Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History
by Tony Rettman
Drugs were never as big in the punk scene as in disco, hard rock or EDM. But this abstinence goes further; a subset of the punks swore off alcohol and any other “substances” completely which, if nothing else, limited the violence always lurking just under the thrash metal concert scene. This anecdote-filled book is one of the densest books I’ve picked up: not dense in the literary sense of long sentences and big words but in the physical sense of “Wow, this book sure weights a lot!” I’m not kidding; for some reason this book exudes gravitas even as it tires your arms.
We hear Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat) discuss how a “toxic element” crept into the D.C. scene after the initial flush of punk passed. Jeff Nelson (Teen Idles) talks about starting Dischord Records with $600 the band saved from gigs. I’ll say this about these punks: they sure can stretch a dime. More touching is Kevin Seconds (7 Seconds) and his tale of aggressive rejection by his fans when he dares to play something melodic. Punk relished purity above all else at this point in music history.
The rock and roll excesses of drugs and booze are well known, and the shopping list of dead pop stars is long and painful. But in the hard-core punk scene, that sin is out of fashion and has been since 1980 or so. The story goes like this: some all-ages venues marked the underage with a black Magic Marker “X” on the back of their hands so they couldn’t get beer. This mark transformed into the colors of the later punk scene: guys got X tattoos on their hand and swore off alcohol. Call it a new puritanism, call it kids acting responsible, call it what you will, it’s a major part of the scene.
This book takes short quotes from dozens, even hundreds of punks and their attitude toward straight edge. Longer interviews focus on bands and their viewpoint; nearly everybody anywhere near the skin head, punk and hardcore artists gets their say. This isn’t a book that one would easily sit down and read through; its more like a sampling of attitudes and memories, and more suited for skipping around in. The stories feel similar and a bit self-congratulatory. It’s astounding how many of the interviews were “just walking down the street when these guys jumped them” or took a beating for their purposeful eccentric clothing styles. But that’s youth; we remember it not only as a time to expand, but a time to look back on and burnish. I congratulate those who stay clean and dry; their cohort of rockers won’t be kicking off as fast from their appetite for opiates and depressants. This book is weirdly inspirational; out of the chaos and anarchy and morbid existentialism of punk there rises a new puritanism. It really DOES take a reformed sinner to spread the good news.