Walking the Straight Edge
On the bus ride home from work the other day I overheard an interesting conversation. Two guys were talking about their experiences in and out of prison, with the courts, with probation, with the criminal justice system in general. The two fellows talked about how the elevators at the justice center were broke for days on end, and how because the elevators were down, visitors weren’t allowed in. Not being able to see friends and family made their stay all the more miserable. As I sat there listening in I thought it sounded right on target, par for the course with societal collapse. As local governments lose funding for repair of public buildings, it makes sense that our jails might not be first on the list to get fixed.
One comment really stuck with me though. When the guy said he knew four dudes who OD’d on fentanyl while he was in the slammer, I wasn’t surprised, but I was shocked.
People on the street are dying from this stuff. Now it seems so are the people who get picked up off the street by the police and thrown into jail for possession. Now they can OD from the convenience of their jail cell. I guess those cavity searches aren’t going so well.
Being on the wrong side of the law hasn’t really been part of my experience. Unless you count the one trip I made to juvie for stealing cough syrup, or the time I got a slap on the wrist by a judge for some graffiti I got caught carving onto a picnic table at a park. Then there was the time I got a misdemeanor at age twenty-four when I contributed to the delinquency of a minor by buying my disabled, then nineteen year old cousin some booze. I hadn’t actually expected him to actually chug the rum. I panicked when he started falling out of his wheelchair due to being in a quick drunken stupor. I couldn’t handle the situation and had to call 911 for assistance. I did the wrong thing, then I did the right thing, and I got a hefty fine. My cousin and I are still real close, and he doesn’t blame me for the incident. I do accept the responsibility for the part I played.
So unless you tally the times I’ve gotten caught breaking the law, I’ve been a law abiding citizen.
My own history with alcohol and drugs is rather checkered, as you might be able to guess from the incidents above. There were other ‘incidents’ if my addled memory serves me right. One thing I’m grateful for is that I never graduated to shooting up. Several of my close friends and some other cousins did when we were all at college together in the years around the turn of the millennium. Some of them are still in the throw of those addictions now, and one is homeless living on the streets of San Francisco. I remember being offered heroin with the caveat “We’ll shoot you up. We know what we are doing.” When I review that memory it’s one of the times I’m happy to suffer from anxiety because that was just one of the times when my neurotic fears have protected me from things so much worse.
But just because I didn’t shoot up doesn’t mean I didn’t do a bunch of other stupid shale, and waste a lot of time from age fourteen until I finally gave up alcohol and marijuana at age thirty-six. By that point they’d stopped working, and had been interfering in my life long enough. I didn’t hit rock bottom per se, but I hit a bottom, and was only compelled to quit when faced with a barrage of pain. It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
It’s kind of ironic that I took the path into drugs in the first place. When I was first getting into punk music I was in adamant opposition to all that. I blasted the hardcore sounds of the band Minor Threat on my Walkman, and I was influenced by their lyrics and by the mentorship of an older vegetarian Straight Edge punk who lived down the street. He turned me on to so much good music via his mixtapes. Around that time I claimed to be Straight Edge too.
Straight Edge is a philosophy that emerged from within the punk rock, hardcore and skateboarding subcultures whose adherents refrain from using alcohol, tobacco, and other recreational/non-prescribed drugs (marijuana, MDMA, LSD, cocaine, heroin, etc.). It has since broadened out of those specific spheres.
Peer pressure is a real thing though, whether subtle or overt, and soon I abandoned the philosophy and embarked on a program of what I thought was the expansion of consciousness through the systematic derangement of all the senses. Through all the years of drinking that followed, the idealism inherent within the Straight Edge philosophy was there in the back of my mind, as conscience that had been put on mute. All these years later as I return to the philosophy I find it still has much to offer our Western society plagued with rampant drug and alcohol abuse.
The term Straight Edge itself came from a song of the same name by Minor Threat. The lyrics, full of the self-righteous vehemence of youth, remain just as powerful today as when they first wrote it in Washington D.C. in 1981.
“I'm a person just like you / but I've got better things to do / than sit around and fuck my head / hang out with the living dead / snort white shit up my nose / pass out at the shows / I don't even think about speed / that's just something I don't need / I've got the Straight Edge! / I'm a person just like you / but I've got better things to do / than sit around and smoke dope / 'cause I know that I can cope / laugh at the thought at eating ludes / laugh at the thought of sniffing glue / always gonna keep in touch / never gonna use a crutch / I've got the Straight Edge!”
The song launched a revolution. It was a reaction to the hedonism so often found within the punk scene. The Ramones had sang the polar opposite in their song : “Now I wanna sniff some glue / Now I wanna have somethin' to do / All the kids wanna sniff some glue / All the kids want somethin' to do.”
Of the many things punk rebelled against, boredom might be at the top of the list. One way to combat boredom is to take drugs to excess. This seemed to be especially true of those who had embraced the nihilism that also permeated the subculture. But not all punks thought seeking oblivion through the obliteration of consciousness was the best strategy for coping with their existential vexations. Some thought not taking drugs was the real rebellion. Some thought that not getting drunk and blitzed out of your mind was a more productive option. They did have something better to do than watch TV and have a couple of brews.
In the song Bottled Violence, Minor Threat took aim at violent drunks. “Get your bravery from a six pack / Get your bravery from a half-pint / Drink your whiskey, drink your grain / Bottoms up, and you don't feel pain / Drink your whiskey, drink your grain / Bottoms up, and you don't feel pain / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Go out and fight, fight / Bottled violence / Lose control of your body / Beat the shit out of somebody / Half-shut eyes don't see who you hit / But you don't take any shit / Half-shut eyes don't see who you hit / But you don't take any shit.”
A Straight Edger preferred to develop their inner bravery. It came from resisting the allure of mindlessness that accompanied drinking and drugging. It allowed them pursue other forms of meaning when they could have just accepted the status quo.
Though the core of the Straight Edge philosophy is to refrain from smoking, taking drugs, drinking alcohol, some took it further. They also included not indulging in casual sex, or eating meat as part of their lifestyle. Some even nixed caffeine, over-the-counter, and prescription drugs. For various people there were various gradations. For most of the people in the scene it wasn’t about telling other people what to do as much as it was about taking control of your own life. It remains a relevant strategy.
Control yourself, control your mind, and other people have a harder time controlling you.
Straight Edge is sometimes abbreviated as sXe and the X used as a symbol for the lifestyle.
Journalist Michael Azerrad traced the use of the X symbol back to the band the Teen Idles. The D.C. group embarked on a brief West Coast tour in 1980. One of the gigs they were to play was at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens, an important stop for touring bands, and a venue where Frisco locals the Dead Kennedys often played. When the band showed up club management was alarmed to discover that they were actually still teens, or at least under the legal drinking age and technically weren’t supposed to even be in the club.
The management compromised, not wanting to lose out on whatever bit of money the young punks could help rake in, and besides they were already booked. As a way of showing the staff not to serve them any booze they marked each of the band members’ hands with a large black X. When the band came back home to D.C., they suggested the system to other local clubs and venues as a way to get teenagers in to see the bands without being served alcohol. This in turn sparked another movement within the punk scene where some bands, many of them hardcore or straight edge, would only play at “all ages” venues.
Later that year The Teen Idles released their Minor Disturbance album. On the cover were two hands with black Xs on the back. This album sealed the deal and the mark soon became associated with the Straight Edge lifestyle. The practice of marking the hands of underage kids with an X at clubs and music venues continued to spread around the country.
One of the members of Teen Idles happened to be a guy named Ian MacKaye, another was Jeff Nelson. They went on to form Minor Threat and from there the Straight Edge subculture continued to grow and evolve.
It is for all these reasons that the Straight Edge movement always gets traced back to Ian MacKaye, even if he is hardly the first person to have been an abstainer. The sentiment had been bubbling up in the scene but he gave it a name, and the symbol of the X that was also adopted. In an interview for the documentary Another State of Mind MacKaye said “When I became a punk, my main fight was against the people who were around me — friends".
When he was 13 he had moved from D.C. to Palo Alto, California for nine months. When he came back home his friends had started drinking and drugging. He remarked, "I said, 'God, I don't want to be like these people, man. I don't fit in at all with them.' So it was an alternative." MacKaye also noted that the symbol "wasn't supposed to signify straight edge—it was supposed to signify kids. It was about being young punk rockers... it represents youth". In later years MacKaye has often spoke about how he never intended for Straight Edge to even be a movement, but the symbol X and the name stuck. People were inspired and it took on a life of its own. Perhaps Perhaps through the clarity of Straight Edge and clean living people can retain –or regain- some of the vibrancy of youth into adulthood.
The philosophy can be seen as a direct and practical response to the excess in the culture of the late 1970s and early 80s when it arose: cocaine, sleeping around, big spending. Sex wasn’t just getting your jollies off, but a connection to another person. Living without the filters and numbness and distortion imposed over the nervous system by drugs was a way to better connect with reality –and if you didn’t like the reality you found yourself in, you then had energy to go do something about, whether it was starting a band, making a ‘zine, creating a venue, or some form of direct action. Being Straight Edge was a path to meaningful activities for those who embraced the practice.
Looking at the 2020’s ahead of us and all the decades of industrial strength drug abuse behind us we still have the same problems. Only Fentanyl may be what is in the headlines now, instead of ludes, coke, crack or ecstasy. As a culture in systemic decline drug abuse is just one of the symptoms, and a temporary escape or refuge for those who would numb themselves against what is often a harsh reality. I can’t judge what another person chooses to do with their bodies. I know many people who are just social drinkers or weed smokers and I have no problem with it; I just don’t happen to be one myself. I’m also in favor of decriminalization and legalization. Prohibition causes more problems than it ever cured.
Yet I think there is a place within Green Wizardry for Straight Edge. The Green Wizard who is clean, or has gotten clean, will be better able to cope with life on its own terms. They also may be in a better position to help guide those neighbors, friends, or associates who happen to be suffering from an addiction, whether it comes from knowledge of twelve step recovery programs, or some other way of getting and staying sober.
Everyone needs an edge in life after all. As the economy overshoots sending citizens into free fall, as colleges continue to cater to corporations over true scholarship, as the environment undergoes permutations unknown to our eldest living relatives, it is necessary to sharpen whatever edge we have. If we wish to live conscious lives of volition, if we wish to have needs and desires met, and seek to bring dreams into reality in a world full of suffering, having our own edge will help us to stay positive. People who aren’t medicated or numbed are in a better position to use their willpower to do their work in the world, in spite or despite what everyone else is doing.
Straight Edge people have a lot more time on their hands. Free from chasing the next buzz or oblivion they have the energy to pursue plans that can impact their life and the lives of the people around them. This is very different from the fall out folks in the midst of substance abuse create in the wakes around them. These activities can provide purpose in the face of chaos and corruption.
At my last work location in the heart of downtown Cincinnati the number of out-of-work people, hanging out stoned, drunk at noon, some OD’ing from time-to-time in the public bathrooms, shows the degree of despair at play in America. This dispirited depression is egged on by an endless negative news cycle, and a seeming lack of choices in this land where too many choices is no choice at all. Instead of cultivating an edge for discomfort, it has been blunted by blunts, numbed by the latest craft brew or mass produced malt liquor, and anesthetized by opioids. On the other end of the drug spectrum are the crystal meth stimulants driving the brain into overdrive, chasing a cascade of conspirinoid thoughts that make even the most jaded netizen of conspiracy theory darkwebs look surprisingly sane.
In this liquid environment of binge eating and binge watching the latest reality reruns or sports spectacle an alternative exists: the Straight Edge and stoic alternative to sharpen the senses of the mind, body and soul in face of commodified decadence being shilled by the managerial class.
In 2013 MacKaye gave a talk at the Library of Congress. Speaking of his youth in the ‘70s he said, “In high school, I loved all my friends, but so many of them were just partying. It was disappointing that that was the only form of rebellion that they could come up with, which was self-destruction.”
Self-construction is the path offered by Straight Edge.
Within the larger punk subculture there was often a lot of open hostility directed towards Straight Edgers. Some of it was just brash reactions against people who came off as self-righteous, holier than thou, or even militant. I remember being made fun of when I had adopted it; and as I’ve been sober these past four years, having changed my habits and behavior, I have noticed the way some people treat me different than before. Going against the grain is a small price to pay for the many gains and transformations that have occurred from straightening my ways.
As Minor Threat sang in the song Out of Step “I don't smoke / I don't drink / I don't fuck / At least I can fucking think / I can't keep up! / I can't keep up! / I can't keep up! / Out of step with the world!”
Writing on the influence and legacy of the scene author Nina Renata Aron says, “ask anyone who came of age in the straight edge hardcore scene what it did for them, and they’re likely to tell you it saved their life. Those who’ve seen loved ones fall victim to addiction and its attendant miseries feel the scene spared them various forms of regret, anguish, or worse. More than that, it gave them something to believe in.”
Straight Edge is an antidote. It is Narcan for the individual soul in an overdosed society.
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, by Michael Azzerard, 2001
Straight edge: How one 46-second song started a 35-year movement by Nina Renata Aron
Curious how to be Straight Edge? Read this handy guide: How to Be Straight Edge
Read the rest of the Down Home Punk series.
The Crystal Psalms of Alvin Curran
In 1988, the same year Negativland was pioneering the concept and practice of the Teletour, another maverick experimental music composer produced a radio concert like no other before or since. His name is Alvin Curran and the piece in question was his Crystal Psalms, a concerto for musicians in six European nations, simultaneously performed, mixed and broadcast live in stereo to listeners stretched from Palermo, Italy to Helsinki, Finland via six separate but synchronized radio stations.
The name of the radio concerto came from an event that Curran wanted to commemorate with the solemnness it was due; Kristallnacht otherwise known as Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass. It had happened fifty years before the broadcast on November 9th and 10th in Germany. This was the date of the November Pogroms when civilian and Nazi paramilitary forces mobbed the streets to attack Jewish people and their property. This horrendous event was dubbed Kristallnacht due to all the broken glass left on the ground after the windows of their stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.
On Kristallnacht rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. They ransacked and set fire to homes, hospitals and schools. 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This was the opening prelude before the sick opus of the Third Reich’s genocide. It was Hitler’s green light, ramping up his twisted plans. The Third Reich had moved on from economic, political and social persecution to physical violence and murder. The Holocaust had begun.
The year before the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht a number of cultural and arts organization had begun making plans for a series of worldwide memorial events. Alvin Curran was in on some of these conversations. Curran had long been part of a vanguard group of ex-pat American composers living in Italy. He was also a founding member of the collective acoustic and electronic improvisation group Musica Elettronica Viva, sometimes known as a Million Electron Volts or simply MEV. They formed in Rome in 1966 and are still active today.
Started by three young Americans with Masters degrees in music composition from Yale and Princeton, MEV combined an Ivy-League classical pedigree with a tendency towards musical anarchism. Just as their music often involved chance operations, or the use of random procedures, the members of the group met by chance (or was it Providence?) on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome in 1965. Without scores, without conductors, they went like bold explorers into the primeval past of music, and its future. Curran says of the band, “….Composers all, nurtured in renowned ivy gardens; some mowed lawns. They met in Rome, near the Cloaca Maxima—and without further ado, began like experimental archeologists to reconstruct the origins of human music. They collected shards of every audible sound, they amplified the inaudible ones, they declared that any vibrating object was itself ‘music,’ they used electricity as a new musical space and cultural theory, they ultimately laid the groundwork for a new common practice. Every audible gurgle, sigh, thump, scratch, blast, every contrapuntal scrimmage, every wall of sound, every two-bit drone, life-threatening collision, heave of melodic reflux that pointed to unmediated liberation, wailing utopias, or other disappearing acts—anything in fact that hinted at the potential unity among all things, space, and times—were MEV’s ‘materia prima.’”
Curran draws from this same ‘materia prima’ as a prolific musician and composer and by the 1980’s had an established solo career. At the time of this writing that solo career is now long and storied. Crystal Psalms is just one of his many innovative works. It is also just one of a number of pieces he created specifically for radio. To my knowledge it is the most technically complex of the pieces he has written for radio.
Crystal Psalms was unique in its conception and required hard dedicated work to pull off. Perhaps that is why these kind of radio events are rare. Of course their rarity could also be due to the lack of imagination on the part of the corporate media that dominates the airwaves. The project brought together over 300 people, including musicians and technicians, in six major European cities. These musicians and technicians, separated into groups at these six locations, could not see or hear what was happening at the other locations. Yet together they performed as a unified ensemble to realize Curran’s score. In commemorating a dark and destructive moment of human history Curran demonstrated our creative possibilities for international artistic and technological collaboration.
Curran organized the concert in the fall of 1987 at a meeting in Rome. The producers from each of the six radio stations were there. These included Danmarks Radio; Hessicher Rundfunk, Germany, ORF, Austria; Radio France; RAI, Italy; VPRO, Holland. The RAI in Rome was chosen to be the main technical center, and HQ, probably due to the fact that this was the facility closest to the composer. Alvin wrote the music between May and September at his home in Poggidoro, about an hour drive outside the city.
The score was written for six groups of complementary ensembles –one group at each station in each country. These ensembles consisted of a mixed chorus (16-32 voices), a quartet of strings or winds, a percussionist and accordionist. Each of these six groups was conducted independent of each other. And even though they were separated by large distances in space, each of the ensembles played in time together. To accomplish this a recorded time track was heard by each conductor that kept them all synchronized.
Besides the live music, pre-recorded tapes were also used. These tapes were filled with the sounds of Jewish life. Among those heard was the ancient shofar (a ritual ram's horn that has been a mainstay in Curran’s music), recordings of the Yemenite Jews praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall (the “Wailing” Wall). Other sounds on the tape included children from Roman Jewish orphanage, recordings of many famous Eastern European cantors sourced from various sound archives. Curran even included sounds from his family. He recorded his young niece singing her Bat Mitzvah prayers and his father singing in Yiddish at a family get-together. Birds, trains, and ship horns make appearances. But throughout it all is the sound of breaking glass. Meanwhile the live chorus is singing fragments from the Renaissance Jewish composers Salomone Rossi from Italy and another named Caceres from a famous Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. Curran also used choral fragments from versions of the Jewish liturgy composed Lewandowski and Sulzer in the 19th century.
Crystal Psalms is made up of two long sections, 24 minutes, and 29 minutes. tructured in two contiguous sections. In the first there is a ton of percussion created from fallen and thrown objects. Amidst all these heavy sounds he used an 18-voice polyphonic structure to weave an increasingly dense texture from the musical fragments being carried by each "voice". As these fragments repeat the weave is brought ever closer together.
In the second part elements from the pre-recorded tape are more apparent. It moves from one moment to the next, one location or place in time before jumping to something else. Curran says, “Here tonal chords are anchored to nothing, innocent children recite their lessons in the midst of raging international chaos.” Idling cars, Yiddish lullaby’s, are separated by glass breaking, and all undergirded by moments on the accordion, organ and fiddles. A familiar melody will quickly disappear when blasted by noise. A solemn choir sings amidst the sound of someone shuffling through the debris. Fog horns drift in and out as telephones go unanswered. The listener with an ear for classical music will recognize bits of Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” turned into a menacing loop. At the end of it all, the cawing of menacing crows, a murder of crows, who have come feed off the destruction.
Curran writes of his piece that “There is no guiding text other than the mysterious reccurring sounds of the Hebrew alphabet and the recitation of disconnected numbers in German, so the listeners, like the musicians, are left to navigate in a sea of structured disorder with nothing but blind faith and the clothes on their backs -- survivors of raw sonic history.”
The event of the radio broadcast was for Curran a very special moment. In creating it, this experience of human artistic and technological collaboration, existed for him alongside the memory of the inhuman pogrom memorialized on its 50th anniversary. Curran say, “By focusing on this almost incomprehensible moment in our recent history, I do not intend to offer yet another lesson on the Holocaust, but simply wish to make a clear personal musical statement and to solicit a conscious act of remembering -- remembering not only this moment of unparalleled human madness of fifty years ago, but of all crimes against humanity anywhere anytime. Without remembering there is no learning; without learning no remembering. And without remembering and learning there is no survival.”
The radio concert was a one off event, never to be performed live again. However recordings from each of the stations involved were made and in 1991 Alvin remixed these into an album. Writing about all of this I’m reminded of something the American folk-singer and storyteller Utah Philips said in regards to memory. “…the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we're going, but where we want to go.”
Let us remember then, the stories in history, personal or global, we would do well not to repeat and those other stories where people work together towards a common good. Just as this day is the product of all our past actions, so tomorrow will be built on what we do today.
Crystal Psalms, New Albion records, 1994
This article originally appeared in the March issue of the Q-Fiver, the newsletter of the Oh-Ky-In Amateur Radio Society.
Read the rest of the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.