In 1987, my husband Aaron, then 15, was playing a video game on St. Mark’s Place in New York City when a stranger on the sidewalk invited him to a show at CBGB. He’d been to metal shows there before, but he’d never seen live straight edge hardcore. Curious, he followed his new friend downtown.
The only problem was that he was drunk. And the rest of the crowd at the club - founded on the punk of the 1970s but known in the 1980s for its Sunday “all ages” matinees - was not. This was the world of youth crew straight edge, where teenagers sang the merits of clean living—no drugs, no drinking, no smoking. But these weren’t choir boys. Their music was as hard and as fast as anything else that had come out of CBGB.
While the lifestyle often promoted a positive youth culture, the shows themselves sometimes violently enforced that lifestyle. And at certain shows, with certain crews, anyone caught smoking or drinking was thrown out, if not jumped.
So, entering the club for the first time, Aaron found himself doing everything he could to sober up - he couldn’t let on how drunk he was. He could have walked out if he wanted to. But he stayed for the music. It was the music that grabbed him, the hardcore siren call. In my imagination, it was that moment that he became hooked on straight edge, and it wasn’t long before he gave up drugs himself and devoted himself to the scene. Over the next few years, he spent countless weekends at CBGB as well as the other New York clubs that became sites for straight edge - Wetlands, Tramps, the Pyramid, the Ritz, the Limelight, ABC No Rio. He’d done a 180.
That moment of transition - the moment the switch was flipped - was the basis for a pivotal scene in my novel, Ten Thousand Saints, a book about a teenage boy named Jude who moves from a small town in Vermont to New York City after his best friend, Teddy, dies of a drug overdose. When Teddy’s older brother, a straight edge guru in a hardcore band, takes him to his first show at CBGB, Jude is tripping on mushrooms he’d bought in Tompkins Square Park. They follow up the show with a visit to the Hare Krishna temple in Brooklyn, where Jude, in a drugged-out trance, accidentally sets his arm on fire and lands in the ER, undergoing what his father, half relieved, half wary, calls “an eight-hundred dollar conversion experience".
As a writer coming from outside the straight edge scene, several years after my husband’s involvement in it ended, my stance was similar to Jude’s parents’. I was impressed by the straight edge lifestyle, admired its DIY ethos and its bold, abrasive music. But at the same time, it seemed too good to be true. What would draw these kids to such an extreme lifestyle? I wondered. What did it offer them? What did it answer? And was it really possible to be “true till death”?
For many of the kids who identified as straight edge during this period—including Aaron and Jude—straight edge was a means of self-transformation, of cleaning up their own lives and moving dramatically away from the model set by the flower children of their parents’ generation. Straight edge was all about rejecting what came before. Rebelling against existing forms of rebellion - or at least radically reshaping them. Almost 20 years post-Woodstock, Strawberry Fields were no longer forever. Hardcore was punk’s faster, meaner little brother, but even punk was passé. A decade before Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits, and Side By Side were banned from CBGB for stage diving, the Ramones sang “I Wanna Be Sedated” on that stage.
In the 1980s the straight edge kids drained the excess from that punk tradition, waking it up from its long sedation. Nancy Reagan was telling kids across the country to Just Say No, and some kids were doing just that. In my mind, the rise of straight edge was a perfectly timed cocktail of rejection and discovery, of trumping the generation that perfected rebellion. For a moment, they turned the slogan “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” on its head.
Straight edge still thrives today - if anything, it’s grown, spreading across the globe with the help of the Internet. Some kids of the 1980s dropped out of the scene, and some have found commendable ways to maintain their clean lifestyles into adulthood - both Aaron and Jude survived adolescence and started their own families. But I still think of that youth crew era as being the pinnacle of the movement.
I’m not sure the intensity of its values or of its music could ever be repeated—that moment when the few chosen members of a generation stepped into a dark club and, for a while, were dazzled by the high that no other drug could produce.
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson is published by Quercus.
Photos from farfromrefuge.blogspot.com and inquisitiveelks.blogspot.co.uk/.