On the trail of the Nitrous Mafia

Summer concerts are jamming to the familiar hiss of “hippie crack”

"MAD ADRENALINE, MAD money, mad pussy," says a Philadelphia nitrous dealer named Beef, explaining why he got into the business. He's standing outside the Electric Factory, in the club-cluttered Northern Liberties section of the city, near the end of a Wilco show on a Saturday night. Beef is with five of his gang mates; together, they have three watermelon-size tanks stored in Nike gym bags, with reserves stowed inside the trunks of their cars. One of the dealers, an older man who looks to be in his 50s, sits in an illegally parked SUV—a hiding place for tanks in case cops come.

A tall dealer named Jimmy notices an Electric Factory security director pulling into the parking lot. Jimmy is asked whether the director ever puts the kibosh on the nitrous parties. "He works both sides of the fence," Jimmy explains. "Most of the time he's cool, but just like women, he wakes up every once in a while with PMS."

Beef, a husky Italian-American from South Philly, has a tongue ring, a lazy layer of facial scruff, and a pair of young daughters at home. Twenty-four years old, Beef says he operates independently with a couple of associates, who together pocket about $50,000 a weekend in the summertime.

C. S. Muncy
John H. Tucker

Beef denies that nitrous leads to problems, and with a jovial, appealing demeanor, he seems anything but dangerous. He says he's smarter than most dealers. "I try to be respectful," he says. Asked about the violence, he says, "Yeah, but you can get in fights over anything. You can fight over a cigarette."

A few fans admit that some of the dealers are cool—and that much of the violence isn't caused by them, but by stoners desperate for free gas. "These kids turn into hippie crackheads and hover over that fucking tank and have no money left," says Sean. "And they beg and beg, and the next thing you know, you got one hippie yelling at a bunch of mob kids, and that's when fist fights break out."

But other fans say that nitrous enhances the concert experience and appreciate the gas mob. "I love the balloons," says Bobby Goodlife, a nightlife promoter from Baltimore. "They're just fun."

A huffer named Stuart Woolf, who is resting against a chain-link fence, balloon in hand, is asked why he appreciates the gas business. "Because nitrous is the best orgasm I've ever had in my life," he says.

THERE ARE SIGNS that music fans are fighting back to keep the gas out of the scene. After the death at the Vibes, a vigilante group called the Wrecking Crew, born out of the Grateful Dead Family—fans who followed the band, year after year—retaliated by smashing up a truck with Pennsylvania tags and leading chants of "No nitrous!" among a chorus of festivalgoers.

Security guards, too, say they've had enough, claiming they're tired of being accused of being in on the take. Inside a small Irish pub in Worcester, Massachusetts, Rodriguez, the director of Marker Security, which has staffed the Vibes each year since the inaugural Bridgeport festival in 2000, tries to explain the difficulties of controlling the tank-toting dealers at an event as large as the Vibes, which last year attracted 30,000 fans. "If two of my guards try to walk over and take their tank, they're not walking back," says the 36-year-old Rodriguez. His six-foot-two, 300-pound frame hulks over the table. "My guards aren't about to take their lives in their own hands and get beat up," he says. "Not for $8 an hour."

The nitrous dealers have different strategies for dealing with security, says Sean. "At Vibes, we brought in 30 tanks and planned to lose about five to security," he says. "At All Good, different crews would take a turn throwing a tank at the fuckin' security. We'd hide the rest, and they'd drive away with one tank, all proud. Then they'd come back an hour later and we'd give 'em another one. They thought they were hurting us a lot more than they were.

"The cops have no idea how far most of these kids are willing to go," he adds.

Musicians are also starting to speak out. "It's not something that needs to be a part of the music," says Christopher Robin, of the Christopher Robin Band. "There's nothing good about it. There are no success stories."

"If someone wants to go hit a whippet in their hotel room, that's great," says Richards of Umphrey's McGee. "But not to the point where it gets to be a very controlled monopoly on the tour. They're just simply out there to make as much money as they possibly can and leave in their wake the destruction—whether it's the garbage or the people they might have beaten up along the way."

Rodriguez swears that this year's Vibes will be different. He has a message for the nitrous dealers: "Enough is enough. We're no longer going to sit here and have you ruin our festivals. If you're going to come and try and ruin our scene, we're going to shut you down."

But minutes later he pauses. "I don't think we'll ever wipe it out," he concedes. "It's inevitable. We can only hope to control it."

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