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White Punks on Hope

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.

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."

Straight-edge scenes in other cities have divided along lines of hardliner and tolerance. That hasn't happened in the Valley. "Our scene's so small already," says Stinson. "Plus, I don't see how positivity runs in beating people for not believing what you believe." He's referring to the violence hardline straight edgers use to enforce their doctrine on other punks, i.e., the recent beatings of smokers at Chicago and New York shows.

But the Valley scene is divided on the issue of organized religion. Punk-rock literature, including most straight-edge 'zines, often portrays Christianity as a glorified form of crowd control. Nevertheless, on the national level--and locally with Overcome--Christian straight-edge hard-core is establishing itself as a punk genre in its own right. Not to mention Krishna-core. A group of straight-edge Hare Krishnas from New York City called Shelter recently signed to the high-profile Interscope Records.

Members of the central Phoenix straight-edge scene, however, generally hold the typical punk view that "Christian hard-core" is a contradiction in terms. At an Overcome show at the Equinox this spring, one Phoenix straight edger shouted anti-Christian insults at the band.

Eavenson says he tried to bring both Valley scenes together as much as possible at Equinox, and welcomed Overcome. "The spring equinox is the time when night and day are equal. I wanted the Equinox to be a place where everyone could be equal, open to all, hard-core or not, straight edge or not.

"Straight edge is not just about the music. The music is the mouthpiece, but the lifestyle is a launching point to bigger and better things, of a community taking charge of itself.


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