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Looking Back on the Darkest days

As the singer and lead guitarist of Social Distortion, Mike Ness spent 1979 through 1985 establishing quite a reputation for himself: the hardest of the hard cases, the punk rocker who was every inch a wiry, pugnacious, tattoo-covered, needle-punctured punk.

Some scenes from those days would fit right into the slam-bam action movie that punk rock always strove to be:

* Police arrive to break up the first-ever gig by Social Distortion at a house party in Yorba Linda. A 17-year-old Mike Ness spits in a plainclothesman’s face and is carted off to jail.

* Ness, now almost 18, goes into a rage (nothing unusual) at his Fullerton apartment, which other local punks have nicknamed the Black Hole. He starts slamming a knife into his living room wall. The knife gets stuck, Ness’s hand slips and he filets his left index finger.

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* It is the early ‘80s, and Ness is brawling (nothing unusual) outside the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Costa Mesa club that is the hub of the Orange County punk-rock scene. His antagonist wrestles Ness to the ground and bites off a chunk of his left ear.

* Ness punches out a bouncer before a Social Distortion club gig in San Diego. The triumph is short-lived: After the show, a posse of bouncers grabs Ness, beats him up and calls the police to bring assault charges. Ness lands in jail for several days--a particularly uncomfortable place to be for a heroin addict.

Given such beginnings, nobody could have predicted the more recent footage rolling off the reel of Ness’ life.

In one of the latest scenes, a clean, sober and nonviolent Ness hops from city to city along the East Coast promoting the band’s new album, “Social Distortion.” It’s SD’s first album for a major label (Epic), the first not financed by the band itself and only the third in a decadelong career.

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Over the phone from a hotel in Cambridge, Mass., Ness sounds happy and calm as he speaks in nasal, gravelly tones that hint at his sturdy foghorn of a singing voice.

Ness, who turned 28 last week, says he likes the continuity of sound and themes, the combination of his old life and his new, that the album “Social Distortion” represents. After 10 years, the band is still following the basic pattern it established with its initial singles released in 1980. (See review below).

Along with that continuity and gradual progression of sound has come an unfolding maturity in Ness’ lyrical vision. Taken together, the three Social Distortion albums are the story of Ness growing up hard and doing it in public.

The 1983 debut album, “Mommy’s Little Monster,” was an outright celebration of punk rebelliousness--fleetingly aware of the possible consequences of excess but too caught up in the exhilaration of the moment to put on the brakes.

By late 1985, Ness, after a series of hospitalizations and brief jailings, had put on the brakes by going into a drug-recovery program. “Prison Bound,” released in 1988, reflected on how hard and precarious the road to change can be for someone who, as Ness puts it, was still trying to “come out of the fog.”

Now, in the new album, Ness, after 4 1/2 years without drugs or alcohol, is able to look back with a new perspective. Instead of judging or justifying the out-of-control kid he calls “the old Mike,” he tries to communicate what he has learned. One thing Ness says he has learned is that his old self and his present self aren’t all that different.

“Some of that rebelliousness and attitude and snarl never really leaves us,” Ness said. “I talk about the changes I’ve come through, but a lot of the characteristics we establish as children stay with us.

“A lot of the feelings you hear on ‘Mommy’s Little Monster’ I still have--fear, anger and alienation. But the energy I used to put into fighting and stealing, now that I’m not caught up in that lifestyle anymore, I put it into what it’s supposed to be utilized for.”

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Anger and alienation set in early for Ness. He chose gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger as his earliest heroes. His parents divorced when he was young. When he was 15 or 16, he says, his father and stepmother kicked him out of their Fullerton home for incorrigible behavior. Ness soon found a direction in life, an outlet for both his creative and his destructive instincts.

“I heard the Pistols and the Clash and decided that’s what I’d really been waiting for,” he recalled. “They sounded like I felt. It was an immediate expression of my feelings, the whole anger and frustration.”

Ness also found a punk-loving sidekick in his high school classmate, Dennis Danell. Ness had originally formed Social Distortion with Rikk Agnew and Casey Royer, two other Fullerton punkers who went on to make a mark in the Adolescents and D.I. Ness insisted that Danell, who didn’t play an instrument at the time, be included in the band.

Not wanting to pause to break in a novice, Agnew and Royer left and formed their own band. But Social Distortion’s pattern of placing a primacy on friendship over expediency was established. So were Ness’ wild behavior patterns.

By late 1983, Social Distortion’s first recording lineup--Ness, rhythm guitarist Danell, bassist Brent Liles and drummer Derek O’Brien--had become underground heroes. Released on a custom label, “Mommy’s Little Monster” gained the band a national name in punk circles, and “Another State of Mind,” a video documentary of SD’s stormy first cross-continental tour in 1982, won it further notoriety.

But Ness, guided by his old tough-guy bravado and extremist tendencies, had by 1981 gotten into the heroin that was all too available around the punk scene. Fed up with what followed, Liles and O’Brien bailed out of the band in the middle of a concert on New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Ness and Danell recruited John Maurer, another old school buddy from Fullerton, to play bass. Christopher Reece, who had played in a San Francisco punk band, came in on drums. That lineup weathered Social Distortion’s worst years.

“I had to tell my mom, ‘If Mike comes over to borrow any of my equipment, don’t let him have it, because it’ll end up in the pawn shop,’ ” recalled Danell, a lanky man with an easygoing manner and a slow, amiable drawl.

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Social Distortion continued to play locally and on weekend getaways to Arizona and Northern California, but its national profile virtually vanished from 1984 through 1987. That, says Ness, was probably all for the best.

“The quality of everything we were doing was rapidly dropping. If we’d been touring and releasing records in that period, we wouldn’t be with a major label today.”

Nowadays, Ness finds more benign outlets for his addictive behavior. While the living room wall in his Costa Mesa apartment remains a poster shrine to such outlaw rockers as Lou Reed and the Sex Pistols, the kitchen and bedroom are brimming over with the bric-a-brac of the habitual collector. The wild punker of old now hoards dolls, lamps, old toasters and other throwaways, with the notion of one day opening a curio shop.

“On tour, we’ve got to pull over at all the garage sales. He’s just obsessed,” reports a bemused Danell. “He’ll always say, ‘Gotta stop and get collectibles, dudes.’ ”

Ness hasn’t yet gotten around to writing any songs about his gentler habits. Far from trying to put his drugging in the past, the new album includes songs like the alcoholic country lament “Ball and Chain” and “Drug Train,” a tough, terse, blues-rock song that acknowledges both the allure and the consequences of hard drugs.

“I’m not into public service (statements),” Ness said. “The last thing I want to do is preach and judge. I write about my personal experience, and if it can be an example to someone, that’s cool.”

Roger Klein, Epic’s West Coast director of artists and repertoire, says it was Ness’ ability to evoke the reality of lived experience that set off the label’s courtship of Social Distortion.

“When ‘Prison Bound’ came out, I thought the lyrics were so personal, so full of pain, but there was some hopefulness there too,” he said. “Before knowing anything about (Ness), I figured he had to be talking about what he knew. . . . There was a sense of honesty that really bowled me over.”

Ness knows that there are pros and cons to being a man with an authentic bad-boy past. The rock ‘n’ roll outlaw stance nearly killed him, yet it holds a proven allure in the rock-loving public’s mind--and a lingering, if now tempered, appeal to Ness himself.

“I don’t always want to be known as Mike Ness, the recovering dope fiend who got into a lot of trouble,” he said. “I want to be known as Mike Ness, the songwriter and performer for Social Distortion. But it’s pretty much been a part of us. ‘Mike Ness, singer-performer with a dark past.’ It’s kind of cool.”


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