My Life as a Kid: A Nostalgic Look Back on Raves in the 1990’s



Grand Boulevard, Detroit, MI

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

The first time I ever went to a rave it was in the old Packard Plant. I didn’t know the name of the Plant at the time, nor did I know where it stood in relation to the city at large. I was told that the event was “at Packard,” not realizing that this was shorthand for a historic auto plant that had first opened in 1907 and which had been closed since the 1957 recession. The plant was just off of East Grand Boulevard, a major artery emptying straight into the riverfront, but I felt like I was in the blankest spot on the whole map of Michigan, enchanting in the way that only a no man’s land can be. It didn’t matter that East Grand and the factory itself were both marked very clearly with conspicuous signs. To me Detroit was more of an asteroid belt than a city, locations floating out of contiguity, emerging at random from behind the pillars of white steam shooting up out of the manholes and stormdrains. It was something unseen, perhaps confusion and ambiguity themselves in pure, reified form, that kept it from crumbling apart.

Of course, the problem was that I wasn’t driving, was another way you could look at it.

I stood next to my friend’s car, the Packard Plant looming up around me. I patted down my pockets for my cigarettes, just to cope with the awe. The identical brick buildings went on forever like a dead city. The cloud-bedecked mid-October Michigan sky, fluorescent orange, exaggerated the shadows dripping off of the towering walls.

It gave a general impression that it could house activity of infinite loudness, but the only sounds were the rustling of my feet in the gravel and the scattered voices lingering around the other cars. The superhuman scale of the edifice, the grid frames around the crushed windows, arthritic with rust, the cables and emaciated catwalks stretched between one end of the canyon and the other, the corners in every direction giving way to the promise of endless vistas, spoke to an oldness beyond my comprehension. It felt older than Rome or Athens. I lost myself completely in the feeling of having stepped backward in time and into a deactivated corner of a retroactively canceled past. I had the feeling that I had seen this before, not the Plant itself, but its world, and that every rustle I made in the loose gravel parking lot between me and the entrance to the party brought me closer to reunion with a forgotten past life.

The vibe that I was getting was one of the strongest that I had ever experienced, for any reason, so I tried to ignore what signs of my own present time gradually began to assert themselves . . . the outfits, the wispy adolescent goatee on the shiny face of the teenager at the door who wanted my $25, and my friend, who had immediately begun to make the scene in that insufferably obnoxious way that, in his defense, only I, as his friend, seemed to notice.

It was 1997, the high time of the candy ravers. My friend and I had just started college, he in our native Ann Arbor and I at a more expensive and, therefore, incomparably more prestigious institution in the Northeast. To be honest, I think that this disparity had always made him slightly insecure. Whenever we were together with former high school compatriots, teachers, parents of friends, or whatever, he always made a point of saying that going to school in Ann Arbor was “a different Ann Arbor” than the teenager Ann Arbor, the truth of which I never once doubted, but which he seemed to need to express using the bitterest possible tone of voice.

As though to prove that this were so, in any case, in just his first few months of school my friend’s social life became increasingly focused on Ann Arbor’s famous neighbor to the East, Detroit. And he was not alone: For whatever reason, an underground techno scene that had flourished for years was attracting more attention than ever from Detroit’s inordinately wealthy suburbs, a development which the naked eye could see in the proliferation of vast bell-bottom style jeans, Adidas logos, backpacks shaped like stuffed animals, and grown men and women nibbling on pacifiers not just in the clubs and bars of the city, but up and down the leafy, freshly-paved, occasionally gated streets of Farmington, Bloomfield Hills, Pontiac, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, and, eventually, Ann Arbor. You saw the scene at the dentist’s office, shopping for school supplies, and even in corporate record stores. I remember sitting in Ann Arbor, sipping coffee with a girl who at the time attended a college in the Northeast, a college not unlike my own. I wore a navy blue polo shirt borrowed from my Dad and she a faded T-shirt from the Lilith Fair, but we concluded that we would rather be ravers than neo-hippies if we had to make the choice under duress. The scene was ascendant; it had the thumbs up from the mainstream.

It captured my friend’s imagination and he was a quick study—I was back just seven weeks into the semester, on my first break, and he already seemed to know where every party was happening and when. He told me about it and I wanted to see something new, so we got on I-94 and drove out there. We rolled down the windows and smoked Newports.

The autonomous fashion sense, in addition to the famous ubiquity of drugs, made it inevitable that it would also cobble together its own highly mystical ideology. That night, it was around the time we passed the Uniroyal tire, Detroit’s kitschy equivalent of the Colossus of Rhodes, that my friend first began to lecture me about sensation, perception, and the existence of a universal mind. Before the night was out, I would learn a thing or two about UFO’s. Androgyny was also a major theme: variation among clothing styles between men and women was minimal because of the premium on the essential identity of every human soul. The whole thing was a futuristic Romantic throwback, and the ecstatic music became a soundtrack to the erasure of all differences, the union of all opposites in peace. The sun rising in the middle of the night. Gods returning from Olympus on purple, blacklit, unidentified flying chariots. It was all Greek to me, but I knew where it was coming from. Everyone felt it and it was an unmistakable component of its popularity. I developed my own version of it, which, rather than permanent global utopia, focused on the fall and rise of Detroit itself in the aftermath of its postindustrial economic apocalypse.

This was the way that I dealt with it, the way that I tried to be as outgoing, personable, and sporty as my friend as the time went on. I had been told more than once that I was spoiling the vibe when I had found myself in a massage chain and I remember a number of occasions in which girls, appropriately dressed for the night, would see me wandering around, get right up in my face with their ankles rhythmically bobbing, tell me, “Smile!” and then bob away. Without intending to, I was putting a damper on the scene just by being myself. It seemed I was constitutionally incapable of not putting a damper on this joyous scene, which I regretted . . . I basically agreed that it was joyous.

There was one night when I remember sitting in a brightly lit corner. Elsewhere people were dancing between walls obscured either by darkness or fluorescent purple, but here a Mole People vibe emanated from the high concrete walls as exposed to the harsh white light of a tall lamp. There was a guy and a girl splayed on top of each other. The guy leaned his head back against the wall and stretched out his arm, handing me a white plastic cone, which in its aerodynamic bullet nose and the concentric circles in its depressible cylinder base reminded me of the space shuttle. The guy withdrew it and performed a brief demonstration of how to blast off, then handed it to me again . . . “Maybe this is a way to save Detroit,” I said. I had resorted to turning the whole thing into a seminar in Urban Studies just so I could tread water. “The fact that these parties are attracting this much tourism from the suburbs could lead to a lot more. If any city could rebuild a healthy economy purely on leisure, then surely it’s Detroit . . .” The disintegration of Detroit in the wake of the factory closings and riots may well have been a subtext to the rave scene, but I pushed it right up front and center. Before I could finish the sentence, though, my forehead became unbelievably heavy and I returned the cone to the guy. The girl sat behind the guy with her arms wrapped around his chest like a Harvard sweater. She laughed as I trailed off, bent down and kissed him on the neck. Her long, blond hair fell back from behind her ear, concealing her face. I lay down and watched the music warp the ceiling, like melting glass, unable to move but sinking slowly into paranoia about particles accrued over the generations to the bare floor. I think that the track might have been “Want a Life.”

In an effort to blend in, I would dispense with the navy blue polo shirts and put on vaguely ironic T-shirts that I had attained from a big outlet in Ypsilanti called ValuWorld, but it wasn’t enough. I went up to girls and said, “Hey. Do you come to a lot of these things?” Every time I knew it was stupid to refer to a sacred utopian gathering as a “thing,” but I did it anyway. They would say, “Yeah” and I would say, “I think these things are great!” I would go hours without seeing my friend once and he would come up to me, extract a deflated balloon from between his front teeth, and ask, “Whassup? Are you partyin’, kid?” And then I would say, “Yeah, man.”

Hidden somewhere in the way that I would say that was an insult, his face would fall, go completely empty, and then it would be hours before we would reconvene again. People operated at an instinctive level which I could only understand at my most exhausted or least coherent. I would stand next to the DJ impersonating some kind of techno connoisseur. It was only after I had lost the energy to do otherwise, after hours of constant standing, nodding my head to the same beat, that I would notice the pacifier-sporting androgyne next to me silently offering me a drag off of their Newport. I would take it, and nod, and we would both know that something had happened.

It was always well into the morning when we finally took off. The rides back were silent, if not hostile, my friend setting his jaw grimly against the unfolding road. We were sick of being awake and the look of the city in broad daylight was different. It was no longer possible to use your imagination in the way that you did with the shadow-drenched empty doorways and towering vacant buildings. Rather than skeletal structures under an elegant cloak of darkness, you saw the loneliness of the empty homes, standing alone on whole city blocks covered in grass, dirt, and scattered trash.

The cloud-domed Michigan sky went from fluorescent orange to newsprint gray. But the music still rang in my ears and the fusion of those sounds with Detroit’s images still produced something magical. The music was like the city’s ghost, pumping away doggedly through the night in senses both literal and figurative. The feeling was so powerful that I kept going, the “things” still enticed me, even though the truth was that I found raves boring and I had only engaged the people on the shallowest terms. I never developed more than the most rudimentary understanding of their language, and it never had the opportunity to explain itself to me—if only because, as almost anyone would have boasted, there was really nothing to explain. The impact that it had on me was that it provided a soundtrack to learning that certain parts of the map aren’t so blank after all and that some moments in history were never really forgotten. What remains of my days as a wannabe raver is the memory of getting to know a city that my parents, along with seemingly every other adult in Ann Arbor, had written off forever, and a music whose boundless, frenzied optimism embodies the tantalizing possibilities of the future.

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§ One Response to “My Life as a Kid: A Nostalgic Look Back on Raves in the 1990’s”

  • rita pal says:

    would u happen to have any photos of the packard plant when a rave was in progess there , would love to see how it looked inside during a wave

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