Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Rave On

By Matt Hanks

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  This is the third time tonight, dammit. These guys told me repeatedly that the generators could handle it."

Jeremy Lowrance is running across the grass embankment outside of Headliners Nightclub on Brooks Road, frantically trying to salvage weeks of work. The party he's throwing, appropriately titled "Revival," is in need of just that. He ignores the throngs of kids pacing the parking lot, guzzling bottled water and diet Coke, waiting.

"This can't be happening," Lowrance sighs.

Inside Headliners -- which in past lives was a roller-skating rink and casino shuttle depot -- the kids are all right, if a little restless. Without the generators there's no music and only one light -- a solitary strobe that hangs from the center of the dome ceiling trying its best to cut through the darkness and thick cigarette haze that hovers just above eye level.

I see Lowrance again. "We're gonna switch the power source," he informs me. "We'll have to go without some of the lights, but at least we'll have the music."

The music. That's why everyone's here, and that's why, without it, everyone's growing a little impatient. It's been missing for only a few minutes tonight at Headliners, but to the casual observer of popular culture, it's been gone a lot longer than that.

Rave culture was a hot topic of debate in the early part of this decade. "Investigative" programs like Hard Copy and 20/20 flashed images of rave kids -- "The New Hippies!" -- wearing pants baggy enough to accommodate a family of four, sucking on pacifiers, and dosing on synthetic drugs. Music magazines tried and failed to understand this subculture that seemed to be getting by just fine without them. And parents all across the land suddenly had a new public enemy number one on their hands.

Upholding a tradition as old as the generation gap itself, the American media's interpretation of this new youth movement was hasty and uninformed. Rave culture's association with the then-new drug Ecstasy was exaggerated, while its denouncement of alcohol was ignored. Its emphasis on positive and tolerant philosophical tenets were misinterpreted as decadent, even dangerous political stances. So pervasive was the misinterpretation that it forced the still-nascent rave scene back underground. To those who didn't know better, raves appeared to be just another in a long string of musical fads like disco or psychedelia. But like those forms, rave culture never really went away.

"We weren't being ignored by the media," says Lowrance of the intervening years. "We were hiding. The attention we were getting at the time was all negative. What would you have done?"

Lowrance's reticence toward the media stems from personal experience. He started promoting raves while still in college in eastern Illinois.

"I grew up in a strict Baptist family," he explains, "and I felt bad in college because I wasn't giving a tithe. So I started organizing canned food drives and clothing drives, and it escalated from there. I went to college in a boring, beer-drinking town. I started organizing these dances around the drives just to give us something to do on the weekends. My first show drew 1,500 people. We were only expecting 300."

Lowrance continues to pair his parties with causes. The "Revival" party offered a discount to people who brought toys for St. Jude Children's Hospital.

Within months of his first party, Lowrance found himself working with large regional management companies, putting on parties throughout Illinois and Indiana with five-figure budgets. And then came the sting.

Lowrance and his colleagues began to draw so much attention that a local news crew decided to have a look. "Everyone thought it would be a 'Local Kids Find Non-Alcoholic Alternative' type of piece," he recalls, "but I knew their intentions weren't good. I could smell it like a fart in a car."

According to Lowrance, the film crew sent in a 20-year-old intern with a camera hidden in his backpack. After several hours of unsuccessful solicitation, the intern finally found someone willing to sell him a gram of cocaine, and he filmed the entire exchange.

"They ran that footage repeatedly," says Lowrance. "They plastered every promoter in town, and warned parents to keep their kids away from them."

The news story wasn't just bad for business; for the genuinely well-intentioned Lowrance, it was terribly disillusioning. In search of a more supportive, more self-contained environment, Lowrance moved to Memphis.

A year later, the rave scene in Memphis -- in most of America for that matter -- is cautiously coming out of its shell again. In recent months, two record shops specializing in electronic music have opened in the city -- Millennium Records at Poplar and Angelus, and What's That Sound in Cooper-Young.

"There's no way that Memphis could have supported two [electronic record] stores a couple years ago," says Brad Johnson, one of the co-owners of What's That Sound, "but it's a reflection of something that's going on everywhere." Johnson is optimistic about the scene's future here. "Memphis has a lot more character than any other city I've ever partied in," he says. "There's a lot less show and tell. Memphis is a historical city, and that really comes through. You may not draw the same numbers that larger cities do, but that can be a good thing. There's definitely a more intimate feel to what's going on here."

That intimacy has given rise to a local scene that's arguably more thriving than any other in the city. Raves -- or simply "parties" as most people now refer to them -- like "Revival" are thrown almost every weekend in Memphis, drawing up to a thousand people with virtually no attention from local media. The scene has its own promoters, its own means of disseminating information, even its own support groups. It's a self-sufficient community that thrives almost entirely unbeknownst to people who don't count themselves as one of its closely guarded number.

"This year was a real boom year for promoters in Memphis," says Robin Schermerhorn, a veteran of the local scene. "We went from having two or three promoting teams to six. But everything has to be coordinated, not just in Memphis, but throughout this part of the country, so that there's no overlapping."

Lowrance agrees. "That's how massively strong the underground is. Everyone keeps in very good touch. In order to make back the money we've invested, we have to have the support of these other cities. Otherwise we'll be eating ramen [noodles] for the next year. The scene in Memphis may only be two hundred strong, so we really depend on the out-of-towners."

The process of promoting these parties has been fine-tuned to an art. Elaborate, full-color flyers are placed in key spots, word of mouth spreads news like wildfire, and everyone who wants to be is in the loop.

Local promoters and other scene makers regularly hold meetings, not only to discuss the scheduling of parties, but the philosophy behind them. Lowrance explains, "One concept that everyone believes in is P.L.U.R. -- peace, love, unity, respect. That's what's unique about Memphis, really. Bigger cities and bigger scenes have too many people involved. It's hard to get them to sit down and agree on something. But people here want to listen more than they want to talk, and P.L.U.R. is something that everyone will listen to."

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