Rollin' on the River

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

And there's no denying that the intimacy among strangers, the quest for vibe, the flashing-light and glow-stick fascination, the lack of violence, the hugging and the bliss are at least partly the result of the integral role Ecstasy (MDMA) plays in the movement.

"Ecstasy seems to promote the release of serotonin. Now, it may have other effects, but that's the best-known of the chemical effects. In terms of what it does, it produces enhancement of pleasure, self-confidence and increased energy levels, like stimulants do. There's also some effects of sort of peacefulness, acceptance and empathy. That's why it's popular, because it's an unusual combination of energizing and oneness with the world." -- Dr. Wilson Compton, associate professor of psychiatry, Washington University Medical School

There are -- surprise, surprise -- drugs at these parties. A bunch of young adults are experimenting. At any given party, unless someone's older than the average participant and therefore suspected of being an undercover cop, it's not difficult to secure a dose of Ecstasy. No one inside or outside the scene, of course, wants to talk much about it. Though Ecstasy is often depicted as the center around which everything else revolves, it's not, though it is one large piece of the overall puzzle that includes the music, the lights, the sound, the atmosphere. Ecstasy affects all of the above and transforms it.

Jennifer Silverberg

But Ecstasy's not just a rave thing, nor has it ever been. It seems as if the city in general is in the midst of an E explosion. You can spot it on the faces of countless people on the club circuit, and a few area clubs have even begun selling lollipops and glow sticks. A recent poll of 45,000 teenagers found the use of Ecstasy on the rise; 8 percent of high-school seniors surveyed said they had tried the drug, up from 5.8 percent last year.

But, explains one high-school rave kid: "It's not limited to the rave scene, or any one scene. I'm sure you could go to a country & western show and get drugs if you really wanted to. They might be different drugs, but I'm sure you could still get them. Right now at my high school, I could probably get any drug known to man going into the football practice after school, if I wanted to. I don't think it's fair when some people, they'll hear about raves and they just think, "Oh, that's the place where my teenage kid goes to get drugs.' You can get drugs anywhere, anytime, anyplace. Small towns, big towns -- it's not limited to just ravers or just raves. If kids want to do something, they're going to do it no matter what."

Ecstasy feels incredible when intertwined with the music and the overall atmosphere. It feels like heaven on earth (remember those giggling angels?), especially when you're in a roomful of other like-minded people. You do feel connected with strangers. (One stranger to another: "You rollin'?" "Yeah. Are you?" "Yeah. My first time." "Do you like it?" "Yeah! Want some Pop Rocks?"), and it does feel honest (just as honest as the alienation you may feel toward strangers the day after). And whether it's pure illusion or not, the music, especially trance music, sounds positively transcendent. When on Ecstasy, life is not just good but perfect, and all your new friends are perfect, too.

Hence the potential for abuse. You can see it in the "roll piles" on the ground at any rave these days. The butt of many jokes among more mature members of the culture, the roll piles nonetheless are a part of the scene. In any given room at a party, undoubtedly a mass of bodies will be massaging one another. The scary part is that the roll piles seem to consist of some of the younger members of the crowd who have foolishly overindulged by taking four or five doses at a time, when a single one is more than sufficient. Adding a few more doses doesn't enhance the roll; it simply increases the amount of speed consumed. It's stupid to do more than one.

In Generation Ecstasy, the single best book about rave culture, author Simon Reynolds details the cycle that leads to overindulgence, one that has at its foundation the simple fact that the drug is illegal. Because of this, there are no guidelines. Though his experiences come from London, they're easily transferred to St. Louis: "From the consumer's point of view, the worst thing about illegalization is that you don't know what you're buying. The illegal drug market in Britain has given rise to an ever expanding range of brands of Ecstasy, distinguished by their coloring or by tiny pictograms stamped into the tablets and varying widely in content.... Instead of making ravers more cautious, the uncertainty of supply seems to have the opposite effect. Ravers eagerly assume that they've been sold an inferior product and take more pills to compensate; hence the perennial mantra, "Es are shit these days, you have to take five of them to get a buzz.' Often the weakness of any given Ecstasy pill is caused by the serotonin depletion effect; the bliss deficit is in the raver's brain, not the tablet."

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