It’s a raver’s life

In 1998 Aaron Schirmer attributed his having lived and thrived for 13 years with HIV — without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications — in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.

Aaron_Schirmer
Rave promoter and long-term HIV survivor Aaron Schirmer.
Photo © 1998 by Marc Geller.

 

IT’S AROUND 5:30 A.M. SUNDAY, July 26, near sunrise in San Francisco’s South of Market district, and Freaky Chakra is going wild. His stand-up mop of black curls thrashes to the thundrous beat he’s creating. His fingers move deftly across synthesizer panels and mixing boards. He pops a sampler button and tweaks a knob and suddenly the bass plummets an octive, high notes go shrieking everywhere, and the floor seems to drop out of the room. Everyone dancing feels under the influence, their minds zooming off into space.

Chakra’s pure dope. Everybody at Vibrator gets high off him, especially the guy dancing directly in front of the right speaker, facing the sound. He’s Aaron Schirmer, 28, promoter and mastermind of Vibrator, who persuaded techno-master Chakra to do his first-ever live sunrise set, tailored for Vibrator, the already legendary rave born a mere five years ago in San Diego.

Even more dope is Mark E. Quark, Schirmer’s friend and the DJ whose early morning vinyl spinning set Vibrator ablaze. Everybody felt the energy, deep down and all around. Quark’s mixes went over the top, magnetically drawing people to the speakers and turntable setup. Schirmer’s core group of friends moved close en masse, swept into the groove. Quark was setting loose the incendiary progressive house sounds that most signify what Schirmer wants Vibrator to be all about: a spiritual healing place, where the mind and body can repair themselves.

Some people find spirituality in nature, others in monasteries and ashrams. Schirmer finds his path to expanded consciousness – even the key to sustaining his life – right in front of the speaker, his whole being saturated with noise, as he dances ecstatically among the members of his tribe, flailing his arms and swaying trance-like to rapid-fire electronic rhythms and sound samples.“Vibrator is where I can free my mind and let go of my life’s problems and just be in that realm of beauty, just be out there, dancing and raving, separated from AIDS, from all the problems that come with living on this planet, everything. I just dance and let my body move and the music take me.”

 

New religion

If Vibrator is Schirmer’s church, raves are his religion. Indeed, raves are where a host of Bay Area youth – gays and straights, women and men together – go these days to transcend themselves and, very likely, partake of the sacraments: acid, ecstasy, and other mood-altering, mind-opening substances (crystal meth is virtually absent at the smaller, better raves. Ditto alcohol).

On this weekend alone, Vibrator is just one (and, with only a few hundred select participants, by far the smallest) of at least three raves taking place in the city, all of which are attended mainly by hard-core ravers who learn of the events through word-of-mouth.

But Vibrator, as all its attendees know or soon discover, is a rave with a difference. Few coming to it fresh would likely be able to pinpoint its source of singularity, but those fully in tune with its vibe understand its creative twist: not only is its promoter, Schirmer, an authentic raver, fully of the fold since his teenage years; not only is he cute and queer; not only is he sweet natured, loving, and open with all kinds of people; he’s also a long-term survivor hell bent on staying alive.

Schirmer attributes his having lived and thrived for13 years with HIV, without opportunistic infections and without having taken any AIDS medications (though he was diagnosed as having AIDS more than a year ago when his t-cell count briefly dropped below 200) in large part to his total immersion in the rave scene.

“I don’t know how to explain it, really, in words,” he says. “It’s just this feeling I get when I go dancing sometimes, especially at outdoor parties where there’s a sunrise, and there’s this sense of tribalness. That’s when I start to think I have a key. Like, hey, I know exactly what I’m doing now, and I’m able to access this kind of energy that heals me. It makes me feel, like, shhhh, craazy girl! There’s nothing like it.”

Schirmer’s ex-boyfriend and current roommate Josh, 25 (they and Vibrator DJ Kevin West recently turned a former punk-rock venue on Valencia Street, the Def Club, into a live-rave space), shares the attitude: “I can have all this stuff in my head, day to day crap that stresses me out, and then go to a party like Vibrator and it won’t matter any more. It’ll be wiped away. I consider it a spiritual healing. It’s my form of meditation.”

Another close friend, Anna, who has traveled from San Diego to attend her fourth Vibrator party (though she insists she’s not part of the rave scene), says she’s not sure how motivated Schirmer is by having had a death threat hanging over him all his adult life, but “I’ve often heard Aaron say things like, ‘I need to go out and dance. I need to go hear some music.’ I think there’s a restlessness that comes from the distraction of HIV, and the dancing and the music are partly an escape. But it’s bigger than that, and it’s bigger than HIV. Like any non-HIV person at a rave, he’s having a really good time. But he feels the music more than most people. It’s very healing to him.”

 

Holistic response

Aaron_Schirmer_1
Aaron Schirmer
Photo © 1998 by Marc Geller

While he fully accepts the scientific consensus that HIV causes AIDS, Schirmer remains deeply ambivalent about the pharmaceuticals now being widely prescribed to keep the virus in check. On the one hand, he recognizes their potential to keep AIDS patients alive, at least for a while, and he understands they have dramatically reduced AIDS-related deaths. Still, in large part because he’s done so well without them, he can’t help wondering if others with asymptomatic HIV wouldn’t do better pursuing alternative therapies.

“My doctor feels that whatever I’m doing is working,” says Schirmer, “so to stick with it. And that means making decisions like not taking the drugs right now. He said that if you get a gut feeling that you should be on these medications, then go with it. But if you’re getting a gut feeling that now is not the right time, go with it. So that’s where I’m at as far as deciding when to take medications.”

Schirmer’s twin brother, Mike, who’s also gay, HIV-positive (for 12 years), and a raver (or, rather, “former club kid,” as he puts it), went ahead with the coctail therapy after he came down with crypto and was told he had only a 20-percent chance of recovery. The drugs worked, and he’s in decent health, dancing with abandon at Vibrator, his hair the brightest Day-Glo orange in the room.

Unfortunately, Mike Schirmer couldn’t adhere to the drug regimen, so recently gave up trying – a decision most medical experts warn is fraught with risk.

“Going on medications is a huge decision,” says Tim Teeter, RN, a treatment support services specialist at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “All of the medications have side effects. You have to believe that what you’re doing is something you can stick with. At this point, that means for the rest of your life.”

“A wrong take on the situation,” cautions Project Inform’s Brenda Lien, “is, look, this guy [Aaron Schirmer] is living a long time without drugs, so drugs must be bad for you.

A possible explanation for Schirmer’s longevity, Lien offers, quite apart from his raving, is that “some people, for whatever reason, have immune systems better able to function [with HIV].” Moreover, the younger a person is when they’re infected, the better situated they are to fend off the virus. Schirmer was only 16 when he got the virus from his first sex partner.

Statistically speaking, Lien adds, Schirmer is only slightly beyond the normal survival curve: “Before combination antiviral therapies, the average time from initial HIV infection to death ranged from 10-12 years. At 13 years, Aaron’s clearly falling outside the norm, but only slightly.”

Still, Lien acknowledges, “Aaron’s system has clearly been able to control the disease. He’s probably a living example that one of the most potent antivirals is the immune system itself.”

 

Positive state

Keeping one’s immune system intact, in Schirmer’s view, is best achieved through a positive state of mind, which is why music and dancing help. He refuses to be a victim, instead concentrating on healing energies within himself (which has not prevented him from smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and indulging in recreational drugs, though he wants to cut back on those habits).

Later this month, Schirmer will travel with his lover Christian, a former punk-rock devoteé who’s not into raves but is way into body piercing and tattoos, to Borneo, a journey he hopes will introduce him to tribal people who, for the most part, never lost their connection with native spirituality (and who have their own style of raving).

“If you’re able to find an outlet,” says Schirmer in his gentle, boyish voice, gazing pensively into the near distance, “to seriously get down to the nitty gritty in your spiritual world and understand why you’re here, what matters, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel more connected to your spirit than anything, you have a much better chance of survival, or at least accepting that you may die.”

A big part of what keeps Schirmer going, according to his friend Sarah (who is attending her first Vibrator), are the people he chooses to have around him: “He’s very emotional, and very open, and he needs people a lot, but it’s selective. His friends are his family. They’re a support group for him that he doesn’t really have from his natural family.”

What draws people to him, Sarah adds, and what makes them want to be with him at his parties, is that “he’s a big dreamer, which I love. There’s a sense of escapism with him. It’s an attractive thing to be around. This person has a depth of feeling and wants to share that.”

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 6, 1998

Opera goes activist: Carla Lucero’s ‘Wuornos’

WuornosSuddenly opera is enjoying a Renaissance among young composers and audiences. Once the art form seemed nearly moribund, an anachronistic form of musical theater in which bloated singers sang bloated roles in overworked, worn-out old warhorses. Now, in a daring departure from the stodgy past, composer and librettist Carla Lucero – one of the very few women composers in the history of opera – has created the politically and socially charged opera Wuornos – a full-scale opera to be premiered Friday at Yerba Buena Center as part of the National Queer Arts Festival. The ambitious production tackles head-on the issue of men committing violence against women in America. It zeros in on one particular woman – convicted serial murderer Eileen Wuornos, a prostitute who worked along Florida highways and who now awaits her fate on death row – who her defenders say was provoked to the point of striking back hard, not just once, but seven times.

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Already, the sociological line Lucero is taking in the Wuornos case is clear. Serial murderess Aileen Wuornos is a product of her rotten environment. We dare not judge her without judging the society that put her in the position of having to kill – repeatedly – in self defense. So her defenders, including Lucero, insist.
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This is not the usual stuff of opera. Think of Verdi’s Aïda, with its splendid setting in ancient Egypt and plot involving an Ethiopian slave and the commander of the Egyptian army; or Bizet’s Carmen, which occurs in Spain of yore, entangling a gypsy cigarette girl with a corporal and a handsome matador; or Puccini’s Tosca, in which a devout Italian girl crosses paths with an escaped political prisoner and a savage police chief, and ends up dispatching the cop with a knife. Again and again around the world, these magnificent museum pieces have played to audiences that, far from welcoming innovation, insist upon upholding tradition.

This is the modern age, however, and the operatic nerve seems to have been struck in a number of young composers who insist on taking liberties that shock the blue bloods but warm the cockles of New Music enthusiasts. The results, so far, are encouraging: witness the recent smash success of Erling Wold’s Queer, a chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel.

Carla_Lucero
Carla Lucero

Now comes Carla Lucero, a lesbian forging new ground in an artistic territory heretofore dominated by men. Before she relocated to the Bay Area, where she had the good fortune to become AIRspace artist-in-residence at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts (then under the direction of Lauren Hewitt, now the producer of Wuornos), Lucero lived and composed in L.A., working with Collage Dance Theater, scoring for films and videos, and studying Music Composition at the California Institute of the Arts. She’s young, and hugely ambitious, and hugely talented, and a host of equally talented, ambitious people have lined up to support her in her endeavor, including acclaimed soprano Kristin Norderval in the lead role as Wuornos, musical director Mary Chun, who conducts the Opera Ensemble of SF, and director Joseph Graves, a veteran of more than 36 shows in this country and in Great Britain.

Hooking up with the Jon Sims Center changed Lucero’s life, and will likely have ripple effects in the opera world for some time to come. Her opera could even make waves, but whether that happens depends on how many people are willing to give her a chance to present her case, and what kind of mood they’re in. One thing is certain: the opera must fly on its artistic merits. If it relies too heavily on its social message to make an impact, it may be doomed to early retirement. The balance to be struck is one of high-minded social activism versus art for its own sake. In today’s capitalist world, art with a conscience doesn’t sell particularly well. The right balance can be achieved, but it will take uncommon effort – the kind that comes from the will of a woman determined to use opera to tell a tragic story.

In the Wuornos prologue, Aileen Wuornos (Norderval) retrieves a gun from its hiding place and says: “If I am damned, who is forgiven?”

The question is one Lucero has pondered and seems to want to answer, and the result, judging from the opera’s synopsis (www.wuornos.org/synopsis1.html), is something of a morality play, with Wuornos as the tragic innocent.

As the curtain opens on Act I, Wuornos stands upon a balcony, watching a media circus take place as reporters talk excitedly among themselves about murdered men found in the woods off a Florida highway. She taunts them, though they can’t hear her, then recalls her horrible childhood:

“A flashback reveals Aileen’s teenage mother and abusive father in their home. Her mother is desperate. She makes the decision to escape, fleeing to the home of her parents (Aileen’s grandparents). Aileen’s grandmother is an alcoholic and her grandfather is disturbingly distant. Aileen’s mother convinces her reluctant parents to take the baby Aileen.”

Already, the sociological line Lucero is taking in the Wuornos case is clear. Serial murderess Aileen Wuornos is a product of her rotten environment. We dare not judge her without judging the society that put her in the position of having to kill – repeatedly – in self defense. So her defenders, including Lucero, insist.

aileen_wuornos
Aileen Wuornos

Who, in fact, is Aileen Wuornos? Some of the answer can be found in the many newspaper accounts of Wuornos’ crime spree and subsequent trial and imprisonment. The most visual/visceral way to get into the heart of the story is to view Nick Broomfield’s fascinating, well-made but hopelessly biased 1992 documentary, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Looking at the wild array of loony characters in Wuornos’ life – including the lesbian lover who betrayed her, the hippie lawyer who prodded her to plead guilty, and the “nice” Christian lady who adopted the imprisoned Wuornos – you can’t help but feel sympathy for the Aileen, and see your way to forgiving her for doing in seven tricks who done her wrong. Clearly she was hanging with a wacky and dangerous crowd, in the context of which her own murderous instincts seem forgivable. After all, she didn’t choose her rotten life, it was chosen for her.

In the build-up for Wuornos, including well-received sneak-peaks during the past year, many lesbians in San Francisco have begun discussing Wuornos, both the woman and the political and social issues underlying the opera.

In one meeting at the Women’s Building, two or three dozen women viewed the Broomfield documentary, then formed a circle with their chairs to speak their minds.

Soon they were discussing the merits of using “psychodrama” as a way for women inmates to tell their stories as a way of saving their own lives. Medea Project director and talented performer Rhodessa Jones was there. So was Norma Hotaling, founder and director of SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), a nonprofit organization in San Francisco which helps ex-prostitutes heal traumas and live healthy lives. The moderator put out questions about Wuornos, and the women responded with enormous passion and compassion for the woman’s suffering, and anger at those who forced her hand.

At the same time, they raised questions about the opera – not about its quality, which received wildly enthusiastic raves from those who had seen it in previews, but about its authenticity.

Whose story is it? Is it the true story of Aileen Wuornos, or Lucero’s conception of Wuornos.

Of course it’s the latter, and Lucero has put together a compelling libretto that promises a great operatic opening night. But does the real Aileen Wuornos, in her cell on death row, even know the opera is taking place?

Lucero replies she wrote twice asking Wuornos’ blessing, but received no response. Instead, she relied for her impressions in large part on personal letters from Wuornos that came into her possession from an intermediary.

“What struck me was the child-like innocence,” Lucero told the women in the circle, adding that the eventual hardness in Wuornos took over as a protective measure.

“I’ve been more than responsible with the story,” said Lucero, then reiterated, just for good measure: “Having the letters confirmed my perception of her character, her child-like innocence.”

And that, dear opera lovers, is how larger-than-life characters are born.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter’s special Pride issue, June 21, 2001.