All Ages : Reflections on Straightedge

Porcell is a former member of the hardcore bands; Young Republicans, Violent Children, Youth Of Today, Project X and Judge. He is currently in Shelter. I interviewed him on 10 May 1995.

I was always into punk rock, ever since I was a little kid. I went from listening to Kiss in the fifth grade to jamming out the Sex Pistols in the sixth grade. Then, I got into hardcore in junior high and never looked back. It was ninth grade or so when I first went to the Anthrax. That's when I started getting into Straight Edge. Some of my favorite bands were Minor Threat, 7 Seconds, Youth Brigade - bands that were inspirational, bands that had something to say. That's what attracted me to hardcore and punk - the music had integrity and honesty. It wasn't like the lame stuff my older brother was listening to, like Rush, AC/DC - that kind of thing I really couldn't relate to.

I learned how to play a few bar chords on guitar and managed to put together some punk bands when I was little. Then when I met Ray, I joined Violent Children. We were into the same kind of music - Straight Edge, positive, but the other guys in the band were totally off in another direction. Me and Ray wanted to do something serious. Basically what we wanted to do was start a serious hardcore band with the power of Negative Approach, but mixed with the positive message of bands like 7 Seconds. And that's exactly what we did. At the time, all our favorite bands, like Minor Threat and DYS, had broken up. Speed metal was the next big thing. We weren't into it because a lot of the pretension and stupidity crossed over from the metal scene along with the music. In retaliation, we were going to start the hardest hardcore band around. We even picked a generic name - Youth Of Today. It was simple, basic and to the point. We drew big X's on our hands and set out to conquer the scene.

Most of the people in the scene drank, except us, so we were definitely the minority. Being Straight Edge in the high school I went to was practically unheard of. I went to John Jay High, the same school the guys from Bold went to. When we first got into the Straight Edge thing, there was so much peer pressure to drink and do drugs - not just from kids in school, but from the punks in the scene too. So we decided to reverse the peer pressure. We were straight - loud, proud and outspoken. I remember being Straight Edge in the high school I went to was practically unheard of. I went to John Jay High, the same school the guys from Bold went to. When we first got into the Straight Edge thing, there was so much peer pressure to drink and do drugs - not just from kids in school, but from the punks in the scene too. So we decided to reverse the peer pressure. We were straight - loud, proud and outspoken. I remember Ray even had a jacket that said "Straight Edge in Your Face" on the back of it. Once, when the Dead Kennedys played, I jumped up on stage and grabbed the cigarette out of the bass player's mouth and stomped it into the ground. Sure, we were young and stupid, but at the time, it was our way of dealing with all of the peer pressure that comes along with being a teenager. It was our revolt against the mainstream.

After a while, Youth Of Today really became serious about putting out a positive message, music was powerful, and we knew that it had the potential to inspire others and change their lives. But I soon realized that intolerance doesn't change a thing. When you act that way, people don't listen or even take you seriously. They just get turned off, and the communication gap widens that much more. We had a message that we wanted others to hear, so we took a different approach. We tried to be examples of clean living. When kids see that you're sincere, that's when they get inspired - "Practice what you preach."

When we moved to New York City, I remember the fist time Youth Of Today played CBGB's. God, the scene was so drug oriented back then, kids sniffing glue and smoking dust all over the place. After we played, Johnny Stiff came up to us and said, "Oh, you guys are a Straight Edge band? You'll never make it in New York!" and I almost believed him.

Yeah, when I first got to New York, I hated the scene. Where was the punk, the alternative? I mean, the clothes were dirtier and people had weirder haircuts, but basically they were doing the same thing that every burnout in my high school was doing - listening to music, getting drunk and getting in fights. They reminded me of my older brother, only he'd get plastered and go to Ozzy shows, and the punks would huff glue and go to CB's. So what was the difference? I had gotten into punk to get away from all that junk in the first place. I think that's why the whole Straight Edge thing caught on in the city. People were ready for a real alternative. They wanted something with substance, with a message, something that was going to help them rise above their miserable surroundings, not get them deeper into it. And man, Straight Edge caught on like wildfire. It was such an exciting time in New York.

All these other Straight Edge bands started popping up - Gorilla Biscuits, Side by Side... even Warzone went straight! I couldn't believe it! It all seemed to happen so fast. It was amazing, actually. The scene that was once so sunk into the drug culture had completely turned around. Johnny Stiff must've been scratching his head, wondering what happened. After Youth Of Today put out "Break Down The Walls", we toured the country, which was a pretty rare thing to do at the time. A whole Straight Edge scene was developing across the nation. We'd play gigs and hundreds and hundreds of kids would show up, and I mean, they'd be going nuts - stage diving and singing along with X's on their hands and everything. Even in Europe, Straight Edge was booming.

After the Youth Of Today song "No More" came out, practically the whole scene went vegetarian. When we wrote that song, we weren't sure if kids would be into the idea or completely turned off by it. But we didn't care. It was such an urgent message, and we figured that if people were really serious about not poisoning their bodies and polluting their minds, they'd take to it. Pretty soon being a vegetarian became synonymous with being Straight Edge. It really inspired me to think that others were actually taking the message of the music to heart. Things were starting to change, and it really gave us a revolutionary spirit. We were out to change the world.

Then somewhere down the line, things started to go wrong. Sure, Straight Edge was popular, but when starts to get popular, a lot of kids get into it only because it's the "cool" thing to do. It became trendy and cliquish. Just like any other trend, it had its upswing and it had its downfall - and Straight Edge crashed hard. It was really disheartening. I'd say about 90 percent of the kids who had the edge in the "Youth Crew" days went to college and started partying. I became disillusioned with the Straight Edge scene. It was sad because after all the tours, after all the screaming, all the sing-alongs, it didn't seem like people were really changing. Just like Shakespeare said, "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." That's how I felt, and it broke me. I think that's why Youth Of Today called it quits. Judge, too.

By the time we went on the last Judge tour, the whole "tough guy" image was getting out of control. At every show Judge played, there'd be a lot of violence. The worst part of it was that the kids starting the fights were directly influenced by our band. I can't even count how many times these jerks would come up to us and brag how they just kicked some guy's teeth in and wait for a sign of approval from me or Mike - as if we were into that. It seemed everyone had this preconceived notion that Mike was a big hardline sort of character, a real rock. Even though he had that side, Mike's actually a really sensitive, caring person. He wasn't into all that stupidity. Yet Judge had this real violent image. It was weird. It wasn't a good feeling to know that indirectly we were responsible. So this whole thing with Judge had me and Mike really bummed out. After trying to convey something honest, after trying to be an inspiration, the whole thing was blowing up in our faces. And if that was the result, it wasn't even worth being in a band. So Judge broke up. It made me realize that when you're in a band and you get up on stage, whether you like it or not, you become a role model. And it can be a dangerous thing.

Our records were selling like 30,000 or 40,000 copies each, so a lot of kids were really taking them to heart. It's a huge responsibility because you have influence over their lives. Just like with the Project X record. We wrote it, recorded it and mixed it in about three days. We had no idea that it was going to get so popular. And more than once, I've regretted it because of all the violence and intolerance caused by that one record. That's not what I was about at all, so it was a lesson well learned. If I have some influence on someone, I sure want it to be a good influence. That's what music was all about for me - motivation towards something higher.

After that, I was in Gorilla Biscuits for a little while. That was a weird situation for me because the rest of the band mostly wasn't Straight Edge by that time. Yet, there we were, singing all these Straight Edge songs, and I watched as kids sang along with full sincerity. I don't know, I felt a little compromised. I think that's when my disillusionment with hardcore reached its limit.

This was my crisis. Here were all these years, screaming "Make a change, make a change, make a change!" And after all my ranting and raving about personal change and growth, I couldn't even change myself. Supposedly I was against the exploitation of women, and we'd go on tour and what would I do? I'd be scamming on girls. I was against dishonesty, yet I worked at a health food store and every night I'd steal about $20 out of the register and take home a whole bad of groceries free. One night I came back to my apartment after I had stolen this huge bag of food and it hit me - I was a hypocrite. It really made me reevaluate my life.

I realized that you can't just talk about change. It's not enough to just shout slogans or wave your X'd-up fists in the air. Before you can have an effect on the outside world, first you have to change the world inside yourself. And it was clear to me that my consciousness needed some work - on a spiritual level.

After some soul-searching, I quit my job, moved out of my apartment, sold everything I owned including my records - left all my friends and moved to a Krishna temple. I knew there was truth in the philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, but I also knew that I'd never realize the truth unless I lived a spiritual lifestyle. That seemed like it would be an impossibility in New York - just too many negative influences for me there. So I moved to a Krishna-sponsored cow protection farm in Pennsylvania. Yeah, I had done it. I renounced hardcore and all its hypocrisy. I left behind all the envy and competition that comes with being in a band. I stepped down from the spotlight, and I felt some peace. Then out of the blue, Ray - well, by this time he was Ragunatha dasa - called me up and tried to get me to join Shelter. I told him flat out to forget it. I wasn't about to jump back into the fire. But actually in the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says that it's not what you do, but its the consciousness behind what you do that's important. So very cautiously, I set out to do hardcore again, but this time I was determined to do it in a spiritual way. And it's made all the difference.

So now I'm still in a band, still trying to make a change and trying my best not to fall prey to prestige and adoration. I find that if I let myself slip and think that I'm some big deal, it just brings back all those old bad feelings. Now I have to make sure my constant meditation is that I'm doing Shelter as a humble service to try to enlighten myself and others. In this way, I find that being in a band actually has some purpose and becomes satisfying. Instead of getting on stage to show how "cool" I am, I do it to spread spiritual knowledge, and this way the people in the crowd walk away more than just a handful of illusions.

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