Taking the Drugs Out of Rock n’ Roll
Wil Francis wasn’t comfortable in his own skin. All he wanted was to feel normal. In his adolescent search for belonging, Francis discovered a dangerous yet provocative world. At age 11, he began drinking heavily and smoking marijuana. Within four years, he was living on the streets of Seattle, shooting up in alleys, stealing cars and spending nights in jail. A devoted fan of punk rock and grunge, Francis looked up to local heroes like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley. Both were rockstars who lived decadent junkie lifestyles, and neither would live to see 35. Sober for nearly seven years, Francis now fronts the goth-punk band Aiden.
Rock culture has changed drastically since he was growing up in the 1990s, and his story and example are part of its evolution. Unlike the motley musicians of old, many of today’s rockers promote a positive message by abstaining from drugs and alcohol. And young music fans are listening.
Since going public with his past substance abuse problems, Francis has received “tons of letters and emails” from supportive teens with similar problems. “That’s probably the best reward,” he says. “But I don’t have the power to get people sober. All I can do is share my story and live by example.”
With the presence of responsible role models, a more positive scene has emerged. The punk, emo and hardcore counterculture has moved beyond the clichés of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, encompassing a new group of individuals- the kids who want to rock n’ roll all night, but not party every day.
“The music scene definitely provides an alternative social aspect because everyone hangs out and we have a good time without the presence of alcohol or anything,” said music fan Joanne Miller, 18, of Everett. Miller is straightedge- she does not use drugs, alcohol or tobacco. Named after a song by seminal sober punks Minor Threat, straightedge is rooted in the hardcore music scene and emphasizes self-control, a positive attitude and a healthy, chemical-free lifestyle.
Recently the movement has gained momentum, as clean teens in search of belonging seek a community of like-minded peers. The lifestyle is also endorsed by some of today’s most popular rock bands, including the ubiquitous multi-platinum pop-punk band Fall Out Boy.
“You’ve got people like Pete [Wentz, of Fall Out Boy, pictured below] who are famous and yet they’re having fun without getting drunk, pretty much breaking the mold of the rockstar,” said Miller. “Kids are finding out that not everyone is drinking and getting high and that even if you don’t, that’s acceptable.”
Indeed, things have changed since the advent of punk in the 1970s. Led by notorious acts like the Stooges, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, punk was a musical and cultural revolution that rebelled against the confines of society and authority. But over the next 30 years, the culture expanded its scope and the face of punk evolved from a pock-marked Sid Vicious to pretty-boy Pete Wentz.
And while the thought of punk cleaning up its act may thrill parents, Miller believes there is still an element of teenage rebellion in a pledge of sobriety. She says that, like old-school punks, straightedge teens are “rebelling against a certain set of norms.” “It’s rebelling against what everyone expects from you,” said Miller. “Because honestly a lot of people are like, ‘Oh college, just an excuse to get drunk and smoke up.’”
Another young music fan staying sober is Michelle Buchman, 20, of Tyngsboro. For her, watching her friends go wild during their freshman year of college served as a rude awakening. While Buchman occasionally indulged in social drinking, she says that watching others revel in excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs made her opposed to the behavior. Buchman, who counts Fall Out Boy and straightedge metalcore quartet Throwdown among her favorite bands, quit drinking and devoted herself to clean living.
“I think [the straightedge movement] is definitely growing because of the exposure it’s getting. I mean a lot of members of bands are edge now,” said Buchman. “So I think kids kind of see them and that’s how they get into straightedge. It’s definitely being more publicized now than it ever was.”
She warns that many young teens may not fully understand the strict commitment that correlates with straightedge.
Although it is a healthy and safe movement, straightedge can also have negative implications. The community’s reputation for being preachy, intolerant or incredibly demanding (some variances of straightedge include veganism and abstinence from pre-marital sex) often rebuffs some sober individuals, including Francis, from using the label. Greg Wood, guitarist for pop-punk band Punchline, has been sober all his life and is a straightedge advocate. In 2005, he founded Antidote Apparel, a clothing line based on non-violent, drug-free messages. One of his t-shirts reads “Another Drug Free Rockstar;” others depict bright, sunny days, rainbows and children blowing bubbles without a hint of irony.
Just ten years ago, a concertgoer wearing one of Antidote’s tees would have been moshpit roadkill. But in today’s rock scene, positive messages are as accepted as uniform black, and the clothing line has found a niche group of consumers.
“For me, given the opportunity to reach kids on some small, hopefully growing mass scale, I wanted to put a positive alternative out there,” said Wood. “The reaction has been awesome, and very encouraging and exciting for me personally.”
But while more band members are defying rock stereotypes, a small faction within the punk scene is trying to do the opposite by glamorizing debauchery and public inebriation. “There are more bands than five years ago who proclaim themselves drug free, but there is certainly a movement of bands who want to live out the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll image of Guns n’ Roses,” said Wood. “Embracing their mystique and purported lifestyle as a primary goal, before the music, is about as lame as you can get.”
This counter-movement doesn’t bother Francis. At the core of the music scene’s sober crowd is a philosophy of free will; the important thing, they believe, is that kids see that they have a choice when it comes to drugs and alcohol.
“Some people want to be Mötley Crüe and that’s cool,” said Francis. “That’s what works for them. It’s all about what you want to do. That’s a choice that I have, but I choose to stay sober and keep a level head.”
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.