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Sunday, April 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ecstasy, "candy kisses" and acceptance: Garfield High School writers look inside a rave

When six people were gunned down March 25 by someone they'd met at a rave, it drew new attention to the largely underground local rave scene. Students at Seattle's Garfield High School attended a rave last fall to research an article for The Garfield Messenger Magazine. This is an abridged version of the report by Dean Carson, Emily Dansereau, Kyle Hargus, Zach Hartnett, Molly Swenson, Becca Varon and Dana Wu.

The streets of Seattle's industrial district sleep in deserted silence everywhere but on a certain dark road just under the West Seattle Bridge. In a shady, warehouse-like venue on a September Saturday, a strange fantasyland consumes itself in a world of hallucinogenic pills, heavy beats, and nightlong friendships. A crowd of at least 200 people has gathered around the doors as security guards yell for people to get out of the street so the few cars driving through the industrial district at midnight can get by.

"If everyone here wasn't rolling [high on the drug Ecstasy], we would have just pushed through the doors by now," says a girl standing near us in line. She wears nothing but a transparent corset and a pair of lacy spankies. We try not to stare. In the two hours that we have been waiting in anticipation for the doors to open, we have seen people meowing like cats, people dressed like cats, people undressed like cats. Tonight's rave, a kitty-themed event, is called "Frisky." Ravers dressed as cats receive free glow sticks and lots of love.

There is something almost childish about the vibe outside the rave. "Excuse me, ravers!" yells a woman with a flashlight as she squeezes through the crowd. The bouncer, a voluptuous 20-something with pink hair and a black zip-up sweatshirt, yells at the crowd like it is a group of school kids. In a way, they are — after all, tonight's rave is a 16-plus event.

Even at raves, where Ecstasy is as commonplace as beer at a frat party, the security guards must abide by the laws to keep the fairly well-known venue from being shut down. While we are waiting in line, an anxious raver approaches a girl in front of us, greets her enthusiastically, and inquires about buying some Ecstasy for the night. The girl, who looks about our age and appears to be a regular dealer, seems like she doesn't want to talk about it, presumably because we are within earshot of a security guard.

A candy kiss

We meet a few ravers before we get in. "The Professor," a lanky, long-haired fellow wearing a tie-dyed shirt and hundreds of brightly beaded bracelets, is by day a high-school senior. Tonight, he is an exuberant raver who serves as one of our guides throughout the night.

"Hey, let me get you some candy," The Professor says to Dana. He holds out his hand, palm facing hers. "Give me your hand." He carefully chooses a bracelet laced with clear blue, purple, and green plastic beads and slides it off his wrist, across their interlocked hands, and onto hers. "There," he says with satisfaction. Called a "candy kiss," this is an oddly intimate gesture of friendship that only makes sense in the context of raving. We learn later that it's just one of the raving community's tokens of intimacy.

We finally make it through the doors after a rigorous pat-down that borders on physical violation. Two girls in front of us have forgotten to bring their identification to prove that they are over 16. They loudly yell a slew of profanities and run off to confer with each other a few feet away.

Sensory overload

When we first get in, the rave is just getting started. It is nearly 1 in the morning, two hours after the rave's announced start time. Let the party begin.

The familiar semi-awkward feelings of early stages of a party linger in the grimy air. A few bored-looking people are lazing around on a circle of dingy couches that serves as the social hub throughout the night.

The venue itself looks and feels like a seedy nightclub that just happens to be in a warehouse in the Industrial District. It is one of those places that you hope you will never have to see in the light, because even the darkness and flashing lights barely cover up the grime left by many nights of alcohol and sweat and whatever other filth has been there.

The energy builds rapidly as ravers flow into the venue. Soon, we are caught in the midst of a massive sensory overload.

Above the DJ's platform looms a large overhead projector screen, where trippy images flash on and off, interspersed with dizzying geometrical patterns. "Hello Kitty" drinking water out of a stream. Frightened cats running down an abandoned street. Betty Boop walking into a mirror.

"Hey, I have that episode of Betty Boop!" says Molly.

We hear loud, strange music, smell tobacco and body odor so strong it makes our eyes water, feel sweaty skin brush against our own — all in what seems to be a kitty-themed nightmare.

The light show

At the same time, we see people being made happy by the simplest things: sucking on flashing ring-pops, caressing each other's hair and faces, giving candy kisses to new friends they may not remember tomorrow. The rave seems full of easily amused toddlers.

We take a seat on the couches. To the left, a man has set up a massage station and is charging ravegoers for his services. Becca asks one boy if the seat next to him is taken; he answers by tightly clutching his Pink Panther stuffed animal and whispering in its ear. She takes it as a no.

On the couches, we witness one of the most exhilarating experiences for a raver, called a "light show." A man, decked out in oversized pants, hundreds of necklaces and bracelets, a stormtrooper-esque face mask, ski goggles, and glow sticks between his fingers and covering his hands, approaches a raver spacing out on the couch. The trooper dons his mask and proceeds to move his glow sticks around in rapid, flowing movements, right in front of the person on the couch. The man on the couch doesn't blink or move. He just keeps staring straight ahead, as if nothing is happening at all.

These "light shows" are intended to increase the effects of Ecstasy. We ask the stormtrooper how long it took him to learn how to do that. "About a year and a lot of drugs," he replies with a smile.

Most people are eager to talk to us. A man sitting next to us on the couch introduces himself to Molly.

"What's your name?" he asks.

"Molly," she replies.

"Molly, like Ecstasy Molly?" We learn that "Molly" is what ravers call pure Ecstasy tablets. "So you're that good? Are you rolling?"

"What?"

"Are you rolling?"

"No."

"Oh." He runs over to give a massage to a girl who is most definitely rolling, while another guy stands over her and gives her a light show.

P.L.U.R.

The Professor is talkative and friendly. If there is one topic he seems qualified to profess on, it is the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. He describes in detail dozens of varieties of Ecstasy, the different prints on them, the effects of different colors, and offers his opinions on which are the best.

Halfway through the night, someone taps Becca on the shoulder. She turns around to find a friend of hers who plays on the football team at a large suburban high school. If his coach finds out he was anywhere where drug use could have been taking place, he's off the team, he casually explains as he waits for his first Ecstasy pill of the night to kick in.

"I started raving this summer," he says, sitting down on the disgusting couch. "I've probably been to about 12. It's just a really great scene; everyone here is so accepting."

We glance over at the other couches, watching people who may or may not have known each other for even an hour enjoying each other's company. Behind us, the dance floor pulsates with music and euphorically undulating human bodies. "The greatest thing about E is that it makes you think you're a really good dancer," says the football player.

A friendly culture

"Everyone at raves is really nice because they're on Ecstasy," says The Professor with a huge grin.

This may help to explain the traditional rave philosophy of "P.L.U.R." — peace, love, unity and respect — that has long been the mantra of ravegoers.

Ecstasy causes the body to release the hormone serotonin. Some effects include extreme mood lift, feelings of love and empathy, the urge to hug and kiss people, increased willingness to communicate, and seemingly endless supply of energy. Only some people at the rave are on Ecstasy; many are sober, and some are just drunk. Everyone is exceptionally friendly, and nothing feels "exclusive" about the vibe at all.

Bathed in fluorescent lights and overwhelming synth sounds, the ravers dance in a way completely foreign to anyone who has never been to a rave. They let it all out. They seem so content, so happy. Even the DJ seems glad to be letting loose. And nobody's dancing with each other — it's not that kind of dance — but somehow, everyone is dancing together as one unified organism of individual self-indulgence.

"Hey man, what are you taking?" the football player asks a fellow raver, who is already "rolling."

"Half a pink diamond and half a pink heart," he responds.

The football player explains that today, most Ecstasy is laced with other drugs, such as speed, caffeine, Ritalin and meth. Often the color and stamp of a pill denotes what it is laced with, but one can never know. While the drug has its own range of downsides, the greatest dangers come from the other harmful drugs mixed into Ecstasy pills.

"It's all the government's fault," he says, explaining that pure methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) was available before Ecstasy was made illegal. "Now the criminals control it, and they can do whatever they want."

Commonly swallowed in tablet form or insufflated (snorted) for a faster, more intense effect, MDMA produces a vivid experience.

The onset or "coming up" of Ecstasy is often accompanied by anxiety or fear. Besides the intense feelings of love and forgiveness, MDMA also unleashes a host of negative effects. Some of these include heatstroke, possible sexual dysfunction and blurred vision. MDMA users who are dancing in hot clubs or bars can also experience dehydration.

One of the most common effects is a tendency of the user to grind his/her teeth and jaws and chew on the inside of the mouth. "I woke up one morning and was like, 'Why does my mouth hurt so much?' " one raver explained. To prevent injury, many ravers suck on "binkies," or pacifiers.

After "coming down" from a night on Ecstasy, many users experience depression or a "crash" from the loss of serotonin, which can sometimes last for days.

Roots of rave

As the first DJ finishes his show, Meg and Becca work their way across the crowded floor onto the stage, where they catch him just as he is stepping down from the podium, mopping his forehead. He's just come here from New York, and he greatly enjoys the rave scene in Seattle. "You've got a pretty good party tonight," he tells them. By the time they finish the brief conversation, he has left them with an offer of a free CD and a huge bear hug. They never did get that CD, but they did get covered in friendly DJ sweat.

Rave music finds its roots in England during the "acid house" era, when British house artists began tweaking the frequencies of their samples with bass synthesizers. This art form began to find its way to the States in the early '90s, highlighting house artists like Aphex Twin and The Shamen. Since then, rave music has continued to evolve and separate into a blend of high-energy electronic music and thumping rhythm designed to raise heartbeats and adrenaline levels alike.

Some ravers, who call themselves "junglists," prefer the sticky and dense pounding of drum 'n' bass, a form of techno that thrives mostly in its heavy rhythm section and various samples.

Candy and chill rooms

Another major component are the "candy ravers," who prefer a more smooth and tantric form of electronic, pioneered by English DJ John Digweed. Lodged somewhere between house, trance and trip-hop, this kind of music can range from synth-heads like Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers to the dark and unsteady grooves of Massive Attack. Candy-rave music is not so much designed to get your head banging as it is to highlight your hallucinogenic experiences.

The third kind of rave music, however, may be the most interesting of rave subcultures. This is the kind of music found at raves that have designated a "chill room" where people can slowly regain consciousness, experience the people around them, or just sit down for a while. In these rooms, music is much more translucent and soothing. This music is labeled outside the rave scene by musicians and critics alike as ambient or IDM (intelligent dance music).

Becca finds the football player again, whose pill is beginning to kick in.

"I'm getting an anxious feeling in my chest," he says, making a face. "I get that sometimes from pills I don't like."

His friend, who has just taken "half a pink unicorn and half a green triangle," walks by. "Oh, man, you have to tell me how the green triangle feels!" the football player says excitedly. We never find out, however, because it is past 3 a.m. and time for us tired reporters to go home.

Once we are outside in the cold night air, we are able to recover a little from the sensory overload. No more flashing lights, no more Hello Kitty. It's been a long night.

On the ride home, Molly reports that two of those girls in underwear were 13 and 14. Dean says that a greasy, gray-haired man on the dance floor was 50.

The colorful fantasyland we leave behind in the darkness of the industrial district is an interesting one. For some, the rave is just a scene: something to do with friends on a Saturday night, a venue with good music, or an excuse to show off your cute bra in public. But for others, the rave provides a home, a family, and a place to feel loved.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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