Nestled halfway between Harlem and Brooklyn lies Randall’s Island. This Labor Day weekend the islet transformed into a beautiful blend of Wonkaland and Woodstock, Sodom and Gomorah, Israel and Ibiza, Pleasure Island and Neverland – a hybrid between that Pinocchio place where lost boys find themselves and where Peter Pan’s lost boys aimlessly meander… all perpetuated by the most nourishing of all life fuels… music – electronic dance music.
Somehow, someway, the past, present, and future of music made their collective way to this halogen Haus of worship. My journey no doubt veered from the norm, but when the clandestine is commonplace, all odd experiences are good. I was like a kid in a candy store – no matter where I went, there I was, with a sugar-rushed stranger and makeshift chaperone there to guide me along from one aisle to the next. Though the guide may not know where you’re coming from, or how to get to where you’re going, they know your destination. One second you’re lost in Manhattan, and the next you find yourself MapQuesting directions from the UES to Randall’s Island, and then you’re watching hipsters take cabs to Harlem bus stops – simple foreshadowing that no matter how far “above” those kids one is – no matter how objectively I scoff at their ways from a far more worldly and morally superior place – we’re all the same entitled Gen-Yers… making our way from decadence to debauchery by way of urban decay.
Needless to say, I had no idea what to expect: drugs, neon, iPhones, Ray Bans, Twitter handles, something, anything, nothing, everything… Needless to say, I got exactly what I expected. I’m not really sure when Electric Zoo made sense, or when I became a part of it. Maybe it was when I knew which bus was instinctively mine, the one that was half black women – mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmas – and half NYC Prep understudies – twenty-somethings with extra time on their hands, semi-colorful cotton clothes in their closets, and the Shazaam app for when they need to Google if “that band who does that song from that commercial” is going to be at Electric Zoo. Those preconceptions and stereotypes faded as quickly as any sense of conventional reality in a cloud of smoke behind the bus.
Then there’s Randall’s Island. As I followed the bass shaken ground towards the playgrounded promised land, bypassed the masses – and some of the money – it was like crossing enemy lines. I didn’t belong there. I wandered across barricades as if I had no idea what was going on – namely, because I didn’t. I went to my comfort zone, the media tent, the small tent of those designated to portray and promulgate what happens at this place: those given carte blanche to go wherever, whenever to make this real for those not here; more likely, those given the responsibility of recreating a real fantasy for those who were here. The media band was a blessing and a burden. You are a participant, and a purveyor – but: get it how you live it, and do work. Any time I got a question I just put my wrist up and let my band to the talking – step one of The Fame: you do the walking, let your wardrobe do the talking.
I didn’t belong, for all intents and purposes, but neither did the hippies, neither did the hipsters, neither did the wookies or the scenesters, the trust-funded teenagers looking for their one last hurrah – before Pascha after-hours, and the rest of their entitled lives of course. The DJs didn’t belong on this Godless strip of a lifeless dancefloor – but in that lack of belonging, we were all where we needed to be. It’s as if the tribes of Abraham descended on “now” – self-designating each clan identity by drug, scene, sound, and sin – beautiful, perfect.
Except for me it wasn’t Abraham: it was ATB. I made my way past The Sunday School Grove where it all started. The small, shining, shack on a hill filled with hipsters who rarely left that place. It was like a small sense of salvation: “I’m there but not really, I’m there enough to count but not enough to convert to full primacy.” I mosied aimlessly past twirling pixies and passed out bodies to the makeshift safe-haven: the VIP. It’s an interesting point-of-view to see a sea of sun drowned bodies moving in unison to the pulsating beats of a ventriloquist DJ and his turntable sideman, from the comfortable detachment – and blatant irony – of a plush couch beneath the shade with you, yourself, and your media-passed ego. Not interesting enough to make me denounce my status in anyway… but then again, status is everything – even, and especially – at Electric Zoo; I was no more inclined to give up my cred just to get the “everyman” experience, any more than the John Doe teenager was willing to give up his general admission and chance to be “down” if only for a weekend. Honestly, we were both trying to figure out what was up – or at least the general vicinity of said direction.
The Zoo – at its heart – is an experience. It’s not about the music, it’s not about the DJs – per se – it’s about how you feel when you’re there. There’s so much light and loudness, there’s so much sound – the synth, the bass, the natural, the artificial… imagine a divinely-placed sun setting inversely beneath the rise of the treble, the drop of the bass, the pulse of the pit, the kaleidoscope of HD technicolor displays… all simulcast by a dictating force – a mute DJ delivering a sermon on the mount, wearing his well-tailored suit of sound, letting his wardrobe do the talking, his fingers walking along vinyl and invisible mp3, the real and fantastical blurring in the midst of a sensory overload, and a synesthetic dictum given from the lone shepherd subwoofing his truth… not a word has been uttered, but from the depths of the deafening roars you relinquish any sense of self once claimed before this place – you let go… mute, but far from immobile you drop the world, and in the face of doubt you dance it out… I suppose that was my moment of Tao: standing alone in a swell of people as far as the eye could see, beyond the blinding light that blanketed everyone in its wake, baptizing each attendee in blacklight, immersed in sound so great it submerged even itself into silence, anonymous fingertips dancing across the epidermis like sandaled feet above the worn earth below, river blown wind pushing subdued scents across the island leaving nothing but nasal cavities full of sand – and likely white… where what I could sense in the conventional sense was nothing and everything, to make sense of it all I had to rewind to the most childlike state of expression… I moved, and mosied, and swayed, and stepped in succession with the drum and bass beat of my own mental maestro. The sun was well set, and the set was risen beyond a fever pitch and in this space-time lapse I opened my eyes, looked beside me and simply stated: “This is it. This is electronic soul: freedom in the music; Jesus, Kubrick – tonight we’re all dancing in the dark.” I guess that was it… the salvation of the sinner, and the communion within the chaos. That bonfire of which M.I.A. so notoriously spake… it lives: here.
Half of Electric Zoo is figuring out how you got there, and remembering who you were when you stepped foot on the island, because it’ll be a far cry from who you are when you step off – all this is to say I was an aficionado, I was an observer, I was the medium, and the lens. I could tell you a million things about these people I had seen before from the detached perspective of the skeptical, and the socially elevated. There’s no sense of reality, beyond the gifted present. There’s literally the music and the moment.
Past, present, and future collide – as do countless demographics, but it works. The fusion of Wonkaland and Woodstock: sugar-coated color amplified to a world of day-glo madness with candyflipping nostalgia of Janis, Jimi, and Jim. The revival of Sodom and Gomorrah – four tents and an open field sitting atop the Harlem River, like the five cities of Plain atop the River Jordan – visceral tribes worshiping, sacrificing, living in merriment, savoring the splendor of life with the same fervor as the devoted saints, but from the dubious title of demonic sinners. Israel and Ibiza integrate: the makeshift motherland for exiled wanderers – dancing along from place to place until they find that sacred space – and the perpetual party, drenched in hedonism… blurring the lines of pure love and passionate lust for an intangible entity – music. Pleasure Island – where we saw monkeys evolve from men – and Neverland: two shining beacons of the beautiful Kreugers of delusional dreams, decadence, debauchery, infinite youth – that blessed curse… the ceaseless celebration that begs the question: “to what end?” as if there is one…
It’s all very ambiguous, but very specific. It’s an electric zoo – supercharged primacy on display: inverse evolution.