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.
Lost and unwanted
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, â€˜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.
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.
“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.
A subculture of addicts
“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, â€˜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, â€˜Look at all those freaks.’
“But I had to eat those words. They’re the nicest kids.”
A meaningful life
Tim King feels it. The 23-year-old Lexington man says it flares up in moments of everyday life, when people are running late or the house is too noisy to sleep. In the mosh pit, it pours out in tight punches and painfully accurate kicks. But when the music is at its emotional peak and the audience is climbing on itself in sweaty hysteria, he feels better.
The music, the dancing, the occasional fist punched through drywall – they’re ways to escape, not much different from the drugs and alcohol other people rely on. After years of listening to hard core and dabbling in straight-edge ideas, King chose to be straight edge during a stint in the Army. He was 21, he says, old enough to make adult decisions.
Now, he’s making another one. He’s planning to re-enlist in the military, where everyone has a meaningful job and the same kind of discipline he puts on himself.
“It sounds bad, just falling in line, but people don’t act as stupid in there. There’s courtesy,” he says. “I work in landscaping. My job now doesn’t have any meaning …. But without the infantry, you don’t have a military.”
That, he says, is a full, meaningful life, the same kind of meaning he got when he chose straight edge.
WHERE YOU BELONG
Growing from the teenage straight-edge follower to a straight-edge adult is a dramatic evolution, says Jane Garton, a Lexington woman whose ideas about straight edge have changed over the years.
The lesson she learned: Straight edge “should be something to identify with,” she says, “not an identity.”
She adopted the straight-edge lifestyle at 17, fearful of a growing dependency on alcohol. She was already a fan of hard-core music, but in the scene, she found people who dressed like her and shared her ideas. “It was amazing,” she says.
But as abstinence came to define her life, she pulled away from her earliest friends in the hard-core scene, alienating many of them because their beliefs didn’t match her own.
“I lost a lot of friends thinking, â€˜If they aren’t straight edge, they can’t be my friend,”‘ she says.
But one night at a straight-edge concert in Cincinnati, she was standing near the mosh pit, nursing an elbow she had broken while skateboarding. Dancers smashed into her injured arm, on purpose, she says. They laughed. They chanted some of the most vile words you can say to a woman. For the first time, she realized, people so intolerant of others weren’t true friends. The music was racist, homophobic and derogatory to women, she says. She rejected the intolerance of some straight edgers.
As she distanced herself from the scene, depression set in. She hitchhiked and train-hopped around the country, taking time to consider where she fit in. She considered a move to Salt Lake City, but Kentucky drew her back just a few months ago.
She’s slowly finding her old friends in the Lexington scene, and plans to attend the University of Kentucky. “I was an awful person,” Garton says. “I can’t go back, but I just apologize for being a complete idiot. My friends were there for me, and I turned my back on them.”
When she turned 21 last year, she celebrated by getting her first tattoos – a pair of X’s inked on her chest. Despite the anxiety of growing from an idealistic straight-edge teen to an adult choosing a straight-edge life, she’d never cover them, she says. They are a reminder of everything she’s been through and everything she is.
“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?”
NOWHERE TO GO
As the police pull away from the house on Clay Avenue surrounded by manicured lawns and closed shops, the demise of the venue becomes clear.
The police stop in too often, even during band rehearsals. The risk of a noise violation is too real. The living room venue, where concert-goers would slam into a small mosh pit, then grab a bowl of cereal from the kitchen, is too much of a risk.
“It’s only loud music. It isn’t going to hurt anybody,” says Lexington police Officer BJ Blank, one of the officers who had stopped by last month. “As long as nobody calls about it, they can stay.”
But people do call. And other options are limited.
Every so often, Poynter and Williams think about leaving Lexington, moving to some place where more people can come to the shows. They don’t have careers, homes they own or deep family roots here; a move wouldn’t be hard.
But they have too many other ties, the kind that have more meaning. Young people come to Williams and Poynter with their problems: parents who don’t understand the music or don’t care enough to know where their kids are; teachers, boyfriends, girlfriends; loneliness, stress, boredom.
“We built a lot here,” Williams says. “A lot of kids rely on us. We get to see them grow up.”
Even when the current generation grows up, “there will be another group of 15-year-olds that need it,” Poynter adds.
So although the shows at this house are over, the scene will find a way to survive.
“I guess I’ll be on the phone tomorrow,” says Poynter, who will have to look for another place for the music.
Fans – straight edge and hard core, teens and adults – mill around the lawn, bemoaning the loss of the place where they’d laughed together on the porch between bands.
And finally, someone asks: “What should we do now? Where should we go?”
Everything, even the band, is quiet.
Punk rock: Anti-establishment music from the mid-1970s made famous by The Clash and Sex Pistols; known for short, simple songs; associated with heavy drug and alcohol use.
Hard core: A heavier version of punk rock that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Straight edge: A lifestyle related to punk and hard-core music and known for abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, recreational drugs and promiscuous sex. Symbols for straight edge include sXe and three X’s, an homage to the marks that clubs draw on young people’s hands to show they can’t legally buy alcohol.
Hardline straight edge: An extreme version of straight edge that takes a strict stance against tobacco, drugs and alcohol, but also focuses on environmentalism, veganism and anti-abortion ideas. Some of the tenets have been criticized as being homophobic, racist and sexist.
Mosh: Dancing associated with hard-core, heavy metal and punk music that involves jumping and pushing; it typically takes place in front of a stage, in the mosh pit.
Hard-core dancing: A type of moshing that often involves kicking, punching and slamming into other people. Though not typically meant to harm others, it is an aggressive part of live hard-core shows that some fans avoid.
All-ages shows: Many hard-core fans and straight-edge kids prefer live music shows that welcome people of all ages, rather than shows that welcome only ages 21 and older.