techno is challenging. When I wrote these pages, I was obsessed with doing it right — and in a way that didn’t alienate my reader — but I don’t think I was ever successful, and even when I tried again years later, it felt forced. I’ve never been able to explain the movements my body has been capable of over time, or the incredible experience of doing so in sync with another person. 
  8. I read this for the first time in a long time, and it made me smile. I’d forgotten about Anthony all of these years, but when I now think about this night, I see his face and recall the way he danced so clearly. I’ve often talked about how doing an MFA when I was 25 was a waste of time and money, but if I hadn’t, I’d never have captured these details. They’re buried. 
  9. I had such difficulty going back and forth between my two voices — the wide-eyed seventeen-year-old and the omniscient narrator. It never felt right. I cringe when I read all of this forced exposition, but I’m glad to now have these examples of what not to do.  
  10. Ah, the warehouse as maternal machine. I’m still so fascinated by this: how on the surface, nothing about this setting — a cold, empty, abandoned warehouse; a mechanical, industrial beat; complete darkness — would lead you to think that you’d have a pleasurable experience. And yet the warehouse became a warm womb, and we meshed with a machine that produced the sound that came out of the speakers. These days, at “festivals,” sound and crowd are separate. And I’ve much to say on that, probably soon. 
  11. There’s a strong primitive tribe analogy throughout these pages, and I totally get why I wanted to go that route, but now I can’t help but laugh at the triteness. But as I see, now more than ever, how today’s EDM festival-goers are consumers and spectators facing a stage, the warehouse rave-as-tribe from those years makes much more sense. 

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including

7 thoughts on “Descent

  1. I followed it even though you said there were two voices. It made perfect sense to me. I really liked it and will check out more.

  2. This is wonderful.. “..and why I understood the strangers next to me even when we didn’t speak.” This depicts festivals/raves perfectly! So beautifully written.

  3. Even though you call it trite (Footnote 11), it’s an interesting path to explore, that people can feel that sense of community greater while tripping, or under whatever substance…and why is that, and is it wrong even though it’s real…they’re fun avenues to explore. I’ve often wanted to recount what it’s like to be in a pit slam-dancing or at a Dead show, to capture what it’s like. You’re bold to go there because it’s hard, but it’s terribly intriguing as many haven’t experienced what you did, there. Small details like the hand pump, the mask with the menthol smell give it texture and realness – but I’m sure you know that already from your writing studies and just reading a lot. Thanks for sharing — it is funny how precious it can be in our minds and as soon as it leaves us, it’s been compromised. Thurston Moore said something like that. Cheers, – Bill

    1. Thanks for reading! This is an excerpt from a manuscript I wrote 10 years ago (memoir, not novel) — I don’t plan to publish it, but will be revisiting bits and pieces here on my blog over the next month or so.

  4. Wow, this takes me back to my wild days, (“the hoover years”, as I like to think of them) I went to so many raves and parties and, yes, smoking on the beach (Brighton, mostly).
    That was our version of the “flower power” generation, I think., although ours was turbo powered.

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