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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."

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."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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