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Photo by F. Scott SchaferMike Ness-young, zit-faced, spiky-haired, nearly tattooless-is onstage in Winnepeg, Canada, fronting Social Distortion, certainly the greatest band to ever come out of Fullerton. Stage-divers flail past him as he screams "Mommy's Little Monster," draped in a mysteriously bloodstained T-shirt.
Ness insists, "I can get as drunk as I want and still play!" in a don't-you-even-think-about-disagreeing-with-me-motherfucker tone of voice.
Ness gets ready for a show by delicately penciling on thick black eyeliner, and then-because he just wants to give you the creeps-he smears the gunk down his cheeks.
They're all scenes from Another State of Mind, a video documentary of a 1982 cross-country, old-school punk-rock tour featuring Social D, Youth Brigade and a rickety yellow school bus. There's also the inevitable "run-in with the Man" scene, in which Ness and a bunch of his comrades go into a Montreal diner. A crusty-faced schoolmarm of a waitress ignores the leather-jacketed horde. "I guess she's afraid of us," says a protesting voice-over. "She thinks we're gonna fuck with her or something." The waitress calls the cops (history lesson: tattoos, freaky hair colors and leather outfits were once intimidating), and the cops (who look like they're really pissed and want to wallop tout le monde) make Ness and his buddies leave. There'll be no eats for anybody tonight. SCORE: SOCIETY 1, NESS 0.
Seventeen years later, nobody's afraid of punk rockers anymore, not when you can get tattooed, pierced and dyed at your local shopping mall. Ness is 37, and his tattoos have spread over his body like a slowly evolving Sistine Chapel, from the knuckles of his hands (which spell out L-O-V-E on one hand and P-A-I-N on the other) all the way up to the sparrows on his neck. It's a blindingly bright Wednesday afternoon in Austin, Texas, at the annual South by Southwest music fest, where Ness will be playing a showcase the following night of songs from Cheating at Solitaire, his first solo album (Social D is still together, Ness maintains; the solo thing is just an "intermission").
While all the music-biz types are crashing at plush downtown hotels, Ness is at a Red Roof Inn several miles north of the city. When he walks into the lobby, you're surprised by how relatively short he is, probably around 5-foot-10. From all the myth-making tales about him-the time he single-handedly beat up 10 guys the size of Godzilla and then stuffed them up a cop's ass!-you'd think he'd be built like a pro wrestler. Instead, up close, he looks kinda scrawny, like you could take him in a fight, no problem. Still, there's something about him that says you shouldn't try. He's a funny talker, speaking in pretty much the same haggard, beaten-down, dragged-out growl that characterizes his singing. He's also completely honest when he's talking about things that piss him off, which sometimes is also pretty funny to watch, like when he's complaining about the Incredibly Narrowing Parking Spaces at his Costa Mesa neighborhood supermarket ("They made 'em for fuckin' midget cars! I just wanna find the guy who did that and say, 'WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING?!? YOU'RE AN IMBECILE!'").
There's a lot to talk about: drugs, tattoos, the State of the Punk Nation, Orange County, the new record and, ultimately, surviving. Ness' life is just begging for a VH1: Behind the Music special.
Cheating at Solitaire is a great record (Ness still calls CDs "records"), easily the best, most complete-sounding thing he's done. That's mainly because he delves into roots-music terrain, putting aside the assault of Les Pauls that have always been Social D's signature. Right away, on the lead track, "The Devil in Miss Jones," a moaning pedal steel guitar lets you know that this ain't the Mike Ness record you're used to. He gets deeper into country on "Rest of Our Lives," which, in a better world, would get played on country radio as often as Garth Brooks' songs. The title tune is one of those classic Ness tales of constant existential pounding, what life is like when you're full of nothing but bad, bad luck. There's an oozy, boozy, barroom cover of Hank Williams' "You Win Again." "Ballad of a Lonely Man"-well, just that titletells you what kind of song it is (Johnny Cash was supposed to have sung it with Ness, but he's not in the best of health these days).
"I've always loved country music; it just never crept into Social D," he says. "When you think about it, if you put a pedal steel on 'Ball and Chain,' it's a country song. I mean, I love what I do with Social D, but I sometimes feel restricted, and I'm not the type of person who likes limits or boundaries. So this balances things out a bit. When I get tired of doing this, I'll put on some New York Dolls or Ramones and get psyched up for the next Social D."