A Father of Punk

Mike Ness and the importance of roots

Photo by Myles RobinsonIt's hard to imagine Mike Ness, Social Distortion's once-reckless front man, doing the domestic thing, but there he is, tattoos and all, assistant coaching his son's Little League team. And there he is, driving his sons to surf camp. And there he is, decorating his house. And there he is, apologetically putting a caller on hold to whisper something inscrutable to one of his kids—inscrutable but involving the word "Pokémon." Ness has been thinking about his own mortality lately, and really, how could you not when your best friend and band mate of 22 years dies suddenly one morning of a brain aneurysm while he's walking down his driveway?

That's how it ended for Social Distortion guitarist Dennis Danell on Feb. 29, 2000.

Ness dreams about Danell sometimes. "The dreams are nothing dramatic," he says. "It's just that in the dreams, he's still there. He's not gone. He's still a working part of my life. It's strange."

Ness has had to change his attitude about retaking the stage with the band, as he did for a sold-out string of dates in January and as he will do for an upcoming string of shows including Saturday's Hootenanny.

"Rather than looking at it like there's someone missing on my right-hand side," he says, "I had to turn it around and think, 'Would he want me to give up the band and quit and do something else? Or would he want me to take something that he and I started in the garage and take it as far as I could?'"

Ness decided it was the latter. His recent solo albums (1999's Cheating at Solitaire and Under the Influences) garnered enough critical acclaim to suggest he could have a flourishing solo career if he so desired. But he has returned his attention to Social Distortion.

"I'm real excited about the band right now. I really feel like the band is about to peak," he says. It's an attitude you'd expect from a young, struggling band, not a band that's easily an Orange County punk institution.

Social Distortion are Hootenanny. They're flames and tattoos and Kustom Kars and wifebeaters and hair grease. They're Dickies and masculinity and scars and rebellion. They're swagger and bravado and pain and conflict.

They're the quintessential Hootenanny band, but it hasn't always been this way. Early Social Distortion's music and style was straight-ahead punk. In Another State of Mind, the excellent 1982 documentary that follows Social Distortion and Youth Brigade as they tour in a school bus across the country, you can see a young Mike Ness before he became Mike Ness™. He seems like any other baby-faced punk: spiky hair, nail polish, stained T-shirts, smeared eyeliner. Which is not to suggest he was one of the mob; this was back when punk was a Frightening New Trend that was going to Kidnap Your Kids and Turn Them Into Violent Antisocial Druggie Dropouts Who Refuse to Wear Izods while at the same time Undermining Family Values and Taking Your Dreams of a Happy Healthy Life with Happy Healthy Kids Who Are Happy and Healthy and Putting Them in the Shitter.

Still, it's quite different from what Social Distortion have come to embody.

"When you're 17, you're looking at life through a straw," says Ness when asked about the stylistic metamorphosis. "When I was 17, I couldn't sit through an eight-minute blues song. But as I got older, my mind started to open, and I started to hear what these inspirations of mine were saying. I realized that we're an American band; we're not a British band. And I realized how important it is to have roots. I'd always had an appreciation for country music, and I started seeing the connections—from folk, blues, jazz, rockabilly, and primitive rock & roll to what punk was supposed to be about. Those were class music—'class' meaning working class, lower class."

Of course, with the solo albums as an outlet, Ness feels less of a need to "cram country and rockabilly and blues and jazz down punkers' throats."

Except for the Hootenanny, where he'll cram away. "It's a roots kind of thing," he says, "so it'll be fun to bring out some of the roots covers we've done and some of the more roots songs that I've written."

Social Distortion performs at Hootenanny 2001 at Hidden Valley Ranch, behind Verizon Wireless Amphitheater and Wild Rivers Water Park, Irvine, (714) 740-2000 or (949) 263-4552. Sat., 11 a.m. $40-$100. All ages.
 
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