"Ronald Reagan did wonderful things for our country," says Graves, now leader of the band Gotham Road. "Ronald Reagan made the country feel good about itself. His life and the way he conducted himself truly embodied the American spirit."
Speaking well of the GOP is one of the few gestures guaranteed to offend in a culture that doesn't bat an eye at tattoos, mohawks, and the ritual violence of a slam pit. Graves's views aren't popular, but he's not alone. The singer co-founded the online magazine www.conservativepunk.com with punk fan Nick Rizzuto and New York City talk-radio host Andrew Wilkow, who also has a punk background. The similarly oriented site www.GOPunk.com greets visitors with the message, "Conservative is not a dress code." The controversial portals make one thing clear: Orange hair doesn't guarantee that the head beneath is pro-abortion or anti-religion.
According to Conservative Punk's mission statement, "Punk music has been, and still is, one of the most heavy-handed genres of music there is. Unfortunately the topics of such heavy-handed songs are almost always steeped in left wing propaganda, bumper sticker rallying calls and oversimplifications of otherwise complex topics."
Says Graves of the site: "Nick conceived it to counteract the liberal websites. It bothered me that all these kids will come out and say, 'This is what punk rock is. This is what our culture is.' I felt completely different."
One of the liberal websites he refers to is www.punkvoter.com, which NOFX frontman Fat Mike organized, hoping to mobilize half a million voters to "form a union against the chaotic policies George W. Bush has put in place." The site has nearly 200 supporting bands, and its Rock Against Bush compilation features 26 high-profile groups, including Green Day, Social Distortion, Anti-Flag, and Sum 41.
Conservative Punk's small roster has much less star power, boasting punk grandfather Johnny Ramone and 40-year-old Dave Smalley of Down by Law (and formerly Dag Nasty and DYS). In the July issue of Alternative Press, Rizzuto claims that thousands of punks are conservative -- not exactly a staggering number, but the 2000 presidential election proved that a few hundred votes can determine who's in the White House.
Graves's postings on the site have addressed the war on terrorism and intellectual conservatism. They've won the New Jersey native some fans who wouldn't normally support a guy who takes the stage painted as a skeleton: New York-area firefighters and police. Parents of punks. Military personnel across the country. And some covert support from figures in the punk community who would rather not have the attention.
"I catch an incredible amount of shit," says Graves, a 29-year-old Catholic who loves hockey, reads the Bible regularly, and still uses horror imagery as metaphor, but at one-third the speed of the Misfits' American Psycho. "We did a show in Spokane, Washington, the other night, and I was sure we were going to have to fight our way out of the club. From the time I first published articles, a Chicago show was canceled. They came right out and said they won't have me there, directly for my voicing my support of the current administration. And I had a European tour booked for September, and that promoter also got wind of my involvement with Conservative Punk and canceled the whole thing. For a movement that is supposed to be so progressive and for equal opportunity for everybody, what about my equal opportunity? And they're calling me a fascist."
Independently touring and recording, Gotham Road is usually hard-pressed for media coverage. Graves's personal politics, never present in his music or stage show, have earned the band exposure from The New York Times and the BBC. Though the conservative-punk angle has become an irresistible election-year novelty, it's neither new nor really a movement.
Punk has always been peppered with conservative messages: Sham 69, Fear, S.O.D., GBH, White Pride, Skrewdriver, Agnostic Front, and the Dropkick Murphys have all covered the conservative spectrum -- some tongue-in-cheek, some dead serious, some racist, some just gratuitously contrarian. Nearly as conservative-minded is the chemical-free straight-edge scene, whose across-the-board condemnation of alcohol is more puritan than even the Puritans.
Even when punks reject society's rules, they still steadfastly adhere to the new orthodoxies developed in their peer groups, a form of conservatism in its own right. As James Merendino observed in the punk memoir SLC Punk, even the most hardcore punks can't avoid playing a role in society. Some have become authority figures, long derided by the punk powers-that-be.
Akron Police detective Paul Hooper grew up an ebony-clad fan of metal and hard rock, with a taste for punk. In 2002, he co-founded the punk combo Dropgun with two fellow members of the Akron PD. The married, 12-year veteran of the force has flecks of gray in his buzz cut and tattoos of pinup girls on his developed biceps. After an English degree made him an overqualified janitor, joining the police "was really a pragmatic decision." And he believes in the work.
"You see people with an anarchy patch, like, 'Buddy, if this was true anarchism, you couldn't be in a commune; somebody would kill you and bury you," Hooper says. "The water and power go off, and anarchy's not too cool anymore. It's a utopia, and that isn't going to happen."
A self-described libertarian, Hooper doesn't feel the need to toe any kind of standard punk line when it comes to politics. To his sensibilities, abortion isn't great, but it can be an important option. He thinks government-funded health care would be preferable to $600-a-month premiums. He finds investing Social Security funds in the stock market "scary." He isn't wild about long-term public assistance, and definitely doesn't favor government-sponsored performance art. And as far as punk goes, he likes the beat, but makes up his own mind on social issues.
"I don't have a mohawk, and I don't live in a squat," says Hooper. "I think of punk as a form of music. If you think of it as a culture, you have a whole different perspective. That might be the crux of the issue. Maybe these conservative punks are the most rebellious punkers of all."