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Straight Edge: Six Songs That Celebrate Sobriety

Go to any live-music event and there will be signs of drug use of some sort in the crowd. Even sitting among the well-heeled gentry of the opera, there's bound to be one guy who smoked a fatty in his Mercedes before the first aria. Even if you can't locate him (clue: he smells fantastic), you'll find several who ordered at least a scotch or martini at their pre-show dinner, that's for damn sure.

Across town at a house show, you're more likely to see 40-ounce, brown-bagged bottles of 211 than a good, 21-year-old single malt. Nevertheless, these kids and their Bocelli-loving brethren share a common bond: they enjoy getting tight before the music starts. Drinkin' and druggin' are as inherent to music as notes and chords, it would seem.

But, thankfully, there are some music lovers who don't need to sip, snort or shoot to enjoy music or any other aspect of life. Over at the opera house they call these people teetotalers. At the house show, they're called "straight edge."

Because these people do not imbibe, they have been subject to ridicule at worst and, at best, dubious curiosity. Who are these among us who are able to shut off the leaky valve of existential dread without the vice grip of chemical substances? And why do they do it? Here's a six-pack of songs to give you the sort of clear-eyed insight the unintoxicated enjoy:

6. "The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane," Jeffrey Lewis In case anyone forgot, ingesting mind- and mood-altering substances comes with some unfortunate side effects, like chronic disease, prison time and being dead. These all seem like good reasons to curb or avoid drug use but, as we all know, reason is often the first guest banished from the party.

Thanks to indie strummer Jeffrey Lewis, there's a not entirely depressing song to remind us all to maybe back away from our vices. The song is simultaneously hilarious and frightening. While tripping, drawn sketches terrifyingly come to life, galaxies exist beneath floor rugs and someone punches a cat in the head.

Lewis accumulates a list of do's and don'ts for tripping balls and here's where the song gets scary since the final rule is to "not to look to deep into your soul or you might find a hideous, hopeless hole/Of hatred, hunger, infinite, idiot mindless, meaningless, nothingness..."

5. "Swimming Pools (Drank)," Kendrick Lamar Hip-hop is strong on indictments of inebriated lifestyles. There are a lot of songs about popping bottles and sippin' lean, but for every Lil Jon shoutout to shots, there's Ice Cube reminding friends "don't drink 8-ball, 'cause St. Ides is giving ends."

One of the best of these songs to recently surface is "Swimming Pools (Drank)." Lamar is an exciting talent who's managed a crowd-mover and head-bobber here that also sounds like the anthem for the baddest AA group of all time. The "pour up, drank" chant gets the drinkers hype while the lyrics that address generational alcoholism and drug-induced, life-changing choices advocate a better way.

4. "Jagged Edge," Arroyo Deathmatch The term "straight edge" was coined in the punk genre and drunken punks still use it to categorize and sometimes marginalize their brothers and sisters in tattooed arms. New Mexico anarcho-punks Arroyo Deathmatch don't just embrace the sobriety they've chosen, they ferociously defend it in this scathing song from their recent album, All of Them Witches.

"My straight edge is a jagged edge, straight edge is a wrench in the straight edge is a burning church," they sing. The band questions how the world will ever change when the punks who talk change are too wasted to do anything useful.

"The scene's a party, anarchy's a fad, pass me a beer, I'm just like my dad/ More smash the state, less shit your pants, defend yourself, say fuck the man," sings front man Alex DenBaars. Additionally, the song deserves a listen for the manic and urgent flute loops laid down by Arroyo's Beth Lou Hansen.

Yes, you read that correctly -- punk rock flute.

More straight-edge songs on the next page.

3. "The Girl You Lost to Cocaine," Sia They say tough love is the best counter to drunken, drugged and destructive actions. If that's the case, the subject of Sia's "The Girl You Lost to Cocaine" no longer has dependency issues.

The Aussie chanteuse gets all Intervention on the song's knucklehead, with straightforward talk, like "I'm not your mama, so I'm walking away," and "you're not my problem, you are my last." As much as you might love someone who can't stay sober, there's got to come a time when the Rubicon is reached. It's a matter of self-preservation; or, as Sia sings, "I'll never get laid while I'm running your life."

2. "I'm Straight," The Modern Lovers "I'm Straight" is a musical phone call where the caller is imploring a possible love interest to consider him instead of "Hippie Johnny," who is apparently a) the present man in the call-receiver's life; and b) a raging stoner. The caller's ingenious ploy is to sell himself as straight-edge and, therefore, a better boyfriend choice than the schwag-smoking Hippie Johnnys of the world.

The craziest thing is singer Jonathan Richman's delivery of the song, which makes it sound like a put-on, since he actually sounds stoned. But, taken at its face, "I'm Straight" is a novel attempt by a clean-living dude to get into someone's pants. How can you not love this guy's approach?

1. "Straight Edge," Minor Threat "I'm a person just like you, but I've got better things to do/ Than sit around and fuck my head, hang out with the living dead."

If you've ever been to an all-ages show, the story is, you have Minor Threat (or its original lineup, the Teen Idles) to thank. Music writer Michael Azerrad wrote an account of the Teen Idles' first tour west, from their home base in Washington, D.C. Having traveled thousands of miles for a San Francisco gig, the band was told it couldn't enter the bar since everyone in the group was underage.

Their response was to convince the bar to Magic Marker them with an "X" so they could play and bartenders would know not to serve them. It worked so well, the band convinced club owners back home to do the same and the "X" became synonymous with the straight-edge faction of punk rock.

Minor Threat's 1981 classic helped spawn a movement. The hardcore band expressed a need to fight the power of intoxication at a time when other rockers were advocating sniffing glue and shooting dope. This song and others by Minor Threat suggested drugs and alcohol were tools used by "the man" to quiet revolutionary ideas and thinkers.


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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.