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The Rave

By Alta Campbell

August 1996

“It’s a Rave,” Gary said. “We’ll be the only people there over 30.”

I looked at him dubiously. Well over 40 myself (as was Gary), I asked, “A Rave? … R-A-V-E? … What’s a Rave?” I knew Gary had a taste for the unusual.

“It’s a concert, sort of…” Gary said, grinning, “…an event. They used to be by invitation only, word of mouth…an underground thing. They weren’t announced until the last minute.”

“I’ve never heard of them,” I said.

“They have Raves in Austin,” Gary continued. “People have called me a couple of times about them.”

“No one has ever called me,” I said, trying to maneuver a three-inch-high corned beef sandwich into my mouth.

We sat in New York’s Stage Deli, six of us, in town from Austin for business. Our meetings were finished, it was Friday night, and we were discussing evening plans. “Why were Raves secret?” I asked Gary.

“Adds to the mystique, I guess,” Gary answered, gripping his oversized chicken salad sandwich. “It’s a 90s thing. People in their twenties go and do designer drugs, like Ecstasy.”

“Ecstasy? What does it do?” I asked. Having abandoned my attempt to eat the sandwich whole, I was picking it apart with my fingers, creating smaller sandwiches and lathering each part with spicy mustard. Food is one of the things I enjoy about travel.

“I don’t know personally,” Gary said. “I’ve never tried it. But I hear it makes you feel good. It’s an emotional drug.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant. Aren’t they all?

“So what kind of music will they play at the Rave?” I asked him. “Rock music?” It seemed a logical fit.

“It’s techno music,” Gary said, smiling, “all electronic. The Orb is playing. They start at midnight.”

Techno music. The Orb. I had no idea what he was talking about. But Gary’s a lot hipper than I am. I envisioned a 90s version of Woodstock, with drugged-out 25-year-olds falling all over each other as screaming bands blared out indecipherable lyrics. I’m too old for this, I thought.

“You want to go?” Gary asked. “Margaret and I are going. First, we’re going to another concert, which starts at 8—all music from 1924. It’s at the Manhattan School of Music, up on 110th. Then we’re going to see The Orb. They’re supposed to be great.”

“No doubt,” I thought.

Suffering from a week-old backache that was growing steadily more irksome, I knew I should spend the evening in my hotel bed. But this was New York! The streets teemed with life! The lights burned all night! I didn’t get up here often, and I had only a couple of days. I couldn’t go to bed.

And Margaret was going. I had just met Margaret. Several decades my senior, she was an intelligent, classy woman. She sat at the other end of the table, chatting animatedly with Al about financial management. She was full of energy and apparently ready to troop around New York with Gary, seeking adventure. If she was going, it couldn’t be too weird or dangerous.

“Okay, I’ll go,” I told Gary.

The others declined, for some reason not finding the idea of a midnight concert with 20-somethings too appealing. No lust for drama, I presumed.


Several hours later our cab pulled up at the Manhattan Center on 34th Street near 8th.

“So tell me again what The Orb’s music is like, ” I had asked Gary in the cab, still wanting some idea of what to expect.

“You’ll see,” he told me with a smile. “It’s techno, sort of New Agey, all done with computers.”

At last, I thought, something I understand. New Age music! Meditation music! Images of Yanni playing at the Acropolis floated through my head. Perhaps it will be restful. Perhaps it won’t be screaming rock, the only kind of music I really don’t like.

We walked toward the building. The young people milling around outside wore baggy jeans, disheveled hair. Like the 60s, I thought. It’s like a Happening.

Barricades were set up to funnel traffic into the building. Someone handed out flyers. Concert organizers stood around the door. They directed us to the ticket window.

“How much is it?” Gary asked.

“I only have balcony tickets left,” the man in the booth told us. “They’re $25.”

TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS? I choked back my distress. It was one thing to seek interesting experiences while traveling. It was quite another to pay $25 for them. I hadn’t really thought about the cost, it occurred to me. But I was too curious by then to do anything but pay.

While we were digging out our money, one of the concert organizers walked up to us. “Uh, do you folks understand what this is?” he asked gently.

He looked us over. What made us stand out, I wondered. Was it that the three of us sported the only gray hair in the place? Did we have the obvious demeanor of tourists, Margaret and I in our trench coats and both draped with large purses and shopping bags?

“It’s a Rave…this concert. Are you sure this is what you wanted to see?” he continued cautiously.

Gary laughed. “Yes, we know what it is,” he told the man. Margaret and I grinned.

“Okay,” the man said, satisfied, I guess, that we weren’t lost or there to cause trouble. “Just wanted to make sure. Enjoy the show.”

We got in a rickety elevator and rode up to the upper balcony. The building was large and looked like an old theatre that had been gutted of seats and anything that might have made it at one time comfortable. We walked down a dingy hallway that appeared to be still under renovation.

I noted with dismay that the stairs down to our seats were steep and had no railing. Gary’s long-legged energy had already propelled him and Margaret down, and I knew I must somehow follow. Unsure of my back’s ability to support the rest of my body, I contemplated crawling down on hands and knees. But fearing this might appear unseemly, I dredged up some remnant of youthful courage and gingerly headed down.

At the bottom I winced again in anticipated pain when I saw that the seats were folding chairs. Oh, well, I thought, recalling a line from one of my aunt Olabelle’s songs (she was an old-time, mountain music singer): I will endure.

The music filled the auditorium. It was only around 11, so The Orb hadn’t started yet. Some other group was down on the stage, sounding not the least bit like Yanni.

It wasn’t peaceful, pretty music.

But it was engaging, in a frenzied sort of way. Its driving beat—embellished and softened occasionally with lighter melodies—pounded into my chest. The music went through me—I wasn’t separate from it. It went through the people and filled all the empty spaces in the room. There were no lyrics. One song blended into another.

This was a media show. Large video screens above the stage displayed images that blended into other images. Lights flashed brilliant colors. Lasers scanned the room. Hemingway’s face melted into Porky Pig’s face, which melted into an abstraction and back into Hemingway’s face…over and over and over.

“THE MUSIC NEVER STOPS,” Gary screamed across Margaret to me.

I nodded, looking down to the far-off stage where a man moved around within a circle of complicated-looking equipment. I put on my glasses and peered down again. There were no instruments, just a circle of lighted mixing boards, or something similar, within which he moved. I had no idea what he was doing. I returned to the images.


“IT’S THE 90s VERSION,” he screamed back.

Margaret rummaged in her purse and pulled out earplugs. “THEY DON’T SEEM TO HELP MUCH,” she shouted at us, smiling.

Several guys behind us started talking to Gary and Margaret. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Something about what such an unlikely trio was doing here, I assumed.

On the screen a woman’s naked torso melted into a different woman’s naked torso and into a different woman’s naked torso. The music flowed with the flash of the images. I admired the ceiling, an ornate pastel scene with cherubs playing harps, and wondered about the former life of the building.

I kept changing positions, to take the pressure off my back, but nothing was helping much. Pain had settled in. I got up to stand on the stairs, where there was a pole I could lean on.

From there I could see the crowd below, indistinct in a haze of cigarette smoke. Why was the youth of the 90s smoking, I wondered. After all the health alerts, the conclusive evidence, how could they smoke? My generation had quit. Why was the younger one still starting? Perhaps nothing really changes.

Below me on the open floor—there didn’t appear to be any seats—packed bodies stood dancing to the music. Some held brightly colored lights, moving them above their heads. The entire floor was filled—probably several thousand people were in the building.

I returned to my seat, somewhat restored, and screamed to Gary and Margaret, “IT PUTS YOU IN A TRANCE, THIS SHOW.”


I wondered why anyone would need drugs here.

Actually, we hadn’t seen much evidence of drugs, not that I would necessarily have recognized evidence if I had seen it. There was only the occasional whiff of marijuana floating past us, evoking memories of long-ago concerts and youth.

At midnight The Orb came on, but I would never have known except for some applause downstairs. They blended into the opening act. Everything blended into everything.

The Orb’s music was more polished, its images more geometric—bright-colored shapes flowing into more bright-colored shapes. Two men were in the circular area, adjusting whatever they were adjusting. A black-and-white image of what appeared to be a broken bridge spanned the top of the other video screens. Occasionally there were voices—indecipherable to me. Gary told me later one sounded like the McCarthy hearings. I don’t know if there was a message.

Lasers circled the room, shining sometimes full in our faces, connecting us more directly to the mass of electronic lights and equipment on the stage.

I went back and forth from the pole to my seat. More people filled the balcony. I observed them. One man danced in his seat during the entire show. A woman sat motionless, focused on the stage. People came and went down the steps, stopping at the bottom to peer over the balcony for awhile. Some danced, some simply watched. No one did anything strange.

After a few hours, we decided we had all had enough. The stairs were much easier going up. Margaret’s red raincoat was covered in what appeared to be plaster dust, probably from the floor. We tried unsuccessfully to brush it off.

In the lobby we talked with one of the organizers. We liked it, we told him. Margaret asked him about The Orb. He thought they were from Germany.

“If you want to come to another show like this, there’s one in Philadelphia in a few weeks,” he told us.

“Really?” Gary said. “Maybe we’ll come back for it.”

I assumed he was kidding. Maybe not.

We walked outside, blending into the crowd. These kids aren’t really so different from us, I thought.

Perhaps that was the point—everything blends into everything.