As darkness fell on the KROQ 106.7 Weenie Roast and Blink-182 finished its goof-rock set, I waded through 50,000 drunk and disorderly concert-goers toward the dozens of bonfires dotting the lawn area of the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, about an hour's drive from Los Angeles. Plumes of toxic black smoke scorched my lungs. Passing scores of fistfights, I stepped over piles of trash and passed-out teenagers slumped in the aisles and against the walls of bathrooms and concession stands. When I reached the fires, I realized why they smelled so bad: In addition to tearing down trees to toss on their vulgar displays of firepower, the moshing hordes were using plastic cups, wrappers and any other petrochemical products they could lay their hands on to fuel the flames.
This pissed me off mightily, because a few months earlier, I'd received the following e-mail from the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund summarizing the thrust of a new piece of legislation called the R.A.V.E. Act (short for Reducing American's Vulnerability to Ecstasy):
"Legislation has been introduced in the Senate that would modify Title 21 U.S. Code Section 856 (aka the 'crack house law') so that prosecutors could more readily use the statute against venue owners, managers, promoters, and others.... Senator Biden introduced S.2633 'to tailor [the crack house] statute more precisely to the problem at hand' (i.e., target raves). Biden's legislation would expand the definition of what is considered a criminal act under 21 U.S.C. 856 and add civil liability damages ($250,000 minimum) to the existing criminal penalties (up to 20 years in prison and/or $500,000 fine). This legislation could have a devastating effect on the electronic dance-music scene."
While politicians in Washington, D.C., sought to equate the promotion of electronic-music events with drug trafficking, blatantly drug-fueled festivities such as the 106.7 Weenie Roast received no extra attention from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the media, the Justice Department or grandstanding politicians. Rock music was something that white-haired, gin-blossomed, turkey-necked legislators could relate to. They'd grown up listening to it. Rock, in their minds, was safe. More important, its link to corporate America -- and corporate America's deep pockets -- was total and, therefore, beyond reproach.
The R.A.V.E. Act seemed unfair. It seemed like bullshit. It seemed like a culture war. Reality was mirroring the plot of Footloose.
It seemed that if this bill became law, the mainstream music industry, Madison Avenue and major concert promoters -- entities that had hopped on the electronic-music bandwagon and reaped the rewards of its cultural popularity -- all stood to lose much more than the average outraged electronic-music fan. Yet while groups including EMDEF, Dance Safe, Dance for Peace, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and others got busy fighting the R.A.V.E. Act with grassroots campaigns that swiftly reached people like me -- i.e., the choir -- the mainstream remoras that glommed on to our subculture watched passively. And given that Ecstasy is a drug of choice in both the hip-hop and gay communities, it was surprising that these two powerful groups remained silent as well. While not explicitly targeted in the bill, they seemed prime targets for persecution.
Where was our Kevin Bacon? Where had all the cowboys gone?
To the Weenie Roast, apparently, to smoke weed, get drunk, beat the shit out of each other and start fires -- all with the implicit blessing of the federal government, major concert promoters and the biggest, most powerful and influential radio station in Los Angeles (and maybe the nation).
When the R.A.V.E. Act first went before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, it passed by a vote of 19-0 -- unanimous consent. When a bill is UC'd, it is generally assured swift passage into law. But the GOP majority spiked the bill to spite its Democratic sponsor, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. Electronic-music fans were spared the passage of the act last year, not because of their activism, but because of their Republican friends in Congress.
In the meantime, a great deal of misinformation has spread among DJs, promoters, electronic-music fans and activists about what exactly the R.A.V.E. Act is, why it died last year, and how it was resuscitated with Republican defibrillating paddles earlier this year as the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act.
Take, for example, this quote often circulated in anti-R.A.V.E. Act propaganda:
"The Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act will subject to prosecution anyone who 'knowingly promotes any rave, dance, music, or other entertainment event that takes place under circumstances where the promoter knows or reasonably ought to know that a controlled substance will be used or distributed.'"
This language is not and never was a part of the R.A.V.E. Act. It comes from a bill called the C.L.E.A.N. U.P. Act -- shorthand for the Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, and Undermine Production of Methamphetamines Act -- that was fruitlessly introduced by Representative Doug Ose, a Republican from California, and that Biden never supported. But less than a year after the specter of the R.A.V.E. Act first arose, a slightly modified version of the bill, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, was passed into law in the Amber Alert Bill under a provision called the P.R.O.T.E.C.T. Act -- shorthand for Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today.
What does this new law mean for the average person who enjoys listening to music, electronic or otherwise, in a concert setting?
"To the average music fan, it will mean nothing -- no change whatsoever," responds Chip Unruh, Biden's spokesman. "To the average music promoter, it will also mean nothing, because it's a very narrowly tailored piece of legislation that only targets a few unscrupulous promoters out there who are knowingly profiting from drug use. This is not some brand-new law that gives the federal government sweeping new powers."
But the first real-life application of the modified R.A.V.E. Act -- which preceded Unruh's upbeat assessment by several weeks -- demonstrated the interpretive malleability of the law in the hands of the DEA and proved to be far more frightening than anything electronic-music activists or anyone else might have imagined. On May 30, a music benefit for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), to be held at the Eagles Lodge in Billings, Montana, was shut down using the modified R.A.V.E. Act. About 6 p.m., while the rock bands on the bill did a sound check, a DEA agent rolled into the lodge with a copy of the R.A.V.E. Act in hand and took the manager aside.
The show was shut down, 21-year-old promoter Adam Jones -- who was in jail on a probation violation that day -- lost money, and the First Amendment rights of SSDP and NORML were effectively quashed. "Due to the fact that Adam had previously been in trouble with the law," says John Masterson, state director of NORML for Montana, "his probation officer was giving him a hard time about his activism and tipped off the DEA. The DEA shows up the day of the event. The federal officer had a copy of the R.A.V.E. Act in hand and said that if anyone was found to have drugs in their possession, the promoter would face a $250,000 fine, and that if the proprietor of the property knows that there is illegal drug use on the premises and doesn't inform the authorities, they will be held responsible. This is an absolutely overt attempt to silence political speech. They came in waving legislation that caused great alarm in the venue owners' minds, and they successfully silenced our political speech. The language is very poor in the law."
"What happened in Billings was not how Senator Biden meant for this law to apply," Unruh says. "If you go to the DEA's Web site, they've posted some guidelines to clear up the way that the law should be applied. After [Billings] happened, Senator Biden wrote to the acting head of the DEA and asked for a full accounting."
In a R.A.V.E. Act fact sheet, Unruh further clarifies the senator's position: "Senator Biden fully recognizes that there will always be certain people who will bring drugs into musical or other events and use them without the knowledge or permission of the promoter or club owner. This is not the type of activity that the Biden bill addresses. The purpose of the legislation is not to prosecute legitimate law-abiding managers of stadiums, arenas, performing-arts centers, licensed beverage facilities and other venues because of incidental drug use at their events. In fact, when crafting this legislation, Senator Biden took steps to ensure that it did not capture such cases. The bill would help in the prosecution of unscrupulous, rogue promoters who not only KNOW that there is drug use at their event but also hold the event FOR THE PURPOSE OF illegal drug use or distribution."
Unfortunately, the R.A.V.E. Act is now federal law, and Biden won't be there to hold every drug agent's hand as he enforces it.
"I'm glad that this happened, because it had the effect of getting a lot of attention for drug-law reform, but I'm not glad it happened to me," says promoter Jones. "It opened a lot of people's eyes to the fact that our constitutional rights are being thrown out the window. In the bigger perspective, the DEA here looked foolish in the whole thing. I'm sure DEA agents all over will think twice before they go out and wipe their asses with our constitutional rights. The implications of it were scary. What's next? Gay pride marches? Green Party meetings? Something a particular DEA agent doesn't like?"
Now that law-enforcement officials are applying the R.A.V.E. Act, what impact is it having on electronic music?
To find out, I attended this year's Electric Daisy Carnival, one of the largest massives on the SoCal rave calendar and just the kind of party that got Biden and his peers so fired up in the first place.
It had been two years since I'd been to my last massive, the 2001 Electric Daisy Carnival. The EDC is what the alarmist mainstream media would term a "rave," nomenclature from which electronic-music promoters, DJs and fans have gone to great lengths to distance themselves. Massives draw thousands of electronic-music fans of all flavors but are primarily identified with candy ravers, a kiddie-jewelry-and-plush-fabric-clad contingency of fourteen- to 21-year-olds known for their shiny, happy attitudes and blatant and excessive drug use. Many young people are initiated into electronic music through massives and the candy-kid culture before growing up to become junglists, house heads, technophiles or IDM mavens who then hate candy kids and everything they represent. To these people, candy kids are clueless E-tards who draw a disproportionate volume of negative media attention to the electronic-music scene.
In 2001, the EDC was held in a grassy park north of Los Angeles. In spite of the prejudice against such happenings, the vibe was positive, and young ravers and candy kids danced late into the night without incident. But thanks to the passage of the R.A.V.E. Act, this year's show -- set for June 22 -- would be very different.
As I pulled into a parking lot crowded with thousands of cars opposite the Orange Show, a paved venue more than an hour from L.A., the EDC's trademark carnival rides were whirring away, and I could see hundreds of ravers queued up to get in. L.A.-based superstar trance DJ Christopher Lawrence was set to headline in support of his new mix-CD release, and the hometown crowd was out in force. Whatever impact the R.A.V.E. Act might have on the remainder of the evening, it hadn't affected attendance.
After an extremely thorough pat-down and bag search -- nothing out of the ordinary in our post-9/11 world -- I made my way into the crowd. Despite warnings printed on tickets and fliers stating that pacifiers, dust masks and other gear that federal authorities have zeroed in on as signifiers of drug use would not be allowed or tolerated, security was sparse. Glow-stick and photon-twirling candy kids were clad head to toe in fuzz and kiddie jewelry, many of them sucking away on well-worn pacifiers, and the smell of weed wafted freely through the air.
I ran the gauntlet through vending-area booths, including some for companies with colorful, drug-culture-related names. Among them, two popped out: Chronic Candy (slogan: Every lick is like taking a hit!), with its array of translucent pot-flavored suckers; and the 420 Spot booth, where handblown glass pipes sat next to raver necklaces, glow sticks and a sign that read "All Raver Gear Must Go!" Hmmm.
I wondered how tough the R.A.V.E. Act had made it to procure drugs.
The third stranger I approached had joints at $10 a pop.
"I've been raving for seven years, man," he said as he pulled a pre-rolled spliff from his pocket and tried to hold it up for my examination in the very public area where we stood. "There are too many kids out here who just want to take drugs and get fucked up, man. They don't realize that this is about the music, man, the vibe."
Apparently he didn't, either.
I moved on and for the next few hours chatted with ravers of all stripes about the R.A.V.E. Act. In my limited sample, fewer than half had a vague idea there was such a law. And those who had some notion of its existence were very confused about its ramifications.
"Is that the one where they can shut them down for no fuckin' reason and call it a crackhouse or whatever?" asked Zack, 23, a long-term raver.
"It's something trying to shut down raves. It has something to do with drug dealing," said Jaimie, 26, a fan of Aphrodite and all things jungle.
"Yeah, we know what it is. What is it? Antiques?" asked an eighteen-year-old raver girl and scene vet before pushing off and zooming down a school-bus-yellow super slide.
As the night went on, fewer and fewer kids at the rave were dancing, and more and more were lying down in the hall, watching light shows off their sweating pals. A visit to the toilet revealed a stall overflowing with vomit and human waste. At the gate between the jungle and hip-hop areas, a siren prefigured the arrival of a fire engine and an ambulance moments later. Firemen and emergency medical personnel wheeled out a gurney, disappeared into the venue and returned with a raver who was so far tweaked that nothing was bringing him back to earth in the immediate future.
These factors seemed to indicate that drug use was taking place.
Whatever optimistic vibe I'd felt about this event and raving in general at the beginning of the night was quickly fading. In search of reinvigoration, I headed down to the single swath of grass with the trance sound system near the front. But piles of discarded fast-food wrappers, fliers and water bottles seemed to take up every inch of space that wasn't occupied by ravers massaging one another in giant cuddle piles.
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The venue was a rave sty, and we were pigs drowning in the shit of our own pleasure. If Senator Biden ever takes it upon himself to visit a rave to see what this music is all about and how the beats can draw together vastly disparate groups and sometimes create life-changing experiences, I hope to God he won't witness what I'd seen this night.
But what role, if any, did the promoter play in what went down at the 2003 EDC? And why should he be subjected to more stringent laws and scrutiny than, say, the promoters of the 106.7 Weenie Roast, where even worse behavior went unchecked?
Ideally, an organization such as Dance Safe would have had drug-education booths or literature available at the Electric Daisy Carnival to provide ravers with facts about what E, G, K and the rest of the alphabet are doing to their neurochemistry and well-being. But the federal government has made it difficult for this information to reach the people who need it most in the environment where it will be most useful to them. No promoter will run the risk of having a Dance Safe booth these days, because, the thinking goes, to do so would send a red flag to the supersleuths in the DEA that drug use was taking place.
"No matter where you go, there are going to be a few people who find it necessary, for whatever reason, to take drugs -- that's at high school, that's at religious functions," DJ Lawrence says. "You can't control that. It's not fair to hold event coordinators, promoters or owners of venues accountable for that."