Growing Up in Public
Last week, Garth Brooks was named Entertainer of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music. But that doesn't mean C&W-loving punk-rocker Mike Ness is suddenly filled with newfound admiration for him.
"I can give you a perfect description of how I feel about Garth Brooks," he says, his voice like a table saw chewing into a hunk of oak. "I think he should be pushing a mop. Seeing him run around the stage--it's pathetic. Country is just a big pop machine now, so, like, why doesn't Merle Haggard say something? Why doesn't Merle Haggard kick his ass?"
Hag could probably do just that, but as an elder musical statesman and frequent guest on The Nashville Network, he's unlikely to give Brooks the Okie From Muskogee treatment. Leave that to Ness, who's never backed away from a fight in his life. As the leader of Social Distortion, one of the few punk acts to survive for seven years on a major label with its credibility intact, he's made his love for the width and breadth of the nation's traditional music abundantly clear: The band's combustible rendition of the Johnny Cash fave "Ring of Fire" is a sarcasm-free celebration of what is, at its heart, simply a terrific song. But with his first solo album, Cheating at Solitaire (on Time Bomb Records), Ness has upped the ante. The disc is an overt attempt to embrace the country, rockabilly, jazz and blues that underlie his more overt influences via raw originals and a handful of ultra-challenging covers, including Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Hank Williams's "You Win Again" and, perhaps most surprising of all, the Lefty Frizzell classic "Long Black Veil." And if anyone wants to make something of it, well, Ness is ready to take them on.
"I went back and forth in the writing and recording of this record," he notes, "and it was like you get to the point in your life where you just have to say, 'Fuck it.' You just have to do what you want to do--and I didn't get this far by worrying about what other people might think, you know what I mean? If they can't have an open mind, it's their loss."
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Shortly after his 1962 birth in Lynn, Massachusetts, Ness moved with his family to Southern California, and by his teens, he had gravitated toward the punk movement that would eventually produce such acts as X and the Minutemen. But unlike some of his more doctrinaire peers, he didn't reject all other musical forms. As he revealed in the midst of a Social Distortion profile that previously graced these pages ("Social Diseases," December 5, 1996), "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 and soda jerks. I think of junkies, winos, pimps and whores."
As this comment implies, Ness has a tendency toward romanticizing the suffering that often takes place on the grimier side of life. For instance, he has the word "LOVE" tattooed on one hand and "PAIN" on the other, because "love and pain for so long seemed one and the same for me." Still, Ness can't be accused of reporting about things that he's only observed from a distance; he's seen plenty of bad times up close and personal. Social Distortion formed in the late Seventies, but the group's first platter, Mommy's Little Monster, didn't reach the public until 1983--and five years of recorded silence followed, largely because Ness was suffering from a particularly virulent heroin addiction.
Things began to improve after Ness got over the needle and the damage done. The 1988 salvo Prison Bound convinced Epic Records to take a risk on the group, and the gamble paid off handsomely via a trio of brawny discs: 1990's Social Distortion, 1992's Between Heaven and Hell and 1996's White Light White Heat White Trash. But even though several of the group's songs, including "Ball and Chain," "Bad Luck," "Born to Lose" and "I Was Wrong," made regular appearances on modern-rock radio, Ness eventually became frustrated by the baggage inherent in the Epic relationship. So in 1997, he and his associates split for Time Bomb, a comparatively modest indie.
"It felt pretty good," Ness says about the decision. "I think we were the first punk band to walk off of a label on our own, and I'm glad we did it, because it was an unfair situation. We never saw any money from sales, because we were constantly recouping for $100,000 home movies that never got played on music television, and for all kinds of other crap, too. Between those three albums, we sold over a million records, but it isn't until now that I'm finally getting some mechanical royalties from the first one. Plus, trying to get people in a corporation in a high-rise to understand a street-level mentality was just impossible."
Dealing with misplaced priorities was a problem as well, Ness continues. "It seemed like they always delivered the first single, but they could never deliver a second. That's because Celine Dion had a record coming out right when it was time to push our second single, and when radio was a little finicky about it, they'd say, 'Okay, that's the end of that. Let's focus on Celine.'"
Social Distortion began the Time Bomb era with 1998's Live at the Roxy, a balls-out salvo that allowed fans to purchase incendiary versions of its best stuff without giving any of their money to Epic. But instead of following up this recapitulation with a band-centered studio outing, Ness opted for a solo recording that would goad aficionados into seeing him in a fresh light. "When I had made the decision to do Cheating at Solitaire, and even before most of the songs were written, I knew I wanted to show people other sides of myself. I love Social Distortion and I love what we do, but I also think it can be very one-dimensional--and I have this affection for other styles of music that I didn't really feel I could bring to Social D for whatever reason, whether it be stigma or stereotype. This was a chance to venture off into things that have affected my life just as much as punk music has.
"I've always felt that I could only go so far, and then it wouldn't be Social D anymore," he says. "Whereas this meant that there were no limits or boundaries or restrictions--and since I don't like to be restricted, that was great. Maybe it's a self-imposed thing; I mean, there isn't a punk-rock board of directors telling me what I can and can't do. But this gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. If I could accomplish one thing with this record, it would be for people to acknowledge that I'm not only Mike Ness, frontman and lead singer of an Orange County punk band called Social Distortion, but that I'm also Mike Ness, American singer-songwriter."
Solitaire should manage to do just that. "The Devil in Miss Jones" starts off the proceedings with a keening pedal-steel guitar, a "Ghost Riders in the Sky"-style melody, a chicken-picking solo and dust-bowl noir lyrics ("I'll take you when you're young/And leave you when you're old"). That's followed by the chugging cow-punk of "Rest of Our Lives," the title cut's sincere balladry, the Tom Waits-like blues showcase "No Man's Friend," and "If You Leave Before Me," a song built on the steady flutter of a mandolin. And as if such accoutrements weren't unexpected enough, the CD includes contributions from a handful of guest stars whose presence may raise the eyebrows (not to mention the ire) of punk purists. Chief among them are the horn players from the neo-swing Royal Crown Revue, rockabilly cat turned swingin' daddy Brian Setzer, and Bruce Springsteen. But such cameos are not as incongruous as they might initially seem. The Revue brass section honks righteously on "Crime Don't Pay," which also features some of Setzer's most energetic six-stringing, and Ness and Springsteen sound like long-lost brothers on the roaring duet "Misery Loves Company."
"Every player who played on the record was picked because we knew they were going to bring something to my music, and everyone did," Ness points out. "It was amazing to see them come, not only because they didn't charge me to do it, but because they wanted to be a part of it. I knew that Bruce Springsteen was a Social Distortion fan, and I figured that if he loved Social D, he'd really love this, because it was much more in his vein--and I was right. After I sent him the song and the lyrics, he called me back and said, 'Yeah, this is fucking great.' And it was the same thing with Brian Setzer. The song was in his genre, and to have him come in and make his Gretsch squeal like a cat in a radiator was just so inspiring."
Ness doesn't get nearly as much of a charge out of the punk music being pushed by the majors, particularly the stuff topping charts for the Offspring. "I know those guys, and they're really nice guys," he says. "But most of that stuff is just 'Weird' Al Yankovic with electric guitars. I'm from the old school: I think that Johnny Thunders and the Dead Boys and the Ramones were ahead of their time. They were innovators whose music was heartfelt, not cute. But here's a fact that will never change: Radio and big corporate record companies will peddle shit all year long, and it's been that way since the beginning. Once in a while, a good act comes out of that, but not many--and I've just had to accept that."
Of course, what Ness is doing right now
doesn't have much to do with punk rock, either. But in his mind, it's truer to the spirit of punk than most of what passes for it these days. "And do you know why?" he asks. "Because it was taking a risk. That's what bands like Devo did. They had tomatoes and beer bottles thrown at them for the first ten years of being on stage, and I have a lot more respect for a band like that than I do for one that has a power-pop song with a catchy hook that sells a million records out of the gate and becomes a marketing phenomenon. Guys like the Offspring can sing songs for little kids, and that's cool, but I sing songs that make people maybe look a little bit beneath the surface and think. At least I hope I do." This attitude is part and parcel of Ness's current music, and he figures that it will infuse future Social Distortion efforts as well. "This record has definitely been a learning experience and a growing experience. When I made White Light, I felt like we were entering a new level, and after making this one, I know it's still developing."
Critics who've noticed these changes have complimented Ness for his new maturity--a backhanded compliment if there ever was one, since the idea of mature punk rock is flat-out frightening. But rather than running from this characterization, Ness embraces it.
"I'm completely okay with that," he says. "I'd hate to be going backward; I want to be going forward in every area in my life. I started in this industry, and in this band, as a boy. But now I'm a man."
Mike Ness. 9 p.m. Saturday, May 15, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $20, 303-329-6353.
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