Late, Late Show : At the new after-hours clubs, the party lasts until long after sunrise. But police say some club-goers keep the beat with the help of drugs.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

Only last year, the hours between bar closings and Sunday services in L.A. belonged to dance-till-you-drop "ravers." It was a new generation's late-night dance-party scene, envied by club-goers throughout the world and hyped in newspapers, newsmagazines and TV tabloid shows. Where else could thousands party in an amusement park till 5 a.m.?

But gangs, thugs and new drugs invaded all-night raves, scene watchers say. So a lot of the young people packed up and went back to the 'burbs. "I feel like I'm a minority now," says one raver-in-retreat.

What's left of L.A.'s rave scene are about a dozen after-hours joints from Santa Monica to Downtown, serving several hundred die-hards. Some look classy, others look like drug dens, most cater to the 18-and-up crowd. Some rave veterans say after-hours clubs are too extreme even for them. "Everyone's on speed, violent and packing (guns)," says former rave organizer Lou Rittenhouse. "I don't go out anymore."

"A majority of the places cater to young (people)," says Los Angeles Police Sgt. Marty Cotwright. "There's drugs and all kinds of other activities."

At Abyss, a dark-and-deep club in the rough-and-tumble Rampart district, some young club-goers make the bathroom their first stop. Scoring and snorting speed is their mission, say some club-goers. "The more you do," says 23-year-old Cindi (not her real name), "the more you stay up, the more you dance."

Here, Saturday night starts happening at 1 a.m. Sunday with a $7 cover charge and a pat-down search in the shadowy storefront. Young women, backpacks in tow, enter the bathroom two at a time. Then it's on to the dance floor, where two black rooms rock to clockwork beats. "Concentrate/On the music," the track says in a hypnotizing loop.

But nobody appears to be getting sleepy. Some are peaking on speed ("tweaking," they call it), and soon they'll be coming down ("sketching"). When the night ends at 10 in the morning, they can always aim for Sketchpad, a Sunday after- after-hours dance club down the street. It's known to go as late as 3 a.m. Monday.

Abyss co-owner Louis Rincon acknowledges that drugs are used in his club, but he says he's trying the best he can. "We've been weeding them out," he says. "We catch people doing drugs and it's 86--they're out."

A few other spots are also trying to distance themselves from the drug culture. Does Your Mama Know, a 21-and-up affair on Sunset Boulevard, has a dress code, a hefty cover charge ($10) and a bar that opens at 6 a.m. The result is a "mature and positive" crowd, says resident DJ Tony Largo. "We constantly have to have our hands on the pulse," he says, "because if we don't, it could turn into a tweaker club in the matter of a week or two."

Promoters at Hollywood's Public Space disallow dancing, showcase mellow music and close down at a conservative 4 a.m. It keeps the speeders at bay, they say. "We don't have a real tweaking crowd," one Public Space promoter says.

Abyss, housed in a funky hotel circa 1912, usually runs midnight to 10 a.m. on weekends and caters to those 18 and older. It's often open midnight to 7 a.m. Sunday through Thursday. Lately, though, the schedule has been off and on. The police recently shut the club down, seized sound equipment and cited owners for a lack of a dance hall permit. "There's been dancing and all other forms of entertainment, and they don't have proper permits," says Cotwright, who supervises area vice officers.

When informed this week that Abyss is open again, Cotwright said: "I guess we'll have to go back in there then."

Abyss owners say they have most of the needed permits except for the hard-to-get dance hall permit. "We're trying to do things the right way," Abyss co-owner Lee Ballenger says. Then he echoes partner Rincon: "We try to deter drugs as much as possible."

But club-goers John, 18, and Tina, 21 (not their real names), say they regularly sell speed there at $20 a pop. On a recent morning, young people line up for the white stuff. John says "Do it fast and don't get caught" is his motto. The 18-year-old says he can clear $400 in profit on a good night at some after-hours clubs. "It's a crazy life," he says.

Speed (formally methamphetamine, usually found in crystal form locally) has extended the hours of what started as a dance-till-dawn craze. The after-hours scene sometimes goes 24 hours straight, much longer than most raves. And the 10- to 12-hour effects of speed can last much longer than rave drugs LSD and its psychedelic cousin MDMA (known as "ecstasy"). Those who take speed at after-hours clubs don't seem to drink alcohol, and most after-hours spots don't serve it.

UCLA drug expert Ronald K. Siegel says the cocaine-like speed can make people irritable, paranoid and violent. "We can dispute the relationship between any drug and violent behavior," he says. "The one exception is methamphetamine."

And unlike LSD and MDMA, it's addictive.

Police confirm that speed costs $20 and up for one-sixteenth of a gram (called a "teen-ager" on the streets). It's made in labs around Southern California, much of it in San Diego, some in the desert, some in roving motor homes, says LAPD narcotics Detective Frank Lyga.

Motorcycle gangs distribute speed, Lyga says. Young people sell it in the clubs. People caught using it could spend a year in county lock-up. Yet the after-hours demand for speed evades police so far. "We don't enforce in a lot of after-hours clubs," Lyga says. "We don't have the manpower really."

Clearly, not everyone who parties till dawn is on speed. But Cohry Osborne, a night-life writer for L.A.'s Urb magazine, says: "It is a vital part of the underground."

It wasn't always that way.

*

During L.A. ravers' Summer of Love--1991--the drugs of choice, for those who were doing them, were LSD, MDMA and laughing gas. Illicit drugs--particularly laughing gas--contributed to a few deaths, but some ravers remember the time fondly. "Here I was trying to break away from my mother's generation," says a former raver who calls herself Miss Kitty. "I really feel happy that I was part of the summer of '91."

People barely past their teens put on all-night dance parties with mocking cartoon themes. (Mickey Mouse, whose face appeared on sheets of LSD, was a popular icon.) Several thousand teens and twentysomethings found an underground and often illegal play land in amusement parks, airport hangars and warehouses. After-hours clubs such as Flammable Liquid kept them dancing into the daylight.

The L.A. scene got press from here to Europe. Some media trumpeted the trend as a new generation's counterculture. Meanwhile, a Belgian one-hit wonder group paid homage to the Southern California scene by calling itself L.A. Style. Gays and suburbanites, homeboys and hipsters shared the same dance space, and the buzzword was unity . Even competing rave promoters banded together to create a legal defense fund for those times when their events were shut down, one promoter says. But the crowd grew, and with it came gang types, scene-watchers say.

"Basically," says Urb's Osborne, "it was an undesirable crowd."

The downfall may have been inevitable. Massive crowds, drug overdoses and crime hurt the rave scene in Manchester, England, in the late '80s. "It's very similar to what happened in England," says Brit Steve Levy, a record company owner who helped bring raves to Los Angeles. "It got huge and commercial, and then it went back into the much smaller clubs, the underground clubs."

Many point to Grape Ape 3, held in September, 1993, as a turning point for the scene in Southern California. The Orange County rave got out of control, witnesses say. Fights broke out, a security guard had a gun pointed at his head, and a van was set afire. Police shut it down sometime after 3 a.m.

"When I saw the kids burning the car," says Gary Richards, a record company executive, "I knew the scene was done." Only nine months earlier, Richards helped put together America's largest rave, which pulled in 17,254 paying customers at Knott's Berry Farm.

Around the same time, "there were so many people who were like, 'Acid isn't doing it for me, I gotta stay up longer,' " one former raver recalls. They started doing speed, "then they started to fight."

Other club-goers trace the demise of raves to the switch, by some, from MDMA to the more nerve-racking speed. "It used to be you came to dance and there happened to be drugs," says one club-goer. "Now you come for drugs and there happens to be music."

Others say after-hours clubs are better off without trendies who went to raves. The emergence of after-hours clubs "got rid of the people that follow what's hot and what's not," says a Sketchpad DJ. "They said these raves are not. And the people who were there for the music, they stayed."

The rave phenomenon is still alive in Orlando, Fla., and other mid-size cities. Europe is still home to a few mega-raves, too, although they're now called "one-offs" and "dos."

*

On a Sunday morning at Abyss, sexy women in boots and good-looking guys in polo shirts pump their arms under a street sign that says, "NO STOPPING." Off to the side, a dingy room nurses come-down sketchers with a flea-market mishmash of couches, chairs and tables. A dozen people crash, feet up, under a ceiling fan that's missing a blade and doesn't spin.

Cindi, 23, says she's tweaking. She's going so fast she can't dance, she says. "My mind's going so fast, the words don't come right--I mean come out right," she says. "See what I mean?"

A man in an orange armchair a few feet away leans over a round dining table. "Watch that guy," a bystander says, "He's about to do a line!" The guy looks up, forewarned, but leans down and snorts anyway.

Cindi talks the night away in that same orange chair. On weekends she likes to stick a straw in her little plastic bag and sniff a "bump" of speed, she says. (When the Northridge quake hit at 4:31 a.m. Jan. 17, she was just coming home--and coming down off speed, she says. "I was sketchin' so hard," she recalls.)

The sun invades with an unwelcome brilliance. "If we didn't have the scene," Cindi says, "where would we be?"

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