Rollin' on the River

Inside St. Louis' growing rave culture, where the music is loud, the vibe is ecstatic and the kids are alright

The evening begins with a phone call. It always does. The voice on the machine at the other end, excited after months of anticipation, finally lets the secret out and gives directions to ground zero -- not just street names but detailed directions for the countless out-of-state callers, those who will be traveling five or six hours to get here. Hordes of them, all calling to uncover the mystery spot.

At that spot, a few people mill about in the late-fall breeze, nowhere near the number expected to be queuing around the compound. Just a trickle of people, standing cross-armed and cold. It's curious. The most recent info was from a friend of a friend on a cell phone: "Don't come yet. I'm standing in line here with 500 people."

The building, located somewhere in St. Louis city, looms large, an old brick warehouse with a chain-link fence and barbed wire surrounding it. A tiny rumble seeps from the third-floor windows, but that's all. Nonetheless, the rumble suggests something bigger, and the people up there in the windows appear so special. They're inside. Those outside keep glancing up, perhaps imagining what it must be like. The electricity is amped up by the admonition of a couple of off-duty cops standing in front of a huge gate.

"Folks," says one, "I'm sorry, but we're not letting anyone else in until the promoter tells me otherwise -- not even people on the guest list. They were expecting 1,000, and we had 1,500 people lined up here at 10:30. Someone will be out in a few minutes to let me know whether we can let anybody else in, but it doesn't look good. I'd suggest trying back in an hour or so."

It's 2:30 a.m.

The cops repeat the spiel to every group that arrives, and they keep arriving. A carload pulls up in a white Ford Escort. They are given the news. "We drove all the way from Columbia," argues the driver. No luck. They drive away. It keeps going like this for another half-hour. Cop cars arrive. The traffic is getting worse, especially considering that this area isn't designed to handle a lot of traffic. Curiously, rather than investigate the cause of the traffic, or the mass of kids milling about, the cops simply put on their flashers and begin directing the cars.

Throughout the ordeal, the authorities are admirably patient, but finally one, now standing next to a barrel overflowing with fire, points to an officer directing traffic. "She's the lieutenant, and she's going to start arresting people for loitering if you all don't disperse. I can't let you in until someone from Kindred Groove tells me to, and I'm not sure when that will be. Come back in an hour."

But nobody dares leave, and, finally, after a nod from a Kindred Groove kingpin, all those loitering are granted entry. They walk through a maze of cars and buildings and into another long line. Across the lot, a few stealth silhouettes (perhaps the Columbia carload?) leap from one rooftop to another, sneaking into the compound and ending up in line.

This line is crazier, crammed with teens and twentysomethings, all waving their $20 bills at the clean-cut guy in the white Kindred Grooves T. A few in line hold canned goods (3 bucks off entry price!), and all of them are aching to squeeze into the warehouse space.

And then they're in, as if they'd crawled down a rabbit hole, worked their way through the dirt and the mud, and -- abracadabra -- arrived in a kind of Wonderland, on this occasion called "More Good Stuff," the sequel to last year's "Good Stuff" party.

Entering is a sensory explosion. It was cold outside, but it's sweltering in here. Quiet outside; loud in here. Still and stilted there; wild and alive here: lasers and music, strobes and fog machines, darkness and dust, and people everywhere. These people are wearing blinking red lights under their visors, resulting in freaky flashing faces; they're winding and weaving neon glow sticks, creating circular tracers with their hands. A guy who's sewn dozens of glow sticks onto his pants walks by, and he looks like a hipster clown. Another has painted his body silver. Another prances by with a flashing red laser-tag suit on. Two angels, faces gilded with glitter, glide by wearing wings, holding hands, giggling and guzzling water

They're all in on a big secret, one that is overloading a subculture with a big party nearly every weekend in St. Louis these days, one that deliberately stands outside the Music Structure -- the radio, the big-name concert venues and promoters, the advertising and the hype, and one that nonetheless nearly drowns out rock culture in the late '90s; on this Friday night, where a few hundred people are milling about at the alternative-rock clubs, staring at the bands and drinking beer, a few thousand are working to a big beat, downing bladderfuls of buck-a-bottle water and sucking on lollipops, hugging and drugging (Ecstasy is the drug of choice, and, once consumed, it begs for water and hopes for candy), smiling at strangers and meeting new friends, creating something truly magical, a world away from the everyday.

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