San Diego Wings are everywhere. One girl wears white, feathery wings as she dances -- they call it "flowing" -- to the ON-OFF ON-OFF ON-OFF electronica music at UCSD. Gossamer wings grace the backs of another young woman and man. The wings of a dragonfly are tattooed on 17-year-old Sanae's arm. Another girl wears a bright-pink ski cap with a butterfly patch on it. A silver-haired girl wears a furry butterfly backpack. Antennae bob over 18-year-old Melissa's head. Why, I ask her, are so many at the rave dressed like flying things?
"'Cause they're, like, free and stuff, and they can take off anywhere," Melissa, not a raver herself, replied.
Five teenagers in a Toyota sedan, amphetamine and ecstasy in their systems, took off after a rave in the San Gabriel Mountains last August. A motorist who saw their car plunge from the Angeles Crest Highway told the Los Angeles Times that they had not been speeding -- but they hadn't hit the breaks either. The four young women and one young man from the San Bernardino area plummeted 1200 feet to their death from blunt-force trauma, mostly to the head. The coroner found traces of the illicit drugs methamphetamine and ecstasy in all five bodies.
Ecstasy makes people euphoric. "It makes you happy," José told me. He was enjoying the university-approved party in the outdoor quad even though he was not "rolling." In fact, José has not had a "roll," or an ecstasy pill (which costs around $20), for several months. "Once you take it, it doesn't work that well," he explained. Regular users find that they can only take ecstasy on a weekly basis. That's how José took it: every weekend for three months. "It makes you talkative," continued the young man, decorated with a nose-ring, a lip-ring, and a stud under his lip. "Some people say it makes you horny, but it didn't for me. When I first took it -- I had never danced my whole life -- I went on the dance floor. It makes me nicer."
If ecstasy takes you out of yourself, and that's worth raving about, then isn't the logical conclusion, the ultimate rapture, the consummate ending to the perfect rave driving off a cliff?
"The consummate ending is going home," Joe Eckert, 19, told me at Grossmont Community College a couple of days before. "The consummate ending is going home, getting to bed, and maybe calling in sick to work Monday. That's the consummate ending: calling in sick to work."
That's why Eckert, a self-described "starving college student," is nevertheless spending $70 a month to maintain a website (www.orbit32.com/ ravewatch) where people can arrange safe rides home from raves. I found Eckert promoting this on the San Diego raves Internet discussion group. His e-mail name is "Avatar," and Eckert proved to be the very incarnation of a certain philosophy of raving that he feels the media fail to grasp.
"When I read about it in the L.A. Times," he said, "it hurt me, it just flat out hurt me. Whenever we lose someone it hurts the scene, because there's a negative media portrayal of us. I understand where the portrayal comes from." Eckert allows that ecstasy, first developed in the '70s, has not been a momentary blip on the rave radar screen. "I would say that there are still people who feel that ecstasy is essential." He adds that ecstasy's safety becomes a moot point when, like any street drug, it is laced with other drugs such as amphetamines. But the media's negative portrayal -- Eckert was angry about a TV news show slamming the whole rave scene as little more than teen sex and drug orgies -- far from saving young lives, might actually endanger them. "Every time the scene gets hurt, it forces us back underground," Eckert said.
"A lot of purists will tell you that underground is the place to be," he went on, "but now it is more above-ground, people feel okay bringing paramedics in." To have medical personnel standing by just in case is standard procedure for any large concert, and that's "the direction it's moving in now," Eckert said. "The way I explained it to my parents: raves are just like a concert except they're playing the music I like."
Eckert, who hopes to transfer to Berkeley next year as a political science major, first got into the rave scene as a senior in Grossmont High School. Raves still don't have the ho-hum status of a rock concert -- and this baffles Eckert. "I'll be truthful with you, the drugs are out there" in the rave scene. But he says he went to an Aerosmith concert and saw "the same amount of drug use. The drugs are...at any musical event or major gathering of people," Eckert maintained. "That's one of the quotes I use on my parents."
That's not just verbal camouflage for Eckert and his friends, who are into the rave scene without being into drugs. Some love to rave sober: 20-year-old Andrea at the UCSD party told me she'd never done any drugs, not even marijuana. While a lot of people go through a partying stage, some get out of the drugs but stay in the scene, according to Eckert; they say, "I was here for the music originally, and now I'm back for that." Drugs are not necessarily essential to a rave.
What happens to the others?
Eckert pauses. "I've seen one guy I know," he said by way of example, "met him in high school. Brilliant guy. Not in a book-learning sort of way. I see him today and he's burned out."
But that's a cliché; what does that mean?
"It's a cliché because it happens," Eckert replied. "You look at him and the wit's still in there but the heart isn't behind him anymore because he went overboard."
Drug use varies from party to party, Eckert said. But he'd gone to a great rave recently where he guessed that only "10 or 20 out of 300 were on something."