All Ages : Reflections on Straightedge
A 15-year-old skater in a confrontational and sparring spirit approached an older punk one night outside a hardcore show in Connecticut. The skater had a bleached Marine cut, a worn grey hooded Champion Sweatshirt and long plaid skate shorts. His vans had silver duct tape wrapped around the toe and sole probably to repair a hole in them. The tops of his hands had two oversized X's scrawled on them with black marker. The punk guy he approached was a little older, maybe in his twenties and wearing jeans and combat boots. His Damned shirt was old and worn and covered by his leather biker jacket which advertised hand painted Siouxsie Sioux and The Residents logos.
The younger one spoke, apparently meeting this guy for the first time in a scrutinizing manner with a twist of an East Coast surfer dialect, "Are you or aren't you?" The dude with the Damned shirt looked puzzled. So did I, propped up against my mom's Ford Festiva drinking a Cherry Coke, thumbing through fanzines but now noticing the exchange.
"Am I or am not what?" the older punk said, sort of smugly but puzzled.
"S.E.?" spoke the skater, equally amazed that the punk was baffled.
"What is S...E?" said the elder, pronouncing each letter distinctly, now a little annoyed and twiddling his fingers nervously.
"Straight edge!" he answered in a matter-of-fact way. "Well," said the punk, "I don't drink, and I really don't smoke or smoke pot or anything, but I don't know... I really don't label myself as 'straight edge'," he said a little righteously and maturely.
"That's way lame!" said the skater, abruptly ending the inquisition and laughing at himself while walking off. The punk guy looked a little frustrated and still a little puzzled. I laughed at the skater's audacity, his off-color humor and how I watched this scene change so drastically.
"This," I thought, "is what killed straight edge, and at the same time, this is what made it grow into an enormous subculture worldwide - a punk attitude with conservative principles."
For all its great points, "punk rock liberalism" had its bad points, too. It became too broad. Some kids in the scene did follow straight principles, like the older punk, while others were heroin addicts, glue huffers and gang members. To this new generation the entire spectrum seemed too wishy-washy. In 1983, a common punk slogan to paint on your jacket was "No One Rules." I laughed to myself in 1986 when I saw a similar motto on the back of a sweatshirt. I read, "Rules!" The pendulum of liberalism swung from "No Rules" to "Rules are good." The fashion pendulum swung from mohawks, leather and Doc Martins to a clean cut collegiate Beaver Cleaver-meets-Tony Hawk look. Indulgence swung to self control. "Free form" slam dancing turned to very stylized moshing and stage diving. For better or for worse, straight edge took off stronger than I could ever imagine, choking out punk rock, or a least ignoring it and creating a veritable scene within a scene.
I could really see both sides. I was punk. I mean I was reared on punk rock, ska, and Oi! from Sham 69 to X Ray Spex to The Business; never seeing a live punk gig but living vicariously through movies like Decline of Western Civilization and The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.
I got up some courage one weekend to go into the city to CBGB's. This was (and still is) and underground and punk club especially noted for giving bands like The Police, patti Smith and the Ramones their start. I was flipping through the Village Voice and saw that the UK Subs were playing Saturday night, so I thought, "Yeah! Punk rock show! I got to go!" Little did I know that this one show was going to change my life. It was a show that served as a spring board for me to dive head first into American Hardcore.
Opening the show was a band called The Young and the Useless. This actually turned out to be Adam from the Beastie Boys' first band.They were all my age, about 15, and going nuts on stage while the crowd was moshing (moshing was not a universal word at that time - only New Yorkers knew what it meant) and diving off the three-foot stage. I was impressed. No, impressed isn't the word. I was in love. I feel in love with hardcore. I went home and started a band and went back every weekend for CBGB's hardcore matinees. For $3 every Sunday you could see three bands, bands that were unbelievable, bands that have never been matched since, bands whose lyric became scripture, bands that we would lay our life on the line for: Minor Threat (years ahead of their time), Void (so loose that it sounded like the entire song would fall apart, but so forceful), Agnostic Front (hometown favorites), SS Decontrol (forerunners and heros of the straight edge scene who made cigarette smoking seem like a criminal offense). All these bands played CB's matinees, leaving kids like myself bruised from the pit, blown away by the music and with ears still buzzing Monday morning in algebra class, realizing their entire suburban high school had no idea what they had been through the previous afternoon.
American Hardcore was a more down-to-earth part of the punk scene. It was less of a costume show. The biggest bands often looked like guys you might know in high school who wore T-shirts, jeans, tennis sneakers and normal haircuts. Every now and then they'd shave their heads. That was the look, but the scene still embraced a lot of the punk ethics. A ground breaking band from Reno, Nevada changed all that. They were called 7 Seconds, and they became the most powerful force in the hardcore scene in 1985. Their lyrics were about trust, friendship, positive living - things that were considered too "soft" to be said in such a "hard" scene. They made it cool not to be a tough ass. They made it cool to be sensitive and not to be a drunk punk. Their album The Crew was the preeminent hardcore record of the time. Although never dubbing themselves a "straight edge" band, they directly had a hand in molding the principles of what became a straight edge explosion in the later 80s.
So back to our original story of the punk dude versus the 15-year-old straight kid in the parking lot. I could see where they were both coming from. My story? I had the mohawk and some engineer boots in junior high. I was ridiculed in my anal retentive Connecticut high school where it was unheard of for a 15-year-old male to ride a skateboard around the halls. Skateboarding was reserved for eight year olds on those little plastic boards you'd get at Caldor (East Coast department store.) At the same time some punk ethics didn't impress me. I was athletic. That wasn't punk. I always despised lethargy, violence and intoxication. I was vexed and confused how these things were such a dominating force in my alternative scene. That shit was happening in the regular scenes of the suburbs. I wanted an alternative.
I wasn't alone. When straight edge hit big in '87, it was unbelievable how it took over the club scene, record sales, fanzines and punk culture. Moving to downtown Manhattan in '88, and touring across the nation for the next few years, I watched it blossom firsthand with its stronghold in NYC, Connecticut, New Jersey, L.A. and Florida. This incarnation of straight edge was different than Minor Threat who had broken up in '83 and had officially coined the term "straight edge" on their monumental debut single and further supported it on their second single with songs like "Out of Step" where Ian MacKaye howled verses like, "I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't fuck...at least I can fucking think!" But there wasn't much of a scene to support that philosophy in those days, so this newer generation took the ball and ran with it, and since then it has existed, leaving the Minor Threat singles as the straight edge version of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Straight edge bands of this era were criticized for being hackneyed, macho and often redundant. Often the accusations were true, but most kids didn't care because some bands were just so damn awesome. Coming to Los Angles with a real New York attitude, Porcell and I were blown away the first time we saw Uniform Choice. They single handedly whipped Southern California into a straight edge frenzy. Straight Ahead from New York were incredible, the fastest and the hardest band at the time at the time. Bold were junior high school heros being only 13 and 14 when they started, but preaching like sagacious grown men between songs. The entire melange was clean cut straight laced power jock rock with a snobby "better than you" attitude. Even the old school punkers had to admit its potency.
New trends started. Kids would jam the stage to sing along with the anthemic choruses (a necessary ingredient in straight edge song writing). Although it was done before, Mike Judge made construction gloves famous. Porcell made the "dive off stage with your guitar" famous, and Jules from Side by Side made famous pointing a finger straight out and screaming "Go!"
Revelation Records sprung up, specializing in colored wax limited edition 7"s of everyone's favorite bands, cornering the market initially and making record collecting the scenester's new favorite pastime. Schism Records followed, releasing fanzines and singles and debuting with a free Project X record in the first 200 copies.
Now as I type this nearly 10 years later, I was unaware of the whirlpool I was caught up in - a whirlpool that still has an affect on the music scene internationally. But I feel these days were foundation building, especially within my own life. The straight edge scene gave me a society of like-minded individuals (not a contradiction in terms) who appreciated punk energy, but didn't want to end up in the gutter. And most didn't. Since I still live in New York City, I still see people from the scene back in the day. Some aren't straight edge and some are. Some are really still into music and some are not. Some have changed costumes, politics and principles. With all these differences, whenever one of them makes eye contact with me, I always have flash backs to what we were and what we did, and I smile inwardly or publicly. It definitely was a time we'll remember.
<--Porcell *** All Ages *** Ray--->