Being Straight Edge comes with serious commitment and intensity, particularly for young people. Most teenagers start to party and experiment with substances and yet you decide to reject all of that. When did you become Straight Edge and how did you make that decision?
I became Straight Edge when I was 16. And yes that’s true. It’s just the way our culture works. It’s super materialistic and encourages things that would drive a person downward instead of upwards. It didn't take me long to understand that the things my friends were doing were kind of stupid and didn't make me feel good.
I had a brother who was a few years older than me. He thought it was funny to take me to parties when I was 13 and he would get me drunk. So I was drinking pretty heavily almost every weekend. After a couple of years of it I was starting to realize that I didn’t really like it. I was just doing it because it was cool and everybody else at school was doing it. So yes, in that sense it does require a bit of commitment. It requires you to stand on your own two feet and decide that even though the gravitational pull of our culture is pulling me in this direction, if I don't want to go in that direction, I don't have to. I can make up my own mind.
There’s a lot of horrible shit that you have to put up with in order to be a cool kind of party person. And so when you live a clean lifestyle, there's actually a reward to that. There's health, there's clarity of mind, there's that sense of freedom that you're not addicted to peer pressure or any kind of drugs. Especially for me, once I got a taste of what it was like to live a clean lifestyle, there was no doubt to me that it is just a better way to live.
Did you have many friends who were your age and also Straight Edge?
No [Laughs].When I first went Straight Edge at age 16, I was the only Straight Edge guy in my entire school. People freaked out because I was a like a big party dude. I was on the football team. I was getting drunk every week and then suddenly was like, “Hey man, I'm Straight Edge now. I'm not into that stuff.” I was kind of shunned from a lot of social circles. I was a punk rocker and had been going to shows but Straight Edge wasn't really big at the time. Minor Threat had broken up.
And so finding another Straight Edge kid was like finding needle in a haystack. That was when I first met Ray Cappo. When I was sixteen years old I went to this show and had an X on my hand, which was a rare thing. So I walk in this club and he has an X on his hand too. I was like, “Oh my God there's another person.” I went running up to him and asked, “Are you Straight Edge?” He said yes and he had his skateboard so I was like, “You skateboard too?”
So this person with an X on his hand, and a skateboard, we became instant friends. We had so much in common, which was very strange for us because when we first started doing these tours, we would get bottles thrown at us. I mean the punk scene was super nihilistic; people sniffing glue, people on heroin, people with mohawks drinking at the bar. That live fast die, young mentality was super prevalent among the punk scene.
And what was this time period?
This was like 1986.
How did you feel?
You're like, “Fuck yea.”
Yea it was cool because you need friends. You need other people to encourage you with what you're doing. It was hard in the begining, but then after the scene got really big I went from having no friends who were Straight Edge to having a hundred friends who were Straight Edge, just in New York City alone.
How did you find out about Straight Edge in the first place? How did you know that it was an option for yourself?
I have to credit the band Minor Threat. When I was sixteen, I was already feeling really tired of the whole party thing and then I heard this band Minor Threat. They had this song called “Straight Edge” and as soon I heard it, I was like, “Oh my God someone feels the same way that I do.” It gave me the kind of confidence and courage just to be like, “Screw this, I don't need to do this. I'm not alone, there are other people that feel like this too.”
So Minor Threat had such a huge impact on my life. They basically changed my life, and that's the cool thing about music. Music has this power to affect people, change people.
You kind of knocked out one of the questions I was going to ask you later. Which came first, the music or the punk style?
Well, I got into punk when I was twelve. I went from listening to Kiss to listening to the Sex Pistols. So I was definitely into punk and hardcore way before I went Straight Edge, but it was a big moment for me listening to that Minor Threat single and hearing the song “Straight Edge.”
What were some of your favorite bands?
Sex Pistols, the Ramones I loved very early on when I was twelve or thirteen. The Clash. And then later on I got into the Misfits and Black Flag and just early bands like that. I just loved it. There's something about it, the energy of it that just grabbed me.
When did you get into Krishna consciousness?
Youth of Today had broken up, and I was in this other band called Judge and Judge broke up too. It was a weird time in my life. The Straight Edge bubble had burst. All my friends started drinking and they were going to bars. So I was like, “I'm not in a band anymore, none of my friends are Straight Edge. Who am I?”
I sort of went on a search and I started reading all these books. There was a new age book store on Broadway and I would go there with $200 and I walk out with a stack of books on Buddhism and Taoism and anything else I could read that dealt with self-realisation and spirituality. I knew that there had to be something else to life but I just didn't know what it was.
I always known about Krishna consciousness from the Cro-mags and had sort of grown up with that in the background, but I didn’t start going to temple until 1991. When I first moved to the city when I was 19 I worked at this health store on 1st Avenue that was called Prana. I didn’t know it but everybody that worked there was a devotee. So they kind of planted some seeds in me. Then, when I went on the search after all my bands broke up I really started to get into Krishna. There was something about it the first time I went to a Krishna temple, I was like, "Wow, this is it." It just struck such a chord in me. When I started reading the books and chanting, it just drew me right in.
You spoke earlier about coming into Straight Edge because it represented something that you already felt. What are your thoughts on the dogmatic aspects of Straight Edge? Or the idea that it could be limiting in some ways?
I 100% agree people can dogmatically get into Straight Edge just like they can dogmatically get into anything else. If you're not really thoughtful about it and you're just doing it because hey it's cool and all these other kids are doing it. The thing is about people who get into things in a dogmatic way and a shallow way… they come and they go [laughs].
A big thing about Straight Edge is now you're in this group of people and now you're somehow better than others and there's sort of this kind of ego trip that goes along with being Straight Edge and you look down on people. You write these crazy songs and putting down other people… that's all bullshit, it's all dogma. I don't support that part of Straight Edge at all.
Although as far as Straight Edge itself being dogmatic, I disagree. A lot of people think that putting rules and regulations on your life limits your life. I disagree and the whole yoga tradition disagrees with that philosophy. When you add discipline to your life, you become freer. Case in point, "I'm just going to do whatever the hell I want. I don't want any rules or regulations in my life. If I want to smoke a cigarette, I can do that. If I want to eat meat, I can do that. If I want to do cocaine, I can do that.” What happens to people when they live that kind of lifestyle? They become more bound up by cigarettes, alcohol. All these things they start to control their life after a while. So, are they really free? They're free to make choices and those choices are going to bind them further into a worse state.
That's not freedom at all. When you add discipline and regulations to your life, you become more free. I choose not to drink, I choose not to smoke, I choose not to do drugs, I choose to be a vegetarian. I self-impose these rules and regulations on my life and so what happens? I'm healthy, my mind's clear. I can make better decisions. I'm fifty years old and I'm in better shape than most kids when they're twenty-five.
So although I think Straight Edge can be a dogmatic thing if people are doing for the wrong reasons, I don't think that in general living a drug-free, clean lifestyle is that bad. That's my answer. And it's funny too because a lot of people that made fun of me when I was Straight Edge, Punk rockers were like super hardcore druggies who used to say, "All you Straight Edge kids are a bunch of pussies.” Most of them, unfortunately, are six feet under the ground.
Would you pair Straight Edge with music? If you are Straight Edge, do you have to be into music?
I think it used to be paired with music. These days I think it's so above and beyond that. Like you have that wrestler, CM Punk. He's Straight Edge, he's probably the biggest proponent of Straight Edge in the world. He's got thousands and thousands of wrestling kids who have probably never heard of punk in their life to be Straight Edge.
I think these days just with the Internet, it's so above and beyond just hardcore. And even the term Straight Edge. It’s interesting for me because when I first went Straight Edge, it was just me and three other friends. Out of all the people we knew on the whole East Coast.
You've watched the movement grow.
And now the word Straight Edge is even in the dictionary. It’s kind of cool to see.
What are you up to these days?
I travel all over teaching yoga, which I love. It’s the best job in the world. I get to make people healthy for a living! I still play in a few straight edge bands - Youth of Today, Judge and Shelter. I also run a straight edge company called True Till Death. We do clothing that promotes a drug free, meat free lifestyle. On top of that I have two kids I love dearly, Kana and Lila.
This interview may help some people who don’t like drinking, partying, etc. to realize that there's this culture out there. That there’s another way of living and that they’re not totally alone. What would you say to these kids today?
I would say is that there is a choice. I think today mirrors exactly how it was when I was in high school. There's such an incredible amount of peer pressure. I think it’s actually worse now because the drugs are so much worse. When I was a kid, people drank beer. We didn't have molly, xanax, fentanyl. It's like a crazy time to be a young kid, to be exposed to all that stuff.
I'm not trying to tell anybody what to do, but what I would like to impart upon kids is that there's a choice. A lot of kids think that when they fall into a social scene in high school that this is just part of the lifestyle and they just go with the flow. You don't have to do that crazy stuff. There's a thing called Straight Edge, it’s a legitimate choice that you can make and you don't have to partake in that crazy world.
So many people are gravitating towards getting fucked up and doing this stuff. That's not rebelliousness, that's being a follower. There's nothing rebellious about that whatsoever. Do you want to rebel? You really want to be different? You really want to be punk? Freaking take all that stuff that makes you into a sheep and a follower and destroys your life and just say you're going to go a different path. It seems strange that you would even have to say that.
So, if there's anything that I could say in this interview and impart on kids today it is choice. You have a lot of choices to make and you don't have to do that; just think it through and make a choice.