Ness Is More

The Education of Mike Ness

Ness was a bit apprehensive about how people would see this move away from his punk roots. But he'll tell you that, in a way, this album is more of a return to his rock & rollroots than anything, since he grew up listening to old folk and country records. He was more concerned about the response to covering classic Hank Williams and Bob Dylan tunes like "You Win Again" and "Don't Think Twice." "But I just had to put myself in the same position where I was in 1979-just say fuck it. I didn't get to being where I'm at today by worrying about what people thought. But I'm not gonna lie: when it came time, I couldn't put the Les Paul down. It was like Linus' blanket or something."

Cheating at Solitaire, though, is not a country album. In other places, Ness explores cool jazz and deep, dark blues. And there's still enough snarling, badass rock & roll on the album to keep everybody happy. "Misery Loves Company" is a pumped-up burner about, well, being miserable, with Bruce Springsteen doing guest vocals. "Crime Don't Pay," a slow 'n' sleazy, bumpin' and a-grindin' rockabilly tune, is bound to get plenty of spins on the jukebox at Linda's Doll Hut, with its horn lines from the Royal Crown Revue and the Brian Setzer-picked lead guitar.

"We wanted guest appearances on this record just because we could," Ness says. "Social Distortion? We're great at what we do, but sometimes it's very one-dimensional. The main objective with this record was to show other sides of me, that I can do other things, not just the Les Pauls."

It also shows Ness' continued growth as a songwriter. Yeah, it's loaded with a lot of the same themes he's covered over the years: loneliness, isolation, anger, misery, rebellion and bum luck. Take the opening lines from "Rest of Our Lives": "Eighteen years in a traveling band/Seen a lot of one-night stands/And still I feel so very much alone." More than ever, they show Ness' sensitive side, an actual beating, feeling heart inside the tough guy's chest.

"Yeah, well, it's about my life, really," he says of the song, "about finally realizing that life without love is pretty empty. A lot of this record says that. Now, you're not ever gonna hear a bright, happy love song from me. But I hate to say it: I'm a romantic at heart.

"The way I grew up, my concepts of love were very distorted. I tried sex, drugs, everything imaginable, and I basically associated love," he says, showing the tats on his knuckles, "with pain."

There's pain aplenty in the Solitaire track "Dope Fiend Blues." It's the first song Ness has written that deals directly with his notorious heroin binges and run-ins with the law during the mid-'80s. It's also one of the best songs Ness has ever penned: "In a police car, feel so very small/I see my lover's face, and I watch her teardrops fall/And I try to figure out where I'd fallen off the track/ Well, I sold my soul to the devil, and then I stole it back/And in the end, you know a dope fiend ain't got no friends/ And a junkie is a junkie till the bitter end." Several lines later, there's this: "Aren't you tired of the detox/And the places in the mind?/Aren't you tired of the misery/Aren't you tired of doin' time?"

"I wanted to write a song that someone like [Stone Temple Pilots front man] Scott Weiland could hear and maybe just go, 'Man, I believe him; he's been there, and I don't wanna go there'-a song that shows people which way the wind really blows on heroin."

Blame punk rock or his upbringing in an alcoholic home (living with a hard-hitting dad who was a real SOB), whatever. Sometime after 1983's Mommy's Little Monster, Ness became a criminal, a hardened, pathetic junkie, and friends of Ness-like Jim Guerinot, his longtime manager and head of Laguna Beach-based Time Bomb Recordings (his new label after a seven-year stint with Epic)-aren't shy about telling you so. The Ness stories from that era are the stuff of legend. The arrests. The burglaries. The drugs. The sex. The gunplay. The fights. The overdoses. The near-death experiences. Heroin stole what should have been Ness' most productive, creative years and explains the six-year gap between Mommy's Little Monster and 1988's Prison Bound. The Pulp Fiction scene in which Uma Thurman gets an adrenalin shot in her heart? That really happened to Ness, who OD'd at a party and collapsed on a bathroom floor.

"He was about 22 seconds away from being brain-dead," Guerinot says. "And right after he got the needle, he immediately sat up and asked where his leather jacket was, as if nothing had happened."

Right before a gig at the Olympic Auditorium, Ness, in need of a fix, pawned all of Social D's gear for drug money. Desperate, they borrowed equipment from one of their opening bands. A few days later, that band came to pick up their gear, only to find out that Ness had pawned that, too.

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