Out Of Step With the World
The band Duration takes the stage at Twisters in Richmond, Virg., for their final performance together and the handsome singer with the crystal clear eyes and the tattooed stomach flashes the young crowd a mock screw-you smirk. Then he flashes a toothy smile, and his band kicks into high gear with the eardrum-crushing force that is a requirement for hardcore punk music.All at once, the kids at the edges of the dance floor smash forward, hurling bodies toward the center -- the "pit" -- and the thrashing begins. They dance in flurries of punches and kicks aimed at an invisible enemy, their faces braced for the return hit.The music's pulsing bass lines, frenetic rhythms and enraged vocals push the kids as surely as if someone's fingers were deep in their backs.Kids climb onto the stage and dive off into the waiting arms of the crowd. They flop like tattooed and pierced Raggedy Andys as they are passed and tumbled around. They sweat until the thick permanent-marker Xs on their hands melt away.It's the ultimate high.It's the highest they'll ever get. They swear.They are straight edge.X X X XStraight edge is nothing new. It is a youth movement, an outright rebellion, born out of the hardcore punk rock scene of the early 1980s. Stirred by the lyrics of a song called "Straight Edge" by the seminal punk band Minor Threat, some young people began declaring their purity with a vengeance, making lifelong commitments to stay free of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and promiscuous sex. Straight edgers say their commitment is absolute. Once you fall off the edge, some say, you can't go back."If you slip," says 16-year-old Ryan Coleman, "that means the mindset ... was never there to begin with."The rules of straight edge -- if they can be called rules -- were outlined in 1981 in the song "Straight Edge" by Minor Threat's lead singer, Ian MacKaye, who snarled rather unintelligibly: "I'm a person just like you/But I've got better things to do/Than sit around and f-- my head/Hang out with the living dead/Snort white sh-- up my nose/Pass out at the shows/I don't even think about speed/That's something I just don't need/I've got the straight edge."It was a philosophy articulated most succinctly in their song "Out of Step (with the world)" in which MacKaye simply laid down what would become the tenets of a whole movement: "I don't smoke/Don't drink/Don't f--/At least I can f--ing think ..."The movement exploded in the late 1980s, especially in Washington, D.C., but seemed to skip the grunge generation of the early and mid-'90s. It has found a new receptive audience among teen-agers in the late '90s. Straight edgers are popping up in high schools all over the country, and their numbers are growing in conservative towns that share their values of clean living. Many straight edge kids are vegetarians or vegans, involved in animal-rights activism and environmental causes.A common thread that binds straight edge kids is the desire to keep their minds and bodies clear not only for their own health and welfare, but for the betterment of the community at large and the world around them.Of course, a lot of straight edge kids don't exactly look the clean-living part all the time. While many would pass military muster for short hair and grooming, the look is decidedly counterculture, mixing punk and hip-hop with oversize baggy clothes, with sometimes heavy tattooing and piercing. Some kids wear plugs nearly the size of dimes through their stretched ear piercings."Can you think of how many conservative Republicans would love to hear teen-agers [pledge a lifetime of abstinence from drinking and drugs]?" says Jerry Burd, general manager and talent buyer for Twisters. "To be put down for it is amazing. If one of those religious-right [types] ever met one of these kids without talking to them, they would write them off without knowing the kid is probably more committed to family values than he is."It is rare when kids get to the be the architects of their own rebellion. Rebellion is now manufactured, sold and packaged to kids in the form of logos, brand names and music. Now that gangsta rap has proven it can sell millions, it seems about as authentically "street" as white rapper Vanilla Ice.And whoever first declared, "Rock 'n' roll is dead," was a pop prophet. As an artform it keeps chugging along, but as a revolution and a way for young people to declare their independence, it died long before Kurt Cobain. How can teen-agers possibly rebel with the very music their baby-boomer parents grew up -- and got high -- on?Drugs have always added the sheen to the veneer of rock and roll. The untimely drug-related deaths of artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin elevated them from stars to legends. And today, just as the violent deaths of Tupak Shakur and Biggie Smalls solidify their street credentials to rap fans, death or near-death by overdose authenticates alterna-rockers. Grunge and alternative rock raised addiction to an almost corporate level, with the struggles of Cobain, his wife, Courtney Love, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and the deaths of Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon and Sublime's Brad Nowell trotted out, played up and written about for public consumption.Imagine if kids said, No -- we're not buying into that rebellion anymore. We're starting our own.Now that would be revolutionary.Ryan Coleman sucks down an orange drink from the Subway shop at the corner of Grace and Harrison, waiting for Twisters to open its doors and explaining his philosophy of straight edge. The 16-year old Douglas Southall Freeman junior has called himself straight edge for more than two years.In sixth grade, he says, he experimented with "with smoking and stuff." His parents transferred him from public school to private, but it didn't change what went on around him."I knew a lot of people smoking marijuana," he says.The wiry boy with short-cropped dark hair is nearly swallowed by his oversize clothes. He wears a beaded necklace with three Xs, a straight edge symbol. Some kids scrawl large black Xs on the backs of their hands or forearms, proudly bearing the mark underage kids get at the door of all-ages shows so that bartenders know whom they can and cannot serve.Unlike some of the older kids in the straight edge scene, Coleman remains unpierced and un-inked. He looks like an angel, but don't call him a goody two-shoes.He says, "We do the same things normal teen-agers do ...""We just do it without drugs," chimes in Coleman's friend Gary Maltby, a freshly scrubbed High School junior with freckles splattered across his face.Coleman first heard about straight edge in the ninth grade, when he was introduced to hardcore punk music. For a decision he says is lifelong, he made it without much fanfare. At 16 there is not one doubt in his mind it is a commitment he can uphold his entire life."I think they are the principles everyone should have. For me to say when I'm 30 I'm going to be drinking is a lot more absurd than saying I won't be. Hopefully, unless I get a lobotomy or something, I'll always think the same way, that I'll always be kind to myself. ... I know I always will be," he says taking another sip of orange drink and releasing a man-size belch."Excuse me," he says, keeping a straight face, "while I take a hit of my crack pipe."Outside Twisters, a TV reporter and cameraman from a Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C., work the line of kids for interviews. They are doing a straight edge story, following tonight's headlining band, Strife, one of the most popular straight edge bands on the national scene. The well-tanned reporter's interviews seem to focus on an area some straight edge kids worry gives them a bad name: violence.Many kids on the Richmond scene say there is a handful of troublemakers who give everyone else a bad name. A lot of kids say a recent "Rolanda" show portrayed straight edge kids as intolerant and violent, beating up other kids who don't agree with their lifestyle.Sometimes, straight edgers are compared to skinheads and Nazis. On the World Wide Web, at the straight edge Web site (www.straightedge.com), a posting reads: "You straight edge people are, often, little better than the Nazis ... all your slogans, labels, separatism, "discipline," preaching, self-righteousness.""By the guidelines, it's like a little cult," says one young man selling graffiti magazines outside Twisters. "Some people have their values and need a label to help them out.""If anything, we are less brainwashed" than kids who drink and take drugs, says Ryan Coleman. "We don't have any drug controlling us."One message on the Web site message board posted by "JoJo the Monkey Boy" on April 15 helps perpetuate the reputation for intolerance: "All non-vegans must die!!! That's right liquid meat eaters, time to pay the price!!!!"Locally, a lot of the accusations of violence get laid at the feet of one particular "crew" on the hardcore scene who call themselves Hate-O-Four -- a play on the 804 area code. There are about 20 or so Hate-O-Four kids, about half of whom are straight edge. They have an ongoing rivalry with some kids from Virginia Beach.They have a reputation for fighting that one straight edger says "does more to scare people away [from straight edge].""It's been given a bad name," says Twisters' Burd, 30, who has seen every kind of youth movement out there since his own hardcore-punk days. "To me the straight edge kids have the right idea. They keep their heads clear, drug-free and have a conscience about them."Twisters co-owner Virginia Barnes says the club's once-a-month straight edge shows are generally peaceable. "The real preppy kids are who we sometimes have the problem with."When the doors of Twisters open, the kids filter in, pay their $7 and each person without an I.D. gets two thick, black permanent-marker Xs scrawled on the backs of their hands. There are five bands on the bill tonight. The first band takes the stage and the lead singer, whose blond-tipped dreadlocks squirt from his head like Play-Doh oozing through a Play-Doh Fun Factory, declares, "We're Collapse. This is the first song. Get the f-- up."Replace the tattoos with corsages, the jug of free water with a punch bowl and the punk band with a Top 40 combo and you've basically got any high school dance in the country -- at any predominantly white school, that is. The TV reporter focuses in on this too, grilling the audience about why there are so few black faces among them.It's no secret that hardcore punk music has always attracted a mostly white audience, but straight edge kids say the movement is adamantly anti-racist. Burd, of Twisters, says he sees the right values in the straight edge kids he deals with at his club's shows."All in all, these kids take a positive stance on a lot of issues. There's no sexism, no racism," he says.On the dance floor, the showoffs and jocks set the pace by hogging the foot of the stage, grabbing for the microphone and dancing wildly. The majority of the kids watch from the thick edge of the crowd, clapping politely, nodding their heads or bending their knees subtly to the anything-but-subtle music.A few misfits try desperately to fit in. A doughy girl with an oddly dated Patty Duke-style hairdo wears a forlorn look and a thick ring through the center of her nose. A boy sitting in a booth with his knees bent roofward chews the frayed fringes of the knee holes on his cut-off jeans. A boy in a "got soymilk?" T-shirt stands in the back row of the bleachers and, trying not to be noticed, lifts his right arm and sniffs. After all, a boy's got to be fresh.At one point, while the band Duration (which includes members of the Hate-O-Four crew) is playing, a fight breaks out. The once-rhythmic flurry of arms and legs turns suddenly chaotic as it is obvious that one unseen person at the bottom of a pile is being pummeled. A bouncer comes quickly and drags the boy out. Word gets around that he was a Virginia Beach kid who started a fight down there with a Hate-O-Four kid."You get what you give," Duration lead singer Acie Bryan says later, cooling off outside. "Me personally, I like to fight," adds the 21-year-old house painter, who also boxes and studies judo. "Fighting is such a small part of what Hate-O-Four is about."So what is it about?"It's a family," Bryan replies.For everyone from the popular kid to the loner, it seems that straight edge provides a built-in community."In a society where the message is drink, drink, drink, smoke, smoke, smoke, [it's good to know] somebody else shares these feelings, and I can find comfort in that," says Matt Hume, 18, a freshman at VCU studying mass communications.The scene provides a buffer for kids like Amie McGlothlin, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, who has been straight edge only since December of last year. This year she made the honor roll for the first time since 6th grade. She has a stud in her tongue, and in lieu of tattoos -- which she says are definitely coming -- she inks three small Xs on the inside of her hand near her thumb with a ball-point pen. At 18, she is a virgin. "I do see sex as a drug. I'm not ready for it right now."She says she doesn't know much about how straight edge started. (Of the movement's most important figures, the band Minor Threat, she says, "I know it's a band.") But she knows what it stands for. "It's a really big youth movement of people who don't want their generation to become weedheads and alcoholics. ..."Since I converted I can count how many friends I have," McGlothlin says, shooting her right hand up and spreading her fingers to indicate five. "You realize who your friends are once you make a big life decision."McGlothlin says when she told her best friend of the decision, the friend said, "That's your problem."It's not hard to see why these kids feel out of step. Many of their peers take drugs, their parents drink socially, and casual sex is the fodder of TV sitcoms. When summertime comes, it becomes obvious their own city is enamored of its adult beverages. The beer trucks at Richmond mainstay events like Friday Cheers and Innsbrook After Hours are arguably a more popular draw than the music acts.Straight edgers are sometimes ridiculed for their ideals."We think they are all suburban terrorists from the counties," says one girl at the Twisters show who says she's there simply because she likes the music. Her friend adds, "They were all geeks in high school and use [straight edge] as their front."Indeed, criticism can come from the unlikeliest of places."Trent," who prefers not to use his real name, says he was crushed by his mother's disapproval when he went straight edge. "She honestly told me she would rather me be a beer-drinking frat boy and look nice than dress in those horrible clothes and look stupid."McGlothlin has been luckier with her family."I'm proud of her," says dad Mac. "What I know of [straight edge], I think it's great. There's a lot more to life than drugs and sex." He adds, "I'm not crazy about the piercings and tattoos, but it doesn't bother you as bad [knowing your child is safe]."McGlothlin's 13-year-old brother Titus approves. "I'm glad she turned," he says. "I didn't like her smoking and drinking. I'm not ever gonna smoke or drink."Ben Bateman is a freshman at VCU studying history. The 18-year old with the pierced tongue, tattoos, thick ear piercings, and dyed blond hair would like to teach high school history. His face forms an inverted triangle. He looks something like a punk-rock version of a young George Harrison. The son of a preacher, Bateman started smoking in the 5th grade. That led later to drinking, smoking marijuana, taking an assortment of pills, dropping acid, "huffing" or inhaling brake cleaner, and shooting heroin.His parents had him in therapy and tried to help him through religion and church."I came to the realization one night in my bed that this was something I had to stop doing. What I knew about straight edge was what I'd heard from other people."He converted and never looked back. "I'm an all-or-nothing kind of guy," he says.Even though his transformation was what his parents wanted, Bateman thinks the fact that his victory over drinking and drugs was on his own terms didn't sit well with them. "I think my mother was a little insulted that I did it without her religion," he says.For years, straight edgers have created their own rules. But now this self-created youth revolution is beginning to attract the attention of the rest of the world. Some of those who adhere to straight edge's strict tenets worry the movement is in danger of losing its center with every MTV profile, "Rolanda" broadcast, local news segment and magazine article."[The straight edge scene] is not nearly as interesting as it used to be," says Taylor Steele, by most accounts one of the first -- if not the first -- Richmonder to call himself straight edge.At 31, Steele, a VCU social work student and former lead singer of the now-defunct Richmond hardcore band Four Walls Falling, says he still follows straight edge's rules. He still goes to shows now and again, but it's been seven or eight years since he's gotten into the mosh pit.In a UCLA Bruins baseball cap and University of Virginia hooded sweatshirt, he looks like any student. Gone are the combat boots and punk gear. Only his blond-tipped brown hair gives an indication of his hardcore youth."It's not a look," he says. "It's how you live your life."He is, for some of the younger straight edge kids, proof that the commitment can be maintained long-term, if not forever. He has ridden the straight edge movement through the swells and ebbs, he's watched it hide in the shadows of the underground, and poke its head out into the light of the mainstream.Now, as straight edge gains in popularity -- and converts -- it's hard to tell the die-hards from the poseurs.Many straight edge kids worry that too much media exposure will ruin the movement. Unlike mainstream movements that must grow or die, in the underground it's often grow and die."The more people there are involved in it, the more factions split off," Steele says."I personally despise straight edge now," says "Trent" who used to call himself straight edge. He says he still lives by the principles but has shed the label."To a lot of the kids," says Matt Hume, a VCU freshman, "being straight edge is a fashion show."Amid the blare of the music at Twisters, the TV reporter straddles a bar stool with his back to the stage and mosh pit, hooks a tiny microphone to the lapel of his expensive-looking sport jacket and looks into the camera, which is now behind the bar. He's got it all down now, everything you need to know about straight edge, and he's ready to sell it. Eyes fixed on the camera, hands choreographed in firm movements, he begins: "You and I might not understand the lyrics, but they do," he says, all but drowned out by the music. "Kids all across the country ..."He doesn't like the take and he tries again -- this time from the edge of the crowd, walking to the barstool and sitting down."You and I might not understand the lyrics, but they do. Kids all across the country ..."