Remember the Dance

London – March 1989

We are in some sort of small warehouse. It’s pitch dark, except for black light glowing on Day-Glo painted walls. I’ve got a bad sinus infection. My head hurts so badly I can hardly see. Manuela and I are the only girls in this place. A bunch of guys dressed in baggy pants and fluorescent high top trainers are dancing like weirdos. Spastic shadows twitching to the worst music I’ve ever heard.

“This is acid music,” Manuela says. Her eyes blaze. “This music is God.”

I sigh in annoyance. Rome, Venice, Paris, and now London. We are getting on each others’ nerves, but we are stuck with each other until tomorrow morning when I go back to LA. I have to be at the airport three hours early because the terrorists who blew up the PanAm plane are threatening to blow up another one this weekend, Easter weekend. I just want to go back to the hotel and sleep.

Manuela grabs my hand and leads me through back alleys in search of some club called Heaven. We wait in line for a long time. We are dressed in the funky clothes we bought on High Street. She’s wearing bellbottoms that are so ugly I can hardly look at them. She says my leather hat and leather boots with skull buckles are outdated. So American. “No one listens to hard rock anymore.” She stifles a snicker. “That’s for old people.”

The music throbs around us as we meander endless corridors. Up and down. Around and around. Manuela is on the hunt for some musician she’s got a crush on. S’express. Bomb the Bass. People and groups and music I’ve never heard of. “There he is!” Manuela gasps. She walks up to a small-boned man of Asian descent. He is gay, but she’s hopelessly smitten. 

I stand back while she talks to these famous people. They look at me with respect when she tells them I’m from Michigan. I guess this music actually started in Detroit. Figures. The musical bombardment is relentless. Sadistic. I clasp my battered head in my hands and stifle a scream.

“This crap will never become popular in America,” I growl, as we finally make our way to the exit. “It sucks!”

“You’ll love it, too. One day.” Her deep brown eyes glitter. “You will always remember this night.

I sigh and shake my head. The vow to myself is etched in steel. Never, ever. 

Two years later, I sought out the merry asylum. My London story was a source of envy to my friends, who were fanatics about this new music. They heard a rumor, which beckoned us on a quest for the ticket seller. We found him at a tiny party store in Hollywood. The middle-aged black man screened us with nonsensical questions. “Are you sure you know what you know?” He bugged his eyes out and pulled his lips into a carney grin. 

I tried to keep a grip on my escalating buzz. “You’re totally messing with me.”

“Just trying to figure out if you finished high school.” He winked at me and gave us the precious treasure map. 

It led us to an abandoned warehouse in South Central LA. Interspersed in the vast crowd were people standing with arms crossed over their heads. “That means they’re selling X,” one of my friends whispered. “Ecstasy.” 

We passed them by, preferring the natural source of bliss we had ingested earlier. Smiley faces and stuffed animals and Dr. Seuss hats. It was a carnival of love. I believe it was that night when the music took hold forever. The repetitive beats brought me to a trance. It burrowed deep inside my cells, the friendliest of parasites. 

Just before sunrise, flashing red lights surrounded the warehouse. Sirens. We scattered into the streets, breathless with glee. 

I danced whenever I could, which wasn’t often. Work and responsibilities and financial challenges kept me from going out on a regular basis. Smaller clubs were my preference. The deejays were enigmatic figures hidden in booths. They were genies who wove tracks together into a vibrant tapestry. A magic carpet ride. The clubs were dark, smoky, spartan. They were simply receptacles for bodies moving together in the dark. There is a special intimacy in sharing a dance floor with strangers. Deep and warm, but without physical contact, or even acknowledgment. We shared a space, but our awareness was turned within. Glowing glances were exchanged when we caught the same groove and surfed it to shore. That shared euphoria. No other intoxicant was necessary. The dance floor is the only place where I’ve truly felt oneness with humanity.

Poznan, Poland. 2007. He took the stage and exclaimed. “I am Polish Electro Boogie Boy!” There are so many other characters that I will always remember. Nameless and their faces are obscured with time, but their dance was unforgettable. You can know so much about a person by the way they allow themselves to move. They way they inhabit their bodies.

The places I’ve danced. Nights that became mornings. Gatherings that brought me home to myself. In my days of deepest depression, I believe that it saved me. London. LA. Berlin. Chicago. Budapest. Noumea. Rio de Janeiro. Phoenix. And Sydney.

Sydney, Australia – September 1995

In Sydney, we clean up. We splurge on new clothes. Dig our makeup out of the bottom of our stinky backpacks. Unfurl. We made it. 

“A toast.” Maya holds out her palm to reveal three tiny squares of paper. “To surviving Papua New Guinea. And to Sydney. Magnificent Sydney!”

Amelia, our Australian friend, places one on my tongue, communion-like. The body of infinity. Forever and ever. Amen. Slow, deep breaths. Focus. With courage and respect. A new expedition looms ahead. Inter-dimensional. Be ready. 

“Peace, Dearie. It will be beautiful.” Amelia takes my hand. “Let’s go dance.” 

Into a labyrinth of murky rooms. Psychedelic frescoes shimmer on black walls. A tingle, then radiance. And away I go. A giggle moves through me. This effervescence. So different from the tainted, bone-jarring LSD trips of yesteryear.

Maya and Amelia whirl away. Into the shadows. A gaunt man wearing a yellow polyester blazer and red pants sits down next to me. He is surely younger than I am, but his eyes hold the weariness of eons. He spins a glittery plastic scepter in his hand. Round and round. Others of his kind slouch against walls and huddle in corners. Eyes downcast. Rumpled velvet and smeared makeup. Carnival carnage.

“Who are you?”

“We are the Vibe Tribe.” He lays the scepter across his lap. “Some call us The Ferals. A band of futuristic gypsies. We’ve spent the last few years on the road together.”

Tendrils of music swirl around me and seep into my pores. Liquid resonance. My heart swells and ascends. 

“This morning we will pack up our tipis and leave for Tasmania. And then it’s over. We are weary of the road, each other, the dance. The Ecstasy has stopped working. We tried.” A heavy pause. “Have we, as humans, lost the ability to band together forever?” He shakes his head.

Crestfallen and bewildered souls. A girl wearing a white dress with big black polka dots stares out at the world through spooky black-rimmed eyes. Her manic staccato cackle is consumed by the music. 

Maya’s whisper in my ear. “She scares me.” I turn my head to respond, but she’s dancing with Amelia on the other side of the room.

Feral boy speaks. “Some will wander forever alone, unable to re-integrate into society. That’s the price paid for searching. The longer you’re away, the harder it is to return. Maybe it’s better to die than to live in the past.”

I take his hand. “Dance with me.”

He pulls his hand away. “It’s all over for me.” He crumples against the wall and closes his eyes.

I sweep my eyes around the room. A slight, shiny distortion, like cling wrap, warps my view. Behold the membrane that separates me from other humans. The wall of There. Glide onto the dance floor. Into Maya and Amelia’s open arms. I smile into the face of a man with long black hair and limpid brown eyes. The shimmer of his hands down my back. The slow, deep seep of his essence into the cells. The eternity of our friendship unspools before us. He looks down at his hands and then back at me in wonder. My languid pirouette. The music throbs an obscene warmth though me. I lift my arms in surrender. Undulate myself into dissolution. Whatever you are out there, I am yours. Take me. The membrane dissolves. 

Tentacles of sound pull the dancers tighter in its grasp. Polka Dot Girl staggers to the dance floor. Spastic, jerky dance moves. Ferocious eyes. A battered marionette struggling to break free. Those who seem wild are often just imprisoned by a different force. 

I close my eyes. And see. My atoms are iridescent aqua blue spheres. I am the sky. They morph into tiny blue bubbles that float away on my laughs. I am joy. I am no more.

Drops of pink dawn drip through the cracks in the heavy black curtains. From the softest illumination. The music’s velvety tendrils recede. Back to the luminous abyss from whence they came. We shake ourselves off. Reassemble. 

Feeling at home in solitude is a gift. I gather this to my heart in a gentle embrace. Thank you.

The Vibe Tribe coalesces. A bouquet of wistful wilted wildflowers. They pause in the doorway. A silhouette of resignation. And then they are gone. 

The 1990s became the 2000s. Then came the organization. The marketing and promotion. The plastic surgery, the solarium tans, the skimpy costumes. The pouting. White shirts and waxed chests on the male variety. The deejays became superstars. The turntables morphed into computer programs. The awareness shifted to the exterior. The music became a stagnant pond, sub-genres blended together to appeal to the masses. The waves went flat. The soul took refuge underground. I lost the motivation to find it. It was inevitable. 

Vapors of laser phosphorescence dissipating in the sunrise. Always a beautiful, bittersweet sight. It was time to go home. Satiated and covered in dust and smoke and dried sweat. Grateful and already wistful. You could buy the music, play it at home or in the car, but the vibe was impossible to replicate. You could dream of next time. Eventually, it would be the last time. We are all middle-aged now. Those of us who danced together all those years ago. It doesn’t matter what became of us. We are still grooving together in the vast arena of memory. The dance continues. For eternity.

Songs Along the Way

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The Highlands Highway – Papua New Guinea

Certain songs remind us of the intense moments of our lives – past loves, especially. But what about the songs that conjure the sensations and emotions of past journeys? Whenever I hear them, I close my eyes and allow myself to be transported on the melody, along the serpentine road of remembrance.

Thailand – April 1992
My last night in Bangkok. A tiny jazz bar called Brown Sugar. Everything obscured by smoke. Blue smoke in the air, purple smoke in my brain. Magic smoke. The tendrils were losing their grip on the rising despair. Please don’t make me go “home”. One of my sister’s roommates brought me to the club. I can’t remember why Pebby didn’t come, but it doesn’t matter. I sat with Steve in that darkened room, pouring alcohol over the smoke. Watching it thicken. I think we probably didn’t say much, because I was unable to. He suddenly got up, walked over to the band, and requested “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. He leaned over and squeezed my shoulders when they played it. The warmth seeped deep inside, where it still remains.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines – October 1992
Whenever I doubt the magic, that certain paths are just meant for us, I put on “Cool Change” and relive the glorious days of sailing the jewel-colored Caribbean. The opportunity had come out of nowhere. A phone call from a stranger. A risk taken on pure intuition. I was plucked out of the murk and thrust into daylight. The Dutch Captain and his wife had one CD: Little River Band Greatest Hits. It could have become annoying, but it didn’t. It was music to sail away with. I sat at the very front of the boat, my legs over the side, as we drifted. Soft warm waves reached up to tickle my feet. I lifted my face to the sun, oblivious to the fact that, in just a couple of days, when we reached Mustique, I would get news that my father had died. In less than two weeks, I’d be in the hospital. Swallowed up by the void.

Papua New Guinea – September 1995
That thick red line on the map – the Highlands Highway – turned out to be a washed-out road through the jungle and it was far too late to turn back. And neither Maya or I wanted to. Despite the threat of bandits, known as raskolls. I remember the feel of that steering wheel, trying to tear itself out of my grip. Phantom mist obscuring the way. Portishead’s Dummy album filled our heavy silence, and drowned out the jarring sound of wheels grinding along uneven ground. Leading us into our own personal heart of darkness.

When we tired of Portishead, we switched to Mad Season’s Above album. Beth Gibbons’ eerie melancholy was replaced by Layne Staley’s raw anguish. That voice. It tore right through my soul, especially on “Wake Up”.  The words snaked through my mind: Wake up, wake up, wake up.* Before it’s too late.

A few days later, we dropped the Land Rover off at the airport in Madang. Without a scratch. The rental agent shook his head and told us that we were the first people he knew of who had driven that highway with no problem.

The most dangerous part of the voyage was behind, but the music didn’t stop. I have already written about “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash in an earlier post.

Taiwan – November 1995/North Korea – April 2016
Some songs are so enduring that they make encores in our lives. Such is the case with “Wonderwall” by Oasis. First time I heard it, I was once again visiting my sister, this time in Taiwan. I flew up from Guam, just before Thanksgiving. It was her boyfriend, I think, who played the song. Words of longing and mystery. We all fell silent when it came on. Daydreaming of that one we never could bring ourselves to face.

I started writing this post last night, and just this morning I received news that one of my sister’s Taiwan roommates passed away last weekend. He was such a character and the trip to Taiwan will always be more memorable because of his presence. RIP, Tim.

More than twenty years later, in the karaoke room of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, our group of travelers sang our hearts out to the tinny music emanating from the speakers. It was the last night of the tour and we were high on soju and discovery. None of us, no matter which country we came from, had to read the words on the screens. The Korean guides sat back and watched. Sunbeam smiles. Had they ever heard the original version?

North Korea – April 2016
Every evening, as we were driven back to the hotel, our tour bus turned into a lounge on wheels. People were nominated to come up and sing a song, preferably from his or her country. Our Korean guide, Miss Yu, got it started with “Arirang”. As the bus carried us through the dark streets of Pyongyang, her words were like a soft lullaby. I captured it on video:

Mr. Pak was the first to be nominated. His parents were diplomats, so he had lived overseas for much of his childhood. Fiercely patriotic, he chose a song – “Our Country” – that would stick in our heads for the entire trip. Someone would hum it, and we’d groan and roll our eyes. So, without further ado, here’s the lovely and talented Mr. Pak:

Then it was the travelers’ turn to be nominated. I cringed and slid down in the seat. The Polish guys bribed us with chocolate, so we wouldn’t nominate them. Latvia, Austria, Canada, Australia, and Germany all took their turns. When the British couple stood up and began to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the whole bus joined in. “You guys lucked out,” I told them afterwards. I started to sweat. If called upon, I would insist on doing an interpretive dance instead. But I needn’t have worried. They didn’t want to hear from the Americans anyway.

Easter Island/Chile – October 2016
But how many corners do I have to turn.
How many times do I have to learn
All the love I have is in my mind
**

It’s funny how some songs disappear, and then reappear at the times we need to hear them. Just before I left for my incredible journey to Easter Island, I rediscovered “Lucky Man” by The Verve. I had loved the song when it came out in the 90’s, but it took on a much deeper significance. It is a song of gentle wonder at this strange new sensation called joy. The kind of happiness that can only be felt by someone who has wandered alone in the wilderness and has finally found the way home. Darkness dispelled. Nothing but sunshine and blue sky above. I added the song to the iPod and listened to it as I drove around that magical island, dodging wild horses. Reclaiming lost treasure.

Strange synchronicities occurred. After my flight from the Atacama Desert back to Santiago, I was the first to enter the baggage area. The room was empty and silent. Just as I walked in, this song came on. Then, as I wandered around Santiago, I saw posters for Richard Ashcroft’s upcoming concert. He was the lead singer of The Verve, and the person who wrote the song. His concert was on the night of my departure. My ticket didn’t allow any changes, or I would have stayed an extra day.

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Driving towards Rano Raraku – Easter Island

So, I would really love to know: which songs evoke your travels or a different place than where you are now? Please share in the comments.

*lyrics from Mad Season “Wake Up”
**lyrics from The Verve “Lucky Man”