Through The Looking Glass

It's a scene that could send a kid into years of intensive psychoanalysis. There is a cavernous room filled with throbbing music, hazy psychedelic lights and whirling, bobbing, formless figures, thousands of them, all colors and angles. Only the figures aren't human, exactly; they're more like ... nursery-rhyme characters. There's the Mad Hatter, flailing around frantically and gorging on lollipops. Wait, isn't that Dr. Seuss sucking on a balloon and churning his pelvis? Toy dolls grin, wink, stare. Surreal images snake across the ceiling: nightmare symbolism of the worst kind. What's that, Mother Goose? You want me to dance?

For Californians, this Freudian dream has become very real. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, a British dance-party trend has infiltrated the underground club circuit. They call them raves: leviathan dance-fests that combine a squishy Grateful Dead philosophy with an Alice in Wonderland ambience. In huge warehouses and dance clubs, thousands of paisleyed post-adolescents dance wildly until dawn to the ceaseless beat of techno-house music - a numbing hybrid of hip-hop and disco that compels some listeners to don elephantine hats, gulp fluorescent juices and ingest mind-altering drugs. It's dance-mania with an aggressively cheerful maxim: Be Happy, Or Else. "It's more than just a party," an L.A. raver named Rio says solemnly. "It's something spiritual."

Raves began here with a timeless conceit: well, they did it in Europe. Though the trend is now all but dead there, in 1990 England was overrun by the rave wave. Fifteen thousand partyers was not uncommon on a given night: dancing in open fields as a monolithic beast, eschewing booze for Evian and lots of colorful pills. Unfortunately, the besotted revelry got so out of hand that the British Parliament actually introduced an anti-rave bill. Undaunted, British ravers hightailed it for Hollywood and started anew: circulating fliers in trendy stores that told people where to find the next ultrasecret rave site.

There are raves and then, in San Francisco, there is A Rave Called Sharon. Eleven ravers pile into a Chevy Capri, captained by a nearly bald woman named Tornado, and careen their way to a warehouse in nearby Santa Clara. Inside, they experience many things, including existential laser messages (" Sharon Finds Destiny") and a humming "mind-improvement" contraption called Dr. X-Static's Electro Brain Pulverizer. As the dancing reaches a frenzy, several ravers sport "virtual reality" helmets and genuflect before computer-generated art - a powerful reminder that many of these ravers are Silicon Valley tech-heads who've just discovered that the souldaddy look is way cooler than Birkenstocks. Rave organizer and namesake Sharon Virtue, who is fond of words like "togetherness," says the night's undying cheerfulness reflects a very "positive spirit."

Ultimately, the insistent music is to blame for this aberrant behavior; it requires ravers to shed their inhibitions and, on occasion, pieces of their clothing. The bands - Happy Mondays, 808 State, The Shamen - tend toward synthetic funk heavy on bass lines, light on angry social windbaggery. L.A. raver Gary Varela says "the music is just" - here comes that ravecentric word again - "happy." Happy, happy, happy--everything's happy. So happy that, deep in the bowels of A Rave Called Sharon, a dancing artist paints in fluorescent colors, specifically pink when the music's really happy. All of which explains why, by Tornado's thinking, this trend hasn't hit New York. "New Yorkers have a bad attitude," she explains. " You can't be happy in New York." And, therefore, you can't rave.

There is, sadly, one big problem with this whole Lewis Carroll thing: nobody's serving tea. The rave drug of choice is Ecstasy, a euphoria-inducing "designer drug" that makes dancing seem like a holy mission. Outside a recent L.A. rave, drug dealers were everywhere, briskly selling the amphetaminelike pills-not to mention LSD-for $20 a pop. Other ravers sucked "whippits," small balloons filled with laughing gas. "The rush is like being on a roller coaster, like you can't breathe," marvels Aletha Houser, 21, who pops Ex before she raves.

Believe it or not, rave mavens insist the bashes can actually be healthy. Clubs have begun cracking down on drugs and, to be sure, many ravers don't gobble hug-drugs to have fun. Mike Voegele of Los Angeles says he gets a "natural high from the psychedelic imagery." Ironically, alcohol is shunned at most raves; instead dancers guzzle herbal "smart drinks" with names like Psuper Psonic Psybertonic. (They're only Pseudo-smart, but that's another story.) All of which leads to fewer fights, fewer boozy sexual advances and that ubiquitous smiley-face atmosphere, ravers claim. In fact, this delirium can get so profound that it's almost as if, like some fuzzy '90s fantasy, it doesn't really exist at all.