Boogie Nights

I'VE NEVER CROWD-SURFED. And I haven't stage-dived, either. As a guy who has always found dancing pretty integral to my enjoyment of music--especially live music--the realization was disheartening. It came to me last month while standing above a sea of seething humanity at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, where in the course of a memorable evening (more on that later), Jane's Addiction got super-freaky and generated the largest mosh pit I've seen since the Beastie Boys' set at Lollapalooza in St. Paul some three years ago. It was a beautiful (if somewhat quaint) thing to watch, and it got me thinking about the current state of pop and the fine art of body rocking.

Now let it be said that I'll dance to nearly anything (really; I even took a ballet class once). My best punk-rock memory is still of seeing the Ramones in a Long Island beachfront bar, where a mix of tequila and high volume helped to relieve me of my mosh-pit virginity. I lost my favorite black bowling shirt in the crowd, and wound up on the beach afterwards necking with a friend of a friend of my sisters' whom I would never see again. Since this sort of thing never happened to me (still doesn't), I knew I was dealing with some potent stuff.

But I learned that different sorts of pop produced different effects. Vicki Sue Robinson's proto-disco "Turn the Beat Around" inspired the more refined hustling that took place in suburban basement parties--the same kind of parties at which dimmed lights and the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" always eased the boys and girls into that dance-floor dry-hump then known as "grinding." There was the Grateful Dead hippie-boogie, which lacked a certain basic sexiness; though if one was high enough (as was usually the case), one never much cared. Then there were the grand 12-inch singles of new wave (the B-52's' "Dance This Mess Around," Pigbag's "Papa's Got a Brand New Pigbag"). And, of course, there was the Kraftwerk-meets-South Bronx funk style known as electroboogie--crystallized in Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "Scorpio" and Afrika Bambaatta and the Soul Sonic Force's "Looking For The Perfect Beat"--which generated moves so hyperkinetically spazzed that it was all you could do to collapse when the DJ finally dropped the tempo.

These days, post-grunge pit dwellers bust their moves to different rhythms. Ska, Jamaica's early '60s mutant R&B, continues to live out a perpetual revival among rock fans. And not just for the No Doubt crowd. Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Mexico's Maldita Vecindad have turned the Killa! sound into a way of life for south-of-the-border kids, while the bands on Puro Eskañol (see "Culture To Go") interpret the same movement stateside. I dig ska-rock 'cause it's got a rhythmic sleight-of-hand straight rock rarely bothers with, which usually makes it better dance music.

Then there's, you know, Dance Music--the DJ revolution that wasn't--which still threatens to capture the lost soul of rock, even as we wait for something (anything) less soul-less than Prodigy and more charismatic than the Chemical Brothers to save the day--or the day after, as the post-rock case may be. In the meantime, though, there is still plenty of dancing to be done, which is obvious when promoters present the music properly. One case in point was this year's Halloween party by the Funky Techno Tribe (the Bay Area's main dance-music collective), which drew nearly 10,000 to an outsized exhibition center in an industrial section of Oakland. There were four sound systems driving four styles in four different halls, and wandering from space to space you could work a groove regimen like a Nautilus rotation: house aerobics, techno gymnastics, drum'n'bass tai-chi, trip-hop hatha yoga. Damn if there wasn't an impromptu breakdance circle, too.

But this all seemed worlds away from rock. At least until the aforementioned Jane's Addiction gig, at which Perry Farrell revived his failed 1995 Enit festival concept by alternating live performances with DJ music (in a number of separate rooms) and wisely getting the venue's curfew extended to 6 a.m. For the first time in my experience, an arena-rock show ended not with the lights coming up but with a DJ dropping massive techno beats that didn't stop until dawn. And the crowd--who came to see JA, and initially paid little attention to either the DJs or jungle opener Goldie--hardly missed a beat in the transition from moshing to raving.

Maybe it was the sight of Perry in a blue rubber miniskirt that loosened all those pelvises. Or maybe it was just the ego-dissolving power of dancing. Whatever the inspiration, it was a genuine rock-rave epiphany--one nation under a groove, and all that. And while I didn't get a chance to crowd-surf, neither did the guy next to me. Yet we both kept moving all night. His impossibly tiny hand never stopped yanking the joystick on his motorized wheelchair, and I never stopped dancing. And though he rolled back and forth over my foot all night long, we were both so lost in motion I didn't complain once.

 
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