Old School

I just wrote a foreward for a book that’s coming out next year about Rave and Religion. Took me back. I thought I’d post it here, because it reveals something about my early work and thinking that might be of interest, or even surprising, to those of you who came to this particular party more recently.


Never trust a writer to chronicle a movement.

Those of us filing early dispatches from the temporary autonomous zones later known as ‘raves’ really thought we were just observing the scene. Well, participating in that way that all journalists since Hunter S. Thompson have had to acknowledge their own presence at the fringe of the story. But not really engaging in the event as one of them – those kids who really think something is happening other than a bunch of people dancing on drugs.

Right. You try going to a rave as a spectator and see what happens.

For me, it all began while I was researching a book on early cyberculture. Around 1990, the entirety of California’s emerging digital society seemed to be summed up by a single image: the fractal. I’d see the paisley-like geometry on Grateful Dead tickets, in new reports out of UC Santa Cruz about systems theory, on the t-shirts of kids also wearing cryptic smiles, in books on chaos math and on the computer screens of virtual reality programmers at Sun. These depictions of non-linear math equations – equations that cycle almost infinitely rather than finding “solutions” as we commonly think of them – embodied a new way of looking at the world.

As we were all to learn, the fractal is a self-similar universe. Zoom in on one level, and you find a shape strikingly similar but not exactly the same as one on a higher level, and so on. The fractal is a conceptual leap, inhabiting the space between formerly discreet dimensions. In the process, it allows us to measure the very rough surfaces of reality – rocks, forests, clouds and the weather – more accurately and satisfactorily than the idealistic but altogether limited linear approximations we’d been using since the ancient Greeks. The fractal heralded a new way of looking at the world – of experiencing it – and of understanding that every tiny detail reflected, in some small way, the entirety of the system.

That’s why when an anonymous skate kid on the Lower Haight happened to hand me a tiny swatch of paper with a fractal stamped on one side, I was compelled to turn it over and try to decrypt the little map on the other. By about two the next morning, having found the mysterious location (apparently an abandoned whorehouse in Oakland), I also discovered the true meaning of the fractal.

See, I was a writer. On assignment from New York, with a real advance. That gave me the perfect excuse to play the part of participant-observer. To stand on the fringe, watch the crazy kids on E drinking their smart drinks, playing with brain machines, and dancing under lasers to the 120 bpm bleep tracks. Cool. I’d happened upon an update of the Acid Test, an environment designed to induce altered states of consciousness.

I didn’t take it so very seriously, though, until I began talking with the organizers. As the first journalist on this particular scene, I got the royal treatment. This was before the rave movement and most of the rest of America became a media circus. There were still a few pockets like this one, and grunge, that remained relatively undiscovered country. But, unlike grunge, the kids making raves in America wanted to be discovered. They believed that they had created a hybrid of countercultural agenda and mainstream hype. It was a delicate balance, but the main idea was to make love trendy.

And all you had to do to “get it” was show up, maybe pop an E, and dance with the beautiful boys and girls. That’s right – dance with everyone, not a partner. It wasn’t about scoring, it was about group organism. Like a slam-dance or mosh pit, but without the slamming. Just the groove. And the smiles. If everything went right – and usually everything went right – there’d be a moment, or maybe even a whole hour – when it just clicked into place. All the individual dancers would experience themselves as this single, coordinated being. A creature with a thousand arms and eyes, making love with itself and reaching back as far as creation and forward to the very end of time. They became a living fractal, feeding back on itself – sometimes quite literally with video cameras, projectors, and screens – right through to infinity. And, as Peter Pan, the first fairy tale raver told us, “beyond.”

Evolution was no longer competition, it was a team sport. Fueled by music, chemicals, motion, and, most of all, empathy. We were navigating a course through hyperspace to the attractor at the end of history.

Did I say “we?” Of course I mean, “they.” For I was determined to remain on the fringe. One foot in, so I’d know what I was writing about, but one foot out, so I’d maintain my journalistic integrity. Or so I thought.

For what was I really hanging onto by keeping one foot off the dance floor at all times? Perspective? What did that matter when the view from inside the fractal is no less objective? All perspectives are arbitrary. Besides, how could I write about what this thing called “rave” really looks like if I don’t know how the group sees itself? After all, that’s the whole point of this exercise, right? To create group consciousness, and group perspective?

No, I wasn’t maintaining journalistic integrity at all, I told myself. I was just afraid. Of what? The intimacy. Losing myself to the sea of, well, love. Breaking the boundaries that helped me maintain the illusion that I am me, Douglas, the separate person from you. From them.

So, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I went in. Well, why the fuck not? It was contagious, alive, welcoming, and so very very seductive. It was a lust that I felt, plain and simple. Not for a sexual union, but to merge with this creature and all its many component people.

They got me. Or should I say, it got me. And then I was it.

And I dutifully wrote my books about what I found out: there’s a bunch of people dancing to a new kind of music, but it isn’t just dancing because what they’ve discovered – or think they’ve discovered – is that they’ve learned how to make God. Add a few bracketing devices so it doesn’t look like I necessarily believe they can do what they think they’re doing, and call it a day.

There was no way for me to emerge from the experience of rave, however, without becoming both its chronicler and its propagandist. This is your brain on journalism; this is your brain after being dipped into the rave phenomenon. My work of that period is probably more valuable as an example of what people wrote like when they were experiencing the rave reality than what may have actually happened. Or what it was really about. After I was done with my ‘non-fiction’ book about this culture, I wrote a fictitious novel that was entirely more accurate.

That’s why this volume strikes me as so important. The contributors to this book have taken the time and exercised the discipline necessary to put rave in its proper historical and social context as a religious movement. I may have some problems with the word religion, because it sounds so organized and institutional while rave has always been such a spontaneous and emergent phenomenon. But there are certainly some formulas involved in making a rave happen, and a pretty common set of reactions to the experience.

If it really is a religion, then I suppose rave is over in some respects. For once it can be catalogued and comprehended, is it still a spiritual experience capable of breaking the boundaries between self and everything else? Perhaps not.

But beware. You don’t have to be on E, or even in a club, to be infected by the very viral thought structures and emotional responses generated by a rave gathering. After all, a rave doesn’t happen in space, but in time – stretching well into the past and into the future. We knew back then that we were speaking to others through our movements. Maybe those others were you.

Indeed, the raves described on pages ahead of you are still occurring, and no matter how removed you think you might be from their effects, the logic of the fractal may just come to include you, too.