Faces are buffed raw by gusts of wind and sand. Hair has gone white with dust. It’s dark, it’s cold, and they are three hours from home in an uninhabited desert outpost. It’s 6 a.m. and no one has slept a wink. Yet the ravers insist that “it’s all good.”
But it was not all good. Not this time.
An estimated 5,000 people answered the call to Dune IV, a desert rave held earlier this month at the Torres-Martinez reservation near the Arizona border for 12 hours of heart-pounding, soul-vibrating revelry.
Aptly located near the town of Mecca, the site drew a devoted congregation of ravers, a community defined and inspired by its progressive house and trance music.
But one raver never made it home. John Abel, 24, a vault librarian at Fox Sports West, died in a canyon two miles northwest of the reservation sometime in the morning of June 7 as the all-night rave was winding down. His friends last remember seeing him about 4:30 a.m. and later assumed he was in his tent taking refuge from the elements.
“We were having a great time,” said one friend, who didn’t want his name used. “We came for the music and to camp out. It sounded like a great way to spend the weekend.” While the friends had attended large dance parties in Hollywood several times, this was their first desert rave. And if Abel’s mother, Elizabeth Abel, has her way, it will be their last. Shortly after learning of her son’s death, Elizabeth Abel publicly stated that she will begin a campaign against the all-night dance parties.
“If there is anything Beth can do to stop these things, she’s going to do it,” says John Abel’s uncle, also named John Abel.
The Riverside Sheriff’s Department learned of Abel’s disappearance June 8, according to Det. Mark Wasserman, and soon had a search party scouring the desert. By Wednesday morning, the search party included roughly 60 investigators and volunteers, a plane, a helicopter, the desert search and rescue team, mounted posse units, deputies in all-terrain vehicles and a bloodhound. But it was Abel’s family who discovered his clothing in a pile more than two miles west of the rave site. The hound picked up his scent and led the search team to Painted Canyon, a rugged area of sandstone cliffs and valleys, where they found Abel’s body later Wednesday evening. He had apparently fallen 40 to 50 feet onto a ledge.
Original reports that he died from a broken neck have been retracted. A toxicology report is pending. Wasserman and Abel’s friends believe he may have taken a combination of LSD and psilocybin “magic” mushrooms, which are not generally considered lethal on their own, according to medical experts.
While drug overdoses are not uncommon at raves, this is the first death to occur on the premises of a legal rave held by an L.A. promoter. The news broadcasts and tabloid TV shows were quick to vilify raves, often portraying them as “deadly teenage orgies of sex and booze,” as did “Hard Copy.”
“The counterculture is always an easy target,” says photographer Ray Klein. Klein attends area raves and parties every week, documenting club culture for Lotus and other dance music magazines.
“These things have such a potential to positively transform the lives of so many people, it put some of us in despair to see the negative commentary on the community,” says Lotus Editor John Kavulic.
Many promoters complain that accidents, even deaths, occur at concerts and in various sports, but nobody shuts them down.
“It’s safer to rave than go skiing,” says promoter Ben Wilkins, one of seven friends who put the Dune event together as a nonprofit venture in the name of good vibes. L.A. has been host to these enormous dance parties in warehouses and open spaces since the “Summer of Love” redux in 1988.
But the essence of the movement began thousands of years ago, says Wilkins. “There have always been people who danced around a campfire all night. Dancing is a form of ritual meditation. From an anthropological standpoint, we are participating in what tribes have been doing for centuries,” he says. “It’s just that technology has advanced and we can have amplified sounds and nice lights.”
Ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget has written extensively on music and trance, what he calls the state of mystical absorption. Rouget posits that any music that induces trance is essentially dance music, repetitive beat-based sound that can be found in shamanistic rituals from Siberia to the Ainu in Japan and the Native Americans of the Southwest.
Research has shown that loud sound affects the autonomic nervous system, increasing the heart rate and releasing adrenaline into the system. The combination of music, dancing and adrenaline often induces ecstatic, life-changing episodes for the raver even without drugs, many ravers say.
But this explanation doesn’t sit well with Abel’s uncle. “Doesn’t that sound like a cult?” he asks.
Klein argues otherwise. “Nobody’s being forced to go--and nobody’s being forced to stay,” he says.
And no one is being forced to take drugs.
“I am looking for an ecstatic experience without drugs, and I can find that through trance music,” says a frequent rave patron. “If other kids are on drugs around me, that’s OK. That’s their deal. I keep an eye out for them, though.”
But it appears no one was looking out for John Abel.
Arrivals at the Dune IV site began as early as 3 in the afternoon that Saturday. A tent city and 40 12-foot speakers capable of 50,000 watts of sound rose up out of the sand. Some of the more creative and well-prepared ravers set up their sites with extra perks: personal gel projection lamps, couches, Christmas lights, generators, video-editing labs.
Bodies started circling the deejay booth at dusk. Robotlike and wired to dance at 130 beats per minute, small pockets of revelers interpreted the sounds assembled by Thee-O.
Unearthly sounds bounced from the sandstone amphitheater. A peek behind the tarp of the deejay platform revealed the wizard of this Oz, expertly working two turntables, two CD players, two DAT machines and a mixer. Spinning records in 30 mph sand-choked wind is difficult at best, but obstacles seem to bring this community together.
“The harder it is to get to a rave, the better you are going to feel once you get in the door and start dancing,” says Klein.
Some dancers ventured up into the land formations surrounding the Dune site carrying flares and Day-Glo tubes at the end of ropes. Smoke and lights and twirling fluorescent shapes dotted the landscape. Painted faces loomed over the stage, intergalactic cowgirls whooped it up, pant legs as wide as garbage pails shuffled in the dust. Tangles of bodies lay staring at the stars through tears of contact lens hell. Dust masks were distributed, but these did little to stem the eyeball-searing sand.
“It’s like a war zone,” says Susan, a music promoter from L.A. “We come to test ourselves.”
Nothing seemed to dampen the mood. Finger-in-the-socket smiles and an absence of anything sleep related were hints that drugs, particularly MDMA, commonly called ecstasy, and methamphetamines were on hand. Party organizers acknowledge that raves attract a certain amount of users. But, Wilkins argues, “it’s not a big drug party. It’s a big party that people take drugs at. The thing that the police have told us in the past is that every single large gathering of people has drugs, whether it is the Orange Country swap meet, a Bruce Springsteen concert or a rave.
“There is less drug use here than at a Phish or Grateful Dead concert. You are in a hostile environment here. Getting out of your head is a dangerous thing.”
His words resonate in the aftermath of Abel’s death.
Dune was intended to be a safe alternative to similar, but smaller, private monthly gatherings called Moontribe. “The difference is, we have a policy of inclusion,” says Wilkins. “We would like every single person in L.A. to come.”
He says drugs aren’t necessary to experience a rave. “We get more of a spiritual crowd. A number of people came with their kids. There was one family with three generations represented.”
This crowd was drawn by word of mouth. The group had no sponsors and spent no money on advertising, leaving the site free of corporate signs and logos. “The people who come are our sponsors,” Wilkins said of the Dune ravers, who paid $10 to get in. An average rave admission is $25. “It’s not a profit-making venture,” says Wilkins. Organizers did spend thousands of dollars on security and emergency response units, they said. The law states that one security person is required for every 100 people at a party. Figures were not available on what the ratio was at Dune IV.
“They went out of their way to ensure a safe event, from searching out [emergency medical technician] and security companies that were reputable, to putting flood lights in the parking lot,” says Klein. Aside from a broken ankle and several mild overdoses, the EMTs and security at Dune IV were as busy as the Maytag man.
A meeting of the Los Angeles Promoters Alliance shortly after Abel’s disappearance focused on event safety.
“A lot of new promoters are kids with money who don’t know what they are getting into,” says Reza, whose Go Ventures is one of the oldest and largest rave promoters in L.A. “Some of the older people don’t understand what they’re doing either.
“Their mistakes can hurt everyone in the business,” says Reza, and he should know. He is still paying off hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees incurred when, unknown to the promoters, an herbal ecstasy dealer passed out hundreds of bad tablets at his Seventh Heaven New Year’s Eve 1997 party. Thirty-four ravers were hospitalized. The incident led to an avalanche of negative press, including “20/20’s” “Stop the Rave” segment.
“I’d hate to see [raves] go back underground the way they were in 1990,” says Reza. The scene is already limited with few legal locations available. The ones that are legal tend to be in unsafe neighborhoods, like downtown’s Alexandria Hotel, where incidents of street violence are common. Many promoters expressed no worries over mainstreaming raves even further, even if it means death of the scene as it now exists.
“You might as well just have it out in the open,” agrees party girl and activist Holly Luv Cat.
Raves offer a group experience that is free of any membership qualifications, outside of a willingness to endure the elements and get into the tight groove of techno music. “L.A. is an extremely racially divided city, but at raves you have journalists and movie producers and gang members and young single mothers all dancing together and behaving as one unit. We’re not curing cancer here but healing some of the racial divisions that seem to be harming L.A.,” says Wilkins.
Reza concurs, “I’ve never seen anywhere in society people coming together in such a positive fashion--cholos, hippies, skaters, surfers, doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, reporters, graffiti artists, drag queens--and they all come to dance and have freedom.”
Nearly 10,000 people attend raves every month in L.A., according to the Promoters Alliance calendar. Each rave is imbued with a slightly different spirit. The spirit of Dune IV conjured up the feeling of a survival exercise in basic training.
But Luv Cat and Jordan Woolen were at Dune to promote Celebrate Life, a free daytime rave scheduled for Sunday outside the federal building downtown. The event will feature yoga demonstrations, raw foods and, of course, loud music and dancing.
“The whole reason why we are here in this scene is so people won’t die,” Luv Cat says. “We want kids to know that you don’t have to be doing [drugs] to have a good time.”
“A lot of us are getting older and realizing it is not about going out and doing drugs,” says Woolen. He says their new challenge is learning how to translate the love vibe of a rave into everyday living. “We want to take what we’ve learned and bring it back to our work and our schools and our family.”
Smaller alternative raves still thrive, and fallout from the death in the desert has yet to make its full impact on the scene. Goa Tribe, another L.A. promoter, has indefinitely canceled a planned desert rave, and security at the Awakening held recently at the Alexandria was heightened. The atmosphere was reduced to a sort of prom night awkwardness with kids sucking on candy pacifiers, practicing dance moves and sitting on the floor chatting. If raves like Awakening are the prom, smaller alternative parties like the Budbrothers’ Monday Social at Louis XIV and deejay Jason Bentley’s L.A. parties at the Pink and Zone 5 are graduate school mixers, drawing a more mature and sophisticated, if equally fanatic, crowd.
“Despite appearances, the rave scene is a multidimensional community,” says Kavulic. “One death should not stigmatize the entire culture.”