Still Punk After All These Years

Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer

Punk rock exploded with raw energy, adolescent anger and primitive musical passion, but there was one thing it was never supposed to have: longevity. Yet a quarter-century after its shooting-star arrival, punk bands old and new are still putting out records at an undiminished rate.

Who would have thought two decades ago that Social Distortion, which formed in Fullerton in 1979, or Bad Religion, the Woodland Hills band that played its first show the following year as Social D's opening act, still playing punk music more than two decades later?

Both influential groups are at work on new albums. Bad Religion's "The Process of Belief" is due in October, and Social Distortion's untitled effort is targeted for next spring.

And both are dealing with significant transitions: Social D's album is its first since the death of member Dennis Danell, and founding member Brett Gurewitz is returning to Bad Religion full time after a 61/2-year absence, during which he transformed Epitaph Records into an industry heavyweight, bringing the Offspring, Pennywise, NOFX, Rancid and other punk groups to the world.

Social D leader Mike Ness and, separately, the six members of Bad Religion sat down recently to talk about the fine art of survival and what it's like to be punk rockers approaching middle age.

Anger is one of the driving components of punk music, and it's Ness' anger at lots of things that has kept him writing and singing incendiary music with Social Distortion for 22 years now.

At the moment, he's angry that some people don't think one of his recent songs, "Rest of Our Lives," is, well, angry enough.

"People would say, 'Well that's not very punk,' " says Ness, 39, of the song that celebrates what he calls "the bliss of having a lovely wife and two beautiful kids. I hate when people tell me what's punk and what's not.

"To me, punk is about honesty and individualism and expressing yourself," says the man whose avenues for self-expression include the gallery of tattoos covering his body. "It isn't always about abolishing the government. I don't feel it always has to be about rebellion. . . . There's a whole world of good and bad to sing about."

Noting the good in the world as well as the bad may be the biggest difference between the Social Distortion of 2001 and the band that started in Fullerton in 1979.

Back then, it was all about rebellion and what he found wrong with a world full of repressive parents, teachers and institutions that tried to rein in his budding need for self-expression. Battles often centered on the punk music he fell in love with as a Troy High School junior who would sneak off to L.A. clubs on weekends to hear such seminal punk groups as X, Fear and the Circle Jerks.

Once he formed Social Distortion and joined that scene, Ness quickly became one of the heroes of Southern California punk music for songs that depicted the alienation felt by teens in general and punk rockers in particular.

Social Distortion's 1983 debut album, "Mommy's Little Monster," is a punk classic that inspired legions to take up the cause. Among them was the Offspring, spawned when singer Bryan "Dexter" Holland and bassist Greg Kriesel were shut out of a Social Distortion concert and decided that night to start a band of their own.

Beyond simply channeling adolescent alienation and anger, Ness also was able to express the toll that the pursuit of individual freedom could exact when left unchecked. Ness paid that toll in the many friendships and musical opportunities he lost in the mid-'80s because of drug abuse. His songs consistently employed discernible melodies and catchy guitar hooks, all of which helped set Social D apart from many of its one-dimensional, bash-and-thrash peers.

"Mike is one of the few people I know who has used his hardship to create a stepping-off point for actually growing up," says Jim Guerinot, Social Distortion's manager for nearly 19 years. "A lot of people never get comfortable that they are not what their job is, that it is merely one aspect of who they are. Mike never confuses the fact that he is Mike Ness first, the singer of Social Distortion second. He is able to express with equal clarity anger and alienation of his youth as well as grief or joy he is experiencing as an adult."

Over the years those qualities have endeared him not just to punk aficionados, but to fellow musical mavericks including Neil Young, who drafted Social D as an opening act in 1991. Further, Bruce Springsteen sang harmony and played guitar for a song on Ness' "Cheating at Solitaire" solo album, and Johnny Cash has invited Ness to sing with him at a future recording session. (Cash's 1963 hit "Ring of Fire" has long been a staple of Social D's repertoire.)

Ness is back full throttle with Social Distortion after spending two years promoting his first solo efforts, both of which came out in 1999. "Cheating at Solitaire" mixed Ness originals with covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Hank Williams, while "Under the Influences" was a full album devoted to classic and obscure country and rock songs Ness grew up loving.

His renewed enthusiasm for being back at the helm of Social D reflects his wider enthusiasm about life at 39, something he never expected to feel when he was an angry young teen.

"'Let's face it, we never thought we'd live past 25 or 30," Ness says, sitting in one of the only rooms in the 1923 Orange County house that he's restoring that is not draped in dropcloths in preparation for painting. "At the speed and rate we were going, nothing could last long. So when I was 17, I wasn't thinking about a career or earning a living doing this. If we got a free case of beer after playing a show, we felt like kings."

The yin-yang causes for his outlook as he approaches middle age are his family--wife Christina and their two young sons--and the loss in 1999 of his best friend and longtime musical partner, Social D rhythm guitarist Danell. Unlike so many punks whose self-destructive habits caught up with them, Danell was otherwise healthy and fit when he suffered a fatal brain aneurysm in his driveway while preparing to move his wife and young son to a new house they'd just bought.

Danell's death "really drove it home" how fragile life is, Ness says. "My wife could go to the market and get killed in a traffic accident. Something could happen to my kids. You never know."

That spurred Ness to put as much passion into his family as he always has into his music. It also changed his approach to living.

"It used to be 'Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,' " Ness says. "Now I want to live to be 100. I don't want to leave my kids without a dad."

And scotch any thoughts that Ness plays dad only when it suits his schedule as a rock 'n' roller. Last season, he was assistant coach for one son's Little League team; this year he's taking the boys to swimming lessons and has enrolled himself in a surf camp after one of them was bitten by the surf bug.

"I take being a father very seriously. I don't have a lot of models for what to do as a parent," he says half apologetically, then smiles recalling his turbulent childhood, "but I have a whole lot of models of what not to do."

His model for what to do with Social Distortion remains pretty much what it's always been.

"I live life for six months to a year, and then sit down with a guitar and the songs just come out," he says. "Maybe I should try to be more productive and have a Social D record out one year and a solo album the next, but this is just the way I do it."

He's not worried about whether the next Social D album tops sales of the group's three early-'90s major label albums. Those sold between 325,000 and 450,000 each in the U.S., according to SoundScan.

"Even though we haven't sold 15 million records and I don't have a lot of money in the bank, I feel like I'm rich," he says. "I've got a beautiful wife, two beautiful children, I'm free from addictions and I have my health. I think it's so important to be grateful for what you have instead of worrying about 'Where's my Grammy?' or 'Where's my multi-platinum album?' "

The record company bigwig seated on a couch with the band shifts into overdrive talking about the fall release of the group's latest recording. "As the owner of Epitaph Records," says Brett Gurewitz, 38. "I can say that we're very excited about the new smash hit Bad Religion album."

The aroma of hype instantly generates a dissent from one of the veteran punk group's founding members: "As a musician, I disagree strongly, as it is outside the bounds of humility," counters Bad Religion guitarist-songwriter . . . Brett Gurewitz.

It's understandable if Gurewitz is experiencing symptoms of a split personality these days.

After 61/2 years shepherding Epitaph Records from tiny indie punk label to major-player status, Gurewitz has decided the time is right to return to the thing he got into the music business to do: critiquing the social status quo in Bad Religion.

During the years Gurewitz has been otherwise engaged--in part overcoming what he has said was an addiction to heroin--the hard-core punk band he formed 21 years ago with several high school buddies put out three albums without him.

Now, it's not psychological dysfunction but good spirits spurring Gurewitz to engage in a little clowning during an interview at the band's Hollywood recording studio.

"Even though I'm getting no sleep, I'm haggard, tired and over-stressed" from pushing to deliver the album to Epitaph next month, Gurewitz says, "I haven't had this much fun in 61/2 years."

Neither have the other longtime members of the band--singer Greg Graffin, bassist Jay Bentley, guitarists Greg Hetson and Brian Baker. (Drummer Brooks Wackerman recently joined the group after a degenerative shoulder condition forced Bobby Schayer to stop drumming.) They say that with Gurewitz back in the fold, all feels right once again in their corner of the punk world.

They're not alone.

"This is the greatest thing that could happen with them," says Paul Tollett, president of Goldenvoice concert promoters. "They always do well with or without him, but with him in the band, there's a chemistry that's hard to beat.

"We've had a saying at Goldenvoice for the last 12 years: Never underestimate Bad Religion," Tollett adds by way of explaining the group's longevity. "A lot of bands have an overinflated view of themselves, but Bad Religion always seems to do better than we think they're going to do. . . . Being around forever--you don't get many points for that. You get points for keeping it going creatively, and both those bands [Bad Religion and Social Distortion] keep coming up with new things."

Gurewitz had collaborated with Graffin in writing one song--"Believe It"--for "The New America," Bad Religion's latest album and the final one under its contract with Atlantic Records.

That contract began in 1994 with "Stranger Than Fiction," which remains the group's biggest hit with 387,000 copies sold, according to SoundScan. That was the last album Bad Religion made before Gurewitz turned his attention Epitaph.

Now, the group is back on the roster at Epitaph, the label the band started in the early-'80s to put out its recordings and those by other groups back when mainstream labels wouldn't touch punk.

"I love running Epitaph and it's great making records for other people, but there's something about making your own music that can't be matched," says Gurewitz, who turned over daily operation of Epitaph to others. "I'm dedicating myself about 95% to Bad Religion."

Says Graffin, 36: "I think I speak for all of us when I say that in Brett's absence, we had a lot of high points, but in terms of satisfaction, things feel a lot better now than they have since he left. It's like we went off in two separate directions, but there was something always pulling us back."

Adds Hetson: "It's like coming back home to that comfy couch."Comfy, yes. Old, soft and squishy? Never.

"There's some of the hardest, fastest, most urgent recordings we've ever made," says Gurewitz, who stops, then corrects himself. "No--I won't even equivocate. There is the fastest, hardest recording we've ever made. There's no question."

Says Graffin: "When we all got together and did this, we were pretty conservative in our hopes. But having heard it, I know that it's the best-sounding Bad Religion album and the best songs we've ever done. Whether it's a hit or not, that still isn't registering on my radar. It's not what I'm thinking about when I write a song."

What he and Gurewitz do think about is twofold. They start from Bad Religion's long-standing desire to challenge societal forces that suppress freedom of thought and individual expression. Next, Graffin thinks about how Gurewitz will react to whatever he comes up with, and vice versa.

"I think Brett and I take [songwriting] pretty seriously," Graffin says. "We always try to outdo each other, and that's why the records that we write together are always so much more exciting."

Adds Gurewitz: "There's a chemistry when we write together. When you listen to this record, I think it sounds like the record we would have made after ['Stranger Than Fiction'] if we'd continued writing together."

With 20 years experience under their belts, it's with a little reluctance that the members of Bad Religion can also invoke the M word.

"I hate to use the word matured .... " says Graffin, who often concocts the long sentences you'd expect from one who's still working on his doctorate in zoology at Cornell University when he's not singing punk rock. "But certainly our lyrics have evolved and they reflect a growth that is normal for a person who is . . . a songwriter going through life and accepting the changes that life brings, while still being able to identify with punk themes."

If there's a secret to Bad Religion's staying power, it's probably found in the words of wisdom Gurewitz got from a friend following that first show 21 years back in a rented Santa Ana warehouse.

"I'll never forget this," Gurewitz says. "He told me, 'You guys are really good. Even though you might not realize it, if you just don't break up, you'll get popular.'

"To this day," he adds, "when one of my groups says, 'Can you give us some advice, because you've made it and we want to be like you,' I say, 'Don't break up, because if you really are good and you don't break up, all the other groups that aren't good will break up and you'll be left.' "

Besides not breaking up, Bad Religion also has persistent intolerance continually re-energizing them and their music.

"That's good for the longevity of our songs," says Graffin with a wry smile. "As long as we focus on those never-ending problems, there'll always be something for us to write about. As long as society continues to be restrictive, and to come down hard on the youth, then our audience will always be energized by our songs."

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