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Another Side of Mike Ness

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Social Distortion’s new album, “Live at the Roxy,” is a summing-up, with its career-spanning selection of 17 songs dating from the band’s earliest singles to its most recent studio album.

Could it also presage a winding-down of a highly respected, if not highly remunerative, career in punk rock?

For the first time, the band that was hatched in Fullerton in 1979 as part of Orange County’s original punk rock boom won’t be touring to promote a new release. SD’s shows at this weekend’s Hootenanny ’98 Festival at Oak Canyon Ranch figure to be its last gigs until Christmastime, said bandleader Mike Ness. Instead, Ness will start recording his first solo album Aug. 1, with plans for a release by year’s end on Time Bomb Recordings, the Laguna Beach label headed by Jim Guerinot, SD’s longtime manager.

Ness, 36, of Costa Mesa, said he wants to tour as a solo artist and give his own record a chance to be the big hit that has eluded Social Distortion. Yet, while the live album “is closing one chapter,” he said it doesn’t signal a change in the overall story.

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“Social Distortion is still the priority and always will be,” he said recently. “But each of us needed a little change. Each of us has gotten into a little bit of production [for other rock acts]. It’s necessary for the band [members] to grow on their own, so when we go to make the next record, we’ve all grown.”

John Maurer, SD’s bassist since 1984, and Dennis Danell, rhythm guitarist since 1979, likely will continue working with grass-roots bands at the Casbah, the Fullerton studio the band acquired after the death in 1993 of Chaz Ramirez. The studio owner had been SD’s early mentor and record producer.

Drummer Chuck Biscuits, hired two years ago, is home in Seattle, immersed in art and computers, according to Larry Tull, an assistant to Guerinot.

Ness is aiming to show the world what can happen when a tattoo-covered punk-rock tough guy soaks up a lot of Bakersfield (country records by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard), bluegrass and Baez (he has gone back to the crystal-voiced folk queen’s early-'60s recordings of Bob Dylan material and old English ballads).

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Among the 25 songs Ness said he’s considering for his album are ones he has written recently, others squirreled away over the years with a solo project in mind, and a few originally recorded with Social Distortion but never released. The candidates also include covers of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Lefty Frizzell’s version of “The Long Black Veil.” Ness hopes to fuse his punk background with his affection for deep-roots styles while telling a different sort of story.

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In Social Distortion, his writing has been consumed with going over and over his progress from an out-of-control punk-rock brat addicted to brawling and heroin, to a toughened but sometimes tender and reflective grown-up trying to understand his old demons and put them in their place.

“These are songs that probably could have fit in with a Social D format, but they’re a little more developed, or out of the standard eight-bar-intro-chorus type thing,” he said. “A little more dynamics, a little more intimacy, maybe a little more personal, [both] darker and happier. The object is to show a little more of Mike Ness. What you see with SD is part of me. This is going to show maybe another side.

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“It’s something I’ve felt has been inside of me for a long time and I had to suppress it,” Ness added. “I’m going to put everything I have into it and see. If it does well, I’ll be touring a lot with it. If it doesn’t do well, it doesn’t matter. I still needed to do it.”

Ness said it’s not yet certain who will play on the album.

“What’s neat is I can call just about anyone I want and ask them to come down, do guest appearances to give a song a feel.”

Ideally, Ness said, songs with string sections or acoustic instrumentation--approaches he is contemplating for his solo album--could work in Social Distortion. But practically speaking, Social Distortion is geared to satisfying its fans’ expectations of stormy, aggressive punk rock.

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As a solo artist, “If I want to do an acoustic ballad, I can. There’s less limitations. I feel if I was to go out with an acoustic guitar in front of a mosh pit . . . well, I don’t want [someone to] hold up a big lighter.”

When the time comes to satisfy the moshers with another Social Distortion record, the band will remain with the independent Time Bomb (which handles major distribution through BMG) rather than seek a major label deal. Social Distortion put out three albums for the Sony subsidiaries, Epic and 550 Music, reaping solid but not spectacular sales--although the 1990 album, “Social Distortion,” recently earned the band its first gold record, marking 500,000 copies sold.

“Just the thought of having to go out and meet people [from record companies], where they’re promising this and saying they’re the best at that. . . . It was every band’s dream to get signed to a major label, and it helped me buy my house and cars and all that. Ultimately, it wasn’t the best situation. We never made any money off of any of the stuff on Sony. [Record deals typically don’t yield royalties to the artist until the label has made back all the recording and promotional costs it has sunk into the act over the duration of its contract.]

“We made our money with touring. [With Time Bomb], it’s so nice to be able to sell a record and see a little bit of it. It came down to that old saying ‘If you want something done right, do it yourself.’ ”

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* Social Distortion, X, Buck Owens (Sunday only), Reverend Horton Heat and others play Saturday and Sunday at Hootenanny ’98, Oak Canyon Ranch, 5305 Santiago Canyon Road, Santiago Canyon. $32.50. (714) 991-2055.


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