Channeling Social D

Before there was Mike Ness, there was Tom Corvin, now a TV guy

"With the exception of the occasional dog collar, the punk look wasn't uniformed yet in Southern California, not even for Mike," Corvin says. "He wore a leather jacket and dyed streaks in his hair once, but there wasn't really a look yet, so there was no shit-giving. We just wore what we felt like wearing."

After leaving the band, Corvin's carefree clothing choices ended abruptly when he decided to go to graduate school—at Bob Jones University. The hard-line fundamentalist Baptist institution in Greenville, South Carolina, required him to wear slacks and a tie every day, providing a jarring contrast to Fullerton's chaotic concerts and binge drinking with band mates.

"I was looking for discipline, and I thought it would be like a military school without the military aspect," Corvin says. "But it was a lot more strict than I imagined."

During his first semester, Corvin found himself on "spiritual probation" after his roommate reported him for having a bad attitude. He saw his off-campus privileges revoked, and with them went his only chance to listen to rock—on his car's cassette player driving to his part-time job at The Greenville News.

"All music had to be approved," he says. "If it had a beat to it and it wasn't overtly spiritual, you'd better ask."

Corvin considered returning to California to rejoin Social Distortion, but he decided against it. "How do you tell your dad you chose a punk band over grad school?" he asks.

Besides, while Corvin tiptoed through the rest of his two years at Bob Jones, the California punk community changed substantially. Even as the movement thrived creatively, it struggled to absorb abrasive elements such as Suicidal Tendencies' thug following and a growing skinhead presence. Gigs often ended early because of bloody fights, not the mere noise violations that cut concerts short in Corvin's day.

"It had become so violent, and I really wasn't into that," Corvin says.

Corvin returned to California during one break at Bob Jones and looked forward to a reunion with the group, but Social Distortion was temporarily on hiatus at the time. Royer had left to form the Adolescents, taking "Amoeba" with him. Ness and his friend Dennis Danell formed the short-lived outfit Orange County Dustbins. (Corvin says Royer mocked the Dustbins.)

By 1982, Social Distortion had re-formed, with Ness firmly in control of a lineup that included Danell, bassist Brent Liles and drummer Derek O'Brien. The group set off on its first coast-to-coast tour with Youth Brigade and Minor Threat, the dark details (bus breakdowns, shady promoters) of which appear in the documentary Another State of Mind.

Ness described that tour as "upsetting but adventuresome" in a letter he sent Corvin in November 1983—the same year Social D released its first album, Mommy's Little Monster. The address floats inside a speech bubble from the mouth of a doodled punk with X's for eyes.

"I hope you liked the album," Ness writes in neat cursive. "Quite a surprise, I'm sure." He signs the letter "socially distorted yours, Michael Mess," crossing out "Mess" and replacing it with his proper surname.

Ness' attempts to stay in touch made Corvin think there was still a chance he could be welcomed back into the band, but his own developing news career made that move unlikely. After an inauspicious start as an anchor at a UHF outlet in Ohio, where he saw the station replace its sportscaster with a Pentecostal preacher who belted out the scores, he moved on to a successful stint in Colorado Springs.

In 1985, Ness went to prison for drug possession. "When he came back, he sounded like Johnny Cash," Corvin says, noting the group's increasingly country-tinged compositions and the more introspective nature of the singer's lyrics. "It was like two different bands."

In 1988, Corvin went to see Social Distortion play in Tampa, Florida. When he went backstage after the show, the first question Ness asked him was "So, you still going to college?" Corvin, having been out of school for seven years, says he just laughed and said, "No, that was a long time ago."

"It was like seeing a relative for the first time in a long time," Corvin says now. "He wasn't that 16-year-old anymore. He was a man, and I was impressed. I told him I was proud of him. We made small talk, but the time lapse was pretty obvious. Our lives were so far apart."

As Social Distortion continued to climb, signing with a major label and making MTV's heavy rotation with elaborate videos, such as "When the Angels Sing," Corvin felt twinges of regret. Yet for a bracing reality check, he considered Royer, well into his late-30s at the time and still touring in a cramped van.

"At what point do you stop? I went ahead and answered that right off the bat," Corvin says.

Corvin moved to Kansas City to raise a family, and he and his wife, Lorrie, now have two sons, including one he helped deliver in the family's midtown house a month ago. It's a comfortable life. But when he sees local punks with Social Distortion patches on their leather jackets—he has spotted several since moving to the city last year—he considers approaching them and telling them about the old days. He imagines the dim recognition ("Hey, aren't you that dude from Channel 9?") giving way to awe.

"If those kids only knew," he says, flashing a toothy, broadcast-ready grin.

Andrew Miller is a staff writer for the Kansas City, Missouri,Pitch Weekly, where this story first appeared.
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