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Our new music columnist looks askance at a woodsy ambient mystical gathering

Wednesday, Sep 8 2004
If you ever look closely at a goat you will notice two things. First, it has very wide-set eyes, like a dinosaur. Second, those eyes are usually casing you for nibble-worthy treats like the cuff of your jacket or the ass of your pants. Goats are strictly TCOB animals, with zero tolerance for bullshit. Goats are cool. Really. I learned this at a smallish all-night Chill Out Ambient Mystical Gathering in Golden Gate National Forest.

The event -- billed as "The Confluence" -- took place at a charmingly ramshackle, fog-seeped ranch just above the crashing Pacific. If Hitchcock had ever filmed a movie about the ambient scene -- his only film with no plot and no suspense, of course -- he would've shot it here and called it Ennui.

"The point of the Confluence is to bring together music and experience," read the press release.

"Aha," I thought. "Experience" means drugs. Cool. Everyone knows that this music is only tolerable if you are high, so I was anticipating some serious opportunities to alter my state.

"This is not some hokie bullshit hippie marketing line," it continued. "We want everyone to participate, as much as they want to. ... Bring things to share, a cardgame, a weird toy, whatever."

"Whatever" obviously meant drugs.

The host laid down some ground rules: no sleeping in the yurt, and this entreat -- "[No] Fucking with the animals: the venue functions as a ranch, and we would like you to not fuck with the animals on the site." You see, once everyone was on drugs, the natural instinct would be to, well, fuck with the animals.

The music lineup was a constant stream of both live acts and DJs from San Francisco and beyond. The event was going to take place over 15 hours starting at 5 p.m., with Tijuana-based ambient techno musician Murcof headlining. URB had once named him one of its "Hot 100" artists for his Arvo Pärt-influenced compositions layered with chamber instrumentation.

Ambient music, like most ill-conceived ideas, arose out of the necessity for escape. When the 900 bpm beats of techno got to be too much for beleaguered ravers, they would retire to the "chill room" and relax to the gloopy sounds of bloop-bleep-woosh combined with soft wails from nonwhite women. Soon the chill room was creating a "revolution" of its own, and ambient became a genre unto itself. To legitimate the medium, people name-checked Brian Eno (mainly his collaboration with David Byrne, My Life in the Bush With Ghosts) and minimalist composers like Pärt as the forefathers of the movement.

Now, before you neo-hippies get incensed (get it? Incense! Ha), there is nothing inherently wrong with ambient music. Sitting in the dentist chair, giving birth, or making an offering to Buddha are all made better with a little mood food in the background. But creating a party around it? Not so much.

"So," I said to the greeter in the parking area after I had arrived, making a mental note not to fuck with the goats I saw fenced in behind him, "is this gonna be a bunch of people on acid rubbing each other's naked bodies to the soothing sounds of tribal chill beats?"

"Ha, no," he laughed good-naturedly. "I actually don't know of anyone who has brought any drugs."

He was serious. I had the same feeling I got the first time I "partied" on the weekend with the drama geeks in high school and realized that they didn't take anything into their bodies stronger than caffeine. That free-flowin' spirit for which I had made fun of them year after year -- the same confidence that allowed them to dress like madrigalists every Christmas and sing in Old English in front of the school -- wasn't due to stealing their mothers' crème de menthe. It was from some magical inner core of comfort with themselves. For teenagers, this was unnatural. I pitied them.

"Man," I said, the gravity of the situation becoming more clear. Fifteen hours of the strains of a dumbeck looped over the sound of a truck backing up with only my wits to guide me. "I didn't bring any beer or anything."

In the distance I could hear an East Indian instrument curling around a soft drumbeat coming from the yurt at the end of the dirt road. This was going to be a long night. I had brought my down comforter and a pillow, with the idea of sleeping in my car or just lying there staring at the intricacies of the palm of my hand. Most everyone else had set up tents along the top of the cliff.

Walking into the scene was awkward, sort of like walking into a stranger's campsite. Everyone knew everyone else, and it was small and intimate. Girls with deep purple dreadlocks and tattoos commingled with guys wearing Tevas and shorts. The people were friendly once I approached them, though, and I was soon chitchatting with two dudes recently unemployed in the computer industry. It seems there were indeed drugs here in the form of "funny" oatmeal cookies. Eating pot is not a good idea for me. The last time I did that I woke up two days later, face down in a Mervyn's parking lot wearing a Hot Dog on a Stick uniform, my hair newly shorn into a Kid 'N Play fade.

Someone had mercifully brought a six-pack of Sierra Nevada, and I scored one and decided to go into the yurt and see what sitting in the middle of an ambient sound system was really like. The domelike structure was flanked with cushioned benches around its perimeter, but most people were sitting on the floor. A table was set up with goddesses and Buddha figures, incense, and other magikal gimcracks, and a coffee station was arrayed with chai and other tea. No drugs.

"Watch out for the elements," said a voice outside the yurt. It came from a young man of Japanese descent who alternately stroked his Fu Manchu facial hair and crossed his arms over his chest as if he was cold. "Infinity plus one minus one brings you Kevin Bacon six degrees," he continued, smiling really big. It seemed that the reason there were no drugs here was that one guy had ingested all of them.

"That's Phil," said his friend Dylan. "He went up to an event in Canada a week ago, Shambala, and he hasn't been the same since." Phil's friends were obviously a bit worried about him, but they were kind and attempted to calm him. "You are in a place that we are not, man," they said. "You are somewhere else right now."

Somehow the thought of sussing out some Ecstasy or a joint became less appealing to me. Especially since this really wasn't my scene and I had already decided that I wasn't going to spend the night. Better to stay sober and drive home early.

After what seemed like hours of wandering from seat to seat, waiting for the music to take hold of me the same way it did these people, I decided to go out to the bonfire circle. A few people were scattered around the fire, and logs were set up for seating. A loudspeaker from the main system was playing, and no one was talking. A belly dancer began to do her thing, and as I stared at the flaming bowl she had placed on her head I had these thoughts: Why do different people get into different things? What happens in each person's brain that draws him to one thing and not another? The people around me were enraptured by the dancer. They had in fact paid $30 to spend most of the day and evening with fire-dancers, eschewing the comfort of their own beds no less. Then my thoughts wandered to this: Why do girls with long straight hair named Megan (pronounced "mee-gan") like to collect plastic horses? Why do guys named Mike like to put stickers of peeing cartoon kids on the backs of their F-150s? Why has there never been a skinny, flat-chested woman named Brenda?

Here's what I came up with: People are attracted to scenes or interests that have people in them whom they want to fuck. The sole purpose of every living thing on Earth is to reproduce, and unconsciously all of our motivations are based on this. I became punk in high school because I thought the guys in Fugazi were hot. Most guys picked up a skateboard and listened to JFA because they wanted to score the hot chicks. Spare me your "It was about the music ... the message!" Bah. Goth chicks thought Robert Smith was hot and wanted a boyfriend like him. Deadheads want to find women who won't harsh their mellow and are contortionists. And people who like ambient music? They want someone who can be in the moment for 15 hours, a tantric wytch.

As for me, I like it short, sharp, and shocking, like the unwelcome prod from a goat. Like a 30-second Wolf Eyes song.

There was no one here I wanted to fuck, and I'm sure the feeling was mutual. I politely got up from the fire and headed out into the pitch blackness, toward the animals and my car, which were both at the top of the hill.

The goats were there, waiting. I did not fuck with them.

Katy St. Clair's clubs column Bouncer will appear weekly. She can be reached at OK Then is on vacation.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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