The city should have zero tolerance for any activity where drugs are an integral part. A rave without drugs is like a rodeo without horses. They dont happen.
So says James Penman, the San Bernardino city attorney and one of many public officials who have turned their crusade against Insomniac CEO Pasquale Rotella into a witch hunt against raves. Giving this verbal hocus-pocus a prime platform is the Los Angeles Times, which ran a cutting story on Saturday, February 2nd that documented 14 drug-related deaths since 2006 associated with Insomniac and Go! Ventures concerts. It’s the 89th story in an ongoing investigative series that began in 2010.
The paper has invested a lot of time, money and energy in the Los Angeles Coliseum scandal. And like any classic crime story, what kicked it all off was the death of a young girl, who fatefully popped Ecstasy at Insomniac’s Electric Daisy Carnival. As a father, I see this controversy from both sides. Let’s face it, Penman’s neat equation of “raves” and “rodeos,” “drugs” and “horses,” is powerful because on one level it’s true. Most raves, maybe even all raves, have some form of illegal drug use by some percentage of their participants. That’s knowledge people should have and use accordingly.
But it begs the question, what percentage is it exactly at any given time? Do Ecstasy overdoses just happen at raves and can they be prevented? And do authorities honestly believe that no one can enjoy raves without drugs? With bucking broncos and hat-waving cowboys lodged in our minds, we’re supposed to chuckle and agree with Penman without thinking. The crisscross images of country and city are so fun, one might miss his underlying premise that drugs are “integral” to all raves. He simply can’t imagine a rave without them. So in a way, Penman is no different than ravers who feel the need to get high every time.
Here’s an integral fact. On a Saturday night, November 11, 2012, a 25-year-old man from Missouri named J.D. Jones died in the saddle bronco riding competition at the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas after his foot got stuck in a stirrup and his horse fell on him. So rodeos and raves have death in common, not just witty associations about horses and drugs.
So do ski slopes and NASCAR racing. Add whitewater rafting, surfing, and cliff diving at Lake Havasu, pool parties, outdoor expeditions, Mt. Everest and inner tubing to that list. NFL and MLB games mix with alcohol for deadly outcomes too. Air shows are a fine tradition filled with explosions and dismemberment. There’s the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee, which has clocked more than 10 deaths since 2002. Collapsing stages crush innocents. Club fires ignited by rock pyrotechnics kill hundreds. Cars, planes and trains are nifty death machines we use everyday.
In the case of inner-tubing on California’s Kern River, the LA Times has done a series of stories over the years, including an excellent 2006 piece that reported on its deadly currents. Since 1968, the Kern has claimed 266 lives. Since 2006, 34 people have been lost. Those stories help inform the public and hopefully reduce foolish behavior on the Kern. But should the government erect cement walls to block off all recreational access? No one would stand for it. Not because they don’t want to save more lives but because as a society we believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
We know life is capricious and tragic. It’s little different with raves when people gamble with drugs. What’s alarming about drug overdoses to the public is that they seem to strike without warning, like lightning. The LA Times investigation on these deaths included short profiles of each victim: Joshua Johnson (18), Michelle Lee (20), William On (23), Michael Ph.C. Nguyen (23), John Cramer (23), Gregory Fetcher (32), Emily McCaughey (22), Olivier Hennessy (31), Michael Fenway, Jr. (37), Daniel Kyriako (24), Jesse Morales (22), Andrew Graf (19), Kyle Haggis (22) and Sasha Rodriguez (15).
That last name is the spearhead of the LA Times’ series. The Rodriguez family filed a suit against the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission and Insomniac after her death in 2010. “We've got kids in inappropriate situations that are dying,” family friend Kimberly Keith told the LA Times. “That's a city-, state-, county-owned building. They throw it, they rent it, yet they fill it full of minors in a setting where everybody knows what a rave is about. Where's the accountability?” Later that year a California lawmaker introduced a bill that would outlaw raves on public property, citing Rodriguez’s death as inspiration.
After watching the paper’s virtual town hall this last Thursday discussing their latest article and readers’ reactions, it became clear that the reporters’ conceptual frame was that raves are “different” from other events, i.e. bad, bad, bad. This isn’t informed by personal experience but by what they were told by officials. Continually, Rong-Gong Lin II and Paul Pringle defended their story based on medical and law enforcement sources who told them no other type of event creates the amount of overdoses or emergency room visits as big raves. Some of those accounts are truly compelling. However, no true data comparisons with other types of events like Bonnaroo were provided to support this “different” status.
Responding to accusations of double standards, Pringle acknowledged the long history of overdoses in popular music. He also confirmed that his story came about from his investigative work on Insomniac’s alleged role in the Los Angeles Coliseum scandal. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, he seems to be saying. And for the sake of spinoff, that means the reporters are tying tragic deaths of a public health nature to a larger criminal narrative, coloring a very negative impression in the court of public opinion.
When an article like this comes out, as impressive as it is in its detailed reporting, it can send a chill down the spine. It points fingers in so many directions. Even though it never says raves are a menace to society, that’s the impression one gets. It might make you feel ashamed for even enjoying raves, sober or not. It certainly makes fans angry and jilted. If anything, it turns ravers off to the story’s warnings about Ecstasy at big crowded events. That’s too bad, because it’s ravers themselves who need to look after each other more. As more newcomers come to raves, they may indeed fall prey to foolish behaviors. It's up to everyone on the dancefloor to catch them when they fall and promote common sense.
But the story’s core audience is not the younger generations that claim electronic dance music as their own. Pringle admitted as much in the town hall when he said their story could lead to new laws. In that sense, it’s aimed at decision makers and their constituents. It will be discussed by the city’s elite and newsrooms across the country. Politicians will take notice. Civil authorities will applaud. And over cheese and wine at the latest charity ball or gallery opening, the civilized will tell each other that raves are for the reckless and the blind.
One of the big problems with this article is it never bothers to actually investigate why people even like raves. Why was Rodriguez there? Was it an impulsive act or did she and her friends find something attractive in its wild nature? Instead the story just assumes ravers are misguided and in the case of Penman, just there to get high. The LA Times did ask Insomniac and Go! Ventures for comment. They declined. But the reporters could have gone further and talked to other voices in the EDM community, including KCRW music director Jason Bentley or USC professor Josh Kun, who runs the Popular Music Project at the Norman Lear Center.
But the main reason this article deserves serious criticism is that it fails to ask the simplest counter: should these events be forbidden at the risk of infringing on the First Amendment? It’s a startling thing. Here the press uses its right to free speech to impugn art’s right to free expression. The assumption is, if these events are deadly, even by a small percentage, then the government should regulate instead of educate. Improving safety measures is one thing, but banning them altogether? Singling out one form of music over another? That is censorship and unconstitutional.
This story also wreaks of generational prejudice. People died at Woodstock and Who concerts. LSD was dropped like no tomorrow at Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane shows. Miles Davis had a heroin addiction, as did many jazz greats. Billie Holiday wasted away on it. The Velvet Underground celebrated the narcotic with an anthem. The ‘80s was filled to the gills with cocaine. “White Lines?” Would we have Bob Dylan or the Beatles’ best albums without some degree of psychedelic experimentation? The problem with this whole article is the journalists never bother to get to the bottom of the real story. They take the easy target and go with the lazy notion that raves are inherently criminal. Yes, they do have a renegade streak and history. Much of the culture has lived in the shadows, partly by choice but more because of ignorance. The reporters should be more interested in finding out why the LA Coliseum’s security possibly failed and what measures, from drug testing to crowd control, could lessen risks.
Another complication is that the story relies on different coroners’ reports. There is no investigation into whether the Ecstasy found in the victims’ bodies was pure MDMA or cocktails of MDA, heroin and other dangerous opiates. These coroners also may have used different methods. There is also no information on whether some of these deaths were caused by multiple doses. MDMA is a serious drug, and its street name of “Ecstasy” can indicate more adulterated forms. It bears reminding, that the US government has been conducting MDMA trials with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to help them cope with PTSD. While those tests are sanctioned and supervised, the reporters’ portrayal of the drug as Russian roulette is overstated.
As these promoters adopt better anti-drug policies and security, the trend in overdoses could abate. In fact, given EDC’s growing audience, statistically speaking, harm reduction appears headed in the right direction. But the thrust of these stories implies that there is no room for compromise. The story insinuates that Insomniac and other promoters are practically dealing the drugs themselves and are responsible for all their attendees’ decisions. This is not only unfair on the merits, it borders on intellectual malpractice. We are not a nation of children.
To be clear, journalism is no joke. It’s a hard business. In recent years it’s been battered by a loss in advertising revenue to Google and other Internet giants. Reporting is an honorable calling and often pays little, especially when it comes to newspapers. The LA Times has a storied history, some of it sordid but most of it elevated. Its important work includes early leads on the Watergate scandal and uncovering rampant corruption at the LAPD’s Rampart division and the City of Bell.
But journalism is also prone to oversimplification and an obsession with death. The more tragic, the better. In journalism school, I was taught that “if it bleeds, it leads.” Death sells papers. The first assignment I ever had was writing a fake obituary. You have to get the who, what, where, why and how much of any story, especially when people die. There’s a reason for this. Death is final and scary. Readers have a right to know the facts: Was it murder? Was it natural? Was it suicide? Was it an overdose? There’s also a magic number. The more people die in a story, the more important it becomes. Whenever you get 10 or more deaths, you can move people’s thoughts to bigger impressions. It’s like a plane hitting the right speed for liftoff.
Scale is also important. But this is where the LA Times story begins to break up. Festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival attract hundreds of thousands. The bigger the number, the higher probability someone will get hurt. And when you put them all in the same place at the same time, the impact will appear larger than hundreds of scattered frat parties or the countless drunk drivers who kill not just themselves but others, throughout the year in cities and towns across America. The fact is that people are doing Ecstasy at house parties, in dormitories and at home. You don’t need raves for drug overdoses.
We’ve seen this movie before. Hip-hop and gangster rap were decried for inspiring violence and misogyny. Heavy metal was feared for devil worship and suicidal lyrics. Rock is infamous for its “sex, drugs and rock & roll.” Even jazz was derided as dark music that would lead to the decline of polite society. All along the way, heroin, cocaine, LSD, PCP, marijuana and an ocean of booze amped America’s evolving music drama.
That said, given Amy Winehouse’s descent into drug hell, has anyone bothered to compare the drug deaths of EDM artists to those of rock or hip-hop? Pringle and Lin might be surprised by what they find. The drug-free EDM artist Kaskade, who was raised a Mormon, pointed out as much in his response to the LA Times story, which he titled “No One Knows Who We Are.” Among other things, he argues that none of these news stories bother to convey rave culture’s positive message of peace and harmony.
While the LA Times’ Arts section covers EDM enthusiastically, the paper could do more to enlighten the public on what is truly driving dance culture. From its birth in the underground gay scene of New York City and Chicago, to its dark futuristic funk in Detroit and Europe’s acid house explosion, rave culture has expanded people’s social intelligence, connecting them to the pulse of technology and the diversity of humanity. From Trent Reznor’s score for The Social Network to Burning Man and the 5K Rave Run, this culture is still coming of age and reaching a fever pitch. That’s why this hit piece feels so out of step with the times. It’s something one would expect 10 years ago. But with Psy’s techno pop of “Gangnam Style” or the viral meme of the Harlem Shake catching fire around the world, there’s no going back.
Something else is getting lost in this debate. Rave culture and its music aren’t really about getting wasted or blitzed on drugs. Sure, many folks use substances to help them break through to its headspace. But if you talk to most ravers, you’ll find that they’re primarily in search of community and a sense of belonging. At raves like EDC, they find the freedom to be themselves and to express their personalities through dancing. American culture is so often violent and pessimistic. Raves give youth hope.
When I was a young raver in the early ‘90s, what always drew me to the culture was its variety of sounds and people. I found it to be so much more beautiful than it was ever given credit for. While much of it is optimistic, it has its dark moods and sense of sadness too. From its beginning, EDM was just as much about the art of sadness as it was about letting go. Check Derrick May’s “It Is What It Is,” Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea” or Deadmau5’s “Strobe.”
A few years ago, techno helped me process a great loss. I said goodbye to my uncle in Hawaii, who was dying of lung cancer. He was the closest thing I ever had to a grandfather. A Japanese kamikaze pilot during World War II who never flew a mission, I watched him suffocate slowly on his deathbed. Driving home from LAX after my farewell, I played one song over and over, Pig & Dan’s electronic dirge, “Futile.” Somehow, like all great art, it reflected exactly what I felt inside, opening a path out of sorrow.
That’s what this story misses entirely. Insomniac is not evil but evolving. Raves are not a menace but a salve. Before J.D. Jones ever died at the stamp of a wild horse, before a too young Sasha Rodriguez made her final choice, ravers have always known that life is tragic. That’s why raves existed in the first place. We created them to find joy together, with or without drugs.
Yoshi Roads has been covering EDM for almost 20 years. He is currently working on a book titled, “American Rave: the Human Story of EDM and Techno Culture’s Global Helix.”