The First Comedown

This is a post in my 1997 series. For background, read the introduction. The name in the excerpt below has been changed.


Here’s a (badly written) passage, in which I describe going home — and coming down — from my first party:

Even though my eyes were tired, I examined the foreign section of Oakland out of my window as we exited the parking lot onto Hegenberger Road and passed a gas station and a Denny’s. Most of the East Bay was unfamiliar, as I spent my days in the suburbs south of San Francisco. I’d driven to this part of Oakland, but only to see rock concerts at the Oakland Coliseum or Arena across Interstate 880, or to scoop up visitors at the Oakland Airport further down Hegenberger Road.


All I could hear was an inexplicable hum — a faint noise akin to a layer of sound that lingers a minute or so after a bell is rung. Dan, somewhat more alert than I — and I hoped so since he was driving — looked over at me from time to time but did not speak. I wondered if he knew I was trying to piece together and make sense of the night. The sun began to creep into the sky, past the high-rise condominiums and skyscrapers along the water of the Embarcadero, and even beyond the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. As light filtered into our car, Dan sped west across the top level of the Bay Bridge, through Treasure Island and toward San Francisco. The sparse traffic on the freeway at that hour on Sunday morning must have been different from the previous Friday afternoon’s traffic when carloads of families headed east to Yosemite, northeast to Lake Tahoe, or south to Los Angeles for Memorial Day weekend.


We drove off the bridge, passing exits to downtown and bright and flashy billboards for Coca-Cola and Yahoo! Large sports utility vehicles whizzed by, as well as shiny new upgrades of Volkswagen Bugs. Dan and I exchanged glances of disgust and chuckled, aware of the new presence of Dot Commers in the Bay Area, especially in Silicon Valley, further south where I lived.


My eyelids quivered again, and I closed them.


If you take away the music, the dancing, and the drugs, the constant in Ten Years in a Trance is technology. I tried to describe two very different ways I interacted with “technology” in the mid-to-late 1990s, within the rave and outside of it. I place “technology” in quotes because when I was 17, that’s the word I used to describe anything related to “Dot Coms,” or “the World Wide Web,” or those mysterious things my friends called “startups,” which I heard about more and more after I graduated from high school. Later, when I wrote these pages, I attempted to describe the physical presence of techno, of the sound itself, inside abandoned warehouses. Again, it all came down to “technology,” from synthesizers to drum machines. Perhaps in both cases I didn’t have the vocabulary or the knowledge. Or maybe I was still processing how my life, and how the world, was changing.

But I don’t feel any more comfortable writing about technology now than I did then. If anything, it’s even harder, because today there’s a word for everything, and everyone has an opinion, and everything’s been written — or at least feels that way. What could I possibly add to the conversation, I think every time I sit down to write.

But there were (and are) many different rave scenes around the world. Mine was sandwiched between the years of Wicked, sunrise beach parties, and San Francisco house in the early 1990s and the flashy, concert-like Skills events thrown at the Civic Center and proper venues from the early 2000s and on.

Our warehouse parties were special in their own way.

I have felt an in-betweenness — the straddling of pre- and post-internet worlds — in this part of my life, too.


In these manuscript pages, I wrote about how people boasted about the new ways they were creating, consuming, and controlling technology. Or waiting in line at Starbucks and eavesdropping on men who wore badges around their necks, talking about video games and programming. At the time, I lived in Redwood Shores, where Oracle and Electronic Arts made their headquarters, and drove a stretch of highway 101 each day where I was fed new billboards about computer software.

At night, at warehouse parties, machines were indeed taking over, but in a very different way. Instead, they interacted with us. They communicated with us. They came alive, and with their beat, so did we.

Within the rave, I felt a symbiotic relationship with the machines that produced dance music, which was quite a different sensation from how “dot com culture” made me think and feel about technology. In my manuscript, I wasn’t really sure what I was saying, but five years later, in an essay I was invited to write at Cyborgology, I attempted again:

Looking back, my experiences in the electronic dance subculture fifteen years ago were my first encounters with the augmented self. There was no distinction between the physical and the digital on the dance floor, and the future materialized through that world in ways that I struggled to understand.


Today, when my nephews play video games with the Kinect—a motion sensor device allowing them to interact with an Xbox with their bodies instead of a controller—I think back to the Bay Area warehouse rave scene in the years before the millennium, just before the movement peaked. Of how “technology” materialized in a sensory, eye-opening way. Of how the warehouse morphed into a massive machine, its insides rumbling and churning with sounds that were primal and raw. Of how we responded to techno through dancing, using our bodies to show what the sound looked like, but also how a machine seemed to be dancing with and leading us.


It was a world in which we truly played with technology—where the field was level, and where everyone, no matter who they were or where they were from, had access to it. I came back to this place each weekend, as if returning to a womb to be reborn as an upgraded being—to interact in a frictionless realm where we allowed machines to manipulate our bodies like yo-yos, and where we responded to their maternal calls.

It was a world in which we truly played with technology — where the field was level, and where everyone, no matter who they were or where they were from, had access to it. 

This. This line resonates today, and it reveals what I truly loved about our scene.


Today, I see a San Francisco that I loathe. A sterile and soulless city. Rich, connected, but empty. I see a tech industry I cannot identify with, and am reluctantly part of. Plugged in, having instant access to pretty much anything with the click of a button.

I follow the evolution of “EDM” and today’s dance festivals: People facing a stage. Consuming an audiovisual experience. Hiding away in VIP tents. Programmed and expected to hear a drop.

And then I dream of nights when everyone actually danced, together. Where the sound was faceless, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. Where everyone was the same in the dark. And where a single moment stretched for five hours — and you worked for your high.

This thread I began to weave, ten years ago, feels even more timely now.

Featured image was taken at 5Pointz in New York City.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

15 thoughts on “The First Comedown

  1. While I always cringe a bit on the outside when I look at the older material I’ve written, but deep down I love and miss the feeling of just letting it all flow. Experiences of my younger days always tend to get a little warped and synthesized in my mind as an older adult, so it’s not a true memory – but with my younger writing, it is there and unabashed. I love the feeling. It takes me back. Your reflections of the raves, the warehouse parties and the way people and tech were able to create such synergies together…and lived life like kids need to live.

    Those strong memories seem a lifetime ago. I think we all have some moments like that, something that connects and lets us form a relationship with a place/city at a specific time. And then it is gone. You mention the San Francisco you loathe ~ and feel this about many cities these days. Tech and changes make these environments “sterile and soulless” and this post makes me a bit wistful of the past, and ready to find a tiny house out in the country… (OK, maybe not quite at the ‘Tiny House’ stage just yet!).

    1. I’m glad that you identified to this in some way despite not having this specific experience; I don’t want to alienate readers. Part of me thinks, “don’t publish this self-absorbed crap,” but it’s been a good exercise pulling bits that I feel are universal.

  2. I used to love the journey home after nights of debauched consumption of chemicals.
    My favourite was the sound of birdsong, usually augmented by the receding audio hallucinations of acid, mushrooms or ecstasy; the internal reverb and delay, heard only in my head, resulting in a constant, swirling soundscape of twittering and whistling that made even the drabbest of dawns seem magical and exotic.
    Then, the experience of watching the world wake up from my window, gazing into the street as those other poor fools made their way to work, whilst I relaxed with a chilling spliff and contemplated the idea of breakfast, as my suspended metabolism came back online.
    More than that; glimpses of memories from the night before, fading in and out of focus as snatches of tunes, both real and imagined, circle my head in sparkling waves, before fading away and finally allowing me to sleep.

    1. Your comments on sound made me think of another bit from my writing, when my friend Todd describes this in his own way:

      “We reached the height of our experience after the loud music was shut off,” Todd explains, and we sat around at ten in the morning, our ears numb from “speaker freaking” and succumbing to the bass. . . . “We then began to hear music of the everyday,” says Todd, and distinguished ambient sounds — cars on the freeway, birds in trees, kids playing in parks — rearranged to form a soundtrack for our daily lives.

      Thanks for sharing your own experience — I love how you’ve expressed it.

      1. Yes, I identify with that, totally. I could write pages and pages of stuff about those days, but I’d be worried that many readers would find a load of “drug stories” a bit tedious. There are some hilarious tales, nonetheless.

        1. “I’d be worried that many readers would find a load of ‘drug stories’ a bit tedious.” Yes, I feel exactly that, and I’ve always tip-toed around these stories, at least here on my blog. I have a lot of these scenes and conversations written out, but I don’t plan to revisit or reshare them here in much detail. At the moment, I seem to be more interested in the residue of that experience, not the experience itself.

          1. Having spent a while living in a coach with a group of “travellers”, and then fully embracing the E culture a few years later, the ’90s were pretty full on. I could probably work a lot of it up into a good story, but I’d want to showcase all that stuff on a different, more dedicated blog.

  3. Likewise…I remember the excitement in the 90s about the possibilities of digital technologies and that potentially, they could benefit everyone regardless of their background. Then the dream started to go sour as everything was corporatised… As I live near and used to work in London, I have fond memories of the city going back from the 1990s when you could live there on a low income. That’s when London had a soul as it would attract the creatives, the dreamers, the chancers, the rebellious looking for some life. Now it’s becoming a soulless repository for the wealth of the global super rich as they take over the place with a sea of bland, corporate developments while the poor and marginalised are forced out beyond the city…

  4. Cool to hear a younger generation than mine, by 10 years, grieving for a lost sense of community w/technology as it stands today. I feel old doing it sometimes but I guess as the old gets older they get more stubborn, until they’re in their bathrobes and slippers pushing shopping carts and mumbling. Your descriptions made me think of the Punk scene too, this notion anyone’s welcome, and especially outcasts. For what it’s worth, as someone who knows a bit about the Rave scene by way of the English origin in the early 90s (Happy Mondays, etc.) I would like to learn more about it in your writing, for added context. I wonder how much Rave resonates with people today, how well it’s understood and so on. And why the Ecstasy, was it just a time for that, like ‘you’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter’ (a bad Reese’s reference)?

    1. There is one moment at my first rave that remains so vivid, when The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” came on in the main room. My ears weren’t yet attuned to electronic/dance music, so that night everything sounded like loud, thumping noise with no words. But I recognized “Firestarter” as soon as it came on (the track was heavily rotated on one of the Bay Area’s “modern/alternative rock” stations at the time). So then, by default, it became the song that I identified with this first, eye-opening experience, and my entrance into the scene.

      I just found this bit in my manuscript’s epilogue:

      The Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” their global 1996 hit single from The Fat of the Land, is the only crisp audio I can extract from the memory of my first rave. . . . But The Prodigy was accused of killing off Britain’s underground sound, hardcore, as early as 1992, when I was just a seventh grader. Conceptually different from the stationary and anonymous DJ, The Prodigy and similar hardcore “bands” performed in circus-sized tents in the countryside outside London, adulterating the music by fusing a face to the beat. I’d criticized Mars and Mystre, and was stunned during Paul Oakenfold’s one-man show, for the same action. “Firestarter,” a tainted track that represented the downfall of an original movement, signified my birth into a culture that was already dead.

      I like thinking about the cycles of a subculture — I’ll probably share more from the above excerpt when I can.

      1. Yeah, there’s obvious cool social areas you can explore with this but for music geeks like me I’d also like to be educated about the scene and how the LA expression of rave differed from the UK one, etc. But maybe I’m on the proverbial left end of the dial. I recall from this time in the 90s the Orb song about puffy clouds (like, some chick ‘noticing’ puffy clouds for the first time and going on about them) …funny, I liken that to the Firestarter song. I don’t know if you ever saw the Sprockets skit from SNL from the 90s making fun of German post-modernism or whatever, but I attach that skit to the Firestarter song, I pair the two, and it’s a fun, funny memory. Cheers to you and yours. You’re on to good stuff here and I’m looking forward to more.

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