A lapsed straightedge devotee revisits the music of his youth

A lapsed straightedge devotee revisits the music of his youth

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and videogames whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

Last month—one week after my 40th birthday—I found myself onstage in a dark, dirty warehouse venue. A bunch of punk rockers, many of them 15 years my junior, danced in front of me. A bass guitar was strapped to my body. I was jumping up and down and screaming. And I was playing a cover song. That song was 7 Seconds’ “Young ’Til I Die.”

Even at 40, I’m not as old as the man who wrote (and continues to sing) “Young ’Til I Die.” Kevin Seconds, the singer of 7 Seconds, turned 51 this year. And, yes, he still goes by the same punk pseudonym he’s been using since he was 18. According to him, he also continues to support a thing known as the straightedge lifestyle. Straightedge is a subculture that 7 Seconds helped spread in the ’80s—a movement inadvertently founded by one of 7 Seconds’ main influences, the trailblazing hardcore band Minor Threat. In particular, it’s Minor Threat’s 1981 anthem “Straight Edge” that caused thousands of teenaged punks to throw down their beers and bongs, draw large Xs on the backs of their hands, and devote themselves to being drug- and alcohol-free.

“I’m a person just like you / But I’ve got better things to do / Than sit around and smoke dope / ’Cause I know I can cope,” shouts frontman Ian MacKaye on Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge.” On its sister song, “Out Of Step (With The World),” he puts an even finer point on it: “I don’t drink / I don’t smoke / I don’t fuck / At least I can fucking think!” MacKaye went on to write subtler music in a number of great bands, most notably the post-hardcore pioneer Fugazi. But in Minor Threat, he was equal parts preacher and punk. Even the Xs he drew on his hands—appropriated from the marks that doormen at rock shows would give to kids who were too young to legally drink at the bar—bear a resemblance to crosses. But straightedge wasn’t a Christian thing. Besides railing against illicit substances and premarital sex (or at least promiscuity), MacKaye was vehemently anti-religion: “Your brain is clay / What’s going on? / You picked up a Bible / And now you’re gone,” goes another Minor Threat classic, “Filler.”

That raises the question: Why would so many supposedly rebellious, freethinking punks want to take orders from a drill sergeant like MacKaye? Especially when those orders are so blatantly puritanical? After all, this was the ’80s. Nancy Reagan—the wife of the president that punks hated with a passion bordering on obsession—was telling the children of America to Just Say No. Wasn’t the paradox obvious?

Punk and paradox, though, have always gone hand in hand. Just look at the Sex Pistols: building a movement out of nihilism, making a career of anti-careerism, rejecting rock ’n’ roll while playing it in its undiluted form. But where did rejecting alcohol and drugs enter the equation? It’s always fun (although never quite accurate) to speculate that Jonathan Richman’s proto-punk outfit The Modern Lovers—a band the Sex Pistols revered—somehow helped lay the groundwork for straightedge way back in the early ’70s with its anti-stoner anthem, “I’m Straight.” 

It’s a safe bet that hardcore kids in the early ’80s didn’t listen to a lot of Modern Lovers, though. They probably didn’t listen to the Sex Pistols much, either. There’s an insularity to the original hardcore movement that helped it mutate at an exhilarating rate—but that also led to weird, inbred offshoots like straightedge. At first, it was a sensible reaction: At the root of Minor Threat’s ‘Straight Edge” and “Out Of Step” is a plea for order, sensibility, and humanity in a scene full of violence and self-destruction. Maybe it was an ironic twist on the word “hardcore” itself, which originally connoted narcotics and pornography. In any case, a certain segment of hardcore kids around the country decided to take up MacKaye’s challenge and make straightedge their calling—and in some cases their cult.

I can’t speak for them, but I can speak for myself. I was 16 in 1988, and that’s when I decided to start calling myself straightedge. In a way, though, I already was straightedge. Before I discovered Minor Threat and 7 Seconds, I was terrified of alcohol. I grew up in a family full of drunks and drug users. And drug growers. And drug dealers. And poverty, neglect, domestic violence, you name it. I’d been taking sips off my mom’s beers since I was in kindergarten. It was encouraged. My mom (bless her now-sober heart) even pulled my little brother and me aside when we were teenagers and told us that if we ever wanted to try a drug—any drug—we should ask her. That way she could take it with us, at home, where she wouldn’t have to worry about the quality of the substance or having us pass out in some stranger’s house or something.

That was what passed for parental responsibility in my house. And my brother took my mom up on her offer, probably no more than five minutes after that little talk was finished. But after my friend James and I got blitzed on a six-pack—supplied by my mom, of course—when I was 16, I decided it wasn’t for me. I was at the age where I was rejecting a lot of things I’d grown up around. That included all the white-trash music like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd that my mom listened to (music I now adore, naturally). Instead, I reached for punk rock. Groups like The Clash, Black Flag, and The Exploited came first. Soon, though, I stumbled across two late-’80s bands that served as my gateway to straightedge: No For An Answer and Youth Of Today.

Unlike Minor Threat and 7 Seconds—both of which wrote relatively catchy songs rooted in ’70s punk; Minor Threat even covered Wire’s “12XU”—No For An Answer and Youth Of Today played a tighter, meaner form of straightedge hardcore. It was the beginning of what would become known as militant straightedge, an offshoot of the movement that was far more violent, dogmatic, and confrontational, to the point where militant straightedge kids would go around slapping cigarettes out of people’s mouths, vandalizing fur stores (veganism and animal rights became absorbed by militants and non-militants alike), and even going so far as to embrace pro-life views. I didn’t know any of that at the time, though. All I knew was this: I’d finally found some music that would piss off my pot-smoking, Molly Hatchet-listening mom.

That wasn’t my main motive, though. I genuinely loved straightedge hardcore. It was tougher than punk, cruder than metal. After immersing myself in No For An Answer’s A Thought Crusade (the chilling, Orwellian connotations of the title eluded me) and Youth Of Today’s eternally spectacular Break Down The Walls, I backtracked and boned up on Minor Threat and 7 Seconds. Then I started going nuts, picking up every straightedge record I could find and afford. The funny thing is, straightedge hardcore was far from the only thing I loved as a teenager. I was a voracious music fan. It probably didn’t make a lot of sense that I’d listen to Syd Barrett’s disjointed, brain-fried psychedelia—stone sober myself, mind you—directly after blasting Chain Of Strength’s indelible straightedge rallying cry, “True Till Death.”

“True Till Death” is a pivotal song. For many straightedge kids, it became a self-nullifying prophecy. By stridently pledging to remain drug-free for life, many straightedge kids were simply setting themselves up for a major backslide. I was one of them. Granted, it took me longer than most of my peers to lose my edge. “True Till 21,” goes the joke—but I was a wizened 27 before I finally succumbed to social pressures, anxiety, depression, and a particularly lousy breakup, all of which sparked my inevitable dive into the nearest bottle of Budweiser. Or perhaps it was a pint of Guinness. My recall of those times is a little fuzzy.

I had another reason. By the time I turned to drinking in the late ’90s, straightedge music sucked. It had been turning sour for a while. What was once bright-eyed and bushy-tailed had become dour, brooding, and nauseatingly macho, not to mention style-obsessed: Suddenly, you had to wear the right sports gear to look the part. I was a slob who still shopped at thrift stores. After getting out of high school in 1990, I started meeting other straightedge kids—but most of them turned out to be uptight, jock-mentality assholes. The scene, which I was way too antisocial to ever fully commit to, began to swarm with rich kids to whom I couldn’t relate. Straightedge as a whole was sinking into the simmering, misanthropic sludge of groups like Earth Crisis and Unbroken, meanwhile losing the youthful, positive exuberance of 7 Seconds and Gorilla Biscuits.

I hated Earth Crisis’ grinding, chest-thumping thuggishness—but I grew to love Unbroken’s discordant, death-fixated insanity, a sound that owed as much to Slayer as it did to Youth Of Today. (Three years after the 1995 breakup of Unbroken, guitarist Eric Allen committed suicide, casting an even darker pall over the band’s legacy.) Straightedge as I knew it had disintegrated. Around ’95 or so, I stopped calling myself straightedge. With that label stripped off, abstaining from alcohol seemed kind of pointless. And as it turned out, all those sips of my mom’s beer I’d taken as a kid had given me a latent taste for the stuff. It soon got the point where I’d visit my friend Mark in San Francisco, get shitfaced on Anchor Steam by 11 a.m., and spend all afternoon drunkenly yelling along with his old straightedge records.

And so began my decade of inebriation. It wasn't pretty. Making up for lost time? The cliché rang true. I still occasionally threw on some straightedge hardcore, but I’d been listening to so many kinds of music for so long, it’s not like I really missed that side dish of shout-y sanctimony. Following a couple of really bad years, though, I wound up going cold turkey and drying out. At that time, I was nearing my late 30s. It wasn’t like I was going to rejoin the straightedge congregation—despite the fact that I’ve never smoked or done drugs. Really, my bout with the bottle is a lot less heretical than the heroin habits that some ex-straightedge folks wind up with. (Let’s just avoid talking about the sex part of the equation, though, okay? It’s not like any straightedge kids I knew ever took that seriously anyway.)

So after all that, what was I—a newly minted 40-year-old—doing onstage covering 7 Seconds last month? In a nutshell: An acquaintance of mine was moving away, and he wanted to put together a 7 Seconds tribute band as part of his farewell celebration. Seeing as how I’d already covered 7 Seconds in my first punk band back in the ’90s, I was in. 

But a funny thing happened as we started convening in the singer’s basement to practice our 7 Seconds set. Between songs and swigs of Diet Coke, we started reminiscing about straightedge. Our ad hoc outfit comprised one lifelong ’edge dude and three guys who had dabbled in that lifestyle to various degrees in their youths. It was awesome to compare stories, argue over favorite records, and correct each other’s shitty recollection of straightedge mythology. I started digging up some of those old tunes and listening with new ears. Some of it doesn’t hold up so well; for instance, the Boston straightedge legend DYS sounds like crap to me now, and I’m not just saying that because leader Dave Smalley eventually helped launch the conservative-punk movement. (Yes, sadly, that’s a thing). My bias aside, DYS’ music really does sound like a bunch of muddy, mean-spirited shit. Sample lyrics: “Wolfpack! / Don’t give us any shit! / Wolfpack! / You’re gonna get hit!” Whatever.

On the other hand, I dug up some enduring classics—for instance, one of Smalley’s other bands, Dag Nasty. Not that I ever really stopped listening to Dag Nasty. The group’s 1986 debut, Can I Say, was the brainchild of Minor Threat’s Brian Baker (now of Bad Religion). It also features Smalley, who had just left DYS, on vocals. That’s one hell of a pedigree. Still, Dag Nasty was never considered a purely straightedge band, even though some of Can I Say’s songs are definitely cut from that cloth—especially “Under Your Influence,” with its accusatory refrain, “Twelve ounces of courage / Make the world look better.” Which, by the way, is great line to sing along with when you’re wasted. 

It was during my sentimental rehearsals with the cover band that I was hit by the irony of 7 Seconds’ “Young ’Til I Die”: Its plea for perpetual adolescence actually makes more sense the older I get, not less. It’s easy for a 22-year-old kid—say, Kevin Seconds circa 1983—to vow, “I’m gonna stay young until I die!” Easy and kind of meaningless. At 22, who the fuck knows anything about growing old? Or staying true? Or addiction or temptation or redemption or perseverance? Even the most precocious young alcoholic needs at least a solid decade of drunkenness under the belt before truly understanding what substance abuse can do to your mind and body—and the minds and bodies of those around you. 

But there I go again, sounding like a judgmental straightedge kid. Old habits die hard. That said, I’ve sobered up to the point where I can enjoy a glass of wine or a beer with dinner and not have it automatically turn into an avalanche of whiskey shots. I didn’t dare drink a drop the night of our 7 Seconds tribute show, though. Honestly, I was a little worried. Was a gang of snot-nosed little hardliners going to show up? After all, straightedge has never gone away; there are still old bands and new bands out there, roaring away in the name of circle pits and sobriety. Maybe some of these new-schoolers were going to kick our decrepit asses for daring to blaspheme the scripture of 7 Seconds.

But when I arrived at the warehouse for the show, all my worries evaporated. Almost everyone in the crowd was holding a can of beer. While watching the opening bands, I pondered—not for the first time, but from a freshly grizzled perspective—the weird dichotomy of straightedge. Punks, as Ian MacKaye once sang, are out of step with the world. And yet, some punks feel out of step with other punks—which somehow, at some point, led to a fanatical realignment with the most mainstream of societal standards, namely the belief that young people shouldn’t smoke, drink, or fuck. It’s a pretty twisted way of looking at punk. And the world. Which is surely why MacKaye long ago disowned the movement he fathered—although I’m guessing he also might have done it because he secretly smokes a ton of weed. (Okay, probably not. Still, have you ever seen Fugazi play one of its 20-minute jams? It’s like hardcore Phish.)

So eventually the time came, and we played our set. It felt great. Drunk on adrenaline and nostalgia, I let myself just spazz out. It was as if my sad, lost decade of being alternately hammered and hungover had never happened. My favorite part of the show, though, was the encore. I passed the bass to our singer, and I took the microphone. We tore open a couple trash bags full of red balloons that we’d inflated for the occasion—then we tossed them out to the crowd as we started playing “99 Red Balloons.” It was a cover of a cover; in 1985, 7 Seconds recorded a punky version of the new-wave anthem, originally performed by the German one-hit wonder Nena. With the mic reeking of sweat and spit, I barked out the first verse. Everyone shouted along. Balloons started popping. Beer sloshed all over the place. What could I do? Like Kevin Seconds with his last red balloon, I thought of straightedge… and let it go.