By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Social Distortion's Mike Ness is pacing around an East Coast hotel room, his voice loud, his words tumbling out so quickly that he can't quite keep track of what he's saying from one minute to the next. It's hours before showtime, but he's already running on a toxic cocktail of piss and vinegar.
"You know what I remember?" he says. "I remember walking down the street in a leather jacket with blue hair in 1979. And I remember knowing that if I wanted to do that, I basically had to make the decision that I was willing to get into a confrontation. And now it's 1996, you know, and when I see some kid walking down the street with a leather jacket and blue hair, I know that he doesn't have to go through what I went through. Worrying about that kind of thing probably doesn't even go through his mind. So when I see someone like that, you know what I think? I think, 'How cute. How fucking cute.'"
Clearly, Ness is in a nasty mood--and each mention of Nineties punk rock makes him surlier. (For another take on the genre, see "Generation D," page 74.) Yet in spite of his displeasure at seeing the movement turned into a commodity, he acknowledges that right now is a pretty good time to be in Social Distortion. The band has managed to dodge mass popularity pretty consistently since its 1978 formation. But with the release of White Light White Heat White Trash, a strong new CD on 550 Music/Epic Records, Ness and his partners in crime (bassist John Maurer, guitarist Dennis Danell and drummer Chuck Biscuits) are earning significant radio airplay for the single "I Was Wrong," the acclaim of crowds at jam-packed theaters from sea to shining sea and respectable reviews from publications that once either ignored or scorned them. "Shit, we're catching on all over the place," Ness mutters confusedly. "Where we got criticism in the past, we're getting praise all of a sudden. And we're talking to fewer people who are, like, old burn-out hippies who ask things like, 'What was punk all about?' Now there are a lot of journalists out there who seem hip to the tip--which is really weird. Sometimes I don't know what the hell's going on."
Ness concedes that these changes are primarily positive. "The numbers mean something," he says. "It's neat, especially on this tour, to see that where we were four years ago has doubled and radio is actually working for us. And to tell you the truth, we always wanted to be big--to get notoriety and fame. I mean, who wants to stay poor their whole life? No one." Still, Ness is not the kind of guy who can stay happy for long. He was initially drawn to punk because "it allowed us to sing about alienation and frustration and anger and pain," and while his life's more settled these days (he's together enough to support a young son), he seems most comfortable when he's railing against the injustices of the world. "I'm not trying to live in the past, and I don't want to seem bitter," he announces. "But there's a lot about the music scene today that's really fucked up."
The same was true of the Seventies, when Ness, who came of age in Los Angeles, first began dabbling in the world of rock. For every group like the New York Dolls, there were two REO Speedwagons, a Styx and a few assorted Linda Ronstadts. Wisely, Ness ignored as much of this dreck as he could, focusing instead on the best, truest songs to be found in a variety of musical arenas. "I grew up with an extensive music background long before I heard the Pistols or the Ramones," he boasts. "I grew up with all the glitter stuff and through the years really got into American roots music. I saw connections between the attitudes and styles of punk music and the attitudes of old black blues from Chicago and the Delta, old Hank Williams or Johnny Cash and rockabilly. When I think of Forties or Fifties music, I don't think of Happy Days or soda jerks. I think of junkies, winos, pimps and whores. You know what I mean?"
Punk was the style to which Ness responded most readily, and he found kindred spirits in drummer Casey Royer, vocalist/guitarist Rikk Agnew and Rikk's brother Frank, a bass player. Together they founded the first incarnation of Social Distortion, but they didn't stay a team for long. The Agnew boys left to assemble the Adolescents in 1979, giving Ness the opportunity to take over as Social Distortion's lead vocalist and guitarist. Danell joined the combo at around the same time, but the other positions in the roster have been in frequent flux over the past seventeen years: Mauer, for instance, came aboard during the mid-Eighties, while Biscuits, who's drummed for DOA, the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, joined up just in time for White Trash.
The group began recording in the early Eighties, when X and other members of the L.A. punk scene were beginning to receive national attention. However, Social Distortion remained primarily an underground phenomenon despite the good reviews that greeted the 1983 long-player Mommy's Little Monster. The act's momentum was further impinged by Ness's addiction to heroin, which pretty much brought the band to a grinding halt. Ness reportedly cleaned up his act by the late Eighties, but he has not forgotten his days as a pincushion: White Trash's liner includes an illustration of a hypodermic and a fuzzy photograph of a man shooting up. Moreover, Ness is not shy about bringing up the bad old days in conversation. "I bought into that whole thing, and it's full of fallacies," he says. "But those kinds of fallacies come with a lot of lifestyles. Gangs and stuff like that offer the same kind of empty promises--like this is a way out, you never have to accept responsibility, and you can just be fucked up your whole life and this is the way to do it. And it's a lie."