Two years ago, Mike Ness of Social Distortion felt ready to make the album of his life.
"I really want to dig deep," said the dean of Orange County's punk rock singer-songwriters. "I don't want this to be just another Social D record. I want it to be the Social D record."
It was fall 1994, and punk was breaking out all over, spearheaded by the multiplatinum, national ascent of San Francisco's Green Day and Orange County's Offspring. Social Distortion had been fighting the punk wars since 1979--when hair worn spiky, dyed and short, tattooed torsos and the raw, charging sound that went with them were subcultural emblems that most of society scorned and feared.
Punk gave Ness--a smallish, trigger-tempered kid from Fullerton--a creative outlet and an underdog cause to fight for, often literally with his fists. To make the album of his life at a time when it stood a chance of getting the attention and mainstream acceptance it would deserve. . . . That would be sweet, indeed.
Now, with "White Light White Heat White Trash," Social Distortion indeed has made the album of its career. But Ness had little idea that it would take so long (it has been 4 1/2 years since the release of the previous new Social D album, "Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell") or that it would require him to dig so deep.
Speaking from a hotel in San Antonio, where the band was on tour (it reaches Southern California on Nov. 14, for a concert at the Hollywood Palladium), a tired, 34-year-old Ness--struggling to get over a throat infection that had shot his temperature to 104 at one point--recounted how the band worked up a dozen songs in 1994 for that career album, only to be told by producer Michael Beinhorn that most of the songs wouldn't work.
"He saw something inside that needed to come out, and we weren't quite achieving it," Ness said. "We went back in and did more writing. We ended up keeping two of those 12 songs."
Ness--whose career generally has been acclaimed by critics and punk fans alike--was not accustomed to being told his songs weren't good enough. Beinhorn's production credits included albums for such hit bands as Soundgarden, Soul Asylum and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but that didn't make his pronouncement any easier to take.
"He's a producer who is known for tormenting the artist," Ness said with a chuckle. "I knew about that. I didn't know to what extent.
"Of course, your initial reaction is 'Who the [expletive] is this? What do you mean, man? This is how I do songs.' But I've learned from my personal life that lessons come hard, but you never stop learning. I'm grateful that I'm still teachable, and part of that was keeping an open mind to what this guy had to say.
"Initially [my reaction] was, like, 'Get a different producer.' But we gained a mutual respect for each other. I knew we were on the right track, that he wanted to make a [expletive] devastating record. I'm also the type of person that, once I see something as a challenge, which I eventually did, I'm going to show up to the fight. It eventually became fun."
Ness' songwriter ego wasn't all that got bruised on the way to making "White Light White Heat White Trash" (the title alludes to "White Heat," a James Cagney gangster film from 1949, and to "White Light/White Heat," a Velvet Underground album from 1968 that is a raw, brutal milestone in the development of what would become punk rock. For Ness, the "White Trash" part characterizes the rough, knockabout upbringing that left him needing an outlet like punk to vent his considerable anger and alienation).
When recording finally began in the late spring of 1995, Beinhorn decided that drummer Randy Carr, a recent addition to the band who had given SD a fresh, rhythmic charge in live shows, wasn't providing the trenchant studio sound Beinhorn was after.
By then, Ness said, he trusted the producer enough to go along with his decision, even though it meant further delays in an already-protracted process. A session player, Deen Castronovo, wound up playing on the album.
Chuck Biscuits, a veteran punk rocker who started out in the '70s-vintage Canadian band D.O.A., was recruited after the record was finished to round out a stage lineup that also includes two boyhood friends of Ness' from Fullerton: Dennis Danell, Social Distortion's rhythm guitar player since 1979, and John Maurer, the bassist who joined in 1984 (Danell and Maurer started a side band, Fuel, to stay busy with local shows while the songwriting and recording process for "White Light" dragged on).
The extra effort has not brought a significant overhaul of Social Distortion's basic approach, which--since SD's first single in 1981--has come down to Ness playing biting, simple but catchy guitar solos and singing highly melodic tunes in a chesty, foghorn voice, while the rest of the band lays down a hard, dense backdrop.
Mainly, Ness said, the mandate to dig deeper as a songwriter required him to deal more acutely with the theme that has driven him all along: the hard, scuffling, angry youth that culminated in the mid-'80s with a furious heroin addiction.
Faced with losing his freedom and possibly his life, Ness quit drugs, booze and burglary in favor of such gentler compulsions as custom car restoration and habitual antique collecting.
While he was writing for "White Light," he said, the death of his grandmother--the closest thing to a stable pillar he had known--jarred him and left him "finding myself again." It resulted in "Where the Angels Sing," one of the finest songs of his career.
In it, Ness--accustomed to painting from lived experience--takes an imaginative flight: The song is a one-sided conversation with God, in which a bereaved but still angry Ness asks a series of unanswerable questions about the meaning of life and death.
In a chorus that forms the album's thematic crux, the singer decides that the important thing is to bear life's tragedies with dignity, hoping that the answers will become clear in the hereafter.
Stand up strong, feel the pain,
When the angels sing.
Love and death don't mean a thing
Till the angels sing.
Elsewhere on the album, Ness reveals a more tender spot than he typically has in the past, singing about the ache and vulnerability that come with deep attachment ("Dear Lover"), about friendship as an anchor in harrowing times ("Untitled") and about the need to make confession for his past ("I Was Wrong").
"Shame" and "pain" are the album's recurring keywords. Ness says they are links to the wild, troubled youth he chronicled on Social Distortion's memorable debut album in 1983, "Mommy's Little Monster."
"I used to think I used drugs because I liked how they made me feel, but it was more because I didn't like how I felt without them," he said. By the last song on the new album, the slow-marching anthem "Down Here (With the Rest of Us"), Ness once more is concluding that we have to face up to the inevitable trouble in life rather than trying to deny it or blot it out.
No one's immune now, from a world of problems.
No one's exempt now, from a world of pain.
That's the way that it goes,
When you're down here with the rest of us.
That's the way that it goes,
And I know how you feel.
What would the young, combative punk Ness used to be think if he could hear the latest album by the thoughtful, sometimes penitent punk Ness is now?
"I think he'd dig it," Ness answered. "But I think the young Mike might say, 'This is a little too real to handle right now. Give me 10 years to deal with this [stuff].' "
* Social Distortion plays Nov. 14 at the Hollywood Palladium. Ticketmaster: (714) 740-2000.