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."
For the UCSD rave, the security guards had a different estimate. The university hired Mission Valley-based Staffpro as security for the party. (In a later phone interview, Angie Lopez, a Staffpro spokeswoman said, "We basically... provide security at sporting events, concerts; that's what we're trained to do." Staffpro did security at a rave for 5000 people at the San Diego Sports Arena last month.) I stood on the sidelines, watching the kids bob up and down ("popping" is the name of another dance), when a guard came over to chat.
"About 10:00 you'll really start seeing drugs," he said. Having worked the rave held at the Sports Arena last month, he predicted I would see ravers sucking on pacifiers; by so doing, they're ingesting a liquid form of ecstasy, he said. But unless security sees the ravers actually dipping the pacifiers in ecstasy, the pacifiers can't be confiscated.
He pointed to a young man wearing a mask; the sort you would wear while working with asbestos. The guard said it was likely the mask was smeared with something "mentholated up near his nose to keep his high up.
"I'm 41," this guard went on. "When I was young we went to bars to meet girls, and when we got 'em, we left. This is different."
"This is a drug party."
Sure enough, around 20 minutes to 10:00 I saw my first-ever grown-up guy with a pacifier in his mouth. And another guy was dancing nearby with the sort of energy only released when a mind-altering chemical lifts it out of sobriety's suspension. Five minutes later I saw a girl with a pacifier in her mouth. (Later Eckert, the rational raver, scoffed at the idea that those pacifiers were dripping with ecstasy: "The explanation of the pacifiers is, when you're on X [ecstasy] your teeth grind. It's a return to childhood," he added, when asked why he, while not rolling, nevertheless wore a pacifier. Other ravers said that the pacifier has become a fashion statement.)
When I ask another guard, about half the age of the first (both declined to give names) why they can't confiscate the pacifiers, he explains that they can't do anything "unless we actually see them dipping it in something." Something like "Special-K," which, he says, is "like a liquid ecstasy. It's worse than ecstasy because it gets your heart beating violently." This guard told me to watch for people sweating profusely even though they were sitting down. "You can bet they're on ecstasy," he said.
So what would someone have to do to get thrown out of this party? A fight, for instance, the younger guard replied, adding that it's much less likely to happen at a rave than a hip-hop concert because here "they're all on X [ecstasy]. They're all horny and loving. It's about being peaceful and dancing and having a lot of fun. I know because a lot of my friends are ravers."
While Eckert, the safety raver, challenges the blanket statement that ecstasy is essential to the rave scene, the security guard sums it up thus: "ecstasy to a rave is like alcohol to a frat party."
"If I go to a frat party," said Christina later, "they'll give me shot after shot. They try to fuck me." At a rave, on the other hand, "I don't feel pressured at all." That's a big relief to Christina. "When I was 12 I was doing crystal and dating a drug dealer." But now, at age 17, "I'm not doing drugs," Christina said.
Would you say that the rave scene has helped you to keep off drugs?
Christina hesitated, then nodded yes. "I thought I would be pressured to do E [ecstasy] or something. People approach me and I just say no."
It's not just the privation of pressure but the positive bonding with ravers that keeps her coming back. "I go to the Pacific Church of Religious Science," Christina said. "They taught me about unconditional love." She found it in that church, she says; she found it at the first rave she went to. When ravers bond in a special way, they often exchange bracelets. Christina shows me her PLUR bracelet given to her by one girl. "After I hugged her, she said, 'PLUR all the way!' " Christina smiles as she remembers. "She told me I was a PLUR kid: Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect."
"It's like we're a family," chimes in Angel, who won't give her age but is old enough to hold a Master's degree.
"It's like a family," Christina agrees.
"Only it's a lot less dysfunctional," Angel says.
"I come from a happy home," says Christina. "And my parents have always been there for me. It's so easy to fall in with the wrong crowd."
"And we're the right crowd," Angel says.
"The ravers of today are neo-hippies," Christina says.
If there really is all this love at a rave, and love is that which everyone craves, why isn't the whole world popping and flowing in a blur of PLUR?
"Because the whole world thinks this is about drugs," Angel replies. "That's why I didn't come here for so long."
Eckert had given me the same reason when I asked him a similar question earlier that week, adding that, "First of all, in San Diego, law is a complete problem. First of all, you've got a dance curfew of 10:00 for anyone under 18, and that's every night of the week. I'm saying that this curfew law for one makes it extremely difficult for anyone who wants to get into this acceptance." That's why, he says, he was a senior in high school before he ventured into the rave scene.
And if you don't get into it in high school, you're unlikely to get into it in college?
"Unless you go to UCSD," he replies, smiling.
The other reason is the music. It sounded like a clock-radio alarm buzzer to me, but to Eckert it's a pounding beat, like a heartbeat, that reaches into his soul, grips him, and says, "This is fundamentally you."
"For me, I get a lot of emotional high out of it," Eckert said. "There's something about feeling that pulsation that drives you to live. It definitely reminds me of what it's like to be alive. To take my pulse."
Other ravers receive other revelations, but in Eckert's mind, it's not ecstasy but "the music that brought us together first, and it's the music that will keep us together last. And upon that music we've built a community of peace, love, unity, and respect."
How does music build community?
"We had to go somewhere to listen to it; we had to have a group of people to listen to it together; and because of the fact that it's not mainstream, we had to group together tightly and make sure it stayed alive for us. We couldn't have the music without each other because what point would there be?"
Asked about the roots of rave music, he gives as an early example the Who's "Baba O'Riley," from their 1971 rock album Who's Next. "That would be probably the earliest heavily synthesized music," Eckert said.
What makes Eckert think that the ravers, the neo-hippies, won't become extinct the way '60s hippies did?
"It depends what direction it goes now," he replied. "And a lot of it depends on where the scene takes itself, going back to those five kids."