White Punks on Hope

What's punk rock without the beer and nihilism? Better, according to members of the Valley's "straight edge" punk scene.

Eavenson found another space at 36th Street and Broadway Road, which had a full but short life from June 7 to July 30. In that time, the Inclusion Art Space put on more than 50 shows. But on the night of July 30, the police raided it, and its managers were cited for zoning violations and charging admissions without a business license (see this week's Coda on page 106 for the full story). Now, Phoenix straight edgers are wandering the concrete jungle looking for a home.

Drawing the Line
Straight edge was born around the same time as many of its younger current practitioners. It was the early '80s, and the glue-sniffing, heroin-chipping excesses of the notorious L.A. punk scene were in full swing. The LAPD was regularly swinging billy clubs at punk skulls while breaking up riotous shows.

Members of the L.A. band X (no relation to straight edge) provide one of the most vivid commentaries on that era of punk rock in The Decline of Western Civilization rockumentary when they tell the story of finding a dead house painter in their backyard and leaving him there for several days to amuse their drugged-out friends.

On the opposite coast, musicians in several bands from the Washington, D.C., punk scene started to speak out against the intake of brain-numbing chemicals popular among punkers. Staying clean, they argued, is merely following the politics of punk to its natural conclusion--if punk is supposed to stand against the evil system, and the evil system uses drugs and alcohol to keep people oblivious, then the true punker steers clear of the oblivion.

"Alcohol is used as a tool, kind of like a not-care drug," says Eavenson. "You tend to submit to anything. You're not striving to change anything, you don't care. I know, I used to drink all the time. You just kind of let life go by. You just want to live in this polluted, made-up world."

The drinking age in D.C. was 18 at that time, and a common practice at all-ages punk shows was to mark minors with an "X" on their hands so they couldn't buy alcohol. As the straight-edge philosophy grew popular, punkers who were older than 18 but didn't drink for ideological reasons started to mark themselves with the X in a show of solidarity. The scene had found a symbol.

But it still didn't have a name.
According to legend, the drummer for Minor Threat, one of the first bands to preach the "stay punk, stay clean" ethos, took care of that one night when he was drawing a poster for a show using a wood ruler. He commented to his bandmates that the ruler's straight edge was a metaphor for their lifestyle.

Today, wherever there is punk rock, there is straight edge. The Doughnuts, an all-girl straight-edge band from Sweden, rolled through Phoenix last fall on a world tour. In the ongoing renaissance of punk rock, though, straight edge remains a relatively small slice of the pie. Currently, the most famous straight-edge band is Earth Crisis (the vegan punkers were featured on a recent episode of 48 Hours), which records for the Chicago-based straight-edge label Victory Records. Label owner Tony Victory says the last Earth Crisis album sold 20,000 copies.

The fan base for straight-edge bands may be small, but it is also fiercely loyal, and has concentrated buying power. While a straight-edge band would have to be stoned on something to hope for a platinum recording, anything it releases will have a decent showing. Simmerer says a straight-edge band can expect to sell out a first pressing of 2,000 records within a few months. "Any straight-edge band that puts out a record will do well," he says. "It's just a matter of getting on a label." Some straight-edge punkers get famous without sacrificing their politics--Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye went on to form the hugely successful, highly political indie band Fugazi, and Rage Against the Machine singer Zack DeLarocha got his start in the straight-edge act Hard Stance.

Straight and Narrow . . . Minded?
Straight edge may be a direct offshoot of punk, but a lot of traditional punks don't like straight-edge kids.

"The people who really don't understand are the younger punk kids," says Delbridge. "They're like, 'What? You don't drink? How can you be punk and not drink--isn't that a part of it?'"

There's no question some straight edgers take on the role of moral watchdogs. There are recent reports of straight-edge kids pummeling smokers at punk shows in Chicago and New York.

In a 1995 interview with the Thicker fanzine, Ian MacKaye denounced the stringent attitude prevalent in the culture he is widely credited with founding. "The whole straight-edge thing for me was never about this kind of puritan lifestyle, where I was supposed to be leading the masses toward a better tomorrow," he said.

Developed in the immediate wake of the sexual revolution, the early straight-edge creed was against promiscuity--just another self-destructive force blindly accepted by the masses. "A lot of people don't take the 'don't have sex' thing so seriously anymore," says Eric Corder. "But a lot of people are also still with that. It's basically just about getting free of things that control your mind."

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