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In Writing

Read an excerpt from Straight Edge: A Clear Headed Hardcore Punk History by Tony Rettman

March 2018

In his 400 page book of interviews, Rettman traces a history of Washington DC's scene and its spread throughout the US

Brian Baker: I grew up in Washington, but I left after seventh grade because my dad got a job in Detroit. I came back to DC at the second part of ninth grade in February of 1980. While I was absent, a lot of my friends had discovered punk rock. So I got into punk to fit in, as strange as that sounds. My first punk show was seeing The Teen Idles opening for The Cramps in the summer of 1980. After that, it all happened so fast. I joined Minor Threat and we started to become a real band by the end of 1980. It was definitely a ‘right place at the right time’ sort of thing for me.

Jeff Nelson: We formed Minor Threat after The Teen Idles broke up, and right away Ian wrote the song “Straight Edge”. Ian’s whole reason for writing the song was his disgust with the drinking, drugs, and sex focus of high school and American life at the time. He was turned off by what he saw, and the song struck a chord with people who were equally repelled by the focus on those things in music culture.

Ian MacKaye: I wrote “Straight Edge” because I wanted to get it off my chest. I also wanted to sing it because maybe there were other people out there who didn’t drink; I wanted to connect with them. I reckon the lyrics spoke to a lot of kids who didn’t want to get high and didn’t want to be a part of that world. When they saw there were kids saying, ‘Fuck that! We’re not doing that!’ that’s all it took for them to say, ‘Yeah! I’m with you!’

Brian Baker: I think the idea of straight edge in DC initially was just to build a community. We were all teenagers, and straight edge was a great tool to build this scene without having to deal with alcohol. Ian is such a fucking genius, because he was onto the idea at such a young age that alcohol sales should have nothing to do with art. I think that was the main drive behind it.

Ian MacKaye: Why does this form of expression have to be dictated by the alcohol industry? Why do the laws pertaining to the consumption of alcohol have to be a part of it? Music is the only art form I can think of that has this sort of stricture. Do poetry readings have to be done in crack houses? Do art galleries have to be heroin dens? So why does rock ’n’ roll have to be relegated to these places that serve alcohol?

Brian Baker: I didn’t drink or smoke because it just wasn’t on the map for me at that point in life. The same was true for Minor Threat guitarist Lyle Preslar. But history has proven Jeff Nelson to be something of an iconoclast.

Jeff Nelson: I was the only one in Minor Threat who had tried pot before. I agreed with the sentiment of the song “Straight Edge” to a good extent, because I had already done lots of wrestling with my own little demons. To me, that’s a different thing compared to Ian’s approach. I’ve never met anyone who is like him. I’ve never met another person who just says, ‘No, I don’t need it’, and then wonders why others need it. Who else is like that? Who else is not susceptible to peer pressure or curiosity or boredom?

Minor Threat in Boston. By Bridget Collins

In terms of Minor Threat’s intentions, “Straight Edge” was just a song. Then came another song, “Out Of Step”, which was sort of the sister song to “Straight Edge”.

Ian MacKaye: The song “Straight Edge” may have resonated with a lot of kids, but I think it was the song “Out Of Step” that really freaked people out. Specifically, it was the line “Don’t fuck” in “Out Of Step” that seemed to cause people to lose their fucking minds trying to figure out what I was saying. The point of the song was pretty obvious to me: I don’t do all these things, but at least I can think. I wasn’t telling people what to do. I wanted the song to be succinct, hence the “At least I can fuckin’ think” qualifier in the lyrics. This seemed to confuse a lot of people. Jeff and I had a long-running argument about whether or not the lyrics would be perceived as declarations or as rules.

Jeff Nelson: I was intent on not telling people what to do. I was uncomfortable being in a band that was being perceived as doing that. Ian and I really got into it, and he kicked a hole in the door of my room at Dischord House. I was laying out the lyric sheet, and I wanted to add parentheses around the I’s, to stress that Ian was saying, “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t fuck”, with the band obviously backing him up, to a certain extent.

Ian MacKaye: I was never against sex. I was against predatory sexual conquest behaviour that I saw as destructive. It was a statement against the pressure put on teenagers to get laid and the terrible, unhealthy decisions people sometimes make in those situations. I used the word fuck to differentiate this kind of interaction from healthy sexual interactions, but some people took it literally and thought I was calling for abstinence. The reaction was interesting and entertaining to me. When I said, “Don’t drink”, in that song, people didn’t think that I was saying that people shouldn’t consume any liquids. When I said, “Don’t smoke”, they didn’t seem to worry that I was against curing meats or starting fires. When it came to sex, they had a harder time parsing the nuance.

Brian Baker: Honestly, most of the time I didn’t know what Ian was singing about. To this day, I’m not a lyric person. I’m more of a Van Halen type of guy. When you hear “Unchained”, you really don’t care what David Lee Roth is singing about, you know what I mean? It was always about the music for me. It wasn’t like Minor Threat was united in some straight edge cause. We were just a band and “Straight Edge” was just a song. I wasn’t about to hate a local band like Black Market Baby because they all drank heavily.

Steve Hansgen: Black Market Baby always got a pass because they were such a great band, and such an important band in the history of DC punk rock. They wrote great songs and they were what they were, so no one cared. They thought the straight edge thing was silly; then again, they were 23 year olds and we were 16. They thought we were silly – period! I’ve played in a band with Mike Dolfi and Boyd Farrell from Black Market Baby in the past few years. They’ve told me point-blank they thought us new kids were a joke, but eventually they realised we weren’t.

Sab Grey: My band Iron Cross was a heavy-drinking band, too. There was always the line, If you got kicked out of Black Market Baby for having a drinking problem, just join Iron Cross. So yeah, I never considered myself straight edge, but I lived in the same house as the guy that wrote the song. People would say to me, ‘I heard Ian won’t let anyone drink in his house!’ I would reply, ‘Well, I live there. I can tell you that you’re completely wrong, but I’m not going to bother because you’re an idiot.’ We would watch football games, and those who were drinking were drinking, and those who weren’t, weren’t.

Jeff Nelson: I don’t think there was anyone in DC who was actively waving a figurative straight edge banner. We were already sick of being asked about it by the time Minor Threat started touring.

Tom Lyle (Government Issue): When Ian MacKaye wrote the song “Straight Edge”, the importance only came into play when other people took it out of context. It was never meant to be a movement. The song was never meant to be a rallying cry or anything. It was just about how Ian and some of our friends on the scene felt.

Jeff Nelson: When we went on our first big tour of the US, I remember Hüsker Dü made fun of us when we played with them in San Diego. Then we stayed at Jello Biafra’s house in San Francisco, and someone who lived there put out a big dildo and fake joints. The whole thing was weird. We got teased by some fanzine editors when we were interviewed by them. Most often we were persistently fielding questions from kids who had a genuine interest in the straight edge idea.

John Stabb: “Straight Edge” is a great song, but it’s a song about anti-obsession. It’s not telling anyone not to drink, smoke, or fuck. The punks I grew up with in bands from the 80s get that – but the people in scenes from, say, Boston or New York took it to fascist levels, acting like bullies to others who had a beer or cigarette at a gig. They were just using the song’s lyrics to be thugs. That was never what DC hardcore was about. You don’t want to drink, smoke, or have sex? Fine, call yourself ‘monk rock’. It’s not a fucking religion – it’s a song.

Straight edge is not a movement to me. There are peace movements, political movements, orchestral movements, animal rights movements; there are even bowel movements. Those I can take seriously. But a straight edge movement? That seems ridiculous.

Jeff Nelson: We were leaving on what would be our final US tour as a five-piece. We had a 1978 Dodge Tradesman van. Before we left, we noticed someone had written in crayon on the side of the van ‘Straight Edge Stinks’. Right away after we left, we kept asking each other, ‘Who farted? That’s disgusting!’ The smell persisted for days and days and days. Eventually we learned our friend Roger Marbury, later bass player for Dag Nasty, had put a couple slices of Limburger cheese on the top of the engine manifold before we left DC The note didn’t make sense to us until then.

Ian MacKaye: There was never really a straight edge scene in the early punk days in Washington. That was something that was perceived by people outside of town. Having said that, the DC scene put very little focus on getting high or drunk at shows, and I suspect people in other towns could see that from the outside and thought that was cool. They were interested in what they heard about what was happening in DC They saw the X’s on the hands on the first Dischord releases, and they heard the song “Straight Edge”, and wanted to be connected.

Brian Baker: Minor Threat did not brand ourselves as a straight edge entity. The idea of having straight edge bands came after us, with the Boston people.

This excerpt is taken from the chapter “Minor Threats” in Tony Rettman's book Straight Edge: A Clear-Headed Hardcore Punk History, published by Bazillion Points. It was reviewed by Britt Brown in The Wire 410. Subscribers can read Britt’s review via Exact Editions.

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