Once during the '80s this punk girl told me about a party. It was a Friday night and I was hanging out on the steps of the Boston Public Library with 20 or 30 other kids: a mixture of goths, skaters, art fags, punks and misfit-alternative.
“It’s a straight-edge party,” the girl explained. “No drinking.”
“And you’re going?” I asked, incredulous. Whereas I had only just been speaking to a peer, I suddenly felt like I was plunged into dialogue with one of those Bible-kids who came around every now and then trying to lure us to something churchy because we were all wearing crosses and rosaries. The whole point of finally being a teenager was getting to run around Boston drunk. Buying a shitton of liquor with a phony ID I’d found in the Commons during a Siouxsie show (the girl in the ID photo had caked-on makeup and bangs obscuring most of her face -- that could totally be me!), making out with drunk skaters, getting in crying fights with friends, getting thrown out of the mall for stealing money from the wishing fountain, getting thrown out of the fancy hotels for trying to pee in their bathrooms, running from cops and skinheads -– none of these things could happen sober!
“If you’re not going to drink, what are you going to do?” I asked the sober girl, and I think she replied, "You know, hang out, listen to records, eat peanuts." Did she really say "eat peanuts" or was that something snarky I tossed in while telling my drunken goth friends about the absurd invitation -- "Oh, you know, they’re going to hang out and eat peanuts or something."
Straight-edge kids didn’t drink (ridiculous), didn’t smoke (boring) and didn’t have sex. I didn’t have sex either, so the boys of the subculture felt safer for that, though there was something creepily puritanical about them swearing off sex. Having just been ejected from my final Catholic school, ending 9 years of continuous Christian education, the straight-edge kids sounded too much like the nuns I was so recently oppressed by, and that was not cool. I liked the big black Xs they drew on the back of their hands with markers, but some straight-edge kids took it to a more disturbing level, carving their identifying insignia into their skin with glass. What’s the point in living so pure if you’re so fucked in the head anyway? I remember thinking. The straight-edge kids were mysteries.
I didn’t have Minor Threat’s titular album on vinyl, I had it on a cassette, and I listened to it when I was in the bathroom, on the boom box that lived on the back of the toilet. It was a dubbed cassette with "Minor Threat" scrawled on the label, and I don’t remember who made it for me. I often wanted to like punk, because I wanted to be harder than I was, tougher. I got beat up all the time for the way I looked, and I liked the rage and strength in some punk music, though ultimately the abrasive dischord and the wild machismo of most of it made it feel like the audio equivalent of watching a war movie with no female actresses. I just couldn’t connect. What about Minor Threat made them different?
Honestly, I think the fact of their straight edged-ness had something to do with it. Guys got scary when they were drunk -– I spent much of my teen years dodging drunken street violence –- so knowing they weren’t egging their macho audience on with cries of "Let’s Drink Some Beer!" like local hardcore band Gang Green made them feel safer. The fact that they were a "minor" threat, when other hardcore bands seemed to be all about smashing your face in with what major giant terrifying date-raping menaces they were. There was something humble about being a Minor Threat, knowing your limits. Something almost nerd-y.
I didn’t know that lead singer Ian MacKaye was a feminist -– I didn’t know that I was a feminist -– but as I listened to the tape in the bathroom, I picked up the subtle harmonies buried in the chaos, I picked out the political messages in the lyrics, and maybe I picked up something of an ally. In "Filler," MacKaye rages against a friend who got religion and turned stupid, and guess what? That had happened to my old best friend Anne Marie, who had been a righteous speed metal girl turning me onto anti-racist Anthrax songs, cynical Megadeath anthems and had Voivod’s skull logo painted on the back of her motorcycle jacket. Now she was hitchhiking to Amy Grant concerts and holding totally weird, even hurtful beliefs. You picked up a Bible MacKaye accused, And now you’re gone / You call it religion / You’re full of shit I wasn’t capable of telling my old friend exactly what I thought of her switch, which felt like a betrayel, but Ian was.
Would Minor Threat stand the test of time? I found the green album cover silkscreened with the image of a white skinhead guy with his head in his arms, squatting on a stoop. A drunken idiot who can’t get up, on the verge of puking? A straight-edge kid overwhelmed with society’s idiocy? I put the record on the turntable, impressed by the weight of the vinyl. It was heavier and thicker than other records, not at all flimsy. The roll of drums that opens "Filler" gave me a shiver. YES. It does stand the test of time. Know why? Because there is a lot of ROCK in this Punk Rock!
I sort of love an anthem, I can’t help it. And this album is full of them. "I Don’t Wanna Hear It," with its chorus of I don’t want to hear it / Know that you’re full of shit is a great one, all-purpose fuck-you song, able to be applied to anyone from The Man to your dad to The Pigs to the politicians, teachers, your boyfriend, everything. "Seeing Red" is all about getting fucked with for looking different: My looks must threaten you / To make you act the way you do. "Small Man Big Mouth" makes fun of violent short dudes, and "Bottled Violence" makes fun of violent drunk dudes. I think about how sort of radical it was for punk dudes to be calling out violent dudes at all, in the '80s or even now. I really think my burgeoning feminist consciousness –- lots of feelings, not a lot of articulation –- felt vindicated by Minor Threat’s lyrics, Ian MacKaye like a big brother who had my back, something I really could have used in the '80s.
And what about "Guilty of Being White"? In it Ian grapples, in a punk and graceless way, with white privilege. I’m sorry / For something I didn’t do / Lynched somebody / But I don’t know who / You blame me for slavery / A hundred years before I was born. He doesn’t want to take responsibility for it, but such a stance doesn’t sit totally comfortably either. Guilty of being white, the ambivalent chorus goes. He’s not denying it, but what it means doesn’t seem totally clear to someone who has only served 19 years of my time. None of it was totally clear to me in my teens either, but at its best punk music was a tool for tearing down the social façade and uncovering what was really going on. Even when bumbling, it could kick your ass in the right direction.
The songs that not only have stood the test of time but have become totally relatable are, incredibly, the straight-edge anthems. A treatise, "Straight Edge" details all the shit Mackaye is not going to do -- including hang out with zombies, pass out at shows, snort coke or speed, smoke pot, pop pills, sniff glue. Always gonna keep in touch / Never want to use a crutch / I’ve got the straight edge.
As a teenaged alcoholic, I would cringe when my mother would say things like, "What, you can’t have fun without alcohol?" Because I couldn’t. Especially not in my teens, when drinking was genuinely fun, before adulthood came around and the consequences began piling up. I can see the consequences piling up in others around me, folks of my generation who never stopped, or younger people who will have to or else. I came by the straight edge the hard way but I’m glad that I’ve got better things to do / Than sit around and smoke dope / ‘Cause I know I can cope.
"In My Eyes" is the strongest straight-edge screed, as the singer gently mocks the justification for using he hears in the scene: ‘you like the taste’, ‘it calms your nerves’, ‘you want to be different’, then explodes into furious screaming replies: ’you just need an excuse’, ‘you just think it looks cool’, ‘you just hate yourself.’ Harsh toke! But he really nails the self-delusion inherent in addiction.
"Out of Step (With the World)" is probably my favorite, because I can (now) totally relate to what it’s like to ‘Don’t drink / Don’t smoke’ -- although I do ‘fuck’, and I sure hope Mr. MacKaye has figured out how to work the occasional piece of ass into his ascetic lifestyle. I do understand the addictive potential of the sex, I just don’t think going without your whole life is the answer. Still, I applaud the man for calling out fornication as the real opiate of the masses. I can’t keep up / I can’t keep up / I can’t keep up / Out of step with the world goes the chorus, and it’s in this song that he lets in a bit of the sorrow that can come with sobriety, the reality of living a life so different, and so mysterious, to so many of the people around you. But at the end of it all: At least I can fucking think. Fuck yeah!