Joining and Leaving the Straight-Edge Community

Jaden Urban reports on the hardcore punk subculture whose members refrain from using alcohol, tobacco, and other recreational drugs, but who sometimes have many disagreements about what it means within their own ranks. The Reno scene which used to be huge seems to have somewhat dissipated.

Photo taken by Spencer Chamberlin with permission to use.

History of Straight-Edge

The term “Straight-Edge” has been thrown around when talking about people who aren’t risky or who don’t partake in drinking or recreational drugs. It’s commonly used by the younger generation to coin people who don’t party or go out very much. However, there’s a strong subculture that uses the term to pride themselves and give themselves a community to which they belong.

In 1970s and 1980s, the hardcore punk scene was ramping up in the music scene. Punk music provided a culture that invited thrash and heavy rock music and heavy drug-use. The ‘live fast, die young’ ideology was very much prevalent, although that lifestyle can come with severe consequences. The Sex Pistols bassist, Sid Vicious died from a heroin overdose and fans were also a subject to the consequences of excessive drug use.

In 1981, a hardcore punk band by the name of Minor Threat released a song titled, “Straight Edge” where the band criticized the punk realm’s reckless lifestyle and called for people to think twice about the decisions they were making. With provocative lyrics such as, “But I’ve got better things to do than sit around and smoke dope,” and “Hang out with the living dead. Snort white shit up my nose. Pass out at the shows” the song then sparked the straight-edge movement. Some members even take it as far with not having sex and following a vegan diet.

“It’s just that one thing that society considers a normal thing that we don’t partake in,” James Moore, a current member of the straight-edge community, said. “I think people then look at us weird, because we don’t do this thing that is viewed as so normal, but we are just regular people outside of that… I knew if I started a habit really young that it would just get worse as time went on, so I didn’t want to partake at all.”

I liken it to like, think of a type of food you don’t like or a type of drink you don’t like. You just don’t think about drinking because you don’t like it,” said Moore.

“Everyone’s different. There’s some people that can drink, do drugs and party and maintain a really normal life. I don’t have any problem with that. I think a lot of people would benefit from questioning drugs’ and alcohol’s role in their life and how much of their consumption is based off desire and how much it’s based on habit or compulsion. I think a lot of people don’t have as much control over their consumption as they think they do. Everybody’s got their own way of doing things. It would be kind of fucked up of me to expect people to be cool with me when I’m like, ‘Hey I don’t drink’ and then on the other hand be like ‘well you drink, that’s stupid. Why would you do that?’ I think it’s hypocritical. I know straight edge has a reputation of that because we don’t drink, do drugs or anything like that, that we hate people that do it and it’s not like that. It’s not for us, it’s just not my thing.”

According to Moore, Reno’s straight-edge punk scene has died down a bit.

“Reno actually used to have an incredible straight-edge scene, like disproportionately for the size of the city,” said Moore. “There was an incredible hardcore and punk scene. There’s a lot of really famous hardcore and punk bands from Reno. There’s 7 Seconds, which is one of the most famous hardcore punk bands ever. There’s a band called AFB… Reno had a really solid straight-edge and hardcore. In the last four or five years it’s kind of diminished or fallen apart. There’s not as many shows as there used to be, so there’s not as many straight-edge people. Once the bands stopped coming, people started to drop-out.”

James Moore shows off his straight-edge tattoo and his broken watch that was a result of an intense mosh pit at a straight-edge punk concert. Photo taken by Christain Gutierrez with permission to use.

Punk and Straight Edge is like a PB&J

Given the straight-edge movement originated from the punk band Minor Threat it was inevitable that the music genre and the subculture would go hand-and-hand with one another.

“Straight-edge and music are inseparable from one another,” said Moore. “They’re one and the same, they can’t exist without each other. It’s almost entirely revolved around music. That’s ultimately where the culture is.”

Originally shows started in bars because that is the only type of place that would host punk shows. Punk shows involve an intense gathering that includes stage-diving, mosh-pitting, breaking things and hurting others. Regular concert venues didn’t want that type of crowd, so the only place where fans could go see these shows would be at bars.

This is ultimately where the infamous ‘X’ symbol came into play for the straight-edge community. Most of the straight-edge punk scene consisted of underage people that couldn’t drink at bars, so when fans would flock to see these shows, the only way they could be allowed in was to have an X marked on their hands so the bartenders couldn’t sell drinks to underage people. This is why commonly straight-edge people will have X tattoos all over their body.

“Hardcore shows are really intense,” said Moore. “The show itself is a big release of energy. I’m exhausted usually at the end of the show. It feels like I just got done working out.”

Injury suffered from a moshpit incident from Moore’s Instagram.

Selling Out and Being a Comeback Kid

Most of the members who have joined the group have never partaken in the use of drugs and alcohol.

“That’s kind of, part of the whole idea of straight-edge is you only get one shot,” said Moore. “If at some point I had decided I wanted to start drinking or smoking, the term is called ‘selling out’. Once you’ve sold out you can never come back. I mean you can be sober and still go to shows and stuff like that, but you can’t be straight edge again. That’s kind of the whole point with being straight edge. It’s a lifetime commitment.”

Although most members won’t accept people who have abandoned the rules of the group, people who have left and want to come back to the straightedge community are termed, “Comeback Kid”. It is a controversial thing as some members won’t take you seriously, but you can still try and adopt the lifestyle for yourself.

“No one’s going to take you seriously,” said Moore. “If you’re like I’m straight-edge, but I drink sometimes, you’re not really straight-edge. It’s like saying I’m vegan, but I eat meat sometimes or I’m Catholic, but sometimes I do Islamic prayers. It doesn’t make sense, you have to be consistent… Back in the 90s it was pretty strict. Some people would get beat up for it. If you sold out you could get beat up and really hurt from it. It’s not that big of a deal now. I’ve had friends sell out and I haven’t done anything like that.”

Samson Walsh says he sold out at 24, after being straight-edge for 12 years. He decided to get drunk with his friends one night as he had thought about leaving the straight-edge community for a while. He claimed straight-edge when he was young due to the addiction that ran throughout his family. His father died of a drug overdose when Sam was 17.

“It’s a whole different subculture now. With every generation that goes into this subculture, a lot of things start changing. When it started it was just a positive thing for kids to stray away from the typical punk scene… The generation after that, people became very violent and militant. People were beating people up just for smoking cigarettes, just for drinking beer and stuff like that. That’s when it became a gang in Nevada, Utah and Massachusetts. I came in at the tail-end of that generation, so I still got that kind of violent situation, but I didn’t join it for that reason. I just wanted something for myself and to be able to express myself. To be able to grow up without seeing the kids that I grew up with, going down the same path.”

However, after some time, Walsh realized the lifestyle wasn’t for him anymore.

“By the time I was 24 I realized I’m not going to do meth, so this isn’t really a thing for me,” he said. “It was just something I couldn’t really back anymore… It wasn’t the same for me, that it was for me, 12 years ago. I didn’t sell out to go drink and to go party, I sold just because it wasn’t for me anymore… If I’m thinking about it, it’s time to go. In my opinion it’s not something you can just think about doing because at that point you’ve already convinced yourself that it’s not for you.”

A straight-edge tattoo Walsh got showcasing the ‘X’ symbol. Photo by Jaden Urban

Change of Lifestyle Doesn’t Always Mean Change of Relationship

From an outside and looking in perspective it could be difficult to see straight-edge people hanging out with others who don’t. Moore doesn’t quite see it that way.

“I have a lot of friends that aren’t straight-edge,” said Moore. “If you’re going to be like, ‘I’m only going to be friends with straight-edge people’ you’re going to be very lonely. Like my girlfriend, she’s not straight-edge and I don’t care. She drinks and it’s fine because she doesn’t get out of control… I have had a couple friendships end because some of them did ultimately decided to sell out. For me, when I’m really close to someone, like my best friend, I’ve had two best friends sellout and it kind of ruined the friendship, not in a sense of like; I don’t hate them or anything, but we just kind of stopped having stuff in common. Like they stopped going to shows, they stopped listening to the same music I did, they stopped having the same interests. They just wanted to go to the bars and get fucked up.”

Walsh has seen a lot of friends, like him, leave the straight-edge community, but it has resulted in terrible consequences.

“I cannot tell you how many kids have ODed since I have been out of high school,” Walsh said. “I’ve only been out of high school for 10 years. A lot of them went balls to the wall when they sold out. When they sold out a lot of them said ‘I need to catch up to my friends’. I’ve seen kids blacking out daily, doing a bunch of drugs. Some of the most hardcore straight-edge people I have ever met are now addicted to heroin.”

Straight-edge or not, at the end of the day, human beings are human beings. Straight-edge does provide a group where some kids finally find where they belong.

“Especially when you’re young and looking for a group to belong to, straight-edge usually calls to a lot of people,” said Moore. “That’s probably what happened to me, I was like 14 and was just trying to find something to do, somewhere to be and I was like dude I like the music and I don’t like drinking this seems perfect.”

Reporting by Jaden Urban for the Reynolds Sandbox

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