Straight Edge

Taylor Todd stands outside the SUB-Mission gallery, where his band just finished up their set. He is wearing a Society System Decontrol shirt with his fists x’ed up with permanent marker, symbolizing his straight edge lifestyle. Photo by Matt Saincome / Xpress

The term straight edge was coined in the Minor Threat song “Straight Edge” more than 30 years ago, but after decades of misrepresentation, the term has been skewed.

Straight edgers don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. Some don’t engage in promiscuous sex, consume animal products, or drink caffeine, but the three core tenets of straight edge that all edgers share are no drugs, drinking or smoking. This choice often finds them at odds with the idea of a typical college experience, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 28.2 percent of college-aged people binge drink.

“It’s weird for me to even think about what the words ‘college experience’ mean. I would never, ever join a frat or do any of that stuff. Drinking and doing drugs just aren’t a part of my life,” a straight edge student and liberal arts major Taylor Todd, 22, said.

The message remains relevant to many people, including college-aged people like Todd, who are looking to find their high without the use of substances. Often, that high is found by playing in a band — or two in Todd’s case — and being a part of the punk and hardcore community.

In response to the late 1970s punk scene — filled with nihilist aspects involving substance abuse — straight edge first boomed in the early 1980s around bands like Minor Threat and Society System Decontrol, according to “American Hardcore: A Tribal History” written by Steven Blush.

As bands and people moved on over time, the idea remained, and in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s straight edge took a new form around youth crew bands including Youth of Today, Chain of Strength and Gorilla Biscuits.

Later on, a more militant straight edge movement rose from the scene and some bands, like Earth Crisis, started advocating violence toward drug dealers or intoxicated people at their shows, according to Carl Gunhouse, 36, who has been involved in the straight edge scene for more than 20 years. The more militant aspect of straight edge ended up garnering more attention and left a harsh stigma on people like Todd.

Todd plays in two hardcore bands featuring exclusively straight edge members: Secret People, his main project, and Counter, his side project. Counter is one of the few bands in the Bay Area hardcore scene that openly claim the straight edge title, and are going on a three-day California tour with the popular Maryland straight edge band Mindset.

Todd came to San Francisco to get away from the drug culture in Mendocino County, where he was raised. As he watched friend after friend fall victim to drugs, he saw straight edge and the big city as a positive escape.

Todd doesn’t have a story of heartbreak or family tragedy behind his reason for claiming edge. He doesn’t slap beers out of other people’s hands and won’t refuse to sit at the same table with a person eating meat.

“I am straight edge because I observed the world around me. Straight edge and vegetarianism are about rejecting things that are blindly consumed. Just because something is the traditional diet doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for you,” Todd said.

Going through college being straight edge wasn’t much of a challenge for Gunhouse, as he was part of the hardcore community where straight edge was understood. After receiving his master’s of fine arts from Yale University, along with a slew of other degrees, Gunhouse now teaches photography to college students and documents bands.

“In hardcore in general I think it’s fair to say the militant aspect has always been in the minority, which can lend itself to some boisterous over compensating, i.e. Judge, Earth Crisis, Floorpunch, etc.” Gunhouse said in an email explaining that some people may have a misconception of straight edge as a whole due to some poorly made documentaries.

But Todd said he doesn’t see straight edge as a dividing or isolating factor in his life. Some extreme factions within the straight edge scene are more militant, excluding others who partake in drugs and alcohol from their social circle, but for Todd and many others like him, that isn’t what a positive lifestyle is about.

Carloz Cruz, 19, a fan of Secret People and student at Skyline College, explained why other straight edgers may get a bad rep for being judgmental, but the guys in Secret People, Todd included, do not.

“I think it’s all about how they go about it. They don’t push it on you,” Cruz said.

On tour, Todd’s bandmates say he is the enthusiastic guy who gets them off the couch to go see the city. The youngest in his band, Todd provides the youthful energy and his friends provide the experience needed to complete their band’s goals.

Matt McCall, who is in both of Todd’s bands, recalled what it was like touring the Northwest with a man almost 10 years younger than himself.

“He pushes us to do stuff when I would just sit down and watch TV,” McCall said.

Todd enjoyed skating from a young age and says seeing his friends quit skating once they got into heavier drugs, reaffirmed his choice to live a drug free lifestyle. Fearing that he too would get stuck in a small town working a dead end job, Todd used straight edge to “keep his focus.”

“I can’t tell if I’m going to be edge forever. I hope if I’m not edge that I will have gained some perspective from being edge that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I hope I’ll be.”

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Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome