We're Not in Woodstock Anymore

Crank up the music. Spread peace and love.
But this isn't the '60s.
So plug into the internet and meet the zippies,
a cyber-rave, altered-states kind of movement.

First published in the Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1994
© 1994 By P.J. Huffstutter


CENTRAL CITY, Colorado

It's 8 p.m. and a van full of zippies is lost in the Colorado Rockies.

That's Zen-Inspired Pronoia professionals, a '90s version of hippies, a fusion of flower children and computer geeks. Pronoia is their word for the sneaking suspicion that people are conspiring to help you. This particular group of zippies, mostly British, has spent more than three hours trying to find a rave that's set for tonight outside Boulder. After attending a similar event in the Bay Area, they'Il be traveling to Los Angeles.

Many of the van's passengers sport long. ragged hair that's parted down the middle, and oversized '60s clothes straight from Salvation Army racks. The sweet scent of cannabis hangs on their skin. Their heads nod in time to the loud feed dance music throbbing from the vehicle's one working speaker.

Ten people sit crammed inside the avocado-colored van parked in a no-parking zone. The vehicle has no passenger seats, a clunky transmission and rotted floorboards. But inside this rickety metal shell are a dozen audiotapes of chanting Tibetan monks, a never-empty bag of marijuana and several thousand dollars' worth of computer equipment.

Two older locals stroll by the van and glance at its passengers. One turns to the other and says, while shaking his head, "I really hate those damn hippies."

Close, but not quite. First were hippies, then yippies, then yuppies. Now there are the zippies.

As promoters vie to recapture the spirit of 1969 with a Woodstock "reunion" concert, members of this counterculture are celebrating the true "summer of love" spirit with a techno twist.

Zippies define themselves as anyone striving to balance the two hemispheres of the brain- the hippie right side with its spontaneous and flexible aspects, and the logical, pragmatic left.

"A businessman sticking a funny clown nose on his car is a zippy," said John Bagby, 25, an American "cyberspace surfer" who traveled along with the British group. "You'd be surprised who qualifies."

The zippy arena is the rave, those packed dance parties that usually start late and continue through sunrise. Fraser Clark, a shamanic zippy eider, brought a crew of British zippies on a "Pronoia Tour" of raves that opened with two dates in New York in June- and is continuing west, culminating in an eight-day event near Sedona, Ariz. starting Aug. 21. (Zippy was originally an acronym for "Zen-Inspired Pagan Professionals," but pronoia was subbed for pagans, because, Clark explained, "Americans are so paranoid about their pagan roots.)

An event dubbed "Narnia: The Festival of Life" will be held in an undisclosed Southern California location on Aug. 20. As usual with raves, the locale is kept.secret until the day of the event.

Behind the zippies' long hair and spacey eyes is a belief that electronic music and computers can be used to reach both hedonistic and spiritual goals. It's 1960s idealism hopping into bed with technologically inclined '90s to give birth to one big happy politically correct family.

"We are all one tribe," said Clark, a 51-year-old native of Scotland. Everyone is just going under a different name. But the music and computers are helping to unite everyone to spread the word about the coming of the zippies and to urge people to join us."

If Clark and his soothsayers are to be believed, zippies offer the next trend of club-based madness, a cultural and spiritual tsunami poised to sweep across America. Are they mad slackers or social pioneers?

"Zippies offer a future I can finally believe in," said Sean Holmes, 24, a clerical temp in Denver who attended the Colorado rave. "I go out to raves all time and I've seen this scene grow.

"I really like this idea where utopian fantasies from the past and the technology of the present have brought the future into reach. The future, for me, is right now."

It's 11:30 p.m. and the zippy van is still lost. Time has become meaningless, since the troupe has spent the last siz hours driving more than 300 miles searching for the elusive rave site.

They later discover that the rave is only 25 minutes from their original starting point.

"People will drive anywhere for a good party," says Justin Eade, 1 23-year-old British programming whiz who used to work for MTV Europe. "This'll be worth the trip."

The driver reaches a fork in the road. His map tells him to turn right, but he notices a line of cars heading to the left toward a dirt road. He follows the caravan.

Cheryl Newsam, a 34-year-old-dancer and virtual reality writer, reaches for the community joint. She inhales deeply.

"Everyone makes such a fuss of the drugs," Newsam says. "But it's all natural, and so much better than drink. We have to use the things the planet gives us. The Goddess wouldn't give us something that would hurt us."

The van finally pulls into a clearing filled with haphazardly parked vehicles. Most of the crowd cluster around a nearby bonfire, where drummers from the Rainbow Family pound out a tribal beat. When added to the electronic music, the sound is eerily like an ancient Celtic rock band.

Years of mutual distrust divided hippies and ravers in Britain. That changed in 1992, when nearly 30,000 ravers flooded into a small hippie festival near Castle Morton, England. After four days and nights of listening to house music, comparing tales of police harassment and sharing psychedelic drugs, hippies and ravers were merged into a new united subculture. Fraser Clark was one of the first to identify the fusion.

Back in the United States, illegal parties were part of the burgeoning punk scene in Los Angeles of the late '70s and early '80s. The first official raves popped up in warehouses after the summer of 1988, an intense period of raves held in the United Kingdom.

Strict municipal fire codes in Los Angeles have forced the house movement underground, say area promoters. But San Francisco has embraced the scene for years, long before this British troupe arrived.

"It's insulting that they think they're introducing something new to California," said Andrew Morin, a Santa Cruz-based rave promoter. "We've had the music, the philosophers, the rave scene happening here for years. It's the same thing, just without the name."

Since 1988, deejays have controlled the scene with a heavy hand. They spin out various mutations of styles of music called "techno" and "house" -happy house, Eurotrance, ambient dub, psychedelic trance.

House borrowed its name from the early '80s Chicago dance club Warehouse, where deejays began manipulating sound by overlapping electronic moises on top of funk and disco tunes. At the same time, independent record producers in Detroit started developing techno -a bare, synthesizer-driven rhythm. English deejays and producers adopted both sounds, mutated the ambient vibe and returned it to U.S. audiences through raves.

"The beat structure is very repetitive and focuses in on a groove," said Brian Comerford, a Boulder deejay. "There's a constant resonance in your chest coming from the beat. When you’re on psychedelics, be it acid ot Ecstacy, that feeling is only enhanced."

Electronic props are often used to enhance the music at raves. "Ambient archetects" like 3T use computer graphics to decorate blank walls and paint patterns on the dancers upturned faces."

"At a rave, the audience is the performance", said 3T, 28, a zippy from Kenya who has worked for several years in the British rave scene. She and her partner, 36-year-old Dez Mondo, joined the tour in London. "The dance brings so many people together -students, artists -and the music helps them share ideas. Everything and everyone feed off the music. "

It's 1 a.m. and the zippies have taken control. The motion on the field is constant; the dancers are an odd collection of young Gap-garbed preppies in jean shorts and breathing objets d'art with bald heads, ripped black clothing and metallic bits protruding from different body parts. Most fall somewhere between 13 and 35.

Assembled at the last minute, the free party has drawn nearly 1,000 dancers. A heady buzz of such psychedelics as acid and Ecstasy flows across the chilly air. Remove the music and the scene could be an outtake from "Woodstock."

"I'm just trippin', man," exclaims Jim, 15, a high school sophomore from Denver. "The lights are incredible. I feel like I can reach out and touch God."

Like so many British-based, trends, the zippy scene has taken hold in the United States. For many followers, it's more than just an excuse to indulge in a night of loud music and dabble in psychedelic drugs. Being a zippy means believing in a technology-basd spiritualism where, in essence, the Macintosh is the messiah.

"I grew up going to church and believing what I was told," said Michael Stubbs, 26, a Boulder graphic artist. "But as I got older, felt like I couldn't go to church anymore because it just didn't make sense... I just couldn't believe in a spirituality that allowed that to happen.

"I still consider myself a fairly religious person and I pray every day. Instead of kneeling down in front of an altar, I sit down in front of a computer screen. Out there on the Internet is a sense of peace, of community, of working together, of sharing ideas. That. to me, is true spirituality."

What the BMW is to yuppies, and love beads were to hippies, the computer is to zippies. With their laptop computers and electronic soundscapes, zippies are a product of gene-splicing between Timothy Leary and Microsoft.

While the social upheaval of the 1960s spawned a host of subcul tures, this underground scene has used computers to unite disparate factions. Zippies are a plugged-in group that hears about raves word-of-mouth or through the Internet. By using fax machines, mobile phones, toll-free numbers and "the Net," promoters lead participants on a wild treasure hunt where an unknown X mark the party spot.

"I posted a note on the Internet with a number that hooked people up to my voice mail," said Jason Waguespack, 20, a promoter with Denver-based Sound and Magic Enterprises. "It's just your basic networking. A few years ago. people would go to the local hot record store or cafe to see what was happening. Now with these zippies, kids click on their PC."

Talk of the movement buzzes on-line, with discussion groups dedicated to the topic cropping up throughout Internet, particularly at the San Francisco-based commercial service Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. A news group has formed at "alt.culture.zippies" for Net users to ponder the topic.

"We've literally been receiving thousands and thousands of E- mail messages," Bagby said. "I think the movement has been so popular, particularly among people in their 20s, because we are the ones who are comfortable with the technology, and see it as a tool. Take the musicians. They used to play guitars and bongos; now they have MIDIs and interface with their Quadras."

It's 3 a.m. and local law enforcement is becoming alarmed. A handful of deputies from the Gilpin County Sheriff's Department has blocked off the main road leading to the rave, turning away nearly 400 cars. Some would-be party-goers cruise past the barricade and create their own path by cutting through private property.

"This is crazy," Deputy Dave Forristal says. "They told us there might be 200 people here, tops, There's at least four or five times that here."

The dancers and deejays ignore the sheriff vehicles. Jason Lake, a member of the British ambient band Universal Sound, hunches over his sequencer, his fingertips tapping the computer buttons that add and subtract electronic nuances. Computer disks with samples of sounds--pipes hitting metal, the rustling of chains, a woman's voice--are stacked within reach. It's pre-programmed music that is manipulated live.

"Now they want me to turn on my lights to add to their strobe lighting," Forristal says, sitting in a four-wheel drive truck. "This can't continue, it's getting too wild. What year do they think this is?"

Skeptics accuse the zippies of merely glorifying the past, of marketing the '60s to the TV generation. A Newsday story expressed doubt that young New Yorkers would tune in to the zippy "doo dah." The Village Voice wrote that zippies possessed a "hopeless hope... not a 'solution' in any conventional sense, but a last-ditch pagan magic show."

"It's just one more fad," said Eric Bailey, 19, a sophomore studying creative writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Look at the people who are heading this. They're old. I just don't get it."

He may not "get it" because the term "zippy" is fairly new. But the club scene has been unifying subcultures for nearly a decade.

"It's been a slow process, one that many kids may not realize even existed," said Wendy Davis, a part-time professor of sociocultural psychology at Colorado University, Boulder. "It's natural that kids today have a love/hate relationship with their parents' culture. But the truth is that raves have been around for many years, just under different names.

"I've noticed that people who are now in their 20s are often searching for a faith and a god they can believe in, one that offers proof of its worthiness," she said. "The zippies believe that you need to be.utterly true to yourself--which comes straight from the '60s. The big difference is that zippies preach that technology offers you the opportunity to both explore the inner self and the world."

Technology, therefore, represents freedom. Zippies can mix their own music, publish their own magazines, monitor their environment and interact more comfortably with nature. While hippies dropped out of society, zippies aim to alter it through their computer.

"The fact that I could just bring out [a magazine] all by myself, without dealing with editors and publishers, was a liberating experience," Clark said. "We can do everything ourselves. We don't have to turn on CBS to find out what news is. We are tribal explorers in a modern age, searching for truth and religion at the same time as we define it."

So it doesn't matter whether the location is a forest, an abandoned factory or a computer network. For the zippies, exploration itself is a kind of understanding. It is the process of exploring that counts.

It's 6 a.m. and the rave has become a commune. Though the sheriffs stopped the show at 3:30 a.m., many participants remain. People share food, water and blankets. One of the zippies pops a techno tape into the stereo of a red Mitsubishi hatchback and cranks up the volume.

Men from the Rainbow Family continue to bang on their drums, chanting goodbye to the moon as it sets behind the trees, and pleading with the sun to peek over the mountain range. The women proceed to dance, their bodies frantically contorting and jiggling.

Maybe it's the aftermath from a long night. But if you close your eyes, you'll swear that the dawn mist cocoons your body like a womb and the throbbing drum line sounds like a human heartbeat.

"Strange, isn't it?" Comerford asked after the rave. "Did you know that this dance music stays between 120 and 140 beats a minute? It's about the same as a fetus' heartbeat."

Everyone shrieks with joy when the sun rises. The bleary-eyed ravers leave their drums and scamper across the sun-dappled field. Clark remains by the fire, watching the frolicking melee of cyber-hippies and techno-nerds. "Do you see them dancing?" Clark asks. "The word is being spread and people are listening. The revolution has begun."


P.J. Huffstutter is a free-lance writer based in Colorado.


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The Zippy Pronoia Tour site was developed by cubensis@well.com © 1995.
Extra special thanks to the gracious, skoochin' internet love-fest.