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Chicago Sun-Times (Chicago, IL); Sunday May 8, 1994
A Weekend of 'Blissful Enlightenment' at a Rave
by Jim DeRogatis
(page 1B, 5B)



Hixton, Wis.—The music was startlingly loud, and the earth reverberated in time to the throbbing bass. A mass of sweaty young bodies gyrated directly in front of a wall of speakers, drawn to the sound as if pulled by a powerful magnet.

The rave, a weekend of loud music, trippy lights and general debauchery, is everything that Lollapalooza pretends to be but isn't.

The tent was almost pitch-black, but a light illuminated a young man dancing wildly atop the speakers. He was completely naked, and he couldn't have been happier.

Welcome to the rave new world circa 1994. The rave, a pop culture phenomenon that sprang up in England, is an underground dance party. This night's location: a wooded hillside in a remote Wisconsin town called Hixton, population 403 or 356, depending on which of the welcome signs you choose to believe.

Dozens of cars made the five-hour trip from Chicago so their occupants could dance all night, frying the eardrums with music and their brains with Ecstasy, the hallucinogenic substance of choice.

Other cars hailed from Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kentucky. Many of them looked as if they were borrowed from unsuspecting parents.

The idea of 2,000 teenagers from across the Midwest descending on a town like Hixton for a weekend of loud music, trippy lights and general debauchery sound like the plot of a late '60s "acid freak-out" movie. but it happened, and it's likely to happen more often in the future.

The Hixton event was dubbed "Furthur," after the colorful bus driven by author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. It was everything Lollapalooza pretends to be but isn't, succeeding where that annual rock fest fails because it was untainted by the cynicism and greed of the music business as usual.

Advertised through word of mouth, E-mail on the computer network Internet and home-made fliers, raves spring up in the urban warehouses and remote outdoor locales on the average of every other week. The exact location in announced at the last possible moment. And despite premature reports that the rave scene is dead, attendance has been growing steadily for the past three years.

The most active American scenes are in New York and San Francisco, but raves in those cities are usually legal events held at dance or rock clubs. The Midwestern scene is smaller and feistier, and committed to more independent and idealistic goals.

The May Day party that invaded Hixton's CMJ motocross track was the Midwest's biggest rave to date. Fliers advertised "a gathering celebrating the flowering of summer and our culture."

While the cold, wet weather wasn't exactly conducive to the promised "blissful enlightenment." the crowd didn't let the sogginess drag it down.

Hey, there was more that a little mud at Woodstock, right?

Furthur's name, its billing and the mud all underscored the connection between the psychedelic '60s and the psychedelic '90s, but this was no nostalgia trip. The ravers of the '90s have their own agenda and culture, and it's idealistic and energizing.

"What vowed to do was bring everybody together to communicate with each other and create more of a family atmosphere similar to Dead shows." said Kurt Eckes of Milwaukee's Drop Bass Network, which promoted the rave with the Chicago magazine Reactor and M.O.R.E., the Minneapolis Organization of Rave Enthusiasts.

"Financially, it's wasn't a success. But everybody that I talked to was having the weekend of their lives, and hearing that from as many people as I did was exactly what I wanted to happen."

"The idea of people going five hours into the middle of nowhere to dance to cutting-edge electronic music --that's the way it should be." said Reactor editor David Prince. "Everybody came to have a good time, and they weren't going to let the bad weather, the long drive or anything else stop them."

Prince certainly didn't let anything stop him: He was the naked young man dancing atop the speakers to the music of the Aphex Twin.

"I thought what the party needed at that point was a little nudity to really put it over the top," he said.

The promoters erected four giant tents in different corners of the site for band and DJs, including artists flown in from England and Germany. Portable generators provided the power, and an intense green laser cut spiraling patterns through the darkness and the smoke from dozens of campfires.

The bizarre setting, the frantic rhythms, the swirling dancers, the droning melodies: It's a rave.

Crowds of ravers danced in each of the tents, wriggling their bodies in free-form movements that were both awkward and beautiful. Ravers don't dance in pairs, and no one is judged by his or her moves. The sexual tension that usually prevails at discos is missing completely, and in its place is a youthful optimism that's almost tangible.


What a feeling

Ravers are fond of saying that you don't hear acid house and techno music, you feel it in your body. Combined with the bizarre setting, the frantic rhythms (200 beats per minute or more), the droning melodies and the ethereal voices made you feel as if you were tripping --ever if you hasn't bought the $10 hit of Ecstasy that was so cheerfully offered.

Raves originated in London in the last '80s when people began flocking to illegal underground parties to dance to the pulsating sound of acid house, a version of the high-octane disco that originated in Chicago and Detroit, updated by the distinctive drone of the Roland 808 bass synthesizer.

The "acid" in acid house doesn't refer to the drug, but Ecstasy has always been part of the scene, and marijuana and LSD are as prevalent as they are in the parking lots of Grateful Dead shows.

While the cold, wet weather wasn't exactly conducive to "blissful enlightenment," the crowd didn't let the sogginess drag it down.

At Hixton, the temperature meant that the usual rave fashions were covered by winter coats, but few people wore big red-and white Cat in the Hat hats, fuzzy lime green vests or colorful, oversized sweatshirts.


Brothers from another planet.

To the locals, the ravers looked like creatures from another planet.

Jackson County Sheriff Richard Galster only learned about the rave on Friday, and he wasn't amused. He was elected in 1991 with his promise to stop the annual Weedstock, a Deadhead-style gathering in nearby Black River Falls. Furthur was even stranger.

"It sounds like this organization did like previous Weedstock organizations in seeking out a rural area to have what as far as I'm concerned was a drug party," Galster said.

After complaining several times Saturday night about the noise, the police shut Furthur down at 6 a.m. Sunday, just as the sun was starting to warm the hillside and the bleary-eyed dancers were finally slowing down.

When the police arrived, they spotted three ravers smoking pot in a van near CMJ's gateway. The three occupants were the only people from the crowd of 2,000 who were arrested.

Galster was angry about the event, but he was also philosophical. "Of course [they didn't have permits], but it's like telling a bank robber not to go rob a bank because there is a law against it." he said.

He promised that the county will seek action against the organizers and the property owner: "If these types of things continue, attendance will grow."

But that's exactly what the organizers want. "What happened at Furthur was super-powerful in that it was completely underground," Eckes said.

"The fact that all these important people from around the world were there is going to do great thing for parties here in the future." Prince added.

Regardless of expectations and musical biases, it was hard to leave without feeling that you'd witnessed something uplifting and magical.

If you weren't there, you should probably wish you were.

 

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