"We gotta return to that feeling,
That feeling that's been gone for way too long..."
~ DJ Chus [That Feeling, Defected Records]
A 2001 study by Dr. Grant N. Colfax of the San Francisco Department of Public Health reported that 43% of circuit party attendees in the States used crystal meth.
The study concluded that gay men are far more likely to use recreational drugs and have high-risk sex at these parties which, ironically, began as fund-raisers for various AIDS causes. "Circuit parties are an important and often positive influence on the gay community,'' Colfax wrote in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, but added, "a substantial proportion of party participants report high-risk HIV-transmitting behaviours, often in relation to substance abuse.''
Surveying nearly 300 gay and bisexual men in the San Francisco area, most reported using at least one recreational drug when attending a circuit party, where 21% of HIV+ men and 9% of HIV- men had anal sex without a condom with a partner whose HIV status was unknown or different from their own. Reasons given for unsafe behaviour varied between increased drug use, anonymity, and the availability of new sexual partners.
"There needs to be a greater focus within the public health community on the high prevalence of club drug use in relation to high-risk sexual behaviour,'' concluded Colfax at the time, a call that would fall on deaf ears; a subsequent study by the Centre for HIV/AIDS Education Studies and Training at New York University found that around 62% of participants on the circuit party and club scene in 2005 were significant and frequent users of meth, half of whom were HIV+.
Fresh research unveiled by Dr. Colfax at the 12th Annual Retrovirus Conference in Boston in February 2005 concluded that using crystal meth or cocaine is the biggest single risk factor for becoming HIV+ among US gay men, contributing 29% of the overall risk of becoming positive and 28% of the overall risk of being passive in bareback sex.
"Circuit parties are an issue because HIV+ men are particularly likely to attend them, to engage in risky sex practices while there, to have more sex partners, and to have more serodiscordant or serounknown sex partners than their HIV- counterparts... Research has shown that some HIV+ men use the tribal experience engendered at circuit parties as a type of coping mechanism... Participants become so immersed in the party atmosphere that they forget about the immediate threat of HIV/AIDS or no longer care about it."
~ Amin Ghaziani and Thomas D. Cook, PhD [Reducing HIV Infection at Circuit Parties PDF, left]
"Gay men especially seem to have ignored the hard facts and embraced crystal meth as the hip drug du jour on the circuit party scene," wrote leading AIDS specialist Gary R. Cohan, MD in +hivplus magazine. "One wonders how a group with a heightened sense of its own mortality - after 20 years of bearing the brunt of the domestic AIDS epidemic - has now fallen victim to what is essentially a glamorised version of a boil-it-in-your-trailer biker drug."
"A friend who was [at The Black Party] this year said that it was almost impossible to find a condom or information about HIV, but that crystal meth was for sale everywhere and sexual activities ranged from unbelievable to outrageous."
~ A 2005 New York Black Party attendee
For much of the 1990s, circuit parties were escapist, tribal havens for legions of gay men who flocked to these AIDS charity fundraisers and clubs like New York City's legendary Twilo, brimming with fun and a tolerable emphasis on sex.
"When people were doing X and drinking, it was fun. People were having a good time—hands up in the air. And then these alternative drugs came into the scene. The mood changed and closed people off. Tina is a big problem because it is a very non-emotional thing. There’s this wall of energy, but no connection, so to speak. People don’t connect to each other.”
~ Manny Lehman [US DJ]
Around the mid-1990s, ketamine arrived and instilled a spiritual if dissociative edge to the circuit, as users experienced a separation between perception and sensation caused by the blockage of pain receptors. Then crystal and GHB began to emerge, along with exploitative businessmen who disregarded their obligation to provide for their patrons' wellbeing while also substantially reducing the share of proceeds they donated to AIDS charities in their relentless pursuit of profits. Up until 2001, for example, the Hearts Foundation's annual Fireball event in Chicago raised upwards of $200,000 annually from 1998 for various AIDS causes. In 2003, on revenues of $443,000, it donated just $28,000...
"A party whose point is really drug use has no place benefiting an organisation that is fighting for intelligent decisions that lead to safe sex."
~ Adam R. Rose [Former GMFA donor]
From around 2000 the circuit lost sight of its direction and soul as party after party descended into bleak, intimidating, alien environments saturated by the wailing of fog horns and thunderous bass, and populated by emotionally-deadened, sexually aggressive men who travelled from party to party with seemingly limitless supplies of crystal, Viagra and GHB. A quasi-fascistic pecking order emerged as the circuit became immersed in meth, adopting hierarchal, judgemental codes of flesh that drowned out the spirit of fun.
"I was obsessed with New York City for many years, but the music [in the US] is just hideous; it reflects the mentality of the scene. Americans seem to have a lot of hang-ups about showing off. So you'll have 2000 Muscle Marys in a club and no-one's smiling. In the UK we're not about intimidation - we just want to party!"
~ Steve Pitron [UK DJ]
The rapid decline of the US circuit scene in the early 2000's - and the willingness of so many to embrace any new substance to lose themselves in regardless of the consequences - exposed an element of gay society that was, quite literally, partying to destruction.
To concerned observers, it is small consolation that many North American clubs and events that pandered to short-term greed and turned a blind eye to the rampant spread of crystal meth paid the long-term price for their negligence, nowadays playing host to dwindling crowds if they haven't been forced to close down altogether. However, a sea breeze of change became increasingly discernable from around 2005, as the circuit showed signs of returning to its fun-loving, spirited origins...
Our overall nightlife options continue to dwindle here, leaving the once-thriving scene to struggle as if on life support. So, at the urging of a couple friends living abroad, I finally decided to cross the Atlantic to see what all the hype was about. I was utterly blown away by the sheer magnitude and superiority of London’s dynamic club scene... Friendly smiles and Old World politeness permeated every dance floor.
~ Matt Kalkhoff [The New York Blade]
Enlightened by his New Year 2005 experience in London, Steve Kammon - who edited circuit bible Circuit Noize up until his untimely death in September - used his considerable influence to encourage positive change. "There's an overwhelming barrage of bouncy, funky, poppy house that's gushing forth from [Europe]" he wrote of his London experience. "It is a huge contrast to the more severe trance sound that was so trademark a few years back. This sound really gets back to the circuit's old-skool origins, when the goal was escape and freedom and unity.
"Of all the elements that go into the creation of a dance party, music is the most fundamental," noted the spiritual warrior. "Many feel that the music of the circuit is becoming stale, that it is time for a change. There seems to be a big pink cloud of fun-ness floating across the Atlantic where funky house is all the rage, smelling of strawberries, shaped like a heart. Several of the top DJs clearly see this change coming as well, so keep your ears on the dance floors because real change is finally on the way."
"We're all getting bored with beat after beat. It needs to be more spiritual, more people feeling the music and getting into it. I saw it recently in London, and it's beginning to cross over. We need more songs, more lyrics and melodies. I need more vocals!"
~ Abel [US DJ]
Breaking with the usual roster of US DJs who have dominated the circuit for so long, internationally-renowned Spanish house DJs Chus & Ceballos were flown to an enthusiastic audience of thousands at Black & Blue in Montreal in 2004, where they shared top billing with house legend Roger Sanchez, and headlined Black & Blue again in 2005 and 2006, and spun at Black Party New York (2005) and White Party Miami (2006). "People like music that feels good," DJ Paulo told Circuit Noize, "music that is rich and melodic, but not necessarily all vocally. DJs like Chus & Ceballos [are] all the buzz."
"In a time when dark, brooding progressive music threatened to rule the scene, Chus & Ceballos continue to be a much-welcomed breath of fresh air."
~ Black & Blue [2005 brochure]
[ADDENDUM: Today, crystal meth's pre-eminence and domination of the US circuit dance floor is finally over. Rising star of the US DJ circuit, Joe Gauthreaux, told the Fall 2008 issue of 'Noize' magazine: "The days of playing all night long are over. People are not doing crystal the way they used to - they're being more responsible than in past years. The music reflects that. Four or five years ago, it was hard to find good lyrical music. Everything was drums, drums, drums. I don't play tea dance all night long, but my music is happier; not 'Perfect Day' all night, but people want something not as dark as a few years ago."]