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The stuttering, stratospheric strain of some anonymous trance track blares in the cool night air, and smoke billows from the engine room of a rusty, rain-slicked tugboat plowing its way up the choppy waters of the Harlem River. As we chug by Highbridge Park and under the George Washington Bridge, 18-year-old high school student Ben S. points out to the assembled revelers the verdant spot down the hill where he helps Machinelf, the boat event's host, put on outdoor outlaw parties at the edges of this largely Dominican neighborhood.
"The atmosphere is very hippy-dippy," allows Ben about these clandestine affairs, where banners featuring giant alien heads are unfurled, and sci-fi and psychedelic images are projected under the arches, creating a dramatic backdrop for dancing and dining alfresco. "It's like having a communal picnic in the middle of the night. If you bring food, it becomes everybody's food; if you bring beer, it becomes everybody's beer; if you light a joint, it becomes everybody's joint. There's a feeling of complete freedom."
"We only have two rules," chimes in amateur chemist, Machinelf (so named after the angelic entities that ethnobotanist Terence McKenna claims guide the DMT user during a trip). "Leave no trace and be as respectful to the police and neighbors as possible."
Give Rudy Giuliani some credit. Ten years ago, the sight of 200 gaily attired ravers happily strolling down 181st Street at four in the morning, carrying sleeping bags and heading toward a darkened park, would have been most unusual, but now it is a common occurrence during the warm weather. While the mayor's heavy-handed clampdown on downtown nightspots has turned the regular clubs into burned-out shells of their former flamboyant glory, paradoxically, his successful war on street crime has opened up whole new party zones in uptown and outer-borough neighborhoods previously regarded as too dangerous for middle-class honky hipsters. All across town, not only in neighborhoods like DUMBO and Williamsburg, but also in places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, East New York, and the South Bronx, there's a boom in word-of-mouth parties at unconventional locations (lofts, warehouses, boats, bridges), as night crawlers abandon the public spaces of the clubs for cozier spots where they can get down and boogie without feeling Big Brother is constantly watching their every move. Away from mainstream nightclubbing, and largely under the media radar, a new DIY spirit (after all, anyone with two arms can spin records) has taken hold among crews like Blackkat, Touched-by-a-DJ, Matter/:Form, the Madagascar Institute, and Freeskool, whose members throw small-scale, off-the-beaten-track bashes that attempt to reignite the festive and creative spirit so lacking from the large dance halls.
"People are tired of the drama," says Touched-by-a-DJ's Curt Ashley. "They've had one too many bad experiences. They'd rather go somewhere more intimate and be among friends and listen to good music without all the hassle."
"What's driving this phenomenon," agrees Ben S.'s uncle, techno promoter Matt E. Silver, "is that people are bored shitless with the clubs. Young people still want to go out and party. But because of Giuliani, they can't do it at Twilo or the Tunnel anymore."
Back on board the floating chill-out room, the boat takes a sharp left at Inwood Hill Park before anchoring off the Palisades that loom like some primeval forest in the moonlight. The chattering party-goersdrawn from the more philosophical end of the post-rave movement, the type of folks who lecture you about how unnatural cocaine is compared to MDMAimmediately disrobe and dive butt naked into the Hudson River. "Anabolic fluid! Anabolic fluid!" screams Machinelf, his bobbing head barely visible in the murk.
On the deck, which doubles as a dance-floor, a red-haired Irish woman named Orla explains the appeal of these illicit parties over established discos. "You can create your own atmosphere. You don't have it dictated to you."
With obnoxious bouncers ordering you around, obtrusive body searches, cookie-cutter environments, capricious door policies, and the same old music, not to mention the pervasive paranoia bred by the constant surveillance of the state, going out clubbing in New York is now more of an ordeal than a pleasure. These days clubs seem primarily like playgrounds for annoying Wall Streeters, steroid-pumped muscle boys, and callow teenagers looking for cheap chemical thrills. No wonder that nightlife insiders tend to shun the large-scale venues.
Maverick musician and nightlife veteran Moby is old enough to remember a time when New York clubland was an important cultural institution, not just a place to ogle aspiring models, get drunk on overpriced cocktails, and strain one's neck in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of some tacky celebrity.
"I rarely ever go to big nightclubs in New York anymore," said Moby, who has been going out in Gotham since the days of the Mudd Club. "I'm fed up with gigantic clubs where you get treated like shit. The vast majority of times I've gone out in the last few years has either been to loft parties or roof parties. The sound system isn't that good. The DJ isn't that special. You have to bring your own beer. But the atmosphere at house parties is better, because you're not being manhandled by a 300-pound gorilla."