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The 1990's Revolutionary Youth Movement that Biden Wanted to Bulldoze
A firsthand account of the Orlando Ravers and the nationwide effort to to destroy the movement we started. They called us druggies but the real threat was social classes mixing.
Today raves, now styled electronic music festivals, are hardly controversial, they are corporate and treated largely as just another big business. If not exactly mainstream, rave (EDM) culture is no longer edgy.
Back in 1997, however, the Boomers were having none of it for reasons that may not be readily apparent unless you were there. (This included then Senator Joe Biden, whose memorable role I’ll get to.) By 1994 my home town Orlando had become the epicenter of rave culture in America; one that differed substantially from prior waves that occurred in NYC and San Francisco. The ‘Orlando sound’ as it became known evolved beginning in 1991 from a group of people who had previously been active in the progressive/alternative music scene with its decidedly European flavor. One of our popular anthems of the time was a haunting remix of the Pet Shop Boys’ Red Letter Day, and songs from Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Cult, and Sarah McLachlan would regularly appear in the mix. In summer 1997 Rolling Stone magazine called Orlando the "Seattle of electronica." Later that same year raves would effectively be banned from the city. Enhanced law enforcement efforts outside the city would quickly end what had been a revolutionary youth movement that threatened the social order of the time; its underlying principles expressed by the acronym P.L.U.R. (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect)
If there is one song that best typifies the Orlando Sound, it’s this one. (Last I heard the DJ who originally recorded it was working as an engineer at NASA.)
Telling the story of why and how the movement was a revolutionary one requires a bit of context, both personal and historical.
The America gen-xers like myself grew up in was the America you see in the movie Sixteen Candles, or more to the point in Heathers. Class divides were rarely ever crossed. One of the most important differences compared to today was the very limited amount of money a college student could borrow, which extended the rigid class structures of high school into college (though was still arguably preferable than allowing youth to rack up $100k+ in student debt.)
FLORIDA MAN BRIEF BIO
I grew up from age 7 in a downtown Orlando neighborhood populated with powerful politicians and old money. My own family had no generational wealth, but we existed comfortably alongside the city’s elite on my father’s upper middle class income as an attorney. It had been my mother’s idea to move where we did; plopping a white brick new home on the last (small) lot in a 50 year old neighborhood. (The literal physical embodiment of nouveau riche) She had hoped the proximity to power would help my father’s career, but if it did it was short lived. After less than four years living there she divorced him and thew him out. She got as much as she could out of the man, but from then on my Mom would be poor. My Dad would remain as he had, though in a small condo for a while, and being a fairly well known lawyer in the community meant myself and two younger sisters got a hall pass into the upper class, with most people never knowing behind the doors of our interloping white house we lived in poverty.
These circumstances served to place me in an interesting, and somewhat rarified place between the social classes: I was able to pass in either, and belonged in neither. When I graduated high school in 1994, I hadn’t fully processed all the implications of my financial predicament. My peers were all headed off to college with cars their parents had given them, and financial support while they were there. I drove to my freshman year as an English major at Florida State University in a leased car I made payments on, a small scholarship, and not much else. By then my Dad had a new wife and house and two new kids and I was expected to do as he did 25 years prior and work my way through college.1
Perhaps if I had accepted my actual status as a poor person during the planning stages of my college adventure, it would have worked out better. I would have chosen the dorms on campus where the poor lived without air conditioning, instead of the private dorm where I ended up alongside three friends from high school. Once moved in I was greeted with a shocking new reality; I could no longer pass as upper-class. This point was driven home when I attended Pledge Week with my friend and got asked to join zero fraternities, including my father’s where my legacy status should have guaranteed an invitation. That was no longer a world I fit into or related to at all.
In college the main difference in social classes was having a job. No one in my dorm worked. It appeared to me their sole point of being in college was to party and otherwise enjoy themselves. FSU was at the time the nation’s #1 party school. Jobs were hard to come by in the small town of Tallahassee; the best I could do first semester was delivering pizzas to FAMU students on the other side of town, and in second semester I worked alongside two
retarded mentally challenged people putting shirts on hangers in the back of a Marshalls. At least there was no uniform at Marshalls, as I vividly recall hiding my Hungry Howie’s pizza shirt under a flannel when coming and going from the dorm to avoid humiliation. My college experience had turned out nothing like I expected.
After accepting the reality that the type of people I had been surrounded with all my life no longer wanted anything to do with me, I sought a new social group. Eventually I ended up with the pot smokers/trippers, and while I hadn’t done much of that myself I could pass as part of that clique. We took LSD and wandered around campus, and up to the yard of Jim Morrison’s old house. All the while I would be hearing from a friend back home about the booming rave scene in Orlando, and how new and different things were. Toward the end of my freshman year the popular Rabbit in the Moon came to a club in Tallahassee, and my friend came up for the show. We ended up taking some ecstasy and I had the time of my life. Not quite an ‘out of body experience’ but close enough.
Between work and socializing with my stoner social clique, I didn’t have much focus left for school. By the end of freshman year my GPA had dropped to 3.1 (a record low for me) and I lost the small scholarship. Like it or not, I wouldn’t be able to afford to come back. I headed home to Orlando and became absorbed in the raver scene, where things were far different and stranger than anything I’d known before.
ORLANDO RAVE CULTURE
Beginning the summer of 1995, I would spend much of my free time at various rave clubs and otherwise generally immersed in rave culture. It was the first time in my life where I’d seen people from all social classes, races, and sexual preferences hanging out together in the same clique. During those years I would frequently run into people I knew from high school and college, daughters and sons of local wealthy lawyers and doctors who wouldn’t have given me the time of day at college, but who now in the context of the rave scene treated me like family. I understood where they were coming from, and served sometimes as a tour guide to newbies from that world. Something else different were the gays and trans people around me, whom I’d never been exposed to previously. At that time mainstream culture still considered these deviants, but in our culture they were accepted and had as much value as anyone else.
That year the movie Kids was released, and Christian activists went about protesting to made sure it would never be shown in Orlando, and they won. While the lifestyles in Kids were of a different flavor than ours, it was a popular movie in the rave scene once it hit HBO. (I maintain, if you deleted the first ten minutes it would be a masterpiece.) One of the more common ‘looks’ girls would wear to the club was Jennie from Kids, played by Chloe Sevigny, with blue shirt and pixie-ish cut.
There were a few elements to the culture that were uniquely appealing to me, and contributed to its revolutionary nature. In the 1990s, it wasn’t that cool to be smart. The first people I knew that were both were the ravers, most of whom were smart. These were kids who tested into gifted in grade school and had high SAT scores. In time not spent at the club, the ravers around me would often engage in deep intellectual discussion about the world around us and all manner of things. They were much smarter on average than a typical FSU student. Orlando ravers were also capitalists; every one of them had a small business dream of some kind and many had more than one: spinning records as a badass DJ, selling merch, handing out flyers promoting the next club event, starting an advertising company, or working for NASA. No one ever talked about what the government would do for us, all we wanted was for them to leave us alone. They were also generally friendly, open, and accepting in a way that was perhaps a little naive, but nonetheless preferable to the norms of the time. You could go there alone, and make some friends pretty easily, and there were hardly any jerks or assholes before the government intervened anyway (compared to a college bar it was night and day.)
Typically no one showed up to any of the area clubs until 1am. We would party, dance, listen to music, socialize, and so forth until 8am or so. Lots of times this involved MDMA, Ketamine, GHB, Rohypnol, and sundry other drugs. Lots of times we would be sober. I would estimate far less than 1/2 the crowd on any given night was high on anything. We were there for the music and the culture, psychedelics were secondary and it was considered passe to be there for that purpose. Orlando Ravers, economically diverse though we were, came to be known as the ‘snobby ravers’ for among other things our tendency to look down upon people who were there only to get sloppy and act weird. There was also our knowledge this the movement started with us, that we were smarter, and had a distinctive style of dress which could be described as raver-preppy; a polo shirt, some absurd Jncos khaki for me, nice shoes, and ALWAYS some cool sunglasses. Even the poor looked good going out, and we frequently lent/gave each other cool clothes or shades in times of need.
When not at the club, some of us worked shit jobs, some drove back and forth to college in Gainesville or Tallahassee, some just lived off their rich open minded parents and partied, and some just bummed it. I took a job selling used cars, and then later new cars. By the time I was turned 20 I was a top salesman at a Ford dealership by day, then I would drive my demonstrator vehicle to the club at night. This led to some humorous events where the world of day and night would collide, but my performance on the job bought me some grace for my transgressions. My boss at the dealership had a thing for ironing your shirt, so on the way from the club to work one morning I had to stop at a dry cleaner and have them iron my shirt as I tried to shake off the night and switch modes. The place ended up being staffed with ravers, so they ironed for free & I would return frequently. Eventually though, it was too many hours too many places, and I longed for a less hectic life.
My uncle offered me a job selling Disney tickets in a hotel, which sounds like a silly job, but Disney tickets are world of their own and that will be a great story for another day. I was able to make what would be in today’s dollars about $90k a year, working all day Thursday to Sunday, and off the other days. It was the perfect job for the raver lifestyle and meant I was free to go to the best club night of the week: Sunday School at Club Firestone.
Firestone was a landmark nightclub made out of an old downtown tire store. With the brick steeple on top and blacked out windows, it looked like a satanic church to a lot of the parents. Calling the Sunday night party Sunday School didn’t help its reputation, nor did the youths stumbling out into the daylight of Monday morning rush hour full of angry dads who ‘don’t want to see that’ on their way into the office. (I once saw mine sitting in traffic one morning, and quickly ducked to avoid pissing him off anymore than I already had.)
Starting from 1994 or so local news was sending undercover teams into the clubs, filming the most egregiously high ravers, and broadcasting this footage as often as possible. After a few years of this, parents were starting to get antsy. The police were all over our crowd, violating civil rights with illegal searches and general harassment. Glenda Hood, the mayor at the time and a neighbor growing up, was not happy. She had been hard at work attempting to make the entirety of the city look like DisneyWorld, and Orlando’s new status as the “Seattle of electronica” was the opposite of what she wanted. Moreover, the city’s upper classes did not want their children dropping out of college to fraternize with the hoi polloi, and so they kept her phone ringing with demands to do something. Fortunately for us, the owner of Firestone was also a lawyer, and he did a good job of restraining the powers-that-be for a time.
For our part, the ravers felt like we were pioneers of a new way of living and relating to the world. The downtown area we had grown up with was desolate, full of bums and crime. Our influence had made it a hot spot, and ravers filled the rental units nearby, bringing new life and excitement to the downtown area. While occasionally an ambulance would need to be called, for a newbie or frat boy asshole in town for the weekend who’d ‘eaten too many beans,’ we didn’t cause too much trouble. The heroin epidemic that came later, once our movement was done, had a body count exponentially higher. Anecdotally, I had one personal friends die of OD (nothing to do with club) during the raver era, since then 7 of my closest friends from the scene have died of opioid OD. Few if any of them used opioids at all until the ordinance sent us looking for new things to do.
THE ANTI-RAVE ORDINANCE
By 1997, famous DJs from around the world would come to Orlando on a weekly basis. Ravers, record stores, club clothing stores, and 24hr eateries had pretty much taken over the downtown area. It was exciting and fun. Many of us dreamed of being DJs, but the ~$2k start up cost of Technics 1200’s and a decent mixer was more than most of us could afford. Those who could did, and we gathered at those houses when the clubs weren’t open. At the time we didn’t think it would ever end.
Meanwhile, the Mayor and city elite were scheming behind the scenes to make sure it did end, and by any means necessary. The raves and EDM would be out, and family-friendly boy bands would replace them. Work began to craft legislation that would accomplish this. The main thrust of the plan, which later became Orlando’s Anti-Rave Ordinance, was to force the rave venues to close much earlier in the evening. After month’s of debate, the ordinance was passed and would go into effect September 18, 1997.
Most of us thought the clubs wouldn’t comply, and so on the night the ordinance was to go into effect Orlando’s ravers had packed into Club Firestone planning to stand up for our rights. At 3am the music was still playing, and at 3:01am the lights all came on at once. As we blinked our vision back into daylight mode we saw armed police were posted up all over the place, hands on rifles across their chests. There would be no resistance as we walked out quietly heads down.
BACK TO THE MARGINS
One would think that the rave culture could have simply relocated but it wasn’t that simple. After the ordinance ravers were demoralized, the P.L.U.R. era had ended. Clubs that opened up outside town were raided by police nightly, with many arrests. Upper class types no longer felt comfortable once the movement had been criminalized and stigmatized, and many never came back. They were replaced with street thugs and drug dealers who started real trouble and changed the mood of the scene completely. By 2001, even Joe Biden had ravers on his enemies list as he called for arresting the promoters and bulldozing the rave clubs using laws previously applied to crack houses. (h/t Matt Taibbi)
In 2001, Cyberzone, the last of Orlando’s all-night rave clubs was forced to close after two overdose deaths. The end of the line had finally come.
Over the years I’ve occasionally wondered what would have happened if we had resisted. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. The police were so aggressive with arresting people back then, a lot of the ravers had pending criminal charges for drug crimes and couldn’t risk being re-arrested. The few that were truly committed moved on to other cities where the scene was still nascent, like Indianapolis. Others of us kept going to what events we could, trying to ‘keep it real.’ Some like myself decided to focus on our careers, and the Orlando Sound became something we heard in our car on the way to work. Unfortunately, many of the poor kids ended up retreating to their apartments and becoming heroin addicts. Faced with the destruction of their culture, and nothing to do at night, they gave into despair. Orlando’s heroin problem started shortly after the ordinance and continues to this day; killing thousands compared to the handful of overdose deaths during the rave era.
Downtown Orlando itself didn’t do so well either, a lot of it emptied out and it wasn’t very popular until the condo/real estate bubble many years later.
When considering the way culture played out, maybe we were threatening because we were ahead of our time. It’s now cool to be smart, gays are accepted and allowed to marry, blacks and whites hang out and intermarry. The one thing that hasn’t changed is social class. Those lines have only hardened over the years, and perhaps that was the real reason our world had to be shut down. I highly recommend the book Coming Apart by Charles Murray on the topic of social class. It has informed my meta thesis of ‘what is going on’ a lot. Or at least take the bubble quiz based on the data from the book. I was a 34 before moving to the country.
RED LETTER DAY
For a long time the Orlando Sound was something you couldn’t buy on CD, it was too new and obscure. People would have a DJ set recorded on a tape, or buy a tape of same at a rave. In fall of 1995 a raver left a tape in my car at Club Ultraviolet of a set by DJ Remark. In this set he played a haunting song I now know as Red Letter Day by Pet Shop Boys. In this specific version, the “red letter day” is cut out so you’re left with “All I want is what you want” as the melody/refrain/chorus? Also, I had never heard Red Letter Day either and wouldn’t have recognized it. Maybe 5 years of asking people if they knew the name of the song later that tape finally gave out, and my friend and I who had found the tape together were no closer to identifying it.
It became a fun challenge to ask people. I usually ended up asking girls, as to recreate the song required the kind of singing men don’t often do to each other. I knew someday one of these girls might know, it became a bit of a litmus test for potential love interests. It took 10 years of asking in total to meet a woman who figured out the answer. I married her.
There was a documentary made about these events in 1997/1998, which I only saw the first time in 2017 when Remark put in on YouTube. If you’re interested, it’s below… but if you’re interested in the song, and you should be, there are some copyright issues with Pet Shop Boys and this remix, so it’s only on the video. It’s cued up right to that point for you. This was at just about the peak of our cultural moment. Police are everywhere. If you look close, you might see me dancing.
My sister read this and was like “yup, it was like that,” but she also felt like it sounded like I was complaining. In case the reader gets that impression, no I wouldn’t trade my experiences as an Orlando raver for the world. If anything, there was a synchronicity to things that ended up benefiting me. Also, my Dad was definitely right in thinking that if I wanted to stay at college I would have found a way to make that happen. It wouldn’t have been right for him to waste resources on my misadventures that the rest of my family needed, at the time.