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It's the final night for the Equinox, an underground punk club crammed into a central Phoenix office space, and Xs mark the spot. About 120 punkers have gathered to pay their last respects to the venue, listening as the local Christian hard-core band Overcome grinds away in a back corner. Several of the audience members have cloth Xs pinned to their backpacks. A few others have the symbol tattooed on their knuckles. Two strips of medical tape form an X on the toilet lid in a unisex bathroom. And many of the punk rockers have drawn large Xs in black Magic Marker on the backs of empty hands that, at other Valley punk shows, would likely be holding a beer bottle, a Death brand cigarette, or a small plastic bag of pink powder.
That's because for these kids, "X" stands for "straight edge," a growing faction within the punk-rock subculture that stands against tobacco, alcohol, speed and all the other pollutants legendary punkers like Sid Vicious and Darby Crash poisoned themselves with.
"More than anything, [straight edge] is a chemical-free way to live," explains Eric Corder, who co-edits the Phoenix straight-edge 'zine Catch Phraze with Shelly Delbridge. "A lot of people have crutches in one form or another. Straight edge is just a rejection of those crutches."
Nationally, straight edge got its start about 15 years ago, and the philosophical movement infiltrated American punk culture via fanzines and the huge popularity among all punkers of the seminal straight-edge band Minor Threat. It's a more recent cultural phenomenon in the Valley, but the straight-edge portion of the local punk scene has evolved enough to have subsects of its own. One is based in central Phoenix, the other in Mesa/Gilbert. And beyond the common "no drugs or booze" philosophy, each scene has a clearly separate identity. Straight edgers everywhere refer to one another as "kids," but most of the Phoenix "kids" are actually between 18 and 23 years old. The East Valley straight edgers are younger, mostly in their mid-teens.
The clearest division between the scenes is along spiritual lines. Like most punks, Phoenix straight edgers express disdain for organized religion. By contrast, the Mesa/Gilbert scene has a strong Christian contingent, based around Overcome (whose members follow a straight-edge lifestyle, but prefer the term "Christian hard-core" to describe their music and philosophy). The Valley's other prominent straight-edge band, Tho Ko Losi, is claimed by the central Phoenix set (the band's name, pronounced "tow-ko-low-see," is the name of a mythical monkey monster that carries his penis draped over his shoulder).
Kids in both groups either shave their heads or wear their hair short and neat, but they dress differently. Phoenix kids don't usually sport Xs on their hands (although some wear small X necklaces), and they dress like old-school skaters--cut-off shorts or baggy pants, plain white tee shirts or shirts bearing the logo of a straight-edge band or label, and black canvas or suede shoes. East Valley edgers look more athletic, favoring a shirtless look accessorized with sports team caps and new basketball shoes, and they like to "represent" by prominently wearing the X symbol somewhere on their body.
Delbridge, a core member of the central Phoenix scene, says the two crowds even have their own dances. "Those other kids [in the East Valley], they have this windmill dance. They spin their arms around. Here in Phoenix, they just stand there, or maybe nod their heads."
Straight-edge veterans in this city mark the dawn of their scene at 1986, when a group of East Valley friends formed the area's first two straight-edge bands, Youth Under Control (later called Wind of Change) and Last Option (Youth Under Control drummer Eric Astor went on to found the notable Virginia-based indie label Art Monk Construction).
Eryc Simmerer was a junior high straight-edge punker at that time, and later promoted all-ages straight-edge shows at the downtown Phoenix club the Silver Dollar, which is now buried under the Arizona Diamondbacks stadium-in-progress.
"Around the time of Wind of Change and Last Option, there were a few places that would put on all-ages shows," Simmerer says. "The Metro, Prizms, the Mason Jar . . . Around 1987, all the places fell through, except the Mason Jar, and after that it became a warehouse thing."
Overcome front man Jason Stinson says that when he graduated from junior high in the late '80s, the Valley straight-edge scene was tiny--he only knew two or three other kids. Now, he can unfurl a list of good straight-edge boys and girls long enough to make Santa proud, and the scene is growing. A year and a half ago, a hard-core straight-edge band was grateful to play for an audience of 50. Two months ago, nearly 400 people attended an Overcome show at a church in Mesa.
Delbridge estimates there are a few hundred kids in the Valley who listen to straight-edge punk bands and follow the lifestyle. However, she says there are only about 20 core members of the Phoenix scene, compared with 50 in the East Valley.
The Valley straight-edge scene lacked a place to call its own until last September, when Justin Eavenson, a Phoenix straight edger, and some friends founded the Equinox after throwing a few shows in Eavenson's father's office space. The Equinox was shut down this past April after neighbors complained to the landlord about all the kids hanging around late at night. At several Equinox shows, more than 150 people were crammed into the venue's single room, making the floor of the second-story space sag dramatically.