Eric Strom is a photographer best known for his GlitterGuts photo booth, which captures parties big and small with photo backdrops nearly as eclectic as the partygoers. Strom also works as a party promoter and organizer, co-curating Bump & Grindcore, a monthly "r&b sex jams dance party" taking place at Chicago's Beauty Bar.
For the latest edition of our clubbing horror stories series, Strom shares the pitfalls of taking acid while on the job.
I was a year out of art school and hadn't touched my camera in months. I worked as an office temp by day, and a DJ by night. One night, I carried two crates of records down the stairs of a polished bar to its gritty, unfinished basement. It was weird spot, nestled right between Chicago's Boystown neighborhood (read: super-hunks in jockstraps and eight-feet tall divas dancing in windows) and Wrigleyville neighborhood (read: an open-air containment center where Cubs fans can commit petty crime against one another without consequence). For half of the week, this bar features Latin dance and karaoke; for the other half, it's all goth, industrial, and noise.
A dominatrix who knew the bar's owner through goth nights and knew me through a bike club asked if I wanted to DJ between acts at a fundraiser. All the performing acts—punk rock clowns, genderfuck burlesque, a radical anarchist grindcore band, a noise wizard—hailed from either the punk house where she lived or the dungeon where she worked. The theme was Prohibition, and everyone arrived in their own kind of dressed up: leather and lace or ball gowns and ball gags.
Because it was a "friend gig" and not a "money gig," everyone wanted to take care of me. I received a bottomless glass of wine and tabs of acid on arrival. I impulsively gobbled them down. Tonight's gonna be an adventure, I promised myself. You've earned it.
I set up and started playing. The regular stages of a mild acid trip played out: I wondered if I'd taken a dud; I was a little relieved it was a dud; I was sweating through my clothes because it definitely was not a dud. I saw color trails and had a completely mundane existential crisis. I felt like I would be able to remain in control as long as I had a job to do: lift the needle up, put the record down, find my song, and repeat until the next act was ready.
The night started off typical. There was a striptease and lap dances for charity. The band's song titles were longer than the songs themselves, and the performers relished announcing them. A skinny clown with a pink mohawk did the alternative circus geek thing with machetes, skin stretching and piercing, and utilizing chains and power tools. A woman in a corset and a top hat walked out with a large wine glass. She ended up auctioning off a glass of her own piss, culminating in her squatting down and filling the glass. A suited man sniffed the glass, swished it in his mouth and downed it like a connoisseur. And l thought my wine was too warm.
My friends' burlesque troupe was set to perform that night. I didn't know what to expect. Sometimes they'd be what you'd expect from a regular punk burlesque troupe: bawdy Vaudeville and classy tease, albeit rough around the edges and transgressive in a John Waters way (present-day John Waters that is, where he's a national treasure, like Betty White). Other times they're art school x1000, with esoteric chanting and robes and nods to Jodorowski and Kenneth Anger.
What I didn't expect was a naked avant-garde "sex show" featuring all of my closest friends.
This is where it was too much for me and my acid brain. Not the fucking so much as the acting. I felt like I was back in high school theater. Everyone was so nervous, so emotional, so petty, and it was all I could see and hear.
"I hope everyone recognizes my hard work."
"Do they think she's prettier than me?"
"I can't believe I'm being upstaged!"
"Maybe if you showed up to practice, you wouldn't miss your fucking cue."
The show ended with one of the performers on a table in a hospital gown, "giving birth" to two others who emerged drenched in corn syrup blood with fake umbilical cords. She started to go down on the two while they made out and the Peaches song "Two Guys (For Every Girl)" played. The fake babies ripped off their umbilical cords and started dancing. First one, then three, then a dozen people rushed the "stage" and started grinding on each other and the naked performers. I couldn't tell if this was supposed to happen, or if it was an unforeseen consequence. There was a lot of frenzied sex energy, a lot of grabby hands, and absolutely no stopping to ask for consent.
I looked at the stage manager, the least emotionally wrought but most frazzled member of the group throughout the performance. Stumbling for words with a fried brain, I asked, "Is everything that's supposed to happen … happening?"
She wearily replied, "We're 25 fucking minutes behind already, but I think the clowns and the other DJs can adjust."
Later, I was glad to see my friend Nikola sitting at a table with an extra chair. He was maybe the only person at the bar who wouldn't treat me any differently if he knew I was tripping. He probably greets children with a three-pump business handshake and addresses dogs by their surnames. Looking out over the now sparse crowd of people in various states of dress, I asked him, "Random night, huh?"
Nikola, who doesn't fuck with small talk, said, "All life is so random, just a weird series of impulses that send you off against each other. So it all just comes down to the moment."
It wasn't not the deepest shit in the world, but it calmed me. I couldn't force a peaceful, life-affirming psychedelic adventure just because it fit a box in my schedule. I couldn't control the whims and needs and craziness of the world around me.
I guess that counts as a lesson learned, which was good, because usually I learn common sense lessons like, "Pace your drinking when you're on diet pills" or "Don't travel across state lines with guys named Crackhead and Joker because you think you have a shot with their sister." The moral of this story was simply, "Taking acid at work might make work more difficult."