Illustration by Sara Nettle.

Gainesville was Florida’s unofficial rave capital until a local business owner, a concerned mother and hundreds of letters brought it to an end. 

 

Twenty years ago, young music lovers could stargaze on the roof of Simon’s nightclub, tuning into the beat until the sun rose above downtown Gainesville. It was the 1990s, and with electronic music flourishing across the state, the dancing didn’t stop until daybreak.

Then it was off to the next party to do it all over again, whether on the same night or the same weekend. These often drug-laden musical fêtes sometimes stretched for days on end. And in Gainesville, Simon’s stood as one of the most prominent nightclubs in Florida before the city’s own law put its dancers to bed.

It all began in 1990, when Naji Simon Semrani founded Trancentral, now known as Simon’s, as a private, membership-based space where he could share his music.

“Clubs always closed at 2 a.m., and no one ever wanted to quit dancing at 2 a.m., so I decided to open my own place for friends to dance as long as they wanted,” Semrani wrote in an email. “Not only did people not want to stop dancing at 2 a.m., but for me DJ-ing a 1-2 hour set just is not long enough to express myself the way I would like to.”

Semrani often booked big names that drew massive nightlong turnouts. British disc jockey duo Sasha & John Digweed played at Simon’s several times, their sets sometimes lasting for six hours or more.

Other international legends like Andy Hughes and DJ Keoki, along with Florida talent like DJ Three and Debbie D, brought fanatics from all over the southeast U.S. to Simon’s. Simon’s burgeoning popularity led Semrani to open its doors to the public.

“People were religious about the music there, and that is what I think anyone involved would say first,” DJ Three, who still performs, wrote in an email.

The nightclub catered to multiple crowds. Semrani didn’t throw “official raves,” which he defined as mass gatherings held outdoors or in warehouses.

“My club was much more than a rave,” he wrote.

Still, Simon’s reputation drew attention from ravers. Dedicated clubgoers, like 45-year-old technician and blogger Mike Kelley — whose website is a trippy database of rave history, including a 1996 set that was played at Simon’s — regularly drove hundreds of miles in pursuit of the sound.

“Simon’s was that kool spot to stop at before traveling back home, sometimes after three straight days of raving,” Kelley wrote in an email. “Giving yourself up to this activity for two to four days was the essence of Raving. And it would take you all over Florida.”

By the end of a DJ lineup, sometimes as late as 6 or 7 a.m., many patrons loved Simon’s so much they didn’t want to leave — or they just didn’t want to face the long drive home.

“All the kids got along. We were a bunch of loving hippies, and we all looked out for each other,” 42-year-old merchant marine Kurt Bruer said. “My least favorite [experience was] having to leave.”

“Simon’s was that kool spot to stop at before traveling back home, sometimes after three straight days of raving. Giving yourself up to this activity for two to four days was the essence of Raving. And it would take you all over Florida.”

In 1997, the Florida legislature passed House Bill 1529, which mandated that clubs were to close after last call for alcohol sales. In Gainesville, this meant closing time was 2 a.m., but the law allowed municipalities to opt-out. While Orlando adopted the law, the Gainesville City Commission, uneasy about its impact on late-night businesses and overall efficacy, voted against it.  

Two years later, after considering late night clubs and bars’ financial impact on city resources, the commission began to waver on its prior decision. In July 1999, it voted to reconsider the ordinance.

But it wasn’t just about money. Outspoken opposition had sparked months of emotional debate that unfolded in newspapers and city commission meetings. In September 1999, commissioners Pegeen Hanrahan, Bruce DeLaney and John Barrow voted against the 2 a.m. closing time, allowing for a 4 a.m. closing as compromise, which prompted a deluge of harassment. A state representative paid for newspaper ads and fliers listing the three commissioners’ home addresses and phone numbers, no doubt stoking the outcry.

“Another woman called my home last night to say that by allowing bars to stay open two hours beyond last call we were inviting the wrath of God and that we should expect an earthquake,” Hanrahan said in an October 1999 Gainesville Sun article.

Deborah Martinez, co-owner of the now closed Ernesto’s Tex-Mex Café, led the citizen action against the law. The restaurant was next door to Simon’s, and Martinez said she witnessed everything from crowding to public sex to overdosing in the streets.

“There was property damage all around downtown,” Martinez said. “And then people didn’t want to bring their families downtown anymore because of all of the public safety issues, ambulances and police every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.”

During the six months the commission considered adoption, they received hundreds of letters concerning the anti-rave law, according to a study co-authored by Dr. Julie Baldwin from the University of Florida’s Department of Criminology. Of the 252 letters supporting the law, 28 bore Martinez’s name alone.

Most of the letters referenced the association between raves and drug use, though Gainesville was less severe than other cities, like Tampa.

“[The drug culture was] not nearly as out of control as what I saw in other places,” 38-year-old J.V., who preferred to not give his full name, said. “Don’t get me wrong, people did drugs there. MDMA was the main one, and back then, that’s what it usually was 90 percent of the time.”

In the ‘90s, ravers would stave off MDMA’s teeth-grinding side effect by chewing on gum and lollipops, which would litter the sidewalk in front of her business along with syringes, condoms and vomit, Martinez said.  

At one point, Martinez went as far as to invite a Drug Enforcement Administration officer to speak to the commission about drug usage in nightclubs.

“When [the officer] was asked about my club, he said that Simon’s is not a concern for the claims they were making,” Semrani wrote. “After he said that, he was quickly ushered off the podium and the next person spoke.”

Semrani himself attended the commission meetings, but didn’t speak in part because English is his second language. He is certain that anti-rave law proponents unfairly singled Simon’s out.

“They did not see the human side to me, and that I’m just a simple Lebanese immigrant who came to this country in hopes of a better future and who loves music.”

“I do know for sure that the people behind implementing the anti-rave law were politically motivated for their own personal reasons and were using the rave law and the fame of my club as bait for attention to their own personal cause,” he wrote.

Nora Gibbons was also a vocal supporter of the law. Growing up, Gibbons watched her hometown of Hollywood, Fla. become entangled in substance abuse. In 1997, she lost her younger brother to heart failure after he witnessed the beginning of a drug dealer’s murder. So when her daughter began taking drugs after frequenting downtown and left home, she committed herself to supporting the anti-rave law. She too faced harassment as she continously attended commission meetings, her van dented and her cat beaten.

“I’ve seen how drugs can take over a city. I’ve seen how gradual it is, how insidious,” she said in a September 1999 Gainesville Sun profile. “I’ve seen the lives that can be destroyed.”

Despite opposition from club owners and students alike, in December 1999, the commission passed the ordinance 3-2 after a sudden switch by DeLaney.

The disappointment was palpable.

“I use to live in Citrus county….and would always come and go to SIMON’s…..It’s like an hour drive…But yeah I remember when they’d stay opend [sic] till like 630 7ish and then I was amazed by the 4 am shit and now 2 am…what’s the point of even going???” Gainesville-based user raver_chick_x wrote in an online forum days after the decision was announced.

In response to the law, Simon’s simply opened earlier, and business continued unaffected. However, Semrani’s personal reputation suffered greatly as a result of the debate. The Gainesville Sun published pieces on his family “based mostly on rumors,” he wrote.

“My heart was broken many times by how I was demonized by people who did not understand what was going on at the time,” Semrani wrote. “They did not see the human side to me, and that I’m just a simple Lebanese immigrant who came to this country in hopes of a better future and who loves music.”

Martinez was relieved by the decision.

“It wasn’t anything about not liking students, you know, or not liking young people,” she said. “Downtown’s better now. Our public safety is better.”

“It would appear that Simon’s is doing great now,” she added.

Its current incarnation, however, is very different from its ‘90s prime. Semrani eventually left the nightclub business to raise his daughter and currently leases out Simon’s.

Since then, the club has shifted into the mainstream.

“When I think of Simon’s, I really don’t think of a lot of, like, a mass amount of culture,” said Daniel Gavrilin, a 19-year-old University of Florida sophomore who frequents Simon’s. “But it does allow a lot of people to go to a show and understand how much fun it is.”

Newcomers at Simon’s don’t stargaze or wear candy necklaces, and the atmosphere of the club is less familial. The club’s current tenants are less interested in unique music and more interested in promotion with “drink specials and ladies,” Semrani wrote. Post Y2K, commodification replaced counterculture, not just at Simon’s, but at clubs throughout the United States.

But in the minds of those lucky enough to experience it, the original Simon’s lives on.

“I never could’ve imagined in my wildest dreams that my love for music could’ve created the special environment that so many people came to and also inspired so much hate and fear in people due to their misunderstanding of this underground subculture,” Semrani wrote. •