When Raving Was Radical

When Raving Was Radical

Rainald Goetz’s 1998 novel captures both the complicated politics of the German electronic music scene and the chaotic experience of a night lost to dancing.


In Der Klang der Familie, the definitive oral history of the birth of Berlin’s techno scene in the wake of German reunification, it is said that the city’s inaugural acid house party, a series called Ufo, began one night in 1988 in an old potato cellar in Köpenicker Straße. The ceiling barely hit seven feet, and plaster chips drifted down onto stacks of records as squelching bass lines shook the building’s foundation. The basement flooded when it rained, and power strips floated around in the muck like inner tubes coasting down a lazy river. A year later, at the very first Love Parade, which became an annual open-air electronic music festival that later typified Berlin’s club milieu’s most commercial leanings, 150 people danced and marched in the streets of West Berlin. They came together under the motto “Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen,” or “Peace, Joy, Pancakes,” a political commitment to disarmament, music as the route to understanding, and fair food distribution.

As one of the founders of the parade, artist Danielle de Picciotti,recalled, this sort of sincere public display wasn’t quite in line with the usual Berliner attitude of the time, especially at the tail end of the punk movement. “At the beginning, everyone was embarrassed,” she remembers. “It was not at all something Berliners usually got behind. In Berlin, you were serious, intellectual, avant-garde. Or at least dramatically addicted to drugs.” With this call for pancakes, cuddle puddles, and peace, a new social form started to arise from the controlled madness of that old potato cellar, one propelled by a relentless desire to experience more mind-bending music with like-minded freaks.

It wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 that these early techno raves migrated to a youth hall in the East under the name Tekknozid. With the reunification opening up vast swaths of vacant buildings in the West, techno had plenty of room to expand and mutate. As one early raver remembers, those Tekknozid parties evoked “the sound of mines: down the shaft to hammer stones,” and Wolle DXP, the party’s promoter, says that drugs weren’t even necessary to find transcendence. “People were totally spaced out, beyond good and evil,” he says in Der Klang der Familie. “No one was accessible, but hardly anyone was on drugs. They were on the music and in the music. Some people had to be carried off the pedestals when we stopped around 6 a.m. They were totally gone, time and space forgotten. They’d danced themselves into oblivion.”

This mid-rave feeling of being utterly present, devoid of any sense of time, place, or ego, is exceedingly difficult to capture in any sort of strictly representational art form, but German writer Rainald Goetz’s 1998 novel Rave manages to convey the black hole of a dissociative dance floor experience with clarity. Newly translated by Adrian Nathan West, Rave avoids the saccharine tropes that most writing about dance music succumbs to, whether it be the glorification of excess, the distorting effects of nostalgia, or ham-fisted descriptions of euphoria.

Instead of trying to forcibly carve a narrative of the madness and hedonism of techno’s early days, Goetz embraces the transience of a night out, stitching together scenes of open-air parties in Munich and languid Ibiza nights. What unites the disparate locales is a combination of chatter and somatic response: snatches of random conversation and the babble of drug-induced breakdowns bleeding into each other; the feelings of bliss and depravity that race through a person over the course of hours spent on a dance floor. And in a nod to the collectivism inherent in the act of raving, Goetz doesn’t even center his ostensible protagonist, himself (or someone like him, also named Rainald), a character whose incessant jabs at techno music journalism and Kraftwerk are easier to patch together than any more conventional understandings of his personality or disposition. Rainald’s friends momentarily flit in and out as narrators, and their experiences are given as much weight as are those of the fictionalized Rainald.

Goetz is less concerned with charting his own personal experiences of the golden age of Berlin techno than he is with reconstituting the entire social matrix of these experiences, one where corny music journalists are trying to spin this nascent cultural energy into prime-time television shows, and an earnest recognition of the art of deejaying exists in parallel with the boredom and self-destruction that eventually catch up to every raver. Goetz’s account of Berlin dance floors isn’t just a straight transmission from his own eyes and ears—he tells the story of those days by loosely following each stray glance and overheard phrase from those around him, piecing together a mosaic of this scene that avoids idealization. If some Berliners were dismissive of raving in favor of what they perceived as more cerebral cultural forms, Goetz offers the opposite claim: At the parties at which he found himself, he sensed that in techno there was a sense of art, politics, and language that was much more visceral than what prose alone could ever convey.

Rave isn’t Goetz’s first literary experiment with taking this shattered approach to narrative form. The novel is just one slice of his five-part survey of ’90s pop culture and pop art, Heute Morgen. It also includes his play, Jeff Koons, yet another work that skirts any strict narrative or real sense of character development as indistinguishable voices seem to flesh out the world of artist Jeff Koons (although this is just implied—his name is mentioned only in the title). With Rubbish for Everyone, his Internet diary centered on the media and consumerism, which is widely considered to have been the first literary blog in Germany, Goetz further established himself as a writer deeply invested in the democratizing effects of popular art in its interaction with mass culture. Before he became a literary figure, Goetz pursued a career in the medical field—he obtained two doctorates, in history and medicine, before publishing Irre (“Insane,”) in 1983 at the age of 30. In this debut work, he fuses at times technical and at other times disorienting descriptions of a doctor working at a psychiatric institution with the unhinged spirit of Germany’s punk scene, jumping from nameless patients’ perspectives to the confused inner monologue of the main character, Dr. Raspe.

In that same year, 1983, Goetz further solidified his status as a subversive literary force as a finalist for the esteemed Ingeborg Bachmann Prize with his televised reading of his unpublished manuscript Subito. Not only did Subito satirize the very prize itself—in Goetz’s fictional rendering, a few critics on the jury doze off while another covertly scratches his balls underneath the table—but in the middle of his frenetic reading of the text, he swiped a razor blade diagonally across his forehead. A stream of blood dripped down onto the manuscript as he read it, saturating the bottom of the page red. He didn’t win that prize, but the stunt raised his profile exponentially. In 2015, Goetz received the George Buchner Prize, one of Germany’s most important literary awards.

In Rave, Goetz lays out the polar contradictions of a lifestyle dedicated to nightlife, cycling through flashes of enlightenment and tenderness to despair and cynicism. There are moments of drug-induced spiritual experiences, when Rainald’s sense of self is sublimated in complete identification with the music: “From the margins came legs and light, feet, flashes, paces and bass, surfaces and murmurs, equivalencies of a higher mathematics. He himself was the music.” In less ecstatic moments, Goetz dials in on the inescapable self-aggrandizing stemming from petty scene politics. “So then: there’s all this mad stupid babble, loads of it, above all in nightlife, of course, about music. About labels, DJs, styles, lines, sounds. As soon as you post up next to someone who for some reason thinks he’s intelligent, you’re disappointed to hear him blurt out his super-mega-interesting divergent opinion.”

More than just an inside look at the fleeting nature of the early German rave scene, Goetz’s novel succeeds in translating into black and white an embodied and ineffable experience, something prose isn’t especially equipped to accomplish. At one point early on in the text, Rainald sums up this approach to music and writing in a discussion with a friend: “The difficulty was a fundamental one: how would a text about our lives have to sound? I had a sort of inkling inside of me, a bodily sensation that writing had to articulate.”

The answer to this question is in the way Rave renders stilted dance floor conversations and inner monologues as a kind of sonorous poetry. Later on, Goetz says that the endless hours of music, dancing, and drugs, “had altered at once the space of resonance in each individual, and at the same time the collective space where language sways back and forth, to test whether language even halfway conveys everything thought intended.” He describes these halcyon techno days as a time that’s both yearning to understand itself and to elude comprehension, leaving behind a sense of confusion that starts to wear away at the edges of one’s ego but strangely can then start to pull people together.

In the midst of a party stretching out nonstop over days that headily roll into each other, Goetz acknowledges that there was a time before there really were words to describe the hedonistic experience he is undergoing. “It was the wordless time, when we were always looking around with our big eyes so strangely in every possible situation, shaking our heads, and could almost never say anything but: speechless—pf–brutal—madness–speechless, really—,” he says, then describes it further as “an expression of the feeling that we had never experienced and couldn’t imagine anything cooler and more dope etc etc. Great wonder, then great bafflement. Where am I, what was that? Hm?”

On a more down-to-earth level, Rave’s patchwork of thoughts on aesthetic theory and on the media outlets, editors, and critics that sprang up around this fledgling scene does seem prescient, if at times disorienting. Goetz’s incessant satirization of the popular culture that orbited German techno foretells the eventual breakdown of an industry concerned more with turning out fawning profiles and programs than confronting more difficult and messy truths. At an event sponsored by VIVA, Germany’s answer to MTV that debuted in 1993, journalists flash their plastic press passes that read: “No idea whatsoever about anything at all,” and a poodle commands the decks. “The poodle hasn’t got a clue how to mix.… Same as everyone else, his relationship to music is primarily anecdotal, he’s heard this about that, picked this up from so-and-so.” Goetz spends pages riffing on the lesson plan of the Red Bull Music Academy, which has since become a sort of electronic music institution. Day one starts with learning the importance of rhythm; day two goes on to an appreciation of tempos; and by the end of the program, the student needs to listen, look, and lean into the social aspect of deejaying without forgetting what is “the central and highest purpose of all academies, congresses, fairs, discussion circles, and readings”: partying and sex.

Goetz’s critiques of the vapid nature of the music industry in some ways anticipated its fate. The Red Bull Music Academy closed its doors last year; almost all of the music magazines that he mentions are out of print now; and EDM’s rise and fall reflected its ability to turn dance music into a billion-dollar industry only for a few solvent years. As chronicled in Der Klang der Familie, by the time major clubs like Tresor opened in 1991, some DJs and ravers were already convinced that the whole techno thing was over. Wolle DXP, the promoter of that first acid house party, viewed the growing commercial electronic music industry as the enemy, and he called the sound systems in now iconic clubs in Berlin embarrassing in comparison to the spirit of the spontaneous parties that started it all. (“It was like listening to music in your kitchen,” he said.) Meanwhile, DJs like Westbam, whom Goetz collaborated with on Mix, Cuts und Scratches, a treatise of sorts on the art of deejaying, felt that techno had already made its mark on the underground and that it was time to make a big pop statement. By the mid-’90s, over a million people danced through the wide Berlin avenues as part of the Love Parade. But in 2010, the annual event was permanently canceled after the ramp that served as the only entrance and exit point of the festival became greatly overcrowded; 21 people died from suffocation, and at least 500 were injured.

Tanith, the DJ of a seminal party called Cyberspace, met Rainald Goetz at Mayday, an event that was basically the winter version of the Love Parade. They had both climbed up on the traverse above the stage, a spot where it wasn’t so crowded and there was room to dance. Goetz was one of Tanith’s favorite writers, but Tanith found Goetz’s unbridled enthusiasm for raving disappointing. “I knew him as the RAF writer; that guy, I loved,” Tanith said in reference to Irre. “Later, he schlepped records for Sven Väth and Westbam. He was completely changed. I saw in him what [the drug] ecstasy could do, even to creative artists.”

In Goetz’s fictional rendering of a similar scene at the Love Parade, he decenters his own experience to focus on what he finds most valuable about a crush of people, a situation he feels is unfairly politically maligned. To Goetz, an event like the crowded Love Parade can represent the full spectrum of human potential. It’s a reversal of the usual conception of a crowd’s power to suggest a narrow ideological point. Goetz instead finds beauty in the meeting of many different vantage points. “Everyone who is actually present in such a place bodily and sees it with open eyes sees himself with revulsion and ecstasy amid this million-sharded mirror, is shaken and moved and inevitably must say something like: Yeah, that’s me. I’m one of those, too. A so-called person.” Goetz is less concerned with subjective, drug-addled introspection than he is with the collective that he witnessed forming around him, one in which losing yourself in a crowd could actually make you feel more human.

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