Why’d They Bring You Here, Dorothy?

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Photo by Daniel Bethencourt.

This is the state of the commercial rave scene in Los Angeles: there are tides of dark jeans on pencil bodies with shy faces, and waves of exposed push-up bras on pale and tan chests, the bras laced or otherwise, most of them exuding that Halloween quality, like they might be some kind of joke. There’s a morbidly heavy man with a cotton-candy-blue koala doll clinging to his head, and a vacant-stared teen shaped like an upside down mop wearing a purple shirt that reads “i Get Down on the Dance Floor” [sic] in turquoise letters. There are women who wish they looked just a little more like hourglasses wearing neon-plastic glasses without lenses, and I have this weird feeling I could slowly poke my finger through the frames. There’s a skinny figure in a white canvas shirt who really might be Ziggy Marley, a rail-thin man in a pharaoh’s hat and a vaguely anorexic Asian woman in a bikini, whose front teeth slant slightly inward. There’s a dirty-blonde and wild-haired woman who is topless except for sparkling blue heart-shaped nipple covers. Every shirtless male striding under the sun is either flagrantly sporting a six-pack or outstandingly fat and beer-bellied. Gargantuan towers of speakers hang in the sky, and form a slow wide U with the butts aimed at us. A DJ repeatedly commands everyone to “make some fuckin’ noise,” while the sound waves’ ferocity ripples all forms of clothing. Two men try to piggyback atop a third, all of them tumble, and a Hispanic man with a shaved head and high-socks and shorts keeps barking “Hey! — Hey! — Hey! —” to every wave of the base, until it’s far, far beyond necessary. There’s also an obese man in a train robber’s bandana, with shades that form a thin black stripe, and he stands like a rampart and bobs his head and brim of neck fat up and down, as if that were his body’s full range of expression. Only a handful of figures are wearing earplugs because, you know, why.

I am at an event that’s more or less embodied by the name Hard Summer, a sweltering open-air carnival, a fenced-in noon ’til midnight gala at the Los Angeles State Historic Park. A train once ran alongside this modest stretch of grass and sand, and you can still make out the rails muted by the desert’s dirt.

It’s the late afternoon, and all day I’ve been staring at the faces among the throngs of patrons I’ve passed. I feel like they are dying. Is that possible? It feels like a day on the edge of the Earth, when the last sunset is coming, and everyone around me refuses to let it show. Am I crazy? I watched a girl with chaotic black hair bob her body up and down like some kind of snake, while she was squeezing out hot sauce onto a paper carton of steak on cheesy fries. You can’t tell this mass of maniacal hands in the air that fun is not to be had. But everything feels wrong.

I want to take you back two summers ago, to the first time I ever did anything like this.

The event was the very first Hard Summer, held elsewhere downtown — at a narrow outdoor stretch of asphalt firmly walled in by reinforced fencing. (The adjacent Shrine Expo Center used to host the Oscars, before that moved to the Kodak Theater. Nothing in L.A. lasts forever.) Everything was blisteringly loud and colors were in flux — it was all effectively one ceaseless moment, and in its air I tasted sweat and cigarettes and asphalt and weed. Two crutches teetered high above the center of the throbbing mob, as if whoever brought them no longer needed them, as if this were an Evangelist healing and a very white youth in a bright-white Hyphie jacket danced frantically for maybe five hours without pause, the sweat actually pouring down his face so he looked like the guy at the end of Airplane! A girl in a black dress with thick legs and wild hair, the very pretty kind that does way too much weed, jumped toward him ass-first (have you ever seen anyone jump like this in your life?) and ground her ass into his crotch as her friends slapped their thighs in manic laughter. The man barely changed his groove at all — I can’t be sure he noticed. A skinny Asian teen in a v-neck and backwards cap asked me to help him crowd surf; I held out my interlocked knuckles and pushed up on his go — and then I watched him plunge back down toward the asphalt a few feet away, and never saw him again. The historically neon Felix the Cat sign grinned down from the night sky a block away, winking forever while we danced.

And high up on the adjacent soaring cement wall, the web-famous clip of a younger spryer Bill O’ Reilly yelling “Fuck it — We’ll Do It Live!” was glowing while his outbursts of “Fuck it!” and his hand slamming the desk and the pages of his script curling up in the air were timed with each thundering pulse of the bass, and then his thick nearly red hair rewound to where it had been and the papers flew back down to their place on the desk, the face still furious in reverse — and then the hand slammed down again, and the tuft of hair bobbed forward like a gunshot. Over and over again. It was abstract art that made my heart shake in its cage.

I pursed my lips and jumped up and down until the soles of my feet were numb and vaguely pulsing. I punched my arm in a wide high circle and my shoulder burned, but then it numbed. My night’s lone concession to drugs was a meditated Red Bull when we stopped for gas en route, and I assumed that everyone around me was blown — but I felt alive. At home.

At some point in this seamless moment I stuffed a hand dewy with sweat into my pocket and wrenched out my phone — it was 12:06, a new day amid this madness, and back in there somewhere I had turned 17.

I held the phone toward my good friend Max, who had just heard an early “Yes” from Brown and was a peer-but-father-like figure for that point in my life — who had driven me there with his friends and would drive me back (sober) to his home in Beverly Hills to sleep, who would take care of me — he grinned and slapped me twice on the back and then stared just beyond me and cut through the din with a chilling resolute whisper: “Happy Birthday, man.”

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The most widely attended commercial dance music event in the United States is the two-day bonanza called Electric Daisy Carnival (“edc”), which drew 185,000 patrons in total last summer to the L.A. Coliseum, where the usc Trojans play football. Presumably the festival-goers stomped on the place until it shivered to its Roman concrete bones.

Sometime during the second night that summer, a 15-year-old first-time raver from Merced County (a good five hours by car from Los Angeles) named Sasha Rodriguez collapsed on-scene, was rushed to intensive care and eventually died from symptoms related to mdma / ecstasy, the drug that fuels and defines and to this day cannot be shaken from the rave movement, the way you can’t shake amphetamine from the Beatniks. It’s very much worth nothing that edc, the crown jewel and model (until now) for the country’s rave-scene-turned-commercial, the kind of show not every tangential dance music lover goes to but knows — was a 16+ event, and yet Rodriguez had no ID when she entered the hospital. Which means she either lost it once she got inside, or someone took it, or no one at edc cared what age she was.

[Note: The risk of overdose is one reason why I never mustered up the bravery to take the drug myself. More than likely nothing would happen except a highly orgiastic time, but I can’t quite relax and give myself up that easily — and then there’s the notion that once you “roll” nothing will ever be as fun as your first time. Could I risk my life peaking now at nineteen, which is when anyone older seems to think it more or less peaks anyway?]

In the wake of Sasha’s death certain key people flipped out, or at least those in power really tried to do what everyone else would deem the right thing. The Coliseum’s commission made up of city, state, and county power figures told edc’s creators they were “on probation” and banned any future events by the company until further notice, while the three festivals they couldn’t cancel — because clearly, contracts are a bitch — became strictly 18+ affairs. A story about the dangers of ecstasy made the front page of the Los Angles Times Calendar, though it led with a thumbnail picture and stretched down the right column and therefore avoided the town square hanging in streaming full-bodied color that could have happened.

And most interestingly for our purposes, the founder and manager of the Hard Summer series (a 40-something man with thick, slicked-back hair whose name is Gary Richards) abruptly shut down his own pre-Hard Summer concert that was scheduled two weekends later. Richards stated: “I don’t want anyone to think that this cancellation had anything to do with the events that occurred at Electric Daisy Carnival, because it didn’t.” Then he stated that new regulations in response to edc would have led to “unforeseen costs,” which helped drive the cancellation. Whether or not his own press notes mixed him up because he really just wanted to dish the truth, but knew there was a line with his career teetering on it, his aloof yet alert tone suggests that his lawyers rang him up and let him know he should forget the gig if he wanted to keep the highest authorities and powers-that-be in Los Angeles from ripping off his testicles and roasting them on a public barbecue.

But I can only imagine how Richards felt: he had already endured a $1 million loss in 2009 when he was forced to shut down that year’s Hard Summer barely one hour in. The lafd decided that dozens of fans plunging maybe 15 feet down and onto other fans from the balconies of the Los Angeles Forum was, you know, ultimately lawsuit-worthy. And unsafe.

I was there and not concerned for my safety in the slightest: while waiting to get in I had been standing with friends in a line that trickled across a breathtakingly expansive parking lot, and I took pre-meditated sips of Monster with vodka out of a plastic water bottle, then methodically sipped some rum and musty looking pineapple juice from a 32 oz Gatorade. We stood in a circle and passed all this around. The sophomoric weight of this activity was not sinking in. I forced myself not to think about a certain pill. I was afraid of uncontrollable fun, though I felt that urge creep closer.

And then inside a single moment stretched on as colors bled and sonic earthquakes seared and pincered at my inner ears — I jumped and swayed into foreign sweaty shoulders where the mob came to a head against the stage, where the bodies packed against one another so I couldn’t raise my elbows from my sides. I can condense the night with the thought that if the lafd had been more freewheeling, dozens of others and I would have been squashed against the stage’s barrier and pancaked into the walls of the court where Magic Johnson and the Lakers once played, flat-ironed by our peers until our brains fizzed out our skulls. But I had just turned 18 and did not take any of this seriously, and everyone around me seemed irresponsibly young and death was very, very far away.

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Some eerie presence feels much closer now. I’m extremely sober here, at Hard Summer 2010. Without trying I’ve seen at least nine policemen so far, always strolling around in bands of three — and back in ’08 I saw maybe two, and I know they didn’t pace around while looking so obviously worried. Throughout the afternoon I’ve also seen two paramedics (at different times) standing eerily still and upright just behind that organic space where the crowd thins to nothing, their nylon-white hands coolly at their sides, while in one hand they both were gripping a plastic blue box that looked fit for a caged-up dog. Their faces were stone and they might have been dead if their eyes weren’t so wired, aimed right at the flagrantly color-shifting stage.

I don’t know what that eerie presence is, but the world feels more real and more ugly. The grass smells more like dirt than like grass. The faces passing by are shaped into the distant precursors of frowns. And way out past these faces and into the sky, distant glittering towers of commerce seem frozen in their soaring ascent into space, all of them poised and watching carefully somehow from afar. We all know exactly where we are — at a grass park on the edge of Chinatown. Somewhere not that far away from here, a 15-year-old girl’s organs failed. Everyone here can ignore that weird feeling all they want.

The sky burns out into a musty brown, and then the sun slides down and so the grass and dirt and hordes of bodies are almost dim and colorless.

And then… And then…

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Just as the sun sets a black man of 26 named Stephen Ellison — stage name Flying Lotus, native of Los Angeles and great-nephew of John and Alice Coltrane (!!) — appears in a grey and black striped pullover and gold cross necklace from a strangely unlit corner of Hard Summer’s smaller stage, gives a muted warm wave and hunches over his Mac laptop, whose apple glows a very bright white.

Ellison is the kind of man who, when his mother died, infused the sound of her beeping heart monitor somewhere in his most recent album Cosmogramma, where presumably no one but him could ever hope to hear it. A Los Angeles Times reviewer called Ellison a Hendrix for his generation, but that seems too easy and wrong — Hendrix was breathtaking but self-destructing. “FlyLo,” in contrast, comes off in interviews like Coltrane himself: inwardly bent on getting everything right, even when the others only think they hear noise. Like Coltrane, Ellison seems like one day he might vanish for a while to play his sonic soul into the wind over a nighttime bridge, for God to hear.

FlyLo’s music sounds like a tour through Charlie’s Chocolate Factory on Neptune. There are turbines whirring and spaceships beeping and submarines rumbling and every noise feels somehow in it together, jumping in and out and playing up one another, an orchestra. The miles I travel through Ellison’s Symphony lead me soaring toward a metropolis that sparkles as it sprawls, and yet while embracing its darkest crevices. FlyLo shows me a city I’d be proud to live in. An utterly beautiful way to exist on Earth.

As I drove beneath an L.A. sky chocked white with clouds on Sunday mornings, I would grip the wheel and stare ahead and imagine, to the tune of Ellison’s Symphony, that I was gripping the wheel just like right then — but that it was a clear weekend night punctured only by musty-orange streetlamps that glowed as they sailed by my window like phantoms, and that my car was outrageously slick and vacuum-black and purring, and that I was a bit older and more physically resonant and dressed in a button down and black watch with tight white second marks, none of which I could really pull off. I also imagined I was headed to my flat on the 80th floor at the city’s center for a party I was throwing, and that the flushed rooms glowed with sharp black steel edges and dim lights and wide soaring sheets of glass, lots of glass, and pearl-white silky soft carpet — and inside that sprawling apartment, just beyond the mingling faceless figures in suits and dresses that are cut like blades and out past the floor-to-ceiling glass that forms four walls which reflect just enough so I can make out a tinted version of my young and full-bodied self, glowing at the pupils and exuding possibilities — beyond that lies the metropolis at night, a blanket of light in the dark the way you think the world must look from space, accessible and unified and ready, out there, for you.

And just above the glass walls the clouds lie still and distended overhead, so close they seem to envelop the floor above.

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It seems so highly necessary that Ellison, in Cosmogramma’s “Nose Art,” rips from the 1985 movie Return to Oz, so that through the track’s crackling vibrations and throbs you can barely hear Ozma say, “Why’d they bring you here, Dorothy?” and a delayed space later, Dorothy’s ethereal response: “‘Cause I can’t sleep / And I talk about a place that I’ve been to, but nobody believes it exists.”

So then at Hard Summer as the sky is almost pitch dark I see Flying Lotus bob up and down, his lips slightly pursed and eyes wide but set out a little like he’s always tired — as if he’s seen amazing things but hasn’t quite yet seen them all. He starts to sway from side to side with an arm cocked up and a shoulder punching slightly forward. His cross necklace flies out and away from him and shakes around while following his torso, glinting under whirring blues and purples.

A steady pulsing rhythm melts to another, and the tiniest worry deep inside me starts growing: I can’t match the beats of Flying Lotus with neon plastic glasses and women in glitter-heart nipple covers. This scene belongs somewhere, but they don’t belong with Flying Lotus and his soundscape. I imagine Ellison would get more emotional mileage out of an audience in a blackened studio for a couple hundred only, where every strobe flash and knob twist and bass wobble jerks at people’s feelings, their bodies wobbling with him. That would mean plunging into murkier depths, where strange creatures swim, and drift around with seaweed.

So this is the commercial rave scene’s central issue: if Flylo doesn’t fit into this culture, what does, and what will?

The answer lies within a classic raver’s mindset. And no type of raver could be more classic than a “Rave Mama” — a girl who dresses like scandalous eighth grader who one day dropped acid and fell in love with neon. Mamas suck on pacifiers ostensibly because ecstasy can make your teeth grind, and they stretch plastic stretchy beads of “candy” around their arms and up to their shoulders until you can’t see their skin. There’s a ritualistic way of exchanging beads to friendly wrists through in-sync hand motions that spell out plur (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect — I know, I know), and once upon a time the transfer ended with a kiss, or make-out.

But ecstasy makes you fall in love while disabling erections, like some kind of twisted metaphor for prepubescent love.

The whole rave scene, from top to bottom, is an homage to and ritual for and ecstatic pledge and commitment to Staying Young. I mean, a pacifier.

And this is what Staying Young looks like: a fun-loving blonde who dyes her hair red and keeps showing up at these things for the loud dance music, even as the mob size and venue shrink and the walls grow dingy, even as the DJ and the men in wife-beaters grinding up against her with their hands tracing her hips and the number of pills getting placed on her tongue and heading down her throat, unfaceable truths, matter less and less — and the night’s end-time floats later and later, she dyes her hair orange, her hips clothed by dark jeans become light jeans with holes which become a white mini skirt and that of course becomes a pair of white spandex shorts with fishnets and that becomes an outfit of black lace lingerie, and now her hair is tied in pigtails and somewhere along the line she bought a pair of knee-high hot-pink boots with wild jutting-out fur, and she spends less and less time looking over each man’s face when his hand touches her paler skin plus she now gets a few hands a night that grab a breast or grace the mons pubis and those hands always vanish, strobes whirring and clacking: amid the clamor of each nighttime moment she hangs near friends who provide support enough, and that moment wears on and numbs like anesthetic as she drifts past that blissful 4 a.m. threshold where late becomes early, and then to where the sun rises and then to where it’s actually bright again, all over again. Now she has to climb back into a ‘96 dark green Ford Explorer and trek back to a home that looks like any of ours, a one-story in Echo Park or Gardena or a modest apartment in Culver City or a two-story in Santa Monica or a mansion in Beverly Hills or Hancock Park — and she’ll go to sleep thinking as little as possible and wake up and some thoughts will rush back, and she’ll do some kind of errand because someone told her to and then you’ll see this girl in the aisle with the cereal, inspecting a box by hunching over slightly like she might rather fall all the way forward to the ground and not get up, and even if you notice the orange pigtails, you’ll think even less about it than she does.

When you see her, keep in mind that in that kind of woman you may never find a loneliness more deep, acute, and thoroughbred in the United States in the 21st century.

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FlyLo drops a hands-in-the-air rap track (“Nas is Like” by Nas), and now bodies are swaying uniformly, because everyone knows rap. Still shifting side to side, Ellison lifts his fists up in what looks like celebration. I frown and jut my lip to the side — it seems too easy. Like de Kooning doing street portraits. I squint at his face, which now peers down at the Mac. His brow is relaxed and his eyes stare straight like he’s calm, like everything is going fine.

It’s getting cold in the anonymous dark. I had taken my shirt off, and now the dry desert chill nips at my chest and the backs of my shoulders. I feel uncomfortably naked, and I start thinking. I think about FlyLo’s future, about Hard’s future, about the future of the fuzzy boots and nipple covers.

On this August evening, the commercial rave scene feels a lot like a teen girl’s reaction when she’s dancing manically in the darkness of her room, and then the lights come on. Right now this whole scene feels like it’s just starting to dive under the bed, to re-emerge as something with nothing of what it had two years ago.

FlyLo takes the mike he hasn’t used and holds a modest hand up and says, “This is my last song everybody,” and a mass of arms swings arcs in the air as the man onstage slow-punches the air. Stephen Ellison might soon become a pinnacle of an artist. But his work can’t be the future of dance music. It’s probably just as well.

A Metro train glides by the park, its rumble drowned out. A train has gone by for what feels like every ten minutes, and sometimes the concert-goers closest to it jump around and cheer at it. But I look carefully at this train, and I’m startled to find that I can very clearly make out the faces of a few scattered passengers, seated and standing beneath the glowing ceiling. You’d think they must be pretty stunned to glide past a sound source like this without much warning, and some of them do stand with their faces pushed against the glass.

But a few others with graying hair and slumped figures sit and rest their heads against the nearest wall, visibly awake but staring straight ahead with the train. This festival must be the loudest raucous they’ll ever hear on that Metro in their lives, but they stare on. They look far stranger than the ones with their hands cupped to the windows. It’s as if those staring onward can’t be bothered. They’ve seen it all before. To them, over time, they seem to know that everything moves along.

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I drift out the gates just before the 12 a.m. end-time, having had my fill. I wade through the customary huddle of figures with earbuds in one ear passing out flyers. I turn them all down and realize I most likely won’t have to think about ecstasy for a very long time. Those thoughts are quiet now.

Past the figures with flyers maybe one dozen policemen, some very well-armed and armored, are idling along the sidewalk, as if unclear as to where the riot is. One officer is standing, I kid you not, atop a swat-style truck and glaring down at me with his feet planted wide and arms crossed. I almost laugh, but it seems like the wrong move: right beside me on the sidewalk, an officer is clutching a high-powered rifle and strapped into a helmet and armor, staring at me carefully, slowly waving his hand in the direction I’m obviously going.

Up ahead and beneath the Chinatown metro’s railway, a benign man in a tan windbreaker (who as hard as I stare has no unique face) barks at the stream of trotting rave-goers with a megaphone. He’s roaring about his run-ins with drugs he doesn’t name, and overflows with lines like Heaven is by Reservation Only. I grin because this seems too perfect. I cross the street and stand far enough away and listen. The man’s marble-blue eyes are shining as he takes a break from shouting into the mike, but up close he looks somehow dead inside.

And I look back at the State Historic Park, and I’m thinking to myself: is this goodbye? Am I ready?

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