Kinder, Gentler, but Still True to ‘Animal’ Roots
Stepping into Mike Ness’ living room is like wandering into a wing of the outlaw rockers’ hall of fame. Occupying prominent places on the wall are large, framed posters of the Damned, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and Lou Reed in the weird, human skeleton persona he adopted when he was calling himself the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.”
As if the death-camp androgyny of Reed’s image isn’t startling enough for wall decor, the poster quotes some verses from “Heroin,” the Reed song that journeys to the center of a junkie’s mind. The lyrics hold more than passing significance for singer-guitarist Ness who, since starting the Orange County punk band Social Distortion almost 10 years ago, has been growing up hard in public.
As the tour proceeds through Ness’ modest apartment in one of the less tony districts of Costa Mesa, the wiry, tattoo-covered rocker points enthusiastically to a much more innocent cast of characters: a collection of vintage dolls that includes Jerry Mahoney, Howdy Doody and Humpty Dumpty. Ness has been buying old dolls--along with antiquated toasters and other small appliances--for his own enjoyment, and with an eye toward one day opening a curio shop.
That would be a much kinder, gentler future than anyone could have envisioned for Ness a few years ago, when his life was a shambles of heroin addiction, petty theft and frequent arrests. Through it all, Social Distortion kept going, maintaining a loyal audience that it had won in the early 1980s with angry blasts of adolescent alienation and hostility toward authority.
Ness, 26, says he has been sober and drug-free for more than 3 years now. The change shows in Social Distortion’s latest album, “Prison Bound.” The record, the band’s first in 5 years, reflects stylistic growth and a matured perspective, without dulling the hard edge of the band’s early days or compromising the chance-taking tradition of the icons hanging in Ness’ living room.
“A band has to change and grow,” Ness says in a nasal, deep speaking voice that presages his foghorn singing style. “I can’t see being 25 years old, writing about rebellion against mom and school and the police,” which was the main thrust of Social Distortion’s previous album, “Mommy’s Little Monster.”
“When you’re 18, there are only a few ways to show you’re a man. It’s machismo: Sleep with a lot of women, drink a lot of beer, kick a lot of ass. That’s really not a part of my life anymore.”
Ness says he doesn’t regret that all of those things, along with the pain and degradation of an addict’s existence, are part of his history: “It was all necessary. It’s part of growing up.”
As for the songs from his “Monster” days, which are still featured in live shows like the one Social Distortion will play tonight at Bogart’s in Long Beach, “they still mean a lot to me. It’s part of my past, and I don’t wish to shut the door on it.”
While it’s not a strictly autobiographical album, much of “Prison Bound” is drawn from life. Ness takes glimpses, on songs such as “Lost Child” and “Prison Bound,” of how he might have ended up had he not gotten treatment for his addiction. Elsewhere, on “No Pain No Gain” and “On My Nerves,” the focus shifts to the process of recovery, as the first-person protagonist learns to cope with life’s frustrations rather than turning to rage or easy escapes.
The title track of “Prison Bound” is one of the finest rock songs of 1988, an explosive elegy in which Ness dispenses with typical soapbox polemics and uses a moving character portrait to imply all that’s wrong with the unending cycle of crime and punishment and crime again that passes for the U.S. system of justice. And he does it without falling into the typical Hollywood moral lapse of turning his guilty protagonist into a martyr.
(Unlike the song’s protagonist, who gets shipped out to prison because he “did a crime one too many times,” Ness says that his own experience behind bars was limited to brief stays in local jails and that he eventually went into drug treatment as an alternative to a possible 1-year prison sentence.)
“Prison Bound” is, in short, worthy of the Merle Haggard-Johnny Cash tradition of gritty songs about crime and its consequences (it’s no coincidence that Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” is a staple of Social Distortion’s live show).
In rock music, bad-boy reputations like Ness’ can become mere grist for image-building--Guns N’ Roses being the current example of a band publicizing, and inevitably glamorizing, its excesses to gain a commercial advantage.
Ness says that is not Social Distortion’s aim. “We don’t really want to dwell on it or capitalize on it. (“Prison Bound”) was written about a period of our lives. We’ve acknowledged it, and now it’s time for (something) new. But when I’m addressed by the media, I don’t hesitate to talk about it. Maybe some kid will read it and say, ‘If that guy can get clean, anyone can.’ ”
It’s an accomplishment in itself that Social Distortion didn’t collapse under the weight of Ness’ addiction and a 5-year lapse without a new record.
Rhythm guitarist and co-founder Dennis Danell, who has known Ness since their grade school days in Fullerton (the other band members are bassist John Maurer and drummer Christopher Reece), says he came close several times to quitting the band, which is what its original rhythm section did during a 1983-84 New Year’s Eve show in Hollywood.
“I thought Mike was very selfish,” Danell says, recalling Ness’ drug period, when camp followers would regularly offer substances that helped sustain Ness’ habit. “But I never gave him an ultimatum. I always wanted to keep the band together at all costs. I thought, ‘This is the point where Mike would need his friends the most.’ The easy way would be to quit.”
Perseverance has had its rewards. A recent 39-city tour was well received, Ness says, confirming that Social Distortion’s fans remained loyal despite the 5-year wait for an album and a national tour. Extensive air play for “Prison Bound” on KROQ gave the band an unexpected lift.
While Ness says Social Distortion’s members still can’t support themselves from their music alone, he has been busy writing new songs that he hopes will take the band to the next step: a major-label recording deal.
“We’re finally gaining respect from the industry again,” Ness says. “It’s neat to have people from the industry taking you out to dinner because they are interested in meeting you and signing you. People know now that Social Distortion is not just a drunk, young, angry, snarling band. They’re serious and they work hard and they enjoy what they do.”
It all has Ness entertaining some high ambitions: “I think Social Distortion can become the Clash of the United States.”
If that happens, there’s no telling how many Howdy Doodies and ancient toasters he’ll be able to collect.
Social Distortion , Gherkin Raucous and Mind Over 4 play tonight at Bogart’s in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Admission: $10. Information: (213) 594-8975.