February 15, 2005

Punk Puritan

By: Shawn Macomber

In October of last year, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at a small club usually home to jam bands noodling through Jerry Garcia riffs, a band called Backstabbers Inc. played before a hundred or so tough-looking kids with piercings, tattoos, and large black Xs on their hands. You might have thought these kids were the sort to be copping drugs or at the very least hoping to liberate a beer or two from the bar. But in fact business was extremely slow at the bar that night. The barstools were all empty, except for one–on which a straggly-haired regular was sitting. Clearly he was not there to see the Backstabbers.

As a mass of chunky guitars and shouts surged blurrily from the cheap sound system, the regular, drink in hand, got off his stool and waded into the crowd. Cigarette dangling from his lip, he threw his free arm out once or twice at the kids who were gleefully slamming themselves into one another. Straggly Hair was moving–sort of, not really–in time with the music.

Soon enough, trouble starts. An, um, husky, afro-headed young man barrels straight into the regular–whether maliciously, or purely by accident, is not clear–spilling the man’s drink onto his Led Zeppelin shirt, so worn out it was nearly transparent. Pushing commences, the Backstabbers stop playing. And Straggly Hair, suddenly a stranger in his own dive, is looking at a circle of shaved heads who are waiting for the slightest provocation to throw some punches. Finally, the afro kid turns away. The seat of his husky-sized mesh shorts reads, STRAIGHT EDGE, in a semi-circle.

“Hey, what’s a straight edge, faggot?” the regular shouts, giggling. Only the underemployed bartender acknowledges this, cracking a momentary smile before going back to looking nervous. And that’s it. The confrontation is over, just another stupid almost-fight having reached an appropriately stupid climax.

The regular returns to his seat at the bar. As the band starts their next song, he gives them a one-finger salute.

So, what is straight edge? Straight edge is a philosophy and a lifestyle in which rebelling youth rebel against the very things their peers embrace: alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, casual sex, and, for many since the late ’80s, meat.

Straight edge began as a reaction to the hedonistic nihilism of late ’70s punk rock, you know, Sid and Nancy dead in the Chelsea Hotel and all that. The phrase is taken from the title of a 1980 Minor Threat song, a 44-second blast that begins, “I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do than sit around and f– my head.” The sentiment caught on and gained momentum with Minor Threat’s follow-up song “Out of Step,” which unintentionally laid out the basic tenets of straight edge. “I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t f–,” declared singer Ian MacKaye, “at least I can f–ing think.”

“The Deviant Masses”

“What was on my mind,” MacKaye says in a phone interview in December, “was that I had grown up in a society where there is basically a very strange premium placed on the idea of taking leave of your senses.” MacKaye these days fronts the fiercely independent band Fugazi, known for its angular indie rock. “And more ironically, it is pitched as a form of rebellion for kids, when in essence it is really just slipping into what is one of the strongest economies and one of the most mainstream behavior patterns in this country.”

“That song was just an explanation,” MacKaye continues. Booze and drugs are “a crutch . . .  and I’m interested in living a life free of crutches, unless, of course, I get hit by a car and I need a crutch. . . . I always knew life was precious and that I wanted to be present for every moment.”

So it wasn’t rebellious to get drunk and high; it was rebellious not to get drunk and high.

“Punk rock was in my mind the gathering of the deviant masses,” MacKaye says. “When I say deviant I don’t necessarily mean it as a negative thing. I just mean they deviated from popular culture and conventional thinking, and that’s what I loved about it. . . . I actually thought being straight edge in 1978 and 1979 in America was extremely freaky.”

MacKaye explains for the one-billionth time that “Straight Edge” and “Out of Step” were simply meant as personal statements about the advantages of sobriety, not as a set of rules or the launching pad for a movement. In the 1982 re-recorded version of “Out of Step,” MacKaye went so far as to add the line, “Look this is not a set of rules. . .”

But as a set of rules many hardcore fans took it, creating an orthodoxy from their rebelliousness.

“In my mind it was extremely clear that I was talking about myself,” MacKaye insists. “It wasn’t like the Ten Commandments. If you look at the sentence structure it seems pretty clear to me: ‘At least I can. . .’ is obviously referring to myself. I didn’t realize people were such fierce literalists. If you study the case, one of the lyrics is, ‘I don’t drink.’ But nobody confused that with any liquid intake. So I find it startling that the line, ‘Don’t f–,’ caused people such intense anguish.”

While some listeners agreed a little too much, others took offense, especially to MacKaye’s rejection of sleeping around. Just “the suggestion of something like abstinence from conquestual sex was such an intense thing.”

Soon MacKaye was being confronted on a nightly basis, both verbally and physically, by anti-straight-edge brutes calling themselves “bent edge” or “circle edge.” The first time he met Bob Mould of Husker DU/Sugar fame, Mould greeted him by saying, “Straight edge sucks,” which earned him one of MacKaye’s more famous “F– you”s. Though pure of body, straight-edgers are not known for their clean mouths.

“Basically touring in the United States with Minor Threat was like touring the Wild West,” MacKaye says. “It was not uncommon for me to be in a fight on stage. . . . But there was no straight-edge army. There was no corresponding movement. And I was not interested in that. I was never interested in the idea of a movement.”

But a movement it soon became.

By 1981, the fanzine Touch & Go was noting in its D.C. Scene Report that, “the majority of DC punks shunning alcohol. . .in mass quantities anyway. . .there’s growing numbers that don’t drink at all.” Meanwhile, other nascent straight-edge scenes began to emerge across the country, with 7 Seconds in Nevada, SSD in Boston, and JUDGE, Gorilla Biscuits, and Youth of Today in New York City. It was tough going at first everywhere.

“When Youth of Today showed up in New York, there was no straight-edge movement, no straight-edge scene,” former Youth of Today vocalist Ray Cappo says. “Every once in a while you’d meet some straight kid, but there wasn’t a look to it or a fashion or bands or even clichés. That all came years later. But sometimes your conviction can change everything. I really believe that’s true. We went to that city with conviction and belief and people respected us.”

Cappo, 38, is now a yoga instructor in Los Angeles. But in all of hardcore music, perhaps no one was more instrumental in making straight edge an international phenomenon. He’s also the one who added meat to straight edge’s growing list of prohibitions, while launching two of the most influential record labels in underground music, Revelation Records and Equal Vision Records. Later with another band, Shelter, Cappo and Porcell, a former Youth of Today guitarist, created and popularized the unlikely subgenre of Krishnacore, basically hardcore music combined with the Eastern philosophies of the Hare Krishnas.

“We didn’t think about starting a straight-edge movement, we just wanted to start a straight-edge band,” Cappo says, of Youth of Today’s early days. “We didn’t realize what it would turn into. For Porcell and me, we were into sports and stuff, and to us, we just didn’t want to become dirt-bag, drug-addict, waste-your-life punkers. It wasn’t a hardcore philosophy. We just believed in positive living and clean living.”

By the time Youth of Today released Break Down the Walls in 1986 the band had a worldwide following and dozens upon dozens of imitators.

Straight Edge and Its Enemies

Straight edge may have grown from three or four bands and a handful of kids to hundreds of bands and tens of thousands of active followers at any given time, but it still remains a subversive movement. Partly, this is because it stands as a direct challenge to the whole rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, in particular the sex and drugs parts.

Consider this recent posting from the glam metal band Lit from their website:

“So check this s– out. Lit’s playing Floyd’s Music Shop in Tallahassee, Florida, and next door at another club there’s what’s called a Straight Edge Concert. A ‘Straight Edge Concert’ is a bunch of bands that don’t drink, don’t eat meat, don’t smoke, and they’re Christians. And it’s purely speculation on our part but it’s a safe bet none of them have ever received a blow job from a girl or even seen a pair of tits. Now I don’t know how it’s humanly possible that you can even be in a band that doesn’t either drink, smoke, eat meat, or f–, but I guess there are a few ‘bands’ that are that way.”

Lit is perhaps best known for the 1999 video for their song “Miserable” (chorus: “You make me cum / You make me complete / You make me completely miserable”), in which the band members appear in miniature climbing a giant Pamela Anderson. They tour in a large bus and get plenty of play on mainstream rock radio. Probably, they get plenty of all kinds of play. Yet they’re clearly made a wee bit defensive by the presence of a few un-drunk punks rocking out in a nearby club. Straight edge has a way of pissing off outsiders.

Straight edge will always go hand in hand with hardcore music, says Brian Serven of Backstabbers Inc., because hardcore “is volatile, confrontational, and based in reality.” Yet, amidst all this antagonism, straight edge holds out the promise of salvation from a youth culture soaked in beer and booze and life-destroying drugs.

“Straight edge is a change that an individual can make to take themselves out of the destructive equation.”

Little Triggers

As straight edge broadened into a social movement, it took on a more militant tone in some quarters. The hardliners, as they came to be known, while a small minority within straight edge, made the whole scene infamous through well-publicized acts of intimidation and violence. By the mid-’90s mainstream media outlets were describing straight-edge kids as they would gangs like the Bloods and Crips. Not without reason. Between 1994 and 1997 on stage and off, it was common to see gangsterish straight edgers in masks espousing the rhetoric of violent revolution. One New York City band, Madball, was closely associated with the Doc Marten Skins, whose acronym DMS was alternately interpreted to mean “Dropping Many Suckers.”

MacKaye has given a lot of thought to straight edge’s thug problem. “Most straight-edge people are good people trying to do really good things,” he says. “However, there are people in the world who have violence in their belly, and they’re looking for ways to get it out. Straight edge, because of the simplicity of the dictum on which the movement operates–a basic set of rules, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t f–, don’t eat meat, don’t whatever, whatever the tenets, combined with the simplistic notion of a movement creates very simple triggers. And triggers are precisely what bombs are looking for. It was attractive to people who wanted to fight, because it not only gave them something to fight about, but it was righteous in a way.”

Cappo is similarly philosophical, but without MacKaye’s hint of ambivalence. “You know, there’s that saying, ‘A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.’ You can’t just beat people into being what you want them to be. You have to appeal to their intellect and to their heart. The essential principles of straight edge are really good, but, like anything else, if we use it to stroke our ego then even good things can become bad.”

Eventually the hardline movement began turning on its own. Cappo was mercilessly flogged on Internet message boards for having a glass of wine on a European tour a few years back. MacKaye was confronted on a regular basis for not being outspoken enough for these new, un-sought disciples. At a Fugazi show in Cleveland, he was accosted by a young man for drinking unsweetened ice tea.

“This kid walks up to me and says, ‘My friend would say to you that caffeine is a drug,'” MacKaye recalls, laughing. “That was the first thing he said to me. So I told him, ‘Give your friend a message from me: ‘F– you.'”

Religion leads to theology, theology leads to theological disputes: Isn’t this what always happens?

“The people who get caught up in the minutiae and start breaking out the Roberts’ Rules of Straight Edge, are essentially trying to slow things down,” MacKaye asserts. “They’re basically not sure where they’re going with the idea so they’re trying to slow down the play of life. They’re trying to get control of the situation. They’re afraid.”

Outing “Edge Breakers” has become a cottage industry within straight edge. One website maintains a heresy roll, listing hundreds of people who have strayed. There is even a joke that mocks the “True till death” rhetoric of the scene: “True till college.”

“My experience has been over the years,” MacKaye says, “is that the people who make the most noise are the ones who are most likely to bail out on it and go another direction.”

And what about MacKaye himself? “It’s funny, I’m 42 and I’ve had people for years asking to check my underwear,” he says. “You know, ‘Are you still straight edge?’ or, ‘I heard you’re not still straight edge.’ That part of it is completely perverted. . . . It’s always been difficult for me, because on the one hand, I didn’t want to be put up to the inquisition, but on the other hand, I kind of wanted people to know that I was never f–ing around, straight edge was never a joke to me. I understand why the reassurance would be important. I also didn’t want to play into that role, supporting the notion that people should run around quizzing each other about their behaviors.”

All that intraparty discipline and the climate of mutual suspicion are surely, in part, byproducts of how young and consequently highstrung everyone is in the movement. But the fact that straight edge has remained a youth movement doesn’t bother MacKaye.

“For kids who are making this difficult journey from their biological family, or whatever remnants of it exists, to their social family, basically growing up, those years, 13 or 14 until probably 25 at this point, that is a really difficult journey,” he says.

For Cappo, too, straight edge is a way of coping with the challenges of being a teenager. “Straight edge for me was the beginning of me, as a youth, attempting to control my senses at a time when the senses are really out of control, especially when you’re going through, you know, puberty, etcetera, and are very curious about how to seek pleasure out of the world,” Cappo says. “Through that discipline you get a higher taste in life that evolves but doesn’t go away.”

Cappo, while freely admitting he has been “more strict some times than others,” says straight edge has changed for him, but not disappeared.

“For me, after a couple years of being straight edge it really was my own thing,” he explains. “I internalized it. And soon I got into Krishna consciousness and Eastern spirituality. With Eastern spirituality, one of the principles is being straight edge, but it’s not the goal. The goal is to be more spiritually evolved. Straight edge–sensory control–is just a tool to help.”

Simply abstaining from drugs, alcohol, and meat is not itself a proper goal of life, says Cappo. “If I believed the goal of life is to not drink or use drugs, then a pigeon has attained Nirvana. A pigeon is not taking drugs, or eating meat, or drinking alcohol. So now do we worship a pigeon as an evolved being? No.”

Twenty-first century Straight Edge

Lately straight edge has been regaining some of the popularity it lost in the ’90s. And although neither Cappo nor MacKaye take part in the scene, they have few regrets about playing integral roles in its rise.

“Here I am 38 years old and people are still calling me up about something I did when I was 19,” Cappo says. “It’s actually totally strange. I was in a surf shop the other day with my wife who knows nothing about hardcore, or punk rock, or anything like that, looking at shoes and this 40-year-old guy comes up to me in front of my wife and my two kids and says, ‘Hey man, I know who you are, and I know all the words to all your songs.’ It’s not like I’m Tom Cruise or something and people are jumping on me at a mall, but every now and then you get some straggler who comes up and says, ‘Hey, man, I love you and I love straight edge.’ It’s weird, but good.”

For MacKaye, it is “organic and natural” that kids should continue to discover straight edge. It’s the rest of the world’s reaction that is “surreal.”

“There is this endless litany of tongue-in-cheek articles that get written about these novelty punk rock kids who also don’t drink or do drugs, and I end up getting all these calls saying, ‘Hey, I’m doing the definitive article about straight edge, and I was hoping you would set the record straight,'” MacKaye complains. “The thing is, the record will never be set straight, because it isn’t a single record. I mean, as the person who coined the phrase, I guess I can explain how that came about. But once an idea is in the air, it’s anybody’s really. [And] from there, it’s how it’s used. I think straight edge has been used largely for positive things. But the positive things are not newsworthy. The oddity is newsworthy, which is unfortunately the nature of our society.”

Shawn Macomber is a staff writer at The American Spectator and runs the website www.returnoftheprimitive.com.