Rollin' on the River

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

"I remember when we first started throwing parties and the police would come into them, especially these raves in the middle of nowhere where there's camping, or in Kentucky, where they had these really big DJs come. It's just a rave, but when these police would come, it was as though a spaceship landed there. They just had no idea. They'd see all these lasers and people dancing. It was very scary to them -- the looks on their faces. This is how freaked-out they were: When they shut down "Love Generator 2,' they came in and confiscated everything. They confiscated bottles of water, bananas; they were testing them, sending them to labs. They did not know what was going on. They thought it was some kind of cult thing happening." -- Ryan Paradise of the Superstars of Love

The warehouse parties around the area have a renegade aura around them. A few weeks ago at a great smaller party (thrown by the Faded Crew) inside a dungeonesque space, revelers entered by descending a steel spiral staircase into nearly total darkness. It's the perfect way to enter the party, winding down into a dank womb filled with echo and crammed with people. After the initial eye adjustment, the darkness gives way to hundreds of people creating their own light with glow sticks and flashing lights. A machine spews fog that, because of the lack of ventilation, roams around the room, creating a dream landscape that the lasers needle through.

The glow sticks are everywhere: A mass of people crams the concession room waiting to buy them; once the sticks are secured, partyers weave them through their hands, then trace green and pink circles in the darkness. Each ecstatic dancer seems deep within a world of mesmerizing color, and combined, they contribute to a chaotic, overlapping motion of circles. Some tie the sticks to a string and twirl them, creating huge swirls in the air.

Anything that glows is special here, and all of it creates a kind of neon-on-black-velvet feel. A fantastic blue flashing digital watch catches the eye of a dancer, who sees the crazy patterns the watch face is programmed to run. It blinks and spins, hypnotizing the boy, who then innocently approaches the watch's owner, a dancing girl. "Hey, can I see your watch?" The girl smiles. "Sure!" She holds it out and hits some buttons, and the light moves to the beat. Another girl, seeing the interaction from afar, runs over and hands the boy some prism glasses. "You have to stare at the watch with these on!" she demands. He puts them on, and a tiny vision of magic -- infinite strobing blue circles -- appears. Whoa.

Despite the alien atmosphere of curious intimacy among strangers, the St. Louis rave scene didn't arrive here from another galaxy. It's evolved into what it is now, and it has a concrete, though secret, history; over the course of the past decade it's steam-rolled its way into wonderful climaxes like those in 1994 and '95, which, by most accounts, rivaled the size and scope of a few of this year's parties, and suffered through bouts of post-party depression in '96 and '97. The city, along with America as a whole, is on the verge of one big rave-culture climax in the next five years, if not sooner. It's already happened in Europe, where parties drawing 50,000 revelers are not uncommon. Last year's "Love Parade" on the streets of Berlin drew an estimated crowd of a million-and-a-half people -- a far cry from the 2,500 at "More Good Stuff."

And a far cry from the 300 people who attended what is considered to have been St. Louis' first rave, "Rave on the River," which took place on the Becky Thatcher riverboat on April 18, 1992. The party sold out, and as the boat rolled up and down the Mississippi, DJ Disaster, then host of the Voice of Rave, an early techno/house radio show on KDHX (88.1 FM), kicked off the decade's festivities. The flier for that show, a basic green announcement, promised lighting by Jimbo "guiding a rave-adelic symbiosis of lights and vision" and "a smart bar facility for max mind efficiency and interstellar brain machine to warp your mind."

The early raves were mainly in warehouses; downtown was even more of a shell than it is now, and the process was basic, says Joel Sansone, a.k.a. DJ Merlin, who, along with DJ Terry Mullan, threw some of the early St. Louis parties. "I'd drive around. There's realty signs all over these buildings. You call them professionally. You write contracts, and sometimes they'll go for it. "I'll give you $1,000 for two nights.' And, you know, this building's been sitting here for years. Why not? Who cares what the guy's going to do with the money, whether he pockets it or not? We'd tell them what we're going to do. We didn't embellish. Sometimes we may say, "We're not throwing ... we're throwing a polka party.' We did get insurance. That's one thing we would do."

These parties, like some still going in the area today, were semiguerilla affairs -- no jumping through the proper bureaucratic hoops, no notifying the fire marshals and building inspectors, no bothering with the necessary "one-night-event permit" or notifying the cops. Promoters roamed the city searching for a space and, once it was found, made a quiet deal with the owner, paid him cash, threw the party and hoped nobody complained. These parties began to draw attention, and as they did, the city started to gain a reputation as one of the better rave cities in the Midwest.

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