Ness Is More

The Education of Mike Ness

"At this point in my life, I'm wanting a little bit more out of a neighborhood. I want something with more history," he says. "I mean, Costa Mesa just tore down one of the last old buildings in the city, and they built a boat dealership. They tore down the old Mesa Theatre, which, if I had the money, I would have bought and turned into a coffee shop that showed cult films and B-movies in the back for 5 bucks. I want something that has a vibe when I walk into it instead of just some place that's trying to sell me something."

He admits he's still fond of his old Fullerton hood, where a lot of his growing up-for better or worse-took place. Social D still rehearses there, though Ness has mixed feelings when he goes back. "Fullerton's a little eerie for me because there are a lot of memories there," he says. "I'll drive past the methadone clinic and remember all that. I'll pass the spot where the detectives picked me up for commercial burglary and the place where I OD'd. But at the same time, there's the railroad track that Dennis [Danell, Social D's longtime guitarist] and I walked down at night with a 12-pack to go watch the Mechanics rehearse. So it's a very romanticized period, too."

Somehow, Ness survived it all- Fullerton, heroin, alcohol, arrests, band shake-ups, even Social D's three-album stint with a major label, which alone would be pretty miraculous. ("The music industry seems to be one of the last forms of white slavery," he says about the years on Epic.) Cheating at Solitaire is the story of that life, punctuated perfectly by "Charmed Life."

"I've been introducing that onstage by saying that every day aboveground is a good day because I probably should have been dead at 23-technically was dead a couple of times," he says. "The fact that I survived that and all my brushes with fatality is what makes me grateful for what I have instead of bitter about what I don't have. I'm able to play music, travel, build custom cars and Harleys, go to the boxing gym, go to the flea market and spend time with my kids. I'm very fortunate I didn't die in a shitty motel room or spend 15 to 20 years in the prison system or become a derelict on the street. Unfortunately, that lifestyle got the better of a lot of people I knew back then."

Once again, the cops are hassling Ness. It's almost midnight in Austin, and outside the Continental Club, where Ness is supposed to play his South by Southwest set (with the Reverend Horton Heat backing him up), half a dozen squad cars are parked on the street outside, their party lights going full-tilt. Several cops are decked out in riot gear, waiting for some shit to happen. Apparently in Texas, tattoos, greased hair and leather jackets are still a threat. The cops are here because the club was severely overcrowded, and they're keeping watch while everybody spills out onto the sidewalk, lining up to get back in. People are pissed. Some drunken football-player types, exactly the sort to pick a fight with a punker like Ness back in the old days just because he dressed differently, start chanting: "MIKE! NESS! MIKE! NESS!" Eventually, the throng is allowed back in, only this time, the doorman keeps count. Ness and the Reverend Horton Heat take the stage about a half-hour late.

"Sorry about the riot squad," Ness says. "I didn't invite them." He's cloaked completely in black, and the cowboy shirt he wears has funky silver stitching. The band goes quickly into "The Devil in Miss Jones." Then it's "Don't Think Twice," with Ness hitting sad, lonely notes that make this punk for life actually seem tender and vulnerable. After two false starts of "Misery Loves Company"-technical difficulties-the tenderness disappears, and Ness' anger comes spewing out. He yelps, "Fuck!" and looks mighty pissed, but he keeps going-there's nothing else to do. Someone in the crowd hollers, "Orange County '82!" as if he wanted to hear "Moral Threat," "Telling Them" or some other Social Distortion song. But not on this night. 1982 was a very, very long time ago, a whole other lifetime, really. Ness ignores the shout-out, thrusts his left leg forward-his usual stage stance-and rips up the room. By "Dope Fiend Blues," he's quite a ball of sweat. By the end of his 40 minutes, his black eyeliner is slowly trickling down his face, just like it used to when he was 20. The crowd goes apeshit. The cops have cleared out. Country music and eyeliner, man-that's the realpunk. SCORE: SOCIETY 1, NESS 1.

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