“I’ve got the straight edge,” a promise to abstain from drugs and alcohol

By Jamie Gumbrecht


LEXINGTON, Ky. – The handwritten sign taped to the front door of the old rental house is explicit: “If you’re gonna hang outside please do it in the backyard. We don’t want to get the fuzz called on us.”

Inside, about 25 people, some in their teens, crowd into a living room with furniture pushed against the walls. It’s early evening on a mild weeknight, but the windows are covered with wood and foam and the door is tightly shut to muffle the noise. The music is a clamorous show of guitars, drums and tense, barking vocals that shakes the block of family homes and neighborhood shops.

But in Lexington, where country music is king and indie rock packs the clubs, the hard-core music scene thrives in rental houses, dark basements and YMCA gyms – simply because it has nowhere else to go.

Hard-core music is the stuff of adolescent aggression, the perfect heavy-metal soundtrack for its teenage fan base. But within that group of fans is a smaller crowd that takes its affinity for the music to a different level, adopting the principles of songs that rail against drugs, tobacco, alcohol and promiscuous sex.

It’s a lifestyle they call “straight edge.”

But because those who follow straight-edge are either too young to go – or don’t want to go – to venues where liquor is served, they show up at the do-it-yourself hard-core shows like this one in the rented house on Lexington’s Clay Avenue. Here, they can be with friends or find new ones. They organize and patrol the shows themselves, keeping out drugs and alcohol that could mean the closing of one of the few places where they can play their music.

But just three songs into a set by local band And Bullets Fall, police cars pull up.

Anthony Poynter, a 26-year-old who often books shows, rushes to cut off the music just before police officers step inside. They survey the dark T-shirts and old Converse shoes. They check for underage drinkers, not realizing alcohol isn’t welcome here.

The neighbors complained about the noise, an officer explains. The show can go on, but the volume has to come down.

Poynter and others watch the officers leave, tallying the recent warnings from the police – half a dozen, at least. Once again, a venue for hard-core music – one of the few places that welcomes the young, the misfit, the curious and the unwanted – is dying.

Lost and Unwanted

In Fayette County, Ky., where about 25,000 people are between ages 16 and 20, there is no music club that can legally welcome people of all ages. If you’re not an athlete, an artist or an academic star, Lexington offers little to entertain you until you’re old enough to buy a beer. About 600 of the city’s restaurants and bars have liquor licenses to draw people 21 and older. Of those, 100 are bars and can’t let in people under 21; if they lock up the alcohol, people as young as 18 can visit. But no business has the license for an all-ages audience, called a Teen Canteen. So those who subscribe to the straight-edge lifestyle have their own concerts.

Straight Edge was the title of a song by Minor Threat in the early 1980s, 45 seconds of hoarse vocals and shredding guitars that could have been ignored by punk rockers. But some took it to heart, its lyrics inspiring a counterculture to punk’s infamous substance abuse: “I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do, than sit around and smoke dope, ’cause I know I can cope … I’ve got the straight edge.”

For Poynter, a year of heavy drinking in high school aged him physically and drained him financially. He knew what years of addiction had in store for him. His friends kept drinking, but he chose a different course: In 1998, he claimed straight edge and gave up drugs and alcohol. It was an isolating choice at first, but he eventually found the hard-core and straight-edge scene in Lexington, and began organizing shows.

In 2001, he met Randi Williams at a show he booked. Williams had moved to Lexington at 14, made friends with a group that liked drugs and alcohol, was addicted by 15, awoke at 17 after “wasting” two years. Like Poynter, she quit and, like him, she lost friends. Her therapy was hard-core music and all-ages shows.

An unusual feeling passed between the two hard-core fans. Trust. Within a few months, Williams claimed straight edge.

They married in a ceremony at the Clark County Fairgrounds in 2003. He wore Dickies, a tuxedo T-shirt and a safety-pinned bow tie; she wore a hot pink dress that showed off her midriff. They pinky-swore their vows and dined at a vegan potluck reception with music provided by a Georgia thrash band called This Scares Me.

They wanted a celebration that welcomed their families but also their camouflage-wearing, hard-core dancing friends who willingly mark X’s on their hands; it’s an homage to the marks that music clubs draw to show who can’t buy alcohol.

“We are each other’s chosen family,” says Williams, 21, of both her husband and her hard-core community. “We have only each other to rely on.”

“All the unwanteds, together,” Poynter adds.

Subculture of addicts

Lexington is a natural place for a straight-edge scene to develop, says Darrell Irwin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Straight edge and hard core have always been the purview of middle-class, suburban youths. And with so many high schools and colleges, there are plenty of young people in the area trying to find themselves.

Tobacco and bourbon fill the city’s history, too. And, from the 1930s to the 1980s, the presence of “Narco,” the government’s addiction-recovery hospital, left a shadow of drugs over the community.

“There’s a long-lived addict subculture in Lexington,” says Irwin, who studied straight-edge communities in New York.

But where hard-core music and straight-edge ideas might flourish, they remain underground. No legal venue for all-ages shows – where young non-drinkers can gather – exists here. Few clubs will book hard-core shows. The youthful crowds, dyed hair, tattoos, piercings, blaring music and brutal dancing are a hard sell to police and parents.

When Denisa Crawford’s 16-year-old son, Josh, started listening to the music and going to concerts, she was skeptical.

“I’m not gonna lie; I was concerned. I saw those X’s on his shirt and thought, ‘Get that off. You’re not wearing that to school,'” she says. “I’d take him to the YMCA, see the kids in the parking lot and say, ‘Look at all those freaks.’

“But I had to eat those words. They’re the nicest kids.”

As Josh became more involved in hard-core music, his mother saw other changes. He would cry before going to middle school in the mornings, knowing that he didn’t fit in, she says. Now a freshman in high school and a regular at hard-core shows, he’s happy.

Mountain Dew moshing

On a frigid February night, hundreds of people from their mid-teens to their mid-30s have crammed into a corner of the Lexington YMCA to hear six bands, including Good Clean Fun, a Washington, D.C., straight-edge band. At the door, Williams is collecting $8 admissions and inking people’s hands with a smiling bumble-bee stamp. All fuchsia hair and bubbling energy, she hugs the scene regulars and welcomes hard-core fans from Louisville, Ky., and Cincinnati, but mostly from Lexington.

“People in the scene struggle to know who they are. I’m 21 and still struggling,” she says. “When you start, it’s a way to relate … but then it becomes more…. If you don’t belong here, where do you belong?”