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Rave On? 

In the midst of increasing shutdowns and tension with authorities, Bay Area ravers are doing what they've always done -- adapting

Wednesday, Jan 26 2000
The ravers are wall to wall on the dark dance floor of the Maritime Hall. Plastic candy-colored jewelry graces their necks, and many hold pacifiers, whistles, or lollipops in their mouths. Their bodies are illuminated by glow sticks, bike reflector lights, and a webbed ceiling of laserlike strobes above. It's a wonderland for the mostly 21-and-under set -- a "utopia," as one newcomer puts it. At first glance, it seems similar to many other scenes in high school, where the right clothes and accessories are the ticket to assimilation. But unlike the competitive atmosphere of high school gatherings, the kids here are open and friendly, ready with smiles and hugs. No punklike angst, no drunken violence. Most dance to the trance and techno that in later hours will turn into happy hardcore, while others pile up in groups around the room and near the wall, massaging each other, cuddling, or just observing.

In the late '80s and early '90s, when the rave scene erupted in select areas the world over, most of the general population had no idea what raves were, or what to think of the kids seen hopping onto public transportation at 7 in the morning, smelly and beaming after hours of dancing. In San Francisco, Wicked's full-moon parties at spots like Baker Beach and all-nighters such as the Gathering, Toon Town, and A Rave Called Sharon inspired a movement unprecedented in the Bay Area -- a churchlike phenomenon among a few thousand who shared a love for music unheard on the radio waves. It was an underground culture, special to those who experienced it, and not quite understood by those outside it.

Through the '90s, however, the atmosphere changed. Those who were raving hard in 1992 are more likely found these days in SOMA clubs with people their own age (and without pacifiers) than in a warehouse or rave tent with the younger masses. But whether at one of the city's ravelike club nights, such as Malachy O'Brien's Come-Unity at Ten 15, a warehouse event, or a house party with a hundred people, the idea remains similar. For many of the promoters, DJs, ravers, and clubbers in the scene, the music, community, and culture are a passion.

Massive parties at warehouses in Oakland, which have expanded the scene over the past four years, have drawn to a close because of tighter restrictions enforced by the city. Many welcome the change, including Diana Eckhardt from San Jose, who's been part of the scene for four years. "Raving to me is a very spiritual thing," she says. "Massive culture killed that. When raving got big, it sold out."

Jeremy Gava agrees, arguing that while rave culture has changed, it's far from dead. "There will always be another rave to go to," he says. "There will always be another party."

Still, others remain uncertain of what lies ahead, looking at the changes as the end of an era. "I'm not sure what's going to happen," says DJ Jim Hopkins. "I think the whole music scene is being shut down. As far as big raves, I don't know where they'll go."

Massive parties and smaller raves operate around the concept of community in music. The music, dubbed "electronica" by MTV and the press, is -- simply put -- dance music. The list of subgenres is legion: house, techno, trance, progressive trance, cybertrance, jungle, drum 'n' bass, techstep, garage, big beat, and on and on. The distinctions are often blurry, but the music is generally energetic and dance floor-ready.

Kids are drawn into the rave scene for different reasons, usually by the music, and sometimes for the scene's open-minded nature toward drugs, alternative lifestyles, and community. The standard club can offer some of that, but one thing most venues in the Bay Area don't offer is a place to dance until dawn. Says Martin O'Brien (no relation to Malachy), promoter of the Gathering, "If you ask a true raver why raves go on all night, you know what they'll say? 'Because there's nothing like the morning.' That's what's always different about raves. Instead of coming out of a club at 2 a.m., you come out of a rave at 6, and the first thing you need is your sunglasses. It's brilliant, a whole different way of looking at life."

O'Brien has been a central figure in San Francisco's rave scene since its early days, having begun promoting raves shortly after his arrival from Ireland in 1990. He is best known in the Bay Area for the Gathering parties, which have been running about eight years, as well as other parties such as Basics, Vision, and Freedom, which have spanned much of the last decade. He draws a strong distinction between clubs and raves. "The clubs were about who you were, what you look like, what you're wearing -- just attitude, really," he recalls. But with raves, "you could be whoever you wanted to be and do whatever you wanted to do, and you didn't have to look cool."

For the past four years, remote warehouses in Oakland have been significant in the growth of the scene, fitting thousands of revelers at a time into booming high-ceilinged spaces. O'Brien and his crew cut the ribbon in December 1995, when they received a serendipitous and unforeseen offer by the owner of a warehouse at 633 Hegenberger, which later became known to ravers as Home Base because of its proximity to the store of the same name. "Normally you'd be pulling teeth to get people to even give you the smell of their warehouse," O'Brien says. He was involved with the first nine parties; then Vlad Cood, entertainment promoter with Feel Good Productions, began to use the space for his events.

Thousands upon thousands of people from the Bay Area and beyond danced in this and other Oakland venues until dawn, as, year by year, the parties became more frequent. Which was perhaps part of the problem. Last year the city of Oakland finally began worrying about the phenomenon. "Our fire chief and building inspector raised some concern about the frequency of events, now that they were no longer the one-time events happening once a year," says Larry Carol, administrative hearing officer for the city of Oakland. "[The raves] were happening like a nightclub or any other business. And to operate any of these other businesses where you have large crowds of people coming, generally you would be required to go through the planning or zoning division to get approval, to make sure that your building meets the required fire code, building code, electrical, and plumbing."

About The Author

Susan Derby


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