This is a post in my 1997 series: the first part is an excerpt from Chapter XI, which takes place in May 1998. I was back home in the Bay Area after my first year in college, and my one-year rave anniversary was approaching. For background on 1997, read the introduction. A few names below have been changed.
* * *
I anticipated Westside Crewsade and Feel Good Forever1 all week as I worked my shifts at Tower Records in San Mateo, where I’d shopped since middle school. After my first party a year ago, I’d scoured their counters for flyers and “dance and electronica” section for CDs, so getting hired was an accomplishment.
Earlier that month, I’d arrived for my interview in a nice blouse and black slacks. The general manager had looked at me funny as I sat in the chair in his office, then offered me a job after he said I “dressed real nice.” I walked out of the employee lounge, and I scanned the store for my future co-workers. The eclectic staff of wage slaves was composed of teenagers, older kids at local community colleges, skaters, and clubbers. One of the supervisors was draped in black mesh and leather and scurried up and down the aisles, his long black tresses swaying in the breeze he created. The past few times I’d visited the store, I saw a couple ravers working a shift, and several younger boys from Dan’s high school who played in local bands. Feeling hip, I left the store and couldn’t wait to work.
I learned a lot about music just in my first few weeks as I wandered the aisles to alphabetize CDs and tapes. Employees were instructed to organize specific sections on the sales floor, but I gravitated to the several shelves of DJs and dance artists when my supervisors didn’t pay attention, which was often. After examining the section each day, I realized the dance genre included an array of dialects I needed to master: chill-out, downtempo, ambient, speed garage, Goa trance, acid trance, Ibiza trance, progressive trance, two-step, jump-up, hardstep, NRG, hardcore, Asian Underground, progressive house, tech house, acid house, funky house, big beat, funky breaks, Nu school breaks, electro, dirty electro, ghetto tech, tribal tech-house, deep house. And there were even more.
The music was developing into a second language, what neuroscientist Daniel Levitin refers to in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession as a “musical grammar” for a specialized culture. The music was full of beats of various tempos, layers of noise, high-pitched synthesizers, and melodic build-ups with bells, thumps, scratches, and sometimes knocks. These elements piled over the heartbeat of a song, which older ravers called a bassline.
With trance, for instance, the sound was precise; if it was tangible, its edges were sharp, like slants of a blade piercing me at various pressure points. Other times, the music’s bass, as with house, a style I wasn’t that into, felt more encompassing — it massaged my entire body and was soulful, deep, and even sensual. But house felt too slow and never made me want to dance, so at every party we went to, I steered clear of that room. Ravers in the house room were different, and some noticeably older.2 The havoc of drum and bass, on the other hand, was still daunting, and it was difficult to wrap my body around the sound, but I sensed an organization to it, so I kept listening and studying. I wanted to get drum and bass like Dan and his friends did.3
At the end of the work week, I stood behind the front counter. I was barely over five feet tall, so my supervisor had suggested I stand on one of the unused crates from the storage room whenever it was my stint behind the counter.
I twirled my ponytail as I waited to ring a customer up. A girl with short hair approached the counter, and she wanted to purchase a ticket for a party. She peered at some flyers on the counter, and her eyes locked on the Feel Good Forever flyer.
“Are you going to that?” I asked.
“Yeah!” she exclaimed. We chatted about the lineup, and after the transaction, she smiled and walked off. Paige, one of the older employees who I hadn’t really talked to much, stood behind the other register. I had the feeling she’d worked at the store for a good while. She stared at me as I balanced myself on the crate.
“You go to parties?” she asked.
“Yeah. I’m so excited. This is gonna be my one-year anniversary,” I said as I motioned to the flyer on the counter. “It’s kind of a big deal for me.”
“That’s cool,” she answered. I figured she probably had no idea what I was talking about, so I excused her apathy. My break was coming up soon, and Sara was supposed to visit, so I peeked through the window into the parking lot. I felt Paige’s eyes on me.
“You ever go to the Wicked parties?” she asked.
“The what?” I asked.
“The Wicked full moon parties back in the day, like on Baker Beach,” she continued.
“No,” I said.
“Come-Unity?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Those were parties.” Her gaze drilled a hole into me, and she strolled onto the sales floor.
* * *
I love thinking about the cycles of a movement. In Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, Matthew Collin writes that all rave movements of the past, present, and future will go through their own honeymoon, excess, comedown, and re-entry phases. At first, crawling out of this world was hard. Really hard. A comedown that spanned many years, a long moment between the past and the future. These days, I still go out to dance, but my place is on the periphery, peering in.
Last night at the Fox Theater in Oakland, I watched Underworld live for the first time in all of these years. They’ve been in the lineup at a number of festivals I’ve been to, but I’d never stopped to watch their set, perhaps because I’ve thought they’d always be around. When I arrived and met my friends outside of the Fox, they were laughing, as someone with a cane had just walked in. Later, as we waited near the stage during the sound check, it seemed like there was no one under 30 inside — except for the occasional tween, who had accompanied a parent on an aging raver’s night out.
Underworld put on an incredible show. I wasn’t expecting that, and I don’t know what I was expecting, but I got all emotional and it felt like everyone around me did, too. I love how music from then so effortlessly stirs up the best memories. How on earth could “Born Slippy” or “Dirty Epic” or “Cowgirl” not stir up the good?
You bring light in, you bring light in, you bring light in, you bring light in…
Ten years ago, when I was retelling these experiences on paper for the first time, I was scared that they were ultimately empty and disgraceful. I was ashamed, seeing myself under a harsh light. I wasn’t proud of the manuscript, as a person and as a writer, and couldn’t share it freely with family and friends once finished. It’s just not a story you want your mom to read, you know? But I was reminded last night: there was beauty here. When you strip everything away — including, or especially, the drugs — the vestiges from this experience are sweet and light, found in the voice of Underworld frontman Karl Hyde in “Two Months Off.” In the bouncy steps of the 50-year-old man dancing near us. But also in my younger cousin, Terrence, who now experiences his own version of this. Terrence is nearly fifteen years younger than I am, but we’ve bonded through dance music, through dancing, through this, whatever this is — and though our experiences have been very different, and span many years, the core and heart are the same: To be deeply moved by music. To connect with others, no matter who they are. To find and recognize the good in our lives. To be part of something bigger.
This hit me hard this past December, at the Weather Festival in Paris, as I wandered the concrete playground of the Paris Event Center with Terrence and his friends. I was in a place I’d never been, dancing in a crowd of young, sweaty Parisians, and at times feeling noticeably older (Terrence laughed when he saw that I carried hand sanitizer in my pocket).
But still, in those nocturnal hours, I felt like I’d come home.
When I got the idea to revisit this older writing, just several posts ago, I thought I was embarking on a big personal writing project — one that would challenge me to write, to explore big ideas in my head, and to quiet the parts of me I’d neglected for so long. But to be honest, I’m not sure how much more I need to probe my insides with a stick. It’s not that there’s nothing there. Quite the opposite: it’s all there, swirling in my gut, in my heart, and in my head. This experience continues to mold me and shape anything that I write. There’s a bit of that romantic writer in me that has felt the need to find closure. But last night, feeling everything that I love about this scene in the sound of Underworld, I’m reminded again that this moment continues to evolve, and as long as I’m able to stay up past midnight on occasion, I’m still a part of it.
And so I don’t think I can turn the last page in this book; I don’t think there’s a point where I can say, okay, this 1997 series is done. Instead, I’ve screwed on a permanent soft filter on the lens I use to write about my life and the world.
Underworld, Fox Theater, Oakland, April 2016.