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."
After emerging from his smack romance, Ness and his latest cadre of collaborators put together 1988's Prison Bound, a disc that blended the combo's punk roots with country and folk influences. Throughout songs such as "Like an Outlaw," Ness, who was always more narratively inclined than most of his punk brethren, showed himself to be a storyteller with a taste for the language of dime novels and pulp fiction. But he's reluctant to make a big deal about the words he writes. "I guess along the way we have defied certain punk stereotypes," he allows. "But when you listen to Seventies and Eighties punk rock, there was a lot more versatility than people want to admit. There were loads of ballads and love songs and whatever. We weren't the only ones doing things different. In fact, I think the period of punk music between 1975 and 1983 was the most significant period of music since the Sixties--or maybe even the Fifties, with Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. But for whatever reasons, it gets completely ignored."
Such a fate did not befall Social Distortion. Prison Bound caught the attention of Epic Records, which signed the band shortly after its release. The quartet's major-label bow, 1990's Social Distortion, was a hard-rocking affair that sprinkled its punk approach with rockabilly and country seasoning. A cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" was the most explicit nod to the early days of rock, but it was hardly the only one: "Let It Be Me" begins with a lick that's pure Chuck Berry, while the popular "Ball and Chain" is rife with references to booze, cars and jail that seem straight out of a Gene Vincent cut. Such lyrics led some reviewers to accuse Ness of glorifying the very habits he supposedly left behind him, and there's some truth in that. But at least Ness closed the platter with "Drug Train," a plain-voiced effort that concludes, "The train passes through the graveyard/May the loved ones rest in peace/For the last stop, baby, is a violent crash/And hard times they never cease."
Another CD for Epic, 1992's Between Heaven and Hell, followed much the same formula, with similar success: There wasn't a bum track on the album, and several ditties ("Bad Luck" and "Born to Lose" among them) were downright anthemic. Even so, Epic found Heaven to be a difficult sell. "I can distinctly remember being in the office and listening to them working that record and trying to get radio to play it," Ness recalls. "Back then, there were really only twenty alternative-type stations in the country, so they would call AOR stations and try to get them to play 'Bad Luck.' They'd say, 'Yeah, they're a punk band, but they're a lot more. Can't you play them after Tom Petty or something?' And they'd be like, 'Are you crazy?'
"It was all because of what the media did to the word 'punk.' They just whittled the whole thing down to violence and safety pins and swastikas and shitty music. That's why they had to come up with the phrase 'new wave'--so they could try to sell you something that was kind of punk, but not really. Now, of course, the whole thing's turned around--but that doesn't mean it's better. I see punk-looking people with piercings on Coca-Cola commercials. Man, there's just something about that kind of thing that leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
The mutation of punk rock that began with the appearance of the Green Day album Dookie left Ness feeling worse than that. But rather than simply griping about it, he used his ire to make White Trash. "That's a lot of what went into the writing of this record," he says. "I would just turn on MTV, and that would be enough to fuel me for the day. A lot of these bands that are calling themselves punk now were wearing spandex five years ago. They brought in a stylist, they changed their sound, and now they're pretending to be punk. Or else they're trying to sound just like whatever's popular right then. I was over in Europe at this festival, and it was pathetic--I sat through seven bands, and all of them had this sort of Chili Peppers/Rage Against the Machine kind of funky vibe with grungy guitars and heavy-metal hooks. And I was like, 'Come on! Please!' To me, punk was all about individualism and doing what you wanted even if it was unpopular. And now you can walk into a mall and get sleeve-tattooed.
"When something cool becomes popular, it tends to become kind of uncool, you know?" he declares. "It's like the Harley-Davidson syndrome. When I was a kid, if you had a bike, you had to be a fucking badass--you had to at least be able to hold your own in order to earn some respect. But now the lifestyle and the look is so easily attainable that anyone can walk around in that regalia. It's like all image, no background."
With these thoughts in mind, Ness, with the assistance of producer Michael Beinhorn, set out to give White Trash what he describes as "some of the emotion, some of the feel, some of the danger that punk had back in the late Seventies." In large part, they succeeded: The disc is edgier than the last several Distortion offerings without in any way seeming like a capitulation to fashion. From a lyrical standpoint, the tunes are very much in keeping with those that came before them: The only surprise is the prevalence of religious iconography in "When the Angels Sing" and "Crown of Thorns"--images that are echoed by a photograph of Jesus statues that adorns the back cover. But the pleasures inherent in the material don't seem redundant. Rather, they remind a listener that reliability can be a good thing--and that's exactly what Social Distortion offers.
Not that everyone who's coming out to see the act on its current tour has been following Ness for years. He says he's seeing legions of teenagers who've just discovered the outfit--and while some of them "remind me of the people who used to throw apples at me at school," others strike him as passionate and intelligent. So what's he got to complain about? Plenty--but things could be worse. "Hell," he says, "every day I'm breathing air is a good day."
Social Distortion, with D Generation and Tenderloin. 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 10, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $15, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.