N.Ky. teens walk straight edge

Sunday, June 21, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Matt Cooper (lying on his car) and D.J. McComas abstain from drinking, smoking, drugs and sex.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
| ZOOM |
FORT MITCHELL -- Their necks are wrapped in beads and dog chains, their pants are impossibly loose; and one of them has a miniature barbell stuck through his tongue.

Good grief. Some adults probably take one look and think, "Hide the valuables!"

This doesn't bother Matt Cooper or D.J. McComas. They're teen-agers, after all. They've got a license to look weird.

Besides, what's really radical about these two isn't their chains or their peroxide-blond hair or their pants, which are so baggy that they can practically fit their waists into one leg.

That's just fashion. These guys have principles, too.

Here are a few of them: No taking drugs, drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. This would be bad for their bodies, and besides, they figure tobacco companies, beer makers and drug dealers get enough of our money as it is.

Of course, they aren't so extreme when it comes to the other big temptation in life. You could drive a waterbed through the loopholes in their policy -- "no promiscuous sex" -- but at least they're in favor of monogamy.

D.J., 18, just finished his freshman year at Northern Kentucky University. Matt, also 18, graduated last month from Beechwood High School.

With a handful of friends scattered throughout Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, they entertain themselves by running around parks, riding mountain bikes and playing in rock bands that often seem to break up after one or two practices.

They also listen to music known as "hard core," which is loud, punk-like and fairly incomprehensible. Thank goodness for liner notes, which reveal some curiously brainy lyrics.

One of Matt and D.J.'s favorite bands, for instance, uses terms like "anthropocentric falsehood" and "oppressive hierarchy" to explain why people should give up meat.

Here's another cheerful lyric from the band, called Earth Crisis: "The key to self liberation is abstinence from the destructive escapism of intoxication."

Then the chorus: "Yeah, yeah, yeah."

Just kidding. There is no chorus.

It's all very heavy and revolutionary. Imagine Ayn Rand, the 1950s writer who railed against socialist groupthink, reincarnated for the '90s with a punk haircut and a membership in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Matt and D.J. associate themselves with a youth movement called "straight edge."

This is an offshoot of the punk scene, and it has picked up some bad press in other parts of the country. In Salt Lake City, for instance, straight edge has morphed into a sort of militant vegetarianism. Some members have been charged with planting bombs at McDonald's restaurants, apparently to speak up for beef cattle.

In Cincinnati, a gang expert named Doc Enoch recently gave a television interview comparing straight edgers to neo-Nazis, what with their mutual penchant for dramatic tattoos.

Please, say D.J. and Matt.

A few straight-edgers in other states might take it too far, but that's not what they're about, they say. They detest racism and violence. Their lifestyle is about good health, clear heads and passive protest of corporate-sponsored poisons.

Sometimes, it's also about fighting demons.

D.J., who graduated from Walton-Verona High School, says he's had some bad experiences with alcohol. His mother committed suicide when he was 2; her death was linked to substance abuse, he says.

As a teen-ager, he's had other close calls. Once, he says, he had to hold down a friend at a high school party because the young man was drunk and threatening to commit suicide with a gun in his car.

Alcohol is a common theme in high school conversations, Matt says.

"Before the party, they're saying, "How're we going to get this stuff?' Or it's after the party, and they're saying, "Man, we had so much fun last night. We all got totally torn.' "

He and his friends try not to be judgmental. What other people do is their business, they say. At the same time, though, they aren't shy about broadcasting their values -- on T-shirts, buttons, bumper stickers.

Matt always has been a clean-cut kid, says his mom, Judy Cooper. Straight edge wasn't much of a leap for him, but some of his friends had a tougher time. He decided he had to give up something, so he chose caffeine.

Besides playing in bands and listening to hard core, Matt acts in plays and takes voice lessons. He actually likes opera. And every Sunday, he goes to Immanuel United Methodist Church in Lakeside Park, where he sings in the choir with a bunch of adults.

He and D.J. met at a hard-core concert in Norwood. They've been hanging out ever since, and sometimes D.J. sounds a little amazed. "We have so much fun when we go out together," he says. "And we remember it all."

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at ksamples@enquirer.com