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.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.