Can You Love a Love Parade?

Berlin's legendary -- but embattled -- Love Parade makes a San Francisco debut. But will thousands dance to its beat?

This is about harmony. This represents no discrimination. The people of the world are coming together.

-- Yulius Euli, of Bali, Indonesia, interviewed by theLos Angeles Times at the 2003 Love Parade in Berlin

Hey, we're here to pick up girls.

Tamara Palmer
The happy scene in Berlin.
The happy scene in Berlin.
The loving people in Berlin.
The loving people in Berlin.
Love Parade S.F. organizer Joshua Smith.
Love Parade S.F. organizer Joshua Smith.
Love Parade founder Dr. Motte.
Love Parade founder Dr. Motte.

-- Thomas Oppelt of the former East Germany, ibid.

I went to Berlin and hopped a float at the Love Parade to celebrate life. Half an hour later, I was pretty sure I was about to watch someone careen to his death.

That year, there were more than a million people in attendance at the annual, daylong, techno- and trance-fueled music parade, which honors peace and diversity and offers a goodly dose of sex and skin. For the moment, though, it was all about this one kid in his early 20s. The young gun was perched precariously atop a traffic signal, wearing bug-eyed sunglasses, a backpack, and jeans, with no shirt or shoes. Holding on with nothing but toes and what I hoped was some kind of invisible Ultra Bond, he blew a whistle strung around his neck and wiggled spastically as our float passed under him with a loud blast of soaring strings and insistent beats.

Holy shit,I screamed silently, what is this dude thinking?

Actually, though, bug-eyed sunglasses-boy was just one of many daredevil revelers on that July day in the year 2000; they were shaking lampposts and traffic lights, blowing whistles, shimmying to the musical rhythms roaring from the floats, and enjoying the best -- if, perhaps, most dangerous -- seats in the house (next to those of us lucky enough to scam our way onto one of the 50 floats). Although I bit a few nails off in anticipation of someone getting hurt, ultimately I saw only big, ear-to-ear grins and facial expressions of pure groove.

And ravers in gas masks.

And babies bouncing on shoulders.

And an old man with a giant condom on his head.

And a few people who requested that I flash my boobs, or that I view boobs being flashed at me.

This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife. And this sure as hell was not the stern German temperament I'd come to know and treat with kid gloves and a modicum of panic.

By the end of that evening, I'd fallen in love with a million men, women, and children (actually, the organizers put the body count at a generously estimated 1.3 million) who'd exchanged waves, pictures, smiles, and even air kisses (something I normally just don't do) with me. I returned in 2001, and there were slightly fewer attendants but almost as much positive energy. Both times, once back in San Francisco, I was thinking, Something like that could never happen here.

Joshua Smith was at those same Love Parades, and he thought differently. A past president of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade Committee, Smith had the experience needed to navigate the sea of regulations a local Love Parade would have to comply with. He also had a special knowledge of dance music, having had responsibility for the Pride Parade's dance-music stages. Tapped by the Berlin organizers, who had been dreaming of a San Francisco event for years, he began what would be a three-year process to create the first-ever Love Parade San Francisco, now slated to debut here on Oct. 2.

The exact route has yet to be secured, though Smith says his group will be requesting the use of Market Street on a jaunt that will eventually terminate south of SBC Park at Terry A. François Boulevard. The two-mile-long parade will feature floats carrying local and international DJs playing a wide variety of electronic music. Crowd size is anyone's guess; organizers say they hope for 5,000 to 10,000.

During its peak in Berlin, the Love Parade brought an estimated $60 million in tourism annually to the city, mainly through the booking of every hotel room, hostel bed, and car in the area, and the associated shopping, clubbing, and dining of visitors. Although the actual parade lasts just one day, club and event promoters plan at least seven days' worth of events -- sometimes up to 100 different parties -- around it, making up what's generally known in Berlin as "Love Week." Techno and trance dominate the Love Parade's musical policy, but one can hear almost any style of electronic music during Love Week.

San Francisco won't be the first city outside of Berlin to host a Love Parade; there have been successful Love Parades in Leeds, Vienna, Tel Aviv, Cape Town, and Mexico City (which will host another Love Parade this year).

But none of these other events has quite the same potential as a Love Parade in San Francisco, where, after all, the term "Summer of Love" was minted.

Whether a Love Parade S.F. grows over time will depend on how the event is formed and shapes itself here, and whether it will be deemed credible in the local electronic-music scene. If given a stamp of authenticity, the event could attract a huge and colorful influx of visitors from all over the world and give a visible boost not only to the economy of San Francisco, but also to the economy of the scene's nightclubs and music.

On the other hand, if the locals don't buy in, Love Parade San Francisco could be a terrific failure with the potential for international ridicule.

No one in Berlin is more excited to come out to San Francisco for the Love Parade than Matthias Roeingh (aka Dr. Motte), the bubbly, 44-year-old DJ/producer who sports giant spectacles and shaggy Monkees-era hair and is universally credited as being the founder of the Love Parade.

After leaving the semipopular Berlin-based punk band Tote Piloten, Dr. Motte began making electronic music in the mid-1980s. Recording for German electronic labels such as Low Spirit, Space Teddy, and Tresor, he made a few well-received trance anthems in the early '90s, but none became widely popular on stateside dance floors. He's since achieved enough fame in Germany via the Love Parade to warrant selection as an Olympic torch-carrier (alongside such sports luminaries as world figure skating champion Katarina Witt) when the flame passed through Berlin this year.

The first Love Parade in the summer of 1989 was meant to celebrate love, peace, and unity via acid house music, Dr. Motte explains. The inaugural event, he recalls, drew 150 people to the ritzy West Berlin Avenue Ku'damm, just prior to the fall of the nearby Berlin Wall in November. "We wanted to stop fighting against something and dance instead to build up our own dreams," he says. "We didn't want to change the world like the hippies or destroy the world like the punks."

Aside from being a demonstration, the Love Parade happened to also be a celebration of Dr. Motte's birthday. That party has grown from 150 people to more than 1 million at its peak in 2000. "When I think about it I have goose bumps," he says.

The fall of the Wall brought thousands of East Berliners, anxious to party with their western brethren for the first time, to subsequent Love Parades, and after a few years of exponential growth, the event had clearly outgrown the Ku'damm location. In 1996, the festivities moved to the Tiergarten, Berlin's majestic central park. The parade took on a symbolic route of East/West reunification, passing through the Brandenburg Gate, which once sat between the halves of the divided city, and ending in a grand party at the Sieggesäule, or Victory Column, in the middle of the park.

To put the early Love Parades in local perspective, it was as if a viciously guarded wall down the length of Divisadero Street had just been breached, and children near Ocean Beach could finally commune with the kids downtown for the first time in their lives.

And so they did in Berlin, in great numbers.

Although beloved by ravers, the Love Parade also acquired its haters, the loudest of whom have always been the adherents of the Fuck Parade, an event started in 1997 as a direct protest to a Love Parade policy that excluded hard-core techno from its musical lineup. Fuck Paraders were also steamed that the Love Parade continued to receive political demonstration status -- meaning the city of Berlin paid for cleanup and other related costs -- when the Fuck Paraders didn't see much politics being practiced among the Love Parade's whistles and Ecstasy pills.

In 2001, the Berlin city senate handed down a shocking decision: Neither the Fuck Parade nor the Love Parade deserved to keep political demonstration status. This ruling hamstrung both parades financially (though, naturally, less so for the much smaller Fuck Parade). It also neutralized the Fuck Parade's main criticism of the Love Parade, bringing about a truce that was not quite a Crip and Blood reunion, but was surprising nonetheless. (The Fuck Parade continues each year, now focusing on issues of local concern, including racial tolerance.)

But even as the Fuck Paraders were mollified, there was, Kill Bill style, another enemy ready to pounce: In hopes of forcing a cancellation of the event, environmental activists blocked the Love Parade's use of the Tiergarten on the traditional weekend in July, a huge blow to folks from other countries who had planned their Love Parade vacations far in advance. Ultimately, though, the date change had only a small effect on 2001 attendance, estimated at 800,000.

In 2002, the Love Parade continued to face complaints from environmentalists and neighbors. Also, the Berlin minister of tourism began loudly criticizing parade organizers, complaining that declining attendance was bringing less money into town. Then, in June, German intelligence detected a terrorist threat to the Love Parade. Quickly deemed fraudulent, the threat doubtless reduced turnout nonetheless.

Organizers estimated 2002 Love Parade attendance to be 750,000; police figured it to be nearer half that amount. Everyone agreed it was the smallest crowd in several years. The next parade attracted similar attendance, and the event's debt grew as organizers struggled to fund costs once paid by the city.

This year brought a shocking announcement: Due to the inability to secure enough sponsorship money, there would be no 2004 Love Parade in Berlin. (The electronics giant Samsung announced that it was prepared to step in as a title sponsor -- and will do so if the event returns to Berlin in 2005 -- but by April, even with Samsung's support, there wasn't enough money to move forward this year.)

Dr. Motte and a few hundred friends took to the Ku'damm on July 10 with seven floats and the motto "Fight the Power -- Club Culture vs. Ignorance" as a reminder of the Love Parade. Meanwhile several thousand convened in the Tiergarten for "Music Day," an event, hosted by unrelated promoters, that the German news organization Deutsche Welle reported as a hastily organized, pale imitation of the Love Parade and a danger to the image of the original event.

Four years ago, the German organizers of the Love Parade contacted the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Parade Committee to ask for guidance on hosting an event here. The natural suggestion: Involve Joshua Smith, a dance-music enthusiast who had been responsible for organizing the S.F. Pride Parade's dance-music stages.

Smith lights up when asked what elements of the Berlin event he'd like to see translated to San Francisco. "The excitement, the colors, the art, creativity," he says, beaming. "When you go to [the parades], there's so much color and excitement and a feeling of love and togetherness. All these people who come from different backgrounds -- rural, urban, artistic, liberal, conservative -- all coming together in this thing called music and in peace and in love. I think now more than ever it's such an appropriate time that we come online here in the U.S. with this to be a part of that message."

The message will stay intact, but for it to work here, the medium will need to adapt to the local environment. "I think it could translate," posits Heiko Hoffmann, editor of the popular Berlin-based electronic-music magazine Groove. "It has already proven to do so in other places. Last year was the first year where the [Love Parade-inspired] Street Parade in Zurich attracted more people than the Love Parade. ... However, this obviously depends on what kind of music will be played and this music's current popularity in the city."

The biggest battle for the success of Love Parade San Francisco involves convincing the local scene that the event is a true San Francisco event, not a misguided attempt to reproduce a European party, and that it will include many genres of electronic dance music. Although the techno/trance sounds favored at the German party do have some followers here, they are by no means dominant. "In my opinion, the Love Parade S.F. should be an authentic parade done by people in San Francisco and California," says Dr. Motte. "A true Love Parade S.F. will be made by the whole club-music community, like DJs, clubs, labels, musicmakers, music lovers, dancers, and spirit keepers.

"The all-time Love Parade slogan is 'Unity by Diversity,' so if every one of the Love Paraders embody this, this will be a wonderful family with an excellent potential."

"They will have to work hard for sure, because the Love Parade has such a strong connotation with [trance music]," says Tomás Palermo, the editor of local electronic-music magazine XLR8R, an event promoter, and a DJ who co-hosts the Friday Night Sessions radio program on KUSF. "But having said that, the San Francisco 'scene' is in a very fragile position right now. If you take a look at attendance in clubs and who's making money and not making money and what's at stake for DJs, I think if you involve a wide swath of DJs, you're bound to do better in the long run."

Smith says that Love Parade S.F. has musical diversity as its No. 1 goal in choosing who will operate sound systems and floats in the parade. The event's organizing committee has trolled the local scene for board members who reflect a range of tastes. "We have people from the drum 'n' bass community, the breaks scene, psy-trance scene, house music," says Smith. "In addition to the professional skill sets, we have a very diverse electronic-music background on the board. We've been very lucky."

"We don't want it to become an exclusive clique of just one kind of music," he continues. "Being focused in one particular genre can be dangerous, because nothing stays the same forever."

Love Week is traditionally a boon to the DJs and club promoters of Berlin, who pocket profits for well-attended parties whether they support the parade itself or not. (And many do not, particularly the hordes of Berliners who faithfully plan their vacations out of town for Love Week to avoid what they see as an overly commercialized nuisance of the highest order.)

It's not unusual to have as many as 100 electronic-music parties and events in Berlin during Love Week, some scheduled to coincide with the parade -- and some to provide reasons to miss it. At popular techno clubs like the consistently edgy Tresor in Mitte, revelers are at least temporarily tap-dancing on the grave of the Love Parade while still enjoying their annual Love Week festivities (which continued earlier this month, despite the absence of the parade).

Love Parade S.F. is almost certain to offer a similar boost to club attendance, with smart local promoters looking at the Oct. 2 weekend as good for almost any style of electronic music. The increase in business will probably be felt most prominently in South of Market clubs such as 111 Minna Gallery, Club Six, Ten 15 Folsom, and the DNA Lounge, which will have the distinct advantage of foot traffic spilling from the Market Street parade.

Industrious organizers will no doubt put together events regardless of whether they're affiliated with the Love Parade. All the same, creating a true Love Week here would seem to require the Love Parade organizing board to extend hands across the electronic-music spectrum. "If somebody from the Love Parade committee did some outreach with me and sort of told me what's at stake, what's gonna happen, what their grand plan is, and how we can benefit from it," Tomás Palermo says, "I would look at it as a good opportunity."

But, he notes, the organizers should also realize that the parade will fall during a tense time: election season.

"The world is gonna be really crazy at that time, so they can't bank just on people's good will to come out for a brand-new event that they know nothing about," he says. "They're gonna have to really market it as San Francisco's Love Parade, and here's who's representing your city, and really bring it together."

Terrance Alan, chairman of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, says that Love Parade S.F. representatives have introduced themselves to the commission but haven't presented a formal proposal or application for the permits that such an event would need. As a result, the Entertainment Commission has yet to endorse the event -- but in Alan's view, that's simply because parade organizers have yet to ask.

When they do, Alan says, he believes the commission will look favorably on a parade of this type. "We lack a new major cultural event in San Francisco, and this would be a perfect fit," he says.

Early indicators bode well for the success of Love Parade San Francisco. Joshua Smith happily reports receiving an overwhelming amount of positive e-mail, from locals who want to volunteer and from enthusiasts in Los Angeles and Seattle already planning their road trips to the city. And the board's insistence on musical diversity is earning respect even from scenesters who dread the thought of a replica of the Berlin parade happening here.

Of course, the San Francisco organizers realize that any attempt merely to copy Berlin's event would spell almost certain failure. They also know that San Francisco already has plenty of parades and opportunities to make merry in public.

But the spirit of abandon that makes someone scale a traffic signal and dance atop it, as if nothing else in the entire world matters, including staying alive and in one piece? That, perhaps, is something we might want to import.

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