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The Vacuum Issue 3 spacer Issue 3
Straight Edge
by Chris Magee
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It's odd to be defined by something you don't do rather than something you do. I don't drink. Don't smoke. Don't do drugs. It's not because of holy obligation or post-addiction necessity. They're all just things that I don't do.
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To stop, or never to have drank at all immediately puts you on the outside in Belfast. People can accept (just) religious tee-totalers or recovering alchos. But take a decision not to drink which comes not from either of these staring points and then it begins toget difficult.
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There are a couple of presumptions when it becomes clear that you don't drink. Usually there's a smile and a nod and a, 'you like the blow then?' Which has never, ever made any sense to me. When you nail that one - and it isn't easy - the smiles go and there's a bewildered 'what do you do at the weekend then?'
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It's a good question. Sort of. Drink makes most people's weekends. If you don't drink, then what do you do? It seems deliberately perverse - almost masochistic, not to drink in Belfast. It's a city that at the best of times would drive you to it. It's social life revolves around it, is oiled by it. There are more pubs than churches in Belfast - and there are fiftyseven varieties of those.
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And it isn't just the drinking itself - it's the quantity consumed. And with such haste. The knock-on is there for all to see and for anyone to experience every Saturday at one or thereabouts on the Dublin Road. Maybe it would be easier to drink if anyone in Belfast could do it properly.
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Everyone would like to think that they do it properly of course. But even if you're a lousy drinker then you've still got a stereotype of sorts to conform to just like the toughened, pint-after-pint, hard-working, hard-playing Belfastman. And it's all so silly but it's there. The thing is that if you do opt out of it, it's you that's the freak. The one that attracts and encourages discomfort, mistrust, hostility. Usually in that order.
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But the really odd thing is this all about punk rock. Or a subset within it. A pretty small one but it's there. Even in Belfast. So while most of the teen rebels around the City Hall kick against the pricks by downing barrack-busters of cider, there are some who just see that as being exactly the same way as everyone else gets on and don't want to have anything else to do with it.
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Within punk it's called straight edge. It isn't a term I have a problem with, although not everyone is comfortable with it. On one level that doesn't matter, because everyone gets called a 'straight edge faggot' by the real punks. Some insist that 'Straight Edge' was just a song by the band Minor Threat and that everything else after that got confusing. The straight edge thing started in the USA in the 'eighties. Punks in Washington DC turned their back on scene which had almost self-destructed on drugs and stumbled on an alternative.
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Unexpectedly, it took off. It developed on the east coast, mutated into different forms, spread to Europe and on. Along the way the mantra of the original scene, encapsulated in Minor Threat's 'Out of Step' - 'don't smoke, don't drink, don't fuck - least I can different kids a thousand different ways. It became a fashion as much as a lifestyle choice. Then a basis for a revolution rather than a fashion. Vegetarianism and then veganism came into the mix. There was a weird flowering of interest in Eastern mysticism and brief dalliance with Krishna. Henry Rollins had his thing with Nietzsche. And then there were the tattoos and the skate-shoes and the baggy trousers and all the rest.
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At its best, it gave people an alternative to the routine. It meant that punk didn't have to mirror the actions and behaviour of the world that it professed to hate. It turned away from the negativity and potential for self-destruction in drink and drugs. It shunned the grubby way that huge corporations market their drugs here and worldwide.
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Of course it didn't always work out like that, and the desire to opt out always carries with it the risk of turning your back or of setting yourself above. I've had fantastic nights out where I'm the only one not hammered. And dreary conversations with sincere young non-drinkers. Nice. But humourless. So it goes. For me, it was never about the saved and the damned.
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But the questions that it poses are still valid. On every level. I get tired of night after night, band after band, speaker after speaker drowned out by the drone of the drinkers at the bar. I don't want, particularly, to conform to the notion of the weekend as the only valid frame of existence and that if you aren't wasted then it is. Monday through Friday then a brief liberation. That isn't any type of liberation. I don't want to be anyone's idea of what someone from Belfast, Ulster, Ireland should be. But also I don't really care. I know that it all doesn't really matter and there are, as they say, people dying in the world. I don't drink, but that doesn't mean you don't have to. Just don't piss on my street when you can't find a toilet.
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Straight Edge
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